Who would join a club that celebrated the beheading of a 17th century king? Well, rich Londoners it seems…
On the 30th January, 1649, king Charles I stepped out of a first floor window of the Banqueting House in Whitehall (a building you can still see today though much restored) and on to a wooden scaffold. In front of a great crowd, the king’s head was chopped off. This was the culmination of the English Civil War – a bitter conflict between the forces of the king and those of parliament. The latter, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, won. The decision to kill Charles wasn’t taken lightly and followed a trial after which 59 Commissioners signed his death warrant.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, several of those Commissioners were hunted down and then hanged, drawn and quartered – a slow and dreadful way to die. Any talk of sympathy for the regicides was treason. So it’s rather surprising to find that reports began to emerge in the early eighteenth century of a gentlemen’s club that actually celebrated the beheading of Charles I.
They did this in a rather macabre way. At a tavern in Suffolk Street, a large dish of calves’ heads was served up each dressed in a different way to represent the late king and other royalists who’d died in a similar manner. When the cloth was whipped away to reveal the strange meal, the revellers sang an anniversary song. A calf’s skull filled with wine was then passed around and every man toasted the regicides and their good work.
In 1735, the gentlemen got a little carried away and chucked a bloodied calve’s head out of the tavern window. According to an account titled the Secret History of the Calves’ Head Club or the Republican unmasked, this act – on the anniversary of the king’s beheading, provoked a riot. At least that was the widely circulated version of events.
Lord Middlesex, who was one of the revellers, wrote an indignant letter to a friend of his, Mr Spence, who he referred to playfully as “Spanco”. According to his lordship, there was indeed a drunken party and the gentlemen even made a bonfire outside the tavern door for a bit of fun. But they suddenly realised that such an act on the 30th January would make it look as if they were celebrating the execution of Charles I, which they definitely weren’t, he wrote.
However, a mob of royalist Londoners was not so easily convinced and gathered round the tavern to rain rocks through the windows for an hour . To try and fend off the mob, the party shouted “The King, Queen and Royal Family!” Only the arrival of some soldiers saved the gathering from getting their heads bloodied. After that incident, we don’t hear about the Calves Head Club again.
From the web site of Pascal Bonenfant
THE CALVES’ HEAD CLUB
The Calves’ Head Club, in “ridicule of the memory of Charles I.,” has a strange history. It is first noticed in a tract reprinted in the Harleian Miscellany. It is entitled “The Secret History of the Calves’ Head Club; or the Republican unmasked. Wherein is fully shown the Religion of the Calves’ Head Heroes, in their Anniversary Thanksgiving Songs on the 30th of January, by them called Anthems, for the years 1693, 1694, 1695, 1696, 1697. Now published to demonstrate the restless implacable Spirit of a certain party still amongst us, who are never to be satisfied until the present Establishment in Church and State is subverted. The Second Edition. London, 1703.” The Author of this Secret History, supposed to be Ned Ward, attributed the origin of the Club to Milton, and some other friends of the Commonwealth, in opposition to Bishop Nixon, Dr. Sanderson, and others, who met privately every 30th of January, and compiled a private form of service for the day, not very different from that long used. “After the Restoration,” says the writer, “the eyes of the government being upon the whole party, they were obliged to meet with a great deal of precaution; but in the reign of King William they met almost in a public manner, apprehending no danger.” The writer further tells us, he was informed that it was kept in no fixed house, but that they moved as they thought convenient. The place where they met when his informant was with them was in a blind alley near Moorfields, where an axe hung up in the club-room, and was reverenced as a principal symbol in this diabolical sacrament. Their bill of fare was a large dish of calves’ heads, dressed several ways, by which they represented the king and his friends who had suffered in his cause; a large pike, with a small one in his mouth, as an emblem of tyranny; a large cod’s head, by which they intended to represent the person of the king singly; a boar’s head with an apple in its mouth, to represent the king by this as bestial, as by their other hieroglyphics they had done foolish and tyrannical. After the repast was over, one of their elders presented an Icon Basilike, which was with great solemnity burnt upon the table, whilst the other anthems were singing. After this, another produced Milton’s Defensio Populi Anglicani, upon which all laid their hands, and made a protestation in form of an oath for ever to stand by and maintain the same. The company only consisted of Independents and Anabaptists; and the famous Jeremy White, formerly chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, who no doubt came to sanctify with his pious exhortations the ribaldry of the day, said grace. After the table-cloth was removed, the anniversary anthem, as they impiously called it, was sung, and a calf’s skull filled with wine, or other liquor; and then a brimmer went about to the pious memory of those worthy patriots who had killed the tyrant and relieved their country from his arbitrary sway: and, lastly, a collection was made for the mercenary scribbler, to which every man contributed according to his zeal for the cause and ability of his purse.
