Cakes and Ale


The facts in brief: There was a custom in Hull, the origins of which are lost, that on the eve of St John the Baptiser, on Midsummer’s eve, the people of Hull would go to the house of the Mayor for that year and each be given a dole of Cakes and Ale. In 1572 the then mayor Alderman John Smith failed to follow this custom. It was re-instated by popular demand in the next year, with penalties imposed on any future Mayor who did not hand out Cakes and Ale, and so it continued until 1576 when it was supended for a year due to the plague. In the following year 1577 the custom was finally abolished, and in its place future Mayors were to give to the poor the notional cost, which was set at £5.

The Record

Our only source for this is the Hull Bench Book, and the entries in their entirety are at the end of this piece. Working out what happened and why in Hull is sometimes difficult. There are very few letters about internal matters and the townspeople didn’t rush their disputes into print. The Bench Book was kept either well or badly according to whether or not the mayor of that year was interested in the record; the clerk wrote as little as he could get away with. The Bench Book also shows an unnaturally united government, matters are decided “by one assent and consent.”

The Godly and less Godly

Elizabethan Hull had a government of the Godly, but the less godly were still around. There is a constant stream of orders against drunkenness, blaspheming the most holy name of God, whoring and other lewd behaviour. The aldermen also found that they needed what they called “sworn men of the church”, two to each ward, to form the sermon patrol. During sermon time the patrol ensured that the inns and tippling houses remained shut and that the population was in church. This patrol was later extended to the fields outside the town walls where some of the less godly had taken to lurking. The less godly can also be seen when they were punished for words spoken against the preacher, or the godly policies of the mayor and aldermen. Brief imprisonment and the threat of a swinging fine usually resulted in an abject and public apology and promise of future good behaviour.

How the Godly got power

There were thirteen aldermen and no common council. There had been a common council under Queen Mary but it was somehow lost in the flu pandemic of 1558-9 when there is also a two year break in the records due to the deaths of the town clerk and a number of aldermen. The pandemic also did a lot of damage to the pool of potential aldermen. Plague tended to carry off people from the poorer and grubbier parts of town but with influenza what kills you is not the flu bug but your own immune system, so the stronger, will-making classes fell victim to the flu. The remaining aldermen brought in some aldermanic candidates from outside the existing freemen, but whether native or in-comers the new aldermen were all Godly, some excessively so. John Smith, the mayor who first failed to serve Cakes and Ale was amongst this new intake. Apart from the extraordiary appointments of 1560-61, the normal method of election of a new alderman was for the existing aldermen to nominate two candidates and for the burgesses to choose between them. The burgesses were those “free” of the town, by apprenticeship, inheritance or purchase. The potential electorate was perhaps 500, but I believe that the turnout was very low. and it was quite usual for the loosing candidate to be successful at the next vacancy. With total control of candidates, it did not take long for the solid group of Godly Aldermen to become an unassailable majority.

Who were the Godly

In the absence of letters and publications, how does one tell a Godly Alderman from the other sort. Obviously by their deeds, but I am also using another method. I am looking at whose sister they married, into which households they apprenticed their sons, and what they called their children. I have made certain assumptions about those aldermen who called their sons Abdias or Joash.

There were three types of names, the most common were the the old fashioned Thomas, Richard and Henry, second were the newer fashionable Arthurian names especially Lancelot, Tristram and Percival and thirdly, but increasingly frequently, the old testament names Abraham, Tobias, Gideon and Joshua.

John Smith

So amongst the Godly was Alderman John Smith and because he was virtuous he said that in his year there should be no more cakes and ale. His cancellation of Cakes and Ale is not recorded in the Bench Book, so it was not a corporate decision, and it seems to have been his own. We do not have his reasoning for this, but he had his son christened Ezechias, and left money in his will for a sermon by Melchior Smith, and for me that puts him firmly amongst the Godly. Melchior Smith was a Calvanist and you can read my blog on his problems with the town authorities in the 1560s. John Smith’s will was made in the late 1590s when the usual Hull preacher was Thomas Wincopp.

Soul Cakes

The cakes in Cakes And Ale were soul cakes, more commonly associated with Halloween. They are a precursor of the sweets extorted on mischief night (for American readers, that is the treat of trick or treat). Soul cakes were expensive, being full of sugar and spice and all things nice, and they had, well within living memory of the 1570s, formed the valuable consideration of a very real contract. The soul cake was given in return for prayers for the souls of the donor and his family. The cakes were also traditionally marked with a cross. They were not cakes in the modern sense, more like a round shortbread biscuit. (There is a recipe below.)

