A ghost story for Halloween: The Bell

This is the story I’m going to use to frighten small children at my kids’ Halloween party tomorrow. Every word of it is, of course, true. That’s what they think, anyway.

The Bell

This is actually a true story. It happened in this house. I didn’t want to tell you before in case you were scared. Is everyone ok with hearing the story? You can go and play in the dining room if you like. The lights are on in there.

You all want to hear it?

All right then.

This is something that happened in Victorian times, about a hundred and fifty years ago. At that time the house belonged to one very rich old lady who lived here all by herself. Her name was Mrs Taylor.

Now, when I say by herself, she actually had servants. There was a gardener called Mr Bean who lived down the street and just came in the morning, but there was also a cook-housekeeper called Mrs Brain who slept in the attic and most of the time, another servant girl who would be the maid-of-all-work.

Being a maid-of-all-work was a hard job. And the shocking thing is, the girls who did it sometimes weren’t even grown-ups or even teenagers, they were children like you. They had to be the first person to get up in the morning, to do the fires, carry up Mrs Taylor’s bathwater and even empty her smelly old chamber pot from under the bed. Then during the day they were at everybody’s beck and call, doing the hard jobs, the scrubbing and scraping and blackleading and fetching and carrying. At night they would collapse into bed exhausted but they still had to listen out for the bell, in case Mrs Taylor wanted anything in the night. There was a bellpull right by her bed and if she woke in the night she would ring it as hard as it could so that it jangled in the attic bedrooms and woke up the poor maid to come down and see what she wanted.

To make matters worse, Mrs Taylor was mean. She paid her servants as little as she could get away with and she fed them on her leftovers: stale bread, scrapings from her plate. Even then they didn’t get enough. And she beat her little servant girls with her walking stick if they made a mistake or didn’t come fast enough when she rang.

Not surprisingly, nobody ever stayed in the job for any longer than they could help, so she was always having to write to the Malton workhouse master or the orphanages in York to see if they knew of anyone who was desperate enough to take the position.

One day, Mrs Taylor was sitting by her cosy fire, reading the latest installment of a magazine story about a missionary being eaten by cannibals, when the doorbell rang.

The cook-housekeeper, Mrs Brain, put down her rolling pin with a sigh and went to answer the door. Of course Mrs Taylor didn’t actually get up and answer her own door – that was what servants were for.

In the doorway stood the master of the workhouse, and next to him, a tiny scrap of a girl, no bigger than Lily here.

The workhouse master tipped his hat. ‘Brought your new servant girl, ma’am. The lady of the house wrote me a letter.’

Mrs Brain screwed up her eyes. The girl didn’t look like she’d be much use. Her arms and legs were skinny as twigs and her cheeks were hollowed out, as if she never had enough to eat. She didn’t just look weak, she looked ill. Her eyes were red with dark circles under them, and she kept her hand pressed in front of her mouth, as if she was always trying to stop herself coughing.

Mrs Brain showed her into the drawing room and Mrs Taylor looked the girl up and down. ‘She doesn’t look much, but she’ll have to do,’ she said. ‘She can start right away. Tell her to go and fetch some water to scrub the floor in the hall, and when she’s done that, the water closet wants scouring.’

She didn’t even ask the little girl’s name.

The girl’s name was Hannah, and she had lived in the workhouse nearly all her life. She was actually suffering from an illness called tuberculosis, which was why she coughed so much. Anyone who cared enough to notice could have seen she was ill, but the workhouse master didn’t care, Mrs Taylor didn’t care as long as the fires were lit and the chamber pots emptied, and even Mrs Brain, who might have been kind to her, only grumbled about how feeble and slow she was, and how she couldn’t carry a heavy bucket of water without stumbling and spilling half. If she had been properly fed, and rested, and kept warm, she might have recovered, but there was no hope of that in this house.

Poor Hannah had a terrible time of it. It wasn’t enough that she was kept on her feet all day long. Mrs Taylor was a bad sleeper, and woke several times in the night, and each time, she would ring her bell and Hannah was expected to come running. Sometimes it was to fetch a book, or a biscuit, sometimes Mrs Taylor complained she was cold and wanted the fire lighting. Each time, Hannah had to struggle out of bed in her thin nightgown in the freezing cold attic room. It was not surprising that her cough got worse, and she grew thinner and thinner.