The tract passed, with many augmentations as valueless as the original trash, through no less than nine editions, the last dated 1716. Indeed, it would appear to be a literary fraud, to keep alive the calumny. All the evidence produced concerning the meetings is from hearsay: the writer of the Secret History had never himself been present at the Club; and his friend from whom he professes to have received his information, though a Whig, had no personal knowledge of the Club. The slanderous rumour about Milton having to do with the institution of the Club may be passed over as unworthy of notice, this untrustworthy tract being the only authority for it. Lowndes says, “this miserable tract has been attributed to the author of Hudibras;” but it is altogether unworthy of him.
Observances, insulting to the memory of Charles I., were not altogether unknown. Hearne tells us that on the 30th of January, 1706-7, some young men in All Souls College, Oxford, dined together at twelve o’clock, and amused themselves with cutting off the heads of a number of woodcocks, “in contempt of the memory of the blessed martyr.” They tried to get calves’-heads, but the cook refused to dress them.
Some thirty years after, there occurred a scene which seemed to give colour to the truth of the Secret History. On January 30, 1735, “Some young noblemen and gentlemen met at a tavern in Suffolk-street, called themselves the Calves’ Head Club, dressed up a calf’s head in a napkin, and after some hurras threw it into a bonfire, and dipped napkins in their red wine and waved them out of the window. The mob had strong beer given them, and for a time hallooed as well as the best, but taking disgust at some healths proposed, grew so outrageous that they broke all the windows, and forced themselves into the house; but the guards being sent for, prevented further mischief. The Weekly Chronicle of February 1, 1735, states that the damage was estimated at ‘some hundred pounds,’ and that the guards were posted all night in the street, for the security of the neighbourhood.”
In L’Abbé Le Blanc’s Letters we find this account of the affair:—”Some young men of quality chose to abandon themselves to the debauchery of drinking healths on the 30th of January, a day appointed by the Church of England for a general fast, to expiate the murder of Charles I., whom they honour as a martyr. As soon as they were heated with wine, they began to sing. This gave great offence to the people, who stopped before the tavern, and gave them abusive language. One of these rash young men put his head out of the window and drank to the memory of the army which dethroned this King, and to the rebels which cut off his head upon a scaffold. The stones immediately flew from all parts, the furious populace broke the windows of the house, and would have set fire to it; and these silly young men had a great deal of difficulty to save themselves.”
Miss Banks tells us that “Lord Middlesex, Lord Boyne, and Mr. Seawallis Shirley, were certainly present; probably, Lord John Sackville, Mr. Ponsonby, afterwards Lord Besborough, was not there. Lord Boyne’s finger was broken by a stone which came in at the window. Lord Harcourt was supposed to be present.” Horace Walpole adds: “The mob destroyed part of the house; Sir William (called Hellfire) Stanhope was one of the members.”
This riotous occurrence was the occasion of some verses in The Grub-street Journal, from which the following lines may be quoted as throwing additional light on the scene:—
“Strange times! when noble peers, secure from riot,
Can’t keep Noll’s annual festival in quiet,
Through sashes broke, dirt, stones, and brands thrown at ’em,
Which, if not scand- was brand-alum magnatum.
Forced to run down to vaults for safer quarters,
And in coal-holes their ribbons hide and garters.