Anything inherited from Catholic practises was obviously unacceptable to the Godly, and if it included drinking in the streets it was doubly unacceptable. Their most common complaint of the bench was against drunkenness. Those who favoured Cakes and Ale said that “Not only the poor had relief, but also mutual society and good neighbourhood amongst the rest nourished and maintained.” It appears that whilst the commonalty consumed their cakes and ale in the street, the better sort were entertained within, with such victualls as at was thought convenient. All in all it was an expensive night for the mayor.

The Protest

The protest against the ban, is far more extraordinary than at first appears. It is the very first recorded decision of the next mayoralty immediately after John Smith, which was the second mayoralty of William Gee. What may not immediately strike you is the authority given for the decision, but it is unique. In the forty-plus years of Elizabeth’s reign all the decsions recorded in the Bench Book were made by the mayor and the aldermen his brethren. In the absense of a common council, when they had to take a decision that was unprecedented or risky, they very occassionally consulted an ad hoc group that they called “the most ancient discrete and substantial burgesses,” but all the decisions were always taken by the mayor and aldermen. This one, and only this one, is not.

This is an ordinance said to be made by the town and burgesses assembled together in the guild hall. This is not a clerical error, It is in the same hand as the rest of the year and undoubltedly copied by the town clerk into the book at the same time as the rest of the year. Something quite extraordinary happened. This was a popular uprising. The Godly had gone too far and the aldermen were forced to bow to the burgesses and reinstate the custom. And the mayor, William Gee, allowed this decision, in this form to become a part of the record. It may be relevant that Mayor Gee, a very rich merchant and a great philanthropist in his lifetime, had just had a new granddaughter who was christened Mary, which was not very common in Elizabethan Hull. He may have had some personal sympathy with the less Godly.


When the final abolition of the custom came in 1577 it was officially ‘for divers causes and considerations them moving’ which could be the clerk’s code for ‘lets not go there’ or possibly it was code for ‘I really can’t be bothered to record all this.’ For the Bench Book, all that actually mattered was the decision; there was no legal need to record the reasons behind the decision. The aldermen avoided any criticism that the mayor was only interested his pocket. Cakes and Ale was now viewed officially as a benefit for the poor, which could be much more effectively delivered than by holding a street party. £5 a year was to be given at Midsummer by this and all succeeding mayors, but no value at all was put on goodfellowship and neighbourliness.

Why did the Godly win?

Why did they succeed? The previous year Cakes and Ale had been cancelled quite reasonably, due to plague in the town, and this final end to the custom was not an arbitary act by the mayor, but an official ordinance. The £5 dole which replaced it meant that the mayor was seen not to be profiting by the ban. I think that there are reasons why it succeeded in 1577, when it had failed in 1573.

In 1577 the mayor was John Fawether a friend of the Godly, but possibly not amongst the ultra Godly, his sons being christened John, James and John. He and the aldermen had however confronted and defeated the leaders of an opposition. According to the Bench Book, Robert Armyn had of long time been and daily was a common repiner against the auctoritie of the magistrates & their doings and a privy whisperer amongest such of the burgesses as he could perceive were anything inclined to stubborness, factions & contentions to move them in like case to repine against the magistrates and to mislike of them and of their doings. . Armyn and Anthony Burnsall had attended conventicles assemblies & common metinges whiche they and others had late in the evenings in winter time at the churche. which meetings they term and call by the name of a court & there Sift and Rip up the magistrates and their doings to the uttermost. For accusing the mayor of malice over selection of men for Hackbutt training both were imprisoned until they should give bonds for their future behaviour. (The revolt of Armyn and Burnsell is fully described in an earlier blog “Stubborn and evil-doers.”) They made their submission to the authority of the mayor on the 23rd May. Cakes and Ale was abolished for ever on 6th June. The Bench Book does not make any connection, but I do.

Source Documents

4 Nov 1573 Hull Bench Book Four [HHC C BRB/2] f.109-109v

[In the margin ] an acte for midsommer even to be kept as in tymes past.