I am very sad to have to tell you that Hannah died. One night when Mrs Taylor rang the bell and Hannah stumbled out of bed as usual, she found that she could hardly stand up. At the top of the stairs she wobbled, and tried to reach for the rail to stop herself falling, but instead she tumbled right down the stairs and broke her neck. She was only ten years old. The vicar suggested Mrs Taylor might like to give some money to pay for a proper burial for her, but she was too mean, and Hannah’s tiny remains were buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave without even a coffin to protect her from the earth and the worms.

A week or so later, Mrs Brain had to go to visit her sister in Pickering, who was sick. Mrs Taylor grumbled, but she let her go, because she knew that if she didn’t, Mrs Brain might leave, and she might never find another cook-housekeeper to look after such a big house for so little money. So Mrs Brain arranged for Mr Bean the gardener’s wife to come in just before bedtime to help Mrs Taylor to bed, and once again early in the mornings to light the fires. This meant that Mrs Taylor was completely alone in the house.

It was a wild, windy night, so windy that the streetlights blew out and the street was in pitch darkness. The wind rattled the windowframes and blew down the chimneys, making a noise like somebody moaning, ‘Oh, oh.’ Alone in her comfortable bed, Mrs Taylor shuddered. She pulled the thick bedcovers up around her head and tried to block out the noises, until at last she fell asleep.

In the middle of the night, there was a loud bang on the window. She sat bolt upright in bed, her heart racing. But the tapping continued, until Mrs Taylor realised with relief that it was just a branch of one of the holly trees blowing against the window. She slid back under the covers and went back to sleep.

There was another bang, a lighter one this time. Mrs Taylor half woke up, and groped for the bell. As it clanged in the distant empty attic she remembered she was alone, and there was no-one in the house to answer. ‘Fiddlesticks!’ she said. ‘If that silly girl hadn’t gone and fallen downstairs…’ Light, pattery footsteps sounded on the uncarpeted attic stairs.

Mrs Taylor gasped.

‘Rats,’ she whispered to herself. ‘It must be rats or mice.’ But the footsteps were on the landing now, and were coming closer and closer.

They stopped. Mrs Taylor held her breath. And then there was a cough, just outside the room.

Mrs Taylor froze. She had to send the maid away! Summoning up all her courage, she managed to squeeze some words out. ‘I – I don’t need you after all,’ she called shakily.

The door of her bedroom slowly opened. Mrs Taylor squeezed her eyes tight shut.

‘It’s quite all right,’ she said faintly. ‘You can go back to bed now.’

The footsteps came closer and closer, until at last they stopped right beside her bed.

Mrs Taylor forced herself to open her eyes.

It was Hannah all right, standing only inches away from her, and looking even thinner and sicker than she had done in life. Her skin was a deathly white, and there were still bluish bruises on her bony arms, where Mrs Taylor had hit her with her walking stick just two weeks earlier. Her hair hung down by her cheeks, clods of earth clinging to it. Something writhed in her ear. Mrs Taylor let out a cry of horror when she saw that it was a worm.

The apparition made a little, tired curtsey. ‘I came at once, Ma’am,’ she said. ‘I was in my grave but I came at once.’

Mrs Taylor screamed. ‘I don’t need you,’ she gabbled. ‘Go back to bed – I mean back to your grave – you’re ill – I’ll pay for the doctor – oh, I’m too late, aren’t I? I’m too late! Please, go!’

The ghost gave a slight, feeble smile. But she did not move.

When Mrs Bean came the next morning to help Mrs Taylor dress, she found her curled up into a ball on the floor in the corner of the room, gabbling incoherently about maids-of-all-work, graveyard mud and bells. She went straight back home to fetch her husband, who took one look at her and went straight for the doctor. The doctor decided she must have had a nervous breakdown, and she was sent to a hospital for a very long time.

When she came out of hospital, Mrs Taylor did try to make amends. The house had been shut up while she was gone, and Mrs Brain had found another job in Pickering, near her sister, but she engaged new staff, a cook and two maids, who she paid almost twice as much as she had given the wretched Hannah. She also gave a considerable amount of money to the workhouse master, to buy better food for the paupers. Unfortunately he stole it, and something terrible happened to him as a result, but that is a story for next Halloween.

You’ve probably noticed the bell next to the fireplace. That’s one of the bells Mrs Taylor used to ring to call Hannah. Does anyone want to ring it? No?

