The Calves’ Head Club
We English had a brief flirtation with republicanism in the mid 17th century when the roundheads chopped off Charles I‘s head. Alas, the experiment only lasted eleven years and Charles II was restored to the throne. Still for those of a republican disposition January 30th, the date when the regicide occurred, has a certain resonance and it is not surprising to find that a club was formed to keep the memory of that moment of republican spirit alive. The Calves’ Head Club was just such an association.
It is thought, although it cannot be proven conclusively, that it was formed during the Commonwealth (1649 to 1660) and the poet John Milton, whose Eikonoklastes was a justification of the execution, could well have been a leading light. What is clear is that the club had a rather elaborate ceremony replete with symbolism when they congregated for their annual meeting and dinner on January 30th.
An axe was either hung from the ceiling or placed on the table, representing the instrument that delivered England from tyranny. The menu consisted of calves; heads, representing the king’s royal office and his supporters, a cod’s head representing Charles Stuart, a pike representing tyranny and a boar’s head, representing the king preying on his subjects. The club members drank republican toasts from cups made from the skulls of calves, their principal one being “to those worthy patriots who killed the tyrant”. After their meal they would go on to burn a copy of Eikon Basilike which was seen as royalist propaganda and swear an oath in praise of Milton’s retort.
Naturally, the restoration of the monarchy caused the club some difficulties and the members had to keep their heads down, as a history of the club published in 1703 records , “after the Restoration the eyes of the Government being upon the whole party, they were obliged to meet with a great deal of precaution but now they meet almost in a public manner, and apprehend nothing”. The first definitive record we have of the Club meeting is in 1693 when the anthem for that year was published in their Anniversary Thanksgiving Songs on the 30th of January.
Although in Queen Anne’s reign the club felt secure enough to become more open in their activities there still were grave risks and, indeed, a significant outbreak of public opprobrium against them in 1735 ultimately did for the club. According to contemporary reports, “Some young noblemen and gentlemen met at a tavern in Suffolk Street, called themselves the Calves’ Head Club….” They dressed up a calf’s head in a napkin, threw it on a bonfire and waved napkins dipped in red wine out of the window. Not unsurprisingly, this behaviour excited the interest of a mob who “having strong beer in them” staged what we would now call a demonstration outside the building.
The mob’s feelings were further inflamed by the nature of the toasts being proposed by the Club members and eventually they “broke all the windows, and forced themselves into the house”. Damage caused ran into the hundreds of pounds and guards were stationed on the streets to protect neighbouring properties.
The Grub Street Journal recorded some verses about the furore, “Strange times! When noble peers, secure from riot/ Can’t keep Noll’s(Cromwell’s) annual festival in quiet/ through sashes broke, dirt, stones, and brands thrown at ‘em/…/forced to run down to vaults for safer quarters/ and in coal-holes their ribbons hide and garters”.
An ignominious end to the club indeed!