Whereas as an auncient order used within this tow[ne] From tyme owt of memory of man that Mr Maiour for th[e] tyme being had yearely upon the even of St John the bapt[iser] comonly called midsomer comminge to his howse all thinhabitantes of the sayme towne boithe poore a[nd] riche and then their bestowed upon the poor So[wle]caikes and drinke and upon the Riche sorte su[che] victualles as to his discrecion was thought conven[ient] whereby not only the poore had releife but also mutual society and good neighbourhoode emong[est] the Rest noorisshed and mainteaned / whiche order was by Mr John Smithe Laite Maiour left of not kept nor observed by whose example others that shall succede him may doe the like yf it be not otherwise forseen. Be it therefore inacted ordered concluded and agreed by the saime towne and the Burgesses assembled together in the guylde hawle the fourthe day of november in the yeare afforesaid [1573] that the said order upon midsomer even shall yearely for ever hereafter by the Mayour for the tyme beinge be observed and kept upon payne that every mayour that shall infringe and breike the said order and not kepe the sayme as in tymes past as haieth been accustomed shall forfitt to the use of the Maiour and Burgesses of Kingeston upon Hull afforesaid the summe of tenne powndes to be deducted of his fee at the next awdytte to be holden for the sayme towne by the awditors and thone halfe of the said forfytour shalbe imploied and bestowed emongst the poor of the said towne. [interlined in a different early-modern hand] tempora mutantur et leges mutantur in illis &c.

17 May 1576 Hull Bench Book Four [HHC C BRB/2] f.147v.

[In the margin] The maiour dispensed with for kepinge of midsomer even

Item the saime day and yere the said maiour and aldermen consideringe that this towne ys partly infected with the plaige and that ye assembly of the people together in great compannies ys very perilous for dainger of fourther infeccion have with one full assent and consent concluded and agreed yat the said nowe maiour of this said towne shalbe dispensed with for kepinge of midsomer even this yeare accordinge to ye auncyent customs heretofore vsed without incurringe any dainger or forfeit by virtue of the acte or ordinance heretofore maide in the seconde tyme of mr Gee his maioraltie the saime acte or ordinance or any other acte vsaige or custome to the contrary in any caise notwithstandinge And yet to thende the poore people who at that tyme had some Releife be not hindered. it is agreed yat the said maiour shall content & pay the Some of vli to be indeferently bestowed emongest the poore people dwellinge in Kingeston vppon Hull / wherevnto the said nowe maiour did willingely consent and the saime vli did disburse to the vse afforesaid /

6 June 1577 Hull Bench Book Four [HHC C BRB/2] ff.166v.-167

[In the margin] Mr Maiour dischairged of midsomer even

Item the day & yeare abovesaid [6 June 1577] the said maiour and aldermen with one full assent and consent for diuers causes and consideracions then movinge did with one full assent and consent order conclude and agree yat the said nowe maiour shalbe dispensed with for kepinge of midsomer even this yeare as in tymes past haithe been vsed withowt incurringe any dainger or forfeitour by force of the acte or ordinance maide in the seconde tyme of Mr gee his maioraltie the saime acte or ordinance or any other acte vsaige or custome to the contrary in any wise notwithstandinge. And yett to thende the poore people who at that tyme had thereby some releife be not hindered it is agreed yat the said nowe maiour shall content and pay the somme of vli to be indeferently bestowed emongest the poore people dwellinge in Kingeston vpon Hull wherevnto the said nowe maiour did willingly consent and the saime vli did disburse to the vse afforesaid.

To Make Soul Cakes

I took this from a number of sources on the web, but I think they all come from the same original recipe:

Note 1 This recipe comes from ‘Country Dishes’ edited by Barbara Hargreaves. From the introduction: “… traditional Farmhouse Recipes from counties of Great Britain compiled by Suzanne Beedell from a host of recipes collected from farmers’ wives … also contributions from County Federation of Women’s Institutes and Farmers Weekly … recipes handed down to them, and which they have proven. Thanks to all those who have preserved them.”

Note 2 These recipes were first published in 1962, with local and regional recipes handed down in families and dating from the 1800s.


340g plain flour – 170g sugar – 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon – 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg – 1/2 tsp ground mixed spice – 170g butter – 1 egg – 2 tsp of white wine vinegar

Mix all the dry ingredients (sifted flour, spices, and sugar). Rub in the diced butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add in the beaten egg and white wine vinegar and mix into a firm dough. Then cover it and chill for 20 minutes. Roll out the dough to 7mm thick, cut into rounds and draw a cross shape in the top of each round. Place these rounds on the greased baking tray and bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes at 200C until slightly coloured.

I have tried this recipe. The cakes were very hard, but they tasted good. I passed them round during my paper on Cakes and Ale at a conference at York University on Godly Government, and some people ate them. They didn’t add to my academic credibility. I was told by one man that they tasted exactly like a biscuit that was cooked by men in the Netherlands as part of a courting ritual.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s