They thought their feast in dismal fray thus ending,
Themselves to shades of death and hell descending;
This might have been, had stout Clare Market mobsters,
With cleavers arm’d, outmarch’d St. James’s lobsters;
Numskulls they’d split, to furnish other revels,
And make a Calves’-head Feast for worms and devils.”
The manner in which Noll’s (Oliver Cromwell’s) “annual festival” is here alluded to, seems to show that the bonfire, with the calf’s-head and other accompaniments, had been exhibited in previous years. In confirmation of this fact, there exists a print entitled The True Effigies of the Members of the Calves’-Head Club, held on the 30th of January, 1734, in Suffolk Street, in the County of Middlesex; being the year before the riotous occurrence above related. This print shows a bonfire in the centre of the foreground, with the mob; in the background, a house with three windows, the central window exhibiting two men, one of whom is about to throw the calf’s-head into the bonfire below. The window on the right shows three persons drinking healths; that on the left, two other persons, one of whom wears a mask, and has an axe in his hand.
There are two other prints, one engraved by the father of Vandergucht, from a drawing by Hogarth.
After the tablecloth was removed (says the author), an anniversary anthem was sung, and a calf’s-skull filled with wine or other liquor, and out of which the company drank to the pious memory of those worthy patriots who had killed the tyrant; and lastly, a collection was made for the writer of the anthem, to which every man contributed according to his zeal or his means. The concluding lines of the anthem for the year 1697 are as follow:—
“Advance the emblem of the action,
Fill the calf’s skull full of wine;
Drinking ne’er was counted faction,
Men and gods adore the vine.
To the heroes gone before us,
Let’s renew the flowing bowl;
While the lustre of their glories
Shines like stars from pole to pole.”
The laureate of the Club and of this doggrel was Benjamin Bridgwater, who, alluding to the observance of the 30th of January by zealous Royalists, wrote:—
“They and we, this day observing,
Differ only in one thing;
They are canting, whining, starving;
We, rejoicing, drink, and sing.”
Among Swift’s poems will be remembered “Roland’s Invitation to Dismal to dine with the Calf’s-Head Club”:—
“While an alluding hymn some artist sings,
We toast ‘Confusion to the race of kings.'”Wilson, in his Life of De Foe, doubts the truthfulness of Ward’s narrative, but adds: “In the frighted mind of a high-flying churchman, which was continually haunted by such scenes, the caricature would easily pass for a likeness.” “It is probable,” adds the honest biographer of De Foe, “that the persons thus collected together to commemorate the triumph of their principles, although in a manner dictated by bad taste, and outrageous to humanity, would have confined themselves to the ordinary methods of eating and drinking, if it had not been for the ridiculous farce so generally acted by the Royalists upon the same day. The trash that issued from the pulpit in this reign, upon the 30th of January, was such as to excite the worst passions in the hearers. Nothing can exceed the grosness of language employed upon these occasions. Forgetful even of common decorum, the speakers ransacked the vocabulary of the vulgar for terms of vituperation, and hurled their anathemas with wrath and fury against the objects of their hatred. The terms rebel and fanatic were so often upon their lips, that they became the reproach of honest men, who preferred the scandal to the slavery they attempted to establish. Those who could profane the pulpit with so much rancour in the support of senseless theories, and deal it out to the people for religion, had little reason to complain of a few absurd men who mixed politics and calves’ heads at a tavern; and still less, to brand a whole religious community with their actions.”
The strange story was believed till our own time, when it was fully disproved by two letters written a few days after the riotous occurrence, by Mr. A. Smyth, to Mr. Spence, and printed in the Appendix to his Anecdotes, 2nd edit. 1858: in one it is stated, “The affair has been grossly misrepresented all over the town, and in most of the public papers: there was no calf’s-head exposed at the window, and afterwards thrown into the fire, no napkins dipt in claret to represent blood, nor nothing that could give any colour to any such reports. The meeting (at least with regard to our friends) was entirely accidental,” etc. The second letter alike contradicts the whole story; and both attribute much of the disturbance to the unpopularity of the Administration; their health being unluckily proposed, raised a few faint claps but a general hiss, and then the disturbance began. A letter from Lord Middlesex to Spence, gives a still fuller account of the affair. By the style of the letter one may judge what sort of heads the members had, and what was reckoned the polite way of speaking to a waiter in those days:—
“Whitehall, Feb. ye 9th, 1735.