On learning to write without spending any money

I’m writing this post because I’ve recently heard some more people bemoaning the fact that they can’t afford to take a creative writing course. I’m all for creative writing courses – never done one myself, but I know a lot of people who have, and who had a brilliant time as well as learning lots. But the idea that people feel held back by the fact that they can’t afford one makes me sad. Honestly, you do not need formal teaching. It is great, but not critical.
So here are my tips about how to put yourself through your own DIY creative writing course. It’s basically what I did, and you have to be very focused and determined to make yourself do it, rather than relying on a course for structure and impetus. But then, you need to be focused and determined if you want to be a writer anyway, so we’ll take that as read. ;-)

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three main things that people get out of a creative writing course (apart from the kick up the arse to actually write, which we’ve already agreed you don’t need):

1. The generic teaching of the craft – classes, lectures etc.
2. Skilled critiquing of your own writing
3. The supportive peer group

The thing is, all these things can be accessed for free, no matter where you are in the world, as long as you have access to the internet and a library which can order in books it doesn’t already stock.

We’ll take them in reverse order.

3. The supportive peer group
If you have a local writers’ group, great. (I would love one, not least so we could go to the pub afterwards.) Otherwise, join an online writing forum. AbsoluteWrite.com is one. Scribophile is another. And CritiqueCircle. There are loads, and you can join several.
Once you’ve joined, start developing friendships with other writers that you hit it off with. Offer to critique other people’s work – this is vital. It will help you learn to write, it will leave you with a pool of people who will be eager to help you by critiquing your work when the time comes, and it will make the advice they give you easier to take on board.

2. Skilled critiquing of your own writing
This is where the friendships with other writers come in. Some websites also have a section where you can post things for anyone to comment.
Of course, I’ve had some wonderful, helpful insights from people I’ve been fortunate enough to know who happen to be talented writers. However, I have found that some of my best critiquers aren’t fiction writers themselves – my readers have been a mixture of writers and keen readers. As a historical novelist I’ve been lucky to have a few historian friends who read my stuff. But I’ve also had excellent advice from friends who simply love reading and are capable of expressing opinions about what they’ve read.

1. The generic teaching of craft
There is plenty of stuff online – helpful blogposts, discussions in forums about particular aspects of craft. However, for depth and detail, I have found books essential. The writers’ forums are fantastic for helping you work out which books, though. (I’ll write another post listing a few of my favourites.)

So, how do all these elements work together?
Well, the first thing you do is begin writing. Start to write your first draft (with or without planning, depending on how you work best).
As you start to write, you will start to understand where the gaps in your knowledge lie. You realise you don’t have a clue how to put together a plot – or, you have a good idea of the plot but can’t work out how to write dialogue.
It may not be a good idea to go rushing to the creative writing books at this stage, though. What I would recommend is to keep going until the end of the first draft, writing and writing without stopping to think. For actually getting through that first draft, you will find your supportive peer group essential. Cheerlead each other, post daily wordcounts, tell your friends when you’re flagging and the chances are you’ll get a friendly nudge back on track.
Once you’ve got to the end of the first draft, you put it in a drawer – don’t show it to anyone yet – and that’s when the creative writing books come out. Take a while to work through a couple. Now you’ve had the experience of writing a whole draft they will make a lot more sense to you than they would have done a few months earlier. You’ll start to get some sense of how much you know and how much you don’t know.
After a month or so, when you’ve more or less forgotten about the story that was consuming you a few weeks earlier, get the draft out and read it again. This part hurts – you will cringe at bits, either because they’re just plain badly written, or because your newfound knowledge from the creative writing books makes you see more clearly what doesn’t work. You go to your supportive peer group, cry a bit online, then buckle down and do drastic rewriting. Then you put it away for another month and do some more reading of creative writing books, maybe critique some stuff for a friend, chat about writing online. Oh, and read more fiction. Obviously. You never stop doing that.
When you come back to reading draft 2, you might feel ready to show it to a friend, or it might be too early for that – if you can see for yourself what needs fixing, better to fix it yourself before asking anyone else to expend effort on it. It might be draft 2 or 3 or 4 that gets read. Once you have comments to work with, you might find yourself going back to the creative writing books again, this time re-reading relevant bits that relate to the comments you’ve had on your draft: how to tighten your saggy middle section, or make your lacklustre love interest more compelling.
There’s no limit on the number of drafts you will need. Keep going as long as you can feel it getting better with each draft.
Of course, you don’t end up with an MA this way. If you’re very lucky, and talented, you might end up with a publishable book. Most importantly, though, through the repeated feedback process of writing-reading-writing-reading, your writing will have come a very long way.

