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New Research Reveals Binge Drinking Initiated by Religious Anglicans in 1660s

Drinking Woodcut
Drinking Woodcut
Originally Published 20 July 2004

As David Blunkett claims a rise in binge drinking is helping to breed a culture of ‘thuggery and intimidation’ new research from the University of Warwick reveals that rather than originating the 1960s binge drinking was rife in the 1660s. What’s more, it was religious Anglicans, demonstrating their loyalty to the Crown in the Civil War that initiated heavy drinking.

From early on the British developed a culture where drunkenness is a rite of passage, especially for the young as they work out their allegiances.

The paper ‘Roaring Royalists and Ranting Brewers’ by historian Angela McShane-Jones examines 17th century broadside ballads, the equivalent of today’s pop music, pamphlets and court records, to reveal that drink and drunkenness went hand in hand with political allegiance as drink and song became linked with politics. The widespread ritual consumption of wine, or health drinking, developed as an expression of loyalty to King and Church. This was a practice of Cavaliers, Tories and Jacobites.

Although new crime figures released this week show a rise in 'violence against the person' and the number of people drinking over the 'safe limit' is rising, McShane-Jones also reveals that anti-social behaviour resulting from alcohol consumption is far from new.

17th century court records reveal a string of drink induced anti-social behaviour. The archives record a case of several Royalists drinking to the King’s health in their own blood at a Bedfordshire alehouse. The game where royalists cut off their rumps and drank their blood instead of wine went horribly wrong when an inebriated drinker was overzealous in slicing his body. Cases of violent death though drinking are also recorded, including a case where a man was stabbed to death following a fight as a sailor drank to the health of Charles II.

In the 1670s political differences evolved into an opposition between drinking Tories (who claimed to be merry and loyal), and sober Whigs. Drinking in company became an important part of the Royalist political culture.

Whigs and Tories attacked each other through ballads in terms of their consumption of drink. The drunken behaviour of the Cavaliers was now hurled at the Tories. Tories then imposed a ‘double-whammy’ on the Whigs. Continuing the image of drinking and loyalty, Tories made a virtue of their revelling. They claimed a major difference between their merry, loyal revelry and the miserable, seditious sobriety of the Whigs.

What a Whig needed, Tory ballads argued, was a good few pints (of wine) poured down him and the immediate improvement in his spirits would soon convince him to be loyal too. The Courtier’s Health suggested, ‘He that denies the brimmer/ we’ll drown him in canary and make him all our own./And when his heart is merry/ he’l drink to Charles in’s throne’.

Angela McShane-Jones, from the University of Warwick, said: “Binge drinking is far from a modern problem. ‘Saint Monday’ was a phrase indicating the inability of people to work on a Monday because of the way they had entertained themselves after church the day before.”

By modern expectations, early modern consumption of alcohol was strikingly high. Account books of a Berkshire farmer, Robert Loder, between 1611 and 1618 indicate on average between 6 and 8 pints of beer were consumed per person, each day.

Not all late 17th century alcohol consumption was loyal health drinking, and hangovers plagued tipplers. In his diaries Samuel Pepys records days of heavy, but not atypical, drinking. Pepys notes in detail the ailments he suffered after drinking: ‘I could not sleep … being overheated with drink … [and] quite out of order’; ‘my brains somewhat troubled with so much wine’; ‘About the middle of the night I was very ill, I think with eating and drinking too much … and vomited in the bason.’

Drinking Woodcut

Merry drinking was acceptable, but drunkeness was frowned on. When Pepys realised he was developing a reputation as a heavy drinker, he was ‘much troubled’.

For more information contact: Angela McShane-Jones, History Department, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574691, Mobile: 07748653734 or Jenny Murray, Communications Office, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574 255, Mobile: 07876217740

‘Roaring Royalists and Ranting Brewers’ is in A Pleasing Sinne, 2004, published by Boydell & Brewer Ltd