Toasts and Toasting


If the ancient custom of “toasting” has, in the present day, become a function of almost purely personal “health drinking,”…….there is still room for congratulation in that it is seldom tainted with the political rancour which was ever uppermost in the sentiments of the “three bottle men” of the past. Indeed the stormy times of bygone ages appear to have particularly lent themselves to drinking bouts, whereas the inevitable toast was made the medium of expressing the tipplers political sympathies, and for centuries, faction, rather than conviviality and good fellowship, reigned king over the wine cup….taken from the article: ‘Famous Toasts’ in the Newcastle Courant for Saturday July 23rd 1892.


Toasting has played a large part in the Reffley Bretheren’s annual meetings, most probably from their inception–and still does, although in a much more restrained and modified format these days. They are said to have retained much of the flamboyance, but in regard to the constraints to modern life, have abandoned the ‘drinking to excess,’ that was prevalent in earlier times. Indeed, given the importance of ‘toasting’, then the choice of the originally, isolated, Reffley Spring, can be seen as having been essential to ensure the safety of those concerned, given the most probably inflammatory nature of their ‘toasts’ in the time of the ‘Protectorate.’  Furthermore, mixing spirits with the chalybeate waters of the spring, was said to enable liberal quantities to be drunk which would ‘loosen the tongue but not the legs’, ensuring the ‘conviviality’ of the occasion.  In the picture (below) by Thomas Rowlandson, note: the two blue and white punch bowls on the table, which are very similar to those which were used by the Reffley Bretheren, whose bowls were for a time, on display in Lynn Museum. The participants (in the picture below) shown ‘in caricature,’ following their meal, are therefore, engaged in a vociferous round of ‘toasts’.


The Dinner 1787-Thomas Rowlandson                                                                                 Dinners were lively occasions at this time.       

The subject, of toasting or health drinking as it was also known, was discussed, in some depth, in an article published in The Graphic for February 1st 1890:


TOASTS and TOASTING - Probably everyone is familiar with the story told by that prince of romantic historians, gossiping old Godfrey of Monmouth, of the famous toast drunk when Hengist and Horsa came to England at the invitation of Vortigern, to help that unfortunate monarch to withstand the inroads of the Picts and Scots. Of course the story may or may not be true,….but fact or fiction, it at least points to, and illustrates the antiquity of health drinking in our land.  It was Rowena, it will be remembered, who proffered the toast to Vortigen, and the story tells us he had to consult the interpreter as to a fitting response.  We should hardly be justified in concluding from this fact that toasting was brought into England by the invaders.


  On the contrary, everything tends to show that the custom existed here before their time, and that the British chieftain must have been have been fully aware of the maiden’s action, though he was unable to understand her speech.  But the newcomers had doubtless something to do with giving to health-drinking, its great hold on all classes of the people.  The proverbial failing of the Anglo-Saxons was drunkenness, and from their forest home in Northern Germany, where they had spent their time in fighting, sleeping, and feasting, they brought with them a fondness for the “flowing bowl,” which by no means diminished with their change of abode.  Hence the popular theory, which connects this and many other drinking usages directly with our Anglo-Saxon forefathers, probably contains a large proportion of truth.


   Throughout the Middle Ages, and far beyond the time when we enter upon the confines of modern history, health drinking retained its popularity.  All kinds of changes took place in government and society; the English people slowly emerged out of ignorance and barbarism; letters revived; the Reformation came, shaking Europe from end to end; but our countrymen still retained their partiality for the flagon, and still clung tenaciously to the customs by which their daily potations had long been surrounded.  “Men might come, and men might go,” but like the Laureate’s Brook, these “went on for ever.”


   When therefore, in later years, the Puritans arose to make their historic protest against the abuses which had grown up in the Church, and Society, and State, they found ‘toasting’ at the apex of its popularity, and seized upon it as a habit particularly ripe for attack.  A good deal of Puritan literature deals statedly or incidentally with what was described as “the great evil of health-drinking.”

