For eight hundred years a most interesting Christmastide custom was played out in the town and parish of North Curry in Somerset, England. The custom was known as ‘King John’s Feast’, or more commonly as ‘The Reeve’s Feast.’ The details of the origin of the event are sketchy, but King John is known to have visited the parish region on a number of occasions during his reign. Another custom exists that connects King John to the region, in the form of an ancient directive that a tenant, wearing white gloves and carrying a white rod, was to oversee the hay-making in the fields belonging to the King.
The Reeve’s Feast was explained in detail in Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers etc of September 1854.
LONDON, SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 1854.
NORTH CURRY FEAST.
A curious feast takes place annually in the parish of North Curry, near Taunton, a manor belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Wells. The following account of the customs of the said feast is copied from a marble tablet in the vestry room of the church. Does a similar feast exist in England? What is its origin?
CUSTOMS OF THE NORTH CURRY FEAST.
“The Reeve provides the feast, and in order to enable him to do so, the Lords of the Manor allow him the lord's rent for the Feast Tenement, in respect of which he is appointed to the office. An annual allowance of two pounds by the name of lease-fees. A payment of two pounds under; the name of cane-wood, and four pounds and five shillings under the name of beef and pork.
"The Reeve is allowed by the occupier of the lay rectory, now held by Mr. Chas. Holcombe Dare for lives, under the Dean and Chapter of Wells, thirty-six bushels of good marketable wheat; and forty-eight shillings in money to be rendered on demand one month before Christmas annually, and likewise by the holders of the undermentioned estates the quantities of wheat set opposite to the names of their tenements respectively within the like period."
Here follow the names of twelve persons who have severally and respectively to give two bushels each of good marketable wheat for the feast.
“ The Custom of preparing for and holding the feast is, for the Reeve to provide three fat heifers, and put them in the manor pound, adjoining North Curry Churchyard, the Sunday before Christmas Day. If Christmas Day happens on any other day than a Monday or a Tuesday, then the Sunday week before Christmas Day; for the inspection of the persons entitled to the feast, who may insist on having them changed if good ones are not provided. Then these are killed by a butcher, paid and appointed by the Reeve; and the day before Christmas Day delivered, with a good half pig, to two tenants of the Manor of North Curry, called Dealers, who continue for many years, but are annually summoned to their duty by the Reeve, and have their vacancies tilled up by him.
“The Dealers are to attend the day before Christmas Day: except that day be a Sunday, and then the day preceding, at the Reeve's, with a clerk, to cut, or deal, or dole out the beef and pork to the persons entitled to receive it, and they have provided for them by the Reeve Beefsteaks and onions for breakfast ; top-butt of beef and three marrow-bones boiled, with the marrow taken out, and spread on toasted bread, for dinner; and, a feast each of two loaves of bread, eight pennyworth of beef, and twopence in money, and one pound of good beef east, to be sent home to their houses for their trouble.
"The Dealers serve out two ribs of beef, two ribs of pork, two loaves of bread, and twopence in money, and one pound of beef suet to each of the holders of the following freehold manors: "
Here follow the names of seven manors and the present occupiers, who are entitled to the above.
“They, the Dealers, also serve out to each of the occupiers of the two following tenements, viz. William Hembrey's tenement, in the Manor of East Curry, now belonging to Robt. Hooper Scott, and Murless tenement, in the Manor of North Curry, now belonging to William Payne, a feast and a half, viz. three loaves of bread, one shilling’s worth of beef, and threepence in money.
“The Dealers also serve out to the occupiers of the following tenements, two loaves of bread, eight pennyworth of beef, and twopence in money."
Here follow the names of one hundred and thirty eight persons, entitled to receive the above.
“The Dealers also serve out a loaf and one-third of bread, two-thirds of eight pennyworth of beef, and twopence in money, to the occupiers of late Samuel Powell’s tenements, in the Manor of East Curry, called a Two-thirdingale tenement, now belonging to Mary Dare. Also one half of the last-mentioned allowance to the occupier of late Thomas Powell’s, in the Manor of East Curry, called a thirdlingale, now also belonging to Mary Dare.
“The Dealers likewise serve out one loaf of bread, four pennyworth of beef, and one penny in money, to the occupiers of the following tenements called Half-feast tenements.”
Here follow the names of fourteen persons entitled to the half-feasts.