“Dear Spanco,—I don’t in the least doubt but long before this time the noise of the riot on the 30th of January has reached you at Oxford; and though there has been as many lies and false reports raised upon the occasion in this good city as any reasonable man could expect, yet I fancy even those may be improved or increased before they come to you. Now, that you may be able to defend your friends (as I don’t in the least doubt you have an inclination to do), I’ll send you the matter of fact literally and truly as it happened, upon my honour. Eight of us happened to meet together the 30th of January, it might have been the 10th of June, or any other day in the year, but the mixture of the company has convinced most reasonable people by this time that it was not a designed or premeditated affair. We met, then, as I told you before, by chance upon this day, and after dinner, having drunk very plentifully, especially some of the company, some of us going to the window unluckily saw a little nasty fire made by some boys in the street, of straw I think it was, and immediately cried out, ‘D—n it, why should not we have a fire as well as anybody else?’ Up comes the drawer, ‘D—n you, you rascal, get us a bonfire.’ Upon which the imprudent puppy runs down, and without making any difficulty (which he might have done by a thousand excuses, and which if he had, in all probability, some of us would have come more to our senses), sends for the faggots, and in an instant behold a large fire blazing before the door. Upon which some of us, wiser, or rather soberer than the rest, bethinking themselves then, for the first time, what day it was, and fearing the consequences a bonfire on that day might have, proposed drinking loyal and popular healths to the mob (out of the window), which by this time was very great, in order to convince them we did not intend it as a ridicule upon that day. The healths that were drank out of the window were these, and these only: The King, Queen, and Royal Family, the Protestant Succession, Liberty and Property, the present Administration. Upon which the first stone was flung, and then began our siege: which, for the time it lasted, was at least as furious as that of Philipsbourg; it was more than an hour before we got any assistance; the more sober part of us, doing this, had a fine time of it, fighting to prevent fighting; in danger of being knocked on the head by the stones that came in at the windows; in danger of being run through by our mad friends, who, sword in hand, swore they would go out, though they first made their way through us. At length the justice, attended by a strong body of guards, came and dispersed the populace. The person who first stirred up the mob is known; he first gave them money, and then harangued them in a most violent manner; I don’t know if he did not fling the first stone himself. He is an Irishman and a priest, and belonging to Imberti, the Venetian Envoy. This is the whole story from which so many calves’ heads, bloody napkins, and the Lord knows what, has been made; it has been the talk of the town and the country, and small beer and bread and cheese to my friends the garretteers in Grub-street, for these few days past. I, as well as your friends, hope to see you soon in town. After so much prose, I can’t help ending with a few verses:—
“O had I lived in merry Charles’s days,
When dull the wise were called, and wit had praise;
When deepest politics could never pass
For aught, but surer tokens of an ass;
When not the frolicks of one drunken night
Could touch your honour, make your fame less bright;
Tho’ mob-form’d scandal rag’d, and Papal spight.”
To sum up, the whole affair was a hoax, kept alive by the pretended “Secret History.” An accidental riot, following a debauch on one 30th of January, has been distributed between two successive years, owing to a misapprehension of the mode of reckoning time prevalent in the early part of the last century; and there is no more reason for believing in the existence of a Calves’ Head Club in 1734-5 than there is for believing it exists in 1864.
Club Life of London Vol. I
- The Calves Head Club – celebrating a beheaded king!, London Ghosts, 25 April 2015, by Tony McMahon https://london-ghosts.com/2015/04/25/the-calves-head-club-celebrating-a-beheaded-king/
- The Calves Head Club, Pascal Bonenfant wed site https://www.pascalbonenfant.com/18c/clubs/jt_thecalvesheadclub.html