   The practice of ‘toasting’ differed in no small degree from that common at our public dinners today.  This is clearly shown in the following extract taken from a curious little volume published in 1623, and therefore yielding contemporary evidence concerning the subject in hand.  “He,” says the writer, “who begins the health, first uncovering the head, takes a full cup in his hand, and, setting his countenance with a grave aspect, he craves for audience.  Silence being once obtained, he begins to breathe out the name, peradventure of some honourable personage, whose health is drunk to, and he that pledges (that is, he who accepts the toast) must likewise off with his cap [it will be seen that hats were then worn at the table], kiss his fingers, and bow himself in sign of reverent acceptance….The cup being replenished to the breadth of a hair, he that is the pledger must now begin his part, and thus it goes round throughout the whole company,” – with a result that need hardly be described. 


   These rules were followed with the greatest exactitude and solemnity; and when a person had drunk he was supposed to turn “the bottom of his cup upward,” so that everyone at the table might be convinced by “ocular demonstration” that he had consumed his proper quantity.  Did any remain, he had to pour it out upon his nail, and if there were more than would stay there as a single drop, he was made to fill and drink a full cup again.  This was what in the dog-Latin of the day, was called drinking “super nagulam.”

   About the same period the custom of drinking the health of absent individuals came into vogue, and led to wild extravagance, especially on the continent.  There the person toasted, was the drinker’s mistress, and the order of the table was that he should consume as many glasses in her honour, as there were letters in her name.  This meant pretty heavy drinking when the name was a long one – as in the case of the poet Ronsard, who had to imbibe “neuf fois au nom de Cassandre.”  In our own country, another extraordinary freak common among gallants, and referred to by several of our early dramatists, was that of stabbing the arm and mingling the blood drawn with the draught in which a lady’s name was honoured.

   An amusing passage from some “Memoires d’Angleterre,” published in 1693, gives us a further insight into some of the toasting fashions of the time.  It would appear from this “that the person to whose health another drinks” was supposed to “remain as inactive as a statue”  during the operation.  “If, for instance,” the writer goes on to say, “he is in the act of taking something from a dish, he must suddenly stop, return his fork or spoon to its place, and wait without stirring more than a stone, until the other has drunk.  Nothing appears so droll,” adds the author, who appears to have fully entered into the humour of the situation, “as to see a man who is in the act of chewing a morsel which he has in his mouth, of cutting his bread, or wiping his mouth, or of doing anything else, who suddenly takes a serious air when a person of some respectability drinks to his health, looks fixedly at this person, and becomes as motionless as if a universal paralysis had seized him, or had been struck by a thunderbolt.”  From this strange practice seems to have been derived the custom, so common during the last century, for people to take wine with one another at table.


  There can be no question that this widespread mania for “healthing,” as it is called, had a very serious influence for evil upon the habits of the people during the whole of the seventeenth century.  In France, Louis XIV., becoming aware of its effects, abolished it at his Court, and in England a veritable crusade was preached against it, which was joined not only by the professed Puritans themselves, but also by many of the wiser men of the opposite party.  Their efforts, however, met with very little success.  The loyalty exhibited towards the person of the “Merry Monarch” was shown in such frequent drinking to his health that many scandals arose in consequence, and even Charles II was driven to issue a Royal Proclamation having reference to the matter.  It was not, indeed, until the early years of the present century, (1800’s) when a gradual change began to pass over society, and men began to aim at purer and more refined modes of life, that the power of  this deep-rooted custom was to some extent undermined.  In these days, a man does not pride himself upon the number of bottles he is able to drink at a sitting, nor does he, as a rule, forewarn his servant to appear at a stated hour upon the scene to convey him to the home which, otherwise, he would be powerless to reach in safety.  These things happily have been left behind us, and health-drinking has suffered in consequence.  Indeed, the practice is at the present moment nothing but the ghost of its former self.  The outward form is indeed retained to some extent, but toasting at our public dinners is scarcely more now than an excuse for a certain number of disquisitions on things in general – disquisitions which frequently enough have about as much to do with the health proposed, as the contents of one of Ruskin’s books have to do with its title.    W.H.H. from THE GRAPHIC Saturday !st February 1890. (The author could well have based his article on The History of Toasting by Richard Valpy French1880) . 


