A Tale of Twelfth Night: The Ballad of Ashwellthorpe

By Bethan Holdridge, Assistant Curator of Social History

The Ballad of Ashwellthorpe was written about Thomas Knyvett, who lived at Ashwellthorpe Hall, near Norwich, in the sixteenth century. A quick Google of the Knyvett family name will lead you to discover that they were one of Norfolk’s foremost families, tracing their ancestry back to the Norman conquest and with close connections to the Howard and Paston families. Many of you may even be aware of the Knyvett family through the Ashwellthorpe Triptych, now in the collections at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, which was commissioned and owned by Christopher and Catherine Knyvett around 1519. Christopher and Catherine were the Great Uncle and Aunt of our hero, Thomas.

Thomas Knyvett (1539-1616) maintained the family tradition of power and influence by marrying Muriel Parry, the daughter of Sir Thomas Parry the Comptroller (nothing less than the keeper of the Privy Seal and deputy to the Keeper of the Wardrobe!) of the Household of Queen Elizabeth I. Knyvett himself was knighted in 1578 when Elizabeth I visited Norwich as part of her royal progress, and in 1579 was to become Lord High Sheriff of Norfolk.

Thomas Knyvett, the generous host mentioned in the Ballad of Ashwellthorpe

Very little is currently known about the Ballad of Ashwellthorpe, by whom it was written and why. But where it does shine is by offering us a seasonal (albeit fictitious, despite the narrator’s claim to the contrary!) glimpse into a grand household during the reign of Elizabeth I, and into the character of Sir Thomas himself. You can listen to a full recording of the Ballad at the end of this article.

‘Once there liv’d a Man, Deny it they that can, Who liberal was to the Poore; I dare boldly say, They ne’re were sent away, Empty Handed from his Doore.

When Misers in Holes crept, Then open House he kept, Where many then, did resort, Some for Love of good Beere, And others for good Cheere, And others for to make Sport.’

The action in the Ballad is set in Ashwellthorpe Hall during the ‘Jovial Christmas Time’. Unlike today, when we are now all back at work again after our few days off over the festive period, Christmas during the sixteenth century would have taken place over twelve days, commencing on Christmas Eve, with the final evening, Twelfth Night, being the pinnacle of the festivities. It was on Twelfth Night that presents were given, feasting was continued and the largest of the entertainments would have taken place. Although the Ballad of Ashwellthorpe is not indicated as being set on a specific day of the Christmas period, I feel that the common understanding was that all the best parts of the holiday took place on Twelfth Night, and so this was the day when the described events unfolded.

Ashwellthorpe Hall, the historic Knyvett family residence

The events of the Ballad take place within the ‘hall’ at Ashwellthorpe. The hall, as a room, had increasingly lost its role as the central hub of the household by the reign of Elizabeth I, but its historic use as a place where the whole household met daily to eat was pressed into service on special occasions such as Christmas. In the Ballad of Ashwellthorpe, we are introduced to what Christmas would have been like prior to its invention by the Victorians as a family festival, with the whole neighbourhood gathered together in the hall for a feast. Interestingly enough, it appears that the narrator of the Ballad is one of Sir Thomas’ villeins (feudal tenants), who claims that two of their cohort would also swear to the truth of the tale.

‘This Story is very true, Which I have told to you, ‘Tis a Wonder you did’nt heare it, I’le lay a Pint of Wine, If Parker and old Hinde, Were alyve, that they w’d swear it.’

A significant feast at this time, such as that held on Twelfth Night, would have lasted several hours and comprised multiple courses of different dishes, interspersed with entertainments to separate the courses. The visiting Londoner in the Ballad is offering up an entertainment as a gift to his host in exchange for the extension of his Christmas hospitality to a stranger from the City.

The Great Hall at Strangers’ Hall laid out for a feast

‘This Londoner did say, If the Gentry would give way, A Trick to them he w’d show…’

Unfortunately, it seems that the outcome of the trick – the conjuring of a tree from an acorn – detained the next course from being brought to the table:

‘This great Oake there did stand, To the View of every Man, Who saw, it was so playne, But Roome then to afford, To bring Supper unto Bord, They wish’t it gone agayne.’

Sir Thomas is lucky, however, because the obstruction of the tree is all part of the trick, and eventually the stranger from London is able to remove the blockage by summoning two goslings to take it away. It was said that should the geese leave the grounds of Ashwellthorpe Hall, it would spell the decline of the family. The Knyvetts no longer live at the Hall, which is currently up for sale for two and a half million pounds, but whether that also includes geese I am unsure.

Listen to a full reading of the Ballad by Learning Assistant Susie Childerhouse

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