As we say happy birthday to King Richard III on 2nd October, Matthew (one of our Visitor Services team) has written a blog about the origins of birthday celebrations….


On 2nd October it will be King Richard III’s birthday.

I can’t speak for everyone else (my stomach can for me) but when there’s a birthday, there has to be plenty of cake consumed! Whilst we are eating copious amounts of cake we probably won’t be thinking where exactly does the custom of celebrating birthdays come from?

The tradition of celebrating birthdays can be traced back to the times when pagan customs dominated society. The origins lie in the realm of magic and religion. It was thought that on the anniversary of your birth that you would be particularly vulnerable to evil spirits. To protect the person celebrating their birthday their family and friends would offer congratulations and present gifts. It is not known for sure but the custom of blowing out candles may have pagan origins too; to the pagans blowing out the candles was symbolic of blowing away the evil spirits that threatened the birthday celebrant.

Due to this pagan connection Christians initially shunned the practice of celebrating birthdays. It is said that it was not until the fourth century that Christians began to consider birthdays acceptable. This was only to start celebrating Jesus’s birthday which as we all know now as Christmas.

So how would they have celebrated birthdays in the time of King Richard III? In the medieval times it was only people of the high nobility like Richard who would have actually properly celebrated birthdays. Typical of the nobility to have all the fun.

Initially this would have only been the men, evidence suggests that women did not start to celebrate their birthdays until the 12th century. A noble would have held a feast in honour of their birthday and received gifts.

Chaucer in ‘A Squire’s Tale’ includes a King who marks the occasion of his birthday by holding a feast. We actually know for sure that Richard was aware of his birthday as he noted it down in his book of hours. Under the 2nd October in the calendar of his book of hours, Richard has written (originally in Latin) “On this day was born Richard III, King of England, at the house of Foderingay (Fotheringhay) in the year of our Lord 1452”.

People of the lower classes would not have made an occasion of celebrating the anniversary of their birth as exact calendar dates were rarely used. The nearest holy day would be the best reference point. So, for example, you might say that you were born five days after the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A medieval peasant, instead of celebrating the anniversary of their birth, would celebrate the feast day of the saint that they were named after. For example, if I had been a medieval peasant, I would have celebrated St Matthew’s Day on the 21st September. This would involve having a festive meal with family and godparents.

So, remember, when you are next blowing the candles out on your birthday cake whilst receiving good wishes from your friends and family, that this is where some of our birthday celebrations have come from.