That ‘Toasting’ was in full flow and played a significant part in the celebrations at Reffley, can be seen in the following published account from 1788. It is one of the earliest Press reports, if not the earliest, which details the activities of the ‘Subscribers to Reffley Spring’, and includes the lengthy list of Toasts which were ‘given’ in during the course of the evening.


It is probably only because the ‘subscribers’ were participants in the Day of the significant ‘National Celebration of the Centenary of the Glorious Revolution’ that the report of their event has survived, or maybe, was even reported in the first place. In many ways the ‘Glorious Revolution’ would have been the culmination of the rebellion represented by the original formation of the Reffly Bretheren, so would have been hugely significant for its members, one hundred years later. (For more information about the 'Glorious Revolution' see the next section,)






The Subscribers to Reffley Spring commemorate

the Glorious Revolution

of King William the Third.


Events at a number of Norfolk towns were also reported, but of most interest, in regard to the activities of the Reffley Society, is the following report from the Norfolk Chronicle:



Summonses having been issued to the gentlemen subscribers to Reffley Spring (which is in the center of a fine wood near that town) in order to commemorate the glorious Revolution of King William the Third, they assembled in the forenoon, arrived there about twelve, and were received under a discharge of several pieces of cannon.  A very elegant dinner (which was cooked in the wood) was served up with the greatest regularity, and gave universal  satisfaction.  The following toasts were afterwards given, and the day was spent with the greatest glee and harmony.  At night the illumination with different coloured lamps on the trees, and the brilliancy of the fire-works, were pleasing beyond conception:-

To the immortal Memory of King William - May we enjoy the blessings of the Revolution as long as we live - May the blessings of the Revolution be handed down to the latest posterity - The King-The Queen - Prince of Wales - Duke of York - Prince William Henry - Duke of Devonshire, and Prosperity to the House of Cavendish - Duke of Bedford, and Prosperity to the House of Russel -  Mr. Coke of Holkam, and Success to his Election - The County Members - The Lynn Members-The Lord Lieutenant of the County - Sir Martin Folks, Bart.-the Mayor and Town of Lynn - Brigg Price Fountaine, Esq. - P.Cafe, Esq  - Success to Refley Spring, and the Subscribers thereto- George Hogg, Esq .- George Patteson,Esq. - Henry Hoste Henly, Esq .-T.Bagge Esq .- H.Partridge,Esq fen - H.Partridge,Esq.jun.

Same day an elegant dinner was given to a party of Gentlemen (in the Whig or Mr. Coke’s intereft) at the Chequer inn in South Lynn, by a gentleman of Lynn Regis; when the greatest harmony prevailed, and everything concluded, much to the satisfaction of those present, with thanks to the donor: Many loyal and constitutional toasts were drunk, much in line with the former.

The town of Lynn intend celebrating this event, according to the Old Style, on the 14th instant, for which purpose the most splendid entertainment ever known in that place is now preparing, and almost every lodging is engaged. From the Norfolk Chronicle 8th November 1788



The next occasion when a celebration was held at Reffley Spring, - when it was reported that a great many loyal and constitutional toasts were drunk - for which a report exists, also appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle in 1789, when on Friday May 1st – the Mayday public holiday being celebrated on the day it fell, unlike today.   The article does not make clear, this time, if the Subscribers were involved, but it is  most likely that they were, together with many guests, and the day was also celebrated in Kings Lynn……




At Lynn, nothing particularly occurred, except the shops being all shut up, and the former part of the day religiously observed.  In the afternoon, a great number of gentlemen and tradesmen met at Riffley Spring, and testified their joy on the happy occasion, when the greatest harmony prevailed, and many loyal and constitutional toasts were drunk.

At South Lynn, a large party of gentlemen met to celebrate the happy event, at the Chequer Inn, where repeated discharges of cannon succeeded each toast, and the greatest loyalty and affection appeared to pervade every breath. From the Norfolk Chronicle Saturday 2nd May 1789.


Even though there do not appear to be any more reports of activities at Reffley spring  in the Press for the next twenty years, possibly because correspondants did not bother to submit reports or not every edition of papers published at that time has survived.