"Wassail" appears in English literature as a salute as early as the 8C poem Beowulf, in references such as "warriors' wassail and words of power" and:
The rider sleepeth,
the hero, far-hidden; no harp resounds,
in the courts no wassail, as once was heard.
An anonymous Anglo-Norman Poet, who witnessed the Saxon toasting cry before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, wrote:
Rejoice and wassail
Pass the bottle and drink healthy
Drink backwards and drink to me
Drink half and drink empty.
In Saxon times the original Wassail was was a greeting meaning: "be in good health." In 12C, it became a toast, the response to the toast became drink hail, or "drink good health." Norman conquerors who arrived in the 11C regarded the toast as distinctive of the English natives.
A story told in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, written in 1135, purports to explain the origin of the toast:
The story of toasting 'wassail' begins when Renwein presented King Vortigern with a cup of wine and the salute 'Was hail.'
The story of toasting "wassail" begins when Renwein presented King Vortigern with a cup of wine and the salute "Was hail."
While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said "Lavert King, was hail!" When he saw the girl's face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. "She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is 'drinc hail.'" Vortigern immediately said the words "drinc hail" and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn.
Ronald Hutton in his The Rise and Fall of Merry England. Oxford, 1996, reports:"A 14Ctext by Peterd e Langtoft describes in detail the custom involving this vessel, to which the Tudor sources only refer in passing: the leader of a gathering took it and cried "Wassail" Old English for "your health". He was answered "Drink hail," and then passed it to another person with a kiss, so that these actions could be repeated by each. At the early Tudor court it was accompanied into the king's presence by the chief officers of the household, bearing staves. In great families it was made of precious metal- Edmund earl of March, leaving a silver one upon his death in 1382."
"The bowl is first mentioned by Matthew Paris in the 13C, as one in which cakes and fine white bread were communally dipped."
"Near the end of the 13C, Robert of Gloucester retold the legend of the marriage of the British king Vortigern with the Saxon princess Rowena, making the latter drink to the former with the words "waes heal."
"When Peter de Lantoft repeated the story in the 1320s, he portrayed people drinking alternately from the same cup with the exchange "wassaille" and "drinkhaille", exactly as in Tudor England. This sequence raises the possibility that the exchange became customary around 1300, but this, again cannot be proved."