“Each of which loaves of bread is to be made of good white flour, to be well baked, and to weigh, after baking, five pounds; and the beef is to be valued at the price for which beef of the like quality is then currently selling.
“To the Reeve of the West Hatch, within the said manor, the Dealers serve half a bullock, and the hind quarter of the half pig, for the use of the tenants in that manor, on his paying five shillings for it to the Reeve of North Curry; but, before he is allowed to enter the Reeve’s house, he is to sing the following song:
‘ King John, he was a noble knight,
I am come to demand my right.
Open the door, and let me in,
Else, I'll carry away my money again.’
“The Dealers serve out these feasts to the persons entitled to them, who are to send for them between sunrise and sunset, the day before Christmas Day; unless it happens to be on Sunday, and then the day preceding. And the Dealers also serve out for the Reeve, a chine, round, and rump of beef for mince-meat, and the belly part of the fore quarter of the half pig: for a feast to be provided the day after Christmas Day, except it be a Sunday, and then the day following, by the Reeve for the Lords of the Manors of Knapp and Slough, who are called the ‘Jacks of Knapp and Slough;’ and have this feast for themselves and their attendants aftermentioned, besides the chief feasts of beef &c., in common with the holders of the other five freehold manors. They, or their deputies, arrive at the Reeve‘s house on the feast day about one o'clock: the ‘Jack of Knapp,’ or his deputy, attended by three men and a boy, and the ‘Jack of Slough,’ or his deputy, by two men and a boy.
“When the ‘Jack of Knapp,’ or his deputy, arrives, the key of the Reeve's cellar, in which there is to be provided a half hogshead, at least, of good ale for the feast, is given to one of his attendants.
“ The ‘Jack,’ or his deputy, proceeds to divide the offal or inferior parts of the bullocks, and half pig, not distributed by the Dealers to the holders of tenements, into portions to be given away in the afternoon to the second poor.
“The ‘Jack of Slough,’ or his deputy, divides six dozen of bread, weighing five pounds each loaf when well baked, provided by the Reeve for the like purpose.
“The ‘Jacks,’ and their attendants, then sit down to a dinner provided by the Reeve: consisting of the chine of beef roasted, and the rump and round boiled, the belly part of the fore quarter of the half pig rolled up, and made up into a collar of brawn, scalded. and served up with a sprig of rosemary, and powdered with flour; a hen with the head and tail on, but the rest of the feathers, except the tail, plucked off, a little boiled, and served up on sops of bread, and proper vegetables; a large minced-pie, with an effigy of King John in full in paste, properly painted to represent a king, stuck up in the middle of it; bread and ale, and bread and cheese after. When they sit down to dinner, two candles weighing a pound each, are lighted; and, until they are burnt out the ‘Jacks’ and their attendants have a right to sit drinking ale.
“After dinner, the regular toasts are; ‘To the immortal memory of King John;’ ‘The real Jack of Knapp;' ‘The real Jack of Slough.’ Afterwards, other toasts are given.
“The ‘Jacks’ give away the bread, and the offal beef and pork, to the second poor. When they have drunk as much as they like, they depart: the ‘Jack of Slough,’ or his deputy, holding the stirrup of the ‘Jack of Knapp,’ or his deputy for him, to mount; and receiving a shilling as his fee.
“ The undersigned declare the above to be the immemorial customs of the feast held annually in the Manor of North Curry; and as contributors thereto, or partakers thereof, they make this recognition for better preserving and keeping up the same."
The feast was apparently discontinued in the 1860’s or thereabouts, and the funds diverted to other charitable efforts for the poor.
As you know, I usually try to choose a recipe for the day which is related in some way to the topic or theme of the day. I must make a very loose connection today as there are no manuscript cookery books from King John’s era. I have chosen a recipe for Apple Bread (bread, not cake) for you, because Somerset is famous for its apples, and the first Assize of Bread was enacted during Kin John’s reign.
A bread said to be very superior to potatoe bread has been made from the use of common apples with meal. Boil one-third of peeled apples; while quite warm, bruise them into two-thirds of flour, including the proper quantity of leaven, or yeast; knead without water, the juice of the fruit being quite sufficient. When this mixture has acquired the consistency of paste, put it into a vessel to rise for about twelve hours. By this process may be obtained a very sweet bread, full of eyes and extremely light.
The Guide to Trade: The Baker; Including Bread and Fancy Baking: with Numerous Receipts (London, 1841)