Calves Head Club

“A meal is made by the company you keep - so be careful who you dine with!”

When despots fall and regimes crumble it often results in unease amongst the populace. There will be some - Group A, who are happy to welcome the new system with the optimistic hope that it will lead to better times. There will be others - Group B, who will mourn the passing of the old arrangement but do it rather quietly fearing an adverse reaction from Group A. There will be Group C whose lives, brief and brutish, will remain unchanged - and there will be group D who will celebrate the change in circumstances loudly with a slap up meal.

Charles I's execution

When King Charles 1st was executed on 30th January 1649 there were some - Anabaptists, republicans and supporters of Oliver Cromwell - who thought that it wasn’t enough just to chop off his head. They believed that after a murderous civil war for which the king was found “guilty of all the treasons, murders, rapines, burnings, spoils, desolations, damages and mischiefs to this nation, acted and committed in the said wars, or occasioned thereby,” the removal of his head should be marked in a more celebratory way, so they formed the Calves Head Club. It met in various houses around the country on the 30th January, the anniversary of the king’s execution, to share an unusual meal:- a cod’s head, representing the king’s family, the Stuarts, a pike representing tyranny, a boar’s head representing the king sponging off his subjects and a calves head to represent the king and his supporters. The table decoration was an axe. After the meal the ‘Eikon Basilike’, an autobiography attributed to the king, was burnt on the table and a toast drunk to “To those worthy patriots who killed the tyrant.” Then the celebrants sang specially written anthems…

Charles I

Now let us sing, carouse and roar The happy day has come once more For to revel Is but civil As our fathers did before Who, when the tyrant would enslave us Chopped his calves head off to save us.

After the Restoration of Charles 2nd (Old Rowly) in 1660 and under the close scrutiny of the government the Calves Head Club revellers were obliged to adopt a low profile. It didn’t lessen the venom of their anthems…

Old Rowly did succeed his dad Such a king was never seen a He’d lie with every nasty drab But seldom with his queen a Restless and hot he rolled about The town from whore to whore a A merry monarch as ever lived Yet scandalous and poor a

With the passing of time the activities of the Calves Head Club became increasingly unacceptable. A writer in 1709 commented upon “these shameful assemblies” and described a typical Calves Head clubman… “he is the spawn of regicide - he is a republican monster so full of passion and prejudice that he is blind to all truth and deaf to all reason etc”

After six pages of similar spleen the writer closes…

“He loves nothing so well in this world as a calves head upon the 30th of January but the next time he sits down to one in derision of the sufferings of the royal martyr I heartily wish that the devil choke him.”

By 1734 most people had had more than enough of the Calves Head Club and its well heeled members…

‘Some young noblemen and gentlemen met at a tavern in Suffolk Street [Charing Cross], called themselves the Calves’-Head Club, dressed up a calf’s head in a napkin, and after some huzzas threw it into a bonfire, and dipped napkins in their red wine and waved them out at window. The mob (outside)…..taking disgust at some healths proposed, grew so outrageous that they broke all the windows, and forced them-selves into the house; but the guards being sent for, prevented further mischief.’

Gentleman’s Magazine for 1735, vol. v., p. 105, January 30th

riot at calves head club

The Weekly Chronicle, stated 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’ … and that apparently was the end of the Calves Head Club. After a final night of riot and rampage in Suffolk Street nothing more was heard of them again.

Strange times! when noble peers, secure from riot, Can’t keep Noll’s (Oliver Cromwell’s) annual festival in quiet, Through sashes broke, dirt, stones, and brands thrown at ‘em, Which, if not stand- was brand- alum magnatum. Forced to run down to vaults for safer quarters, And in coal-holes their ribbons hide and garters.’


– from Martyn Day