Normal service will resume shortly…

Last time I wrote on here was midsummer and now it’s September!
The second half of my summer disappeared in a whirl of moving house with ten days notice, my computer getting broken in the move so I had NO COMPUTER AT ALL for over a month, and finding myself, husband and three children living in a huge, decaying Georgian house with a jungle of a garden. And ducks.
The house move shouldn’t have been a shock – we knew we were doing it – it’s just I never really believed it until it happened. There were legal issues of the sort that make mortgage companies laugh incredulously and say, ‘No. Sorry.’
But here we are. The builders are still here. Much reroofing has been done and much is still to do. There are interesting gaps in windowframes and places where the paint has flaked off to show us a hundred years’ succession of different colours. The garden is so overgrown that we haven’t even been into the corners.
Yesterday, the children started their new school, which my daughter loves so much she wants to go on Saturdays and Sundays too. (We’ll see how long that lasts.) And now I am sitting at my desk in my lovely new writing room with Scrivener open, poised to restart the book!

This is the view from my new window:

picture009

(The things in the sky aren’t UFOs, just a smudge and a beetle.)

It’s all about St John the Baptist – or, how the Tudors celebrated the Midsummer Solstice

The summer solstice was one of the pagan festivals taken over by the early Christian church, aligning it with the feast of St John the Baptist, on 24th June. So by the sixteenth century it had accumulated a lively mix of Christian and pagan meaning.

In town and country, fire was a theme of midsummer celebrations. In both places, people made bonfires and feasted and drank around them. In the countryside these bonfires were particularly valued to protect crops and lifestock. Fires were lit on the windward side of crops and animals, so the smoke would blow over them. In some places, people even drove animals through the embers of the fires.

This may be some actual Tudors round their Midsummer bonfire taken via time machine. Or it may show a recreated Tudor Midsummer celebration at the Kentwell Hall historical re-creation of Tudor life.

This may be some actual Tudors round their Midsummer bonfire taken via time machine. Or it may show a recreated Tudor Midsummer celebration at the Kentwell Hall historical re-creation of Tudor life.

Depending on who you talked to, this might have been for protection against disease – the causes of diseases of animals and plants were not well understood in the sixteenth century, but there was a view that contagion was present in the air – or against witches, who were particularly active on Midsummer. The fear of witches was demonstrated by another aspect of midsummer ritual, decorating houses or wreathing livestock with garlands of particular plants.  A seventeenth century writer remembered green birch being hung on all the local signposts. John Stow, who wrote about London, describes,

 ‘every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s Wort, Orpin, white lilies and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers.’

Some of these plants had powers which were thought to be associated with their religious symbolism. St John’s Wort is often associated with the sun because of its bright yellow flowers. For Tudors, however, it was connected with St John because its leaves were flecked red with the blood of the martyred saint. So it was particularly important at Midsummer and cattle wore wreaths of it on their horns, or had their cowsheds decorated with it. Another protective plant was trefoil, because its three-part leaves suggested the Holy Trinity. I imagine the white lilies Stow mentioned took their power from their association with the Virgin Mary – they are still called Madonna lilies.

However, for some people, the importance of midsummer festivities wasn’t about magic, it was about community. Rich people would provide cakes and tubs of ale for their local poor in their town or village, or feast their friends and ‘more civil poor neighbours’, as one rich man did in Long Melford in Suffolk. Sometimes money was left as a bequest for this purpose. Thus Midsummer was a chance for Christian charity, for socialising, and for neighbours at odds to make up. John Stow explains the meaning of ‘bonfire’ thus (bonus=good in Latin):

‘These were called Bone-fires, as well of amity amongst neighbours, that being before at controversie, were there by the labour of others reconciled, and made of bitter enemies, loving friends’.

Actually, in some places fires were lit of bones, giving off dark and reeking smoke – a fifteenth century monk inveighed against it, and against the custom in some places of setting a cartwheel alight and rolling it down a hillside (another ritual with obvious pagan roots, the wheel representing the sun).

Of all the Tudor midsummer activities, though, the activity that must have taken up the most time and money was the Marching Watches, or torchlit marching processions. In big towns these must have been spectacular. In London one is recorded as including four thousand marchers. There were Morris dancers, giants and pageants, which were only sometimes religious – despite the fact that this was meant to be a religious festival, they were just as likely to be mythological or historical. To give you some idea, the 1521 Lord Mayor’s Guild in London put on five pageants: The Castle of War, The Story of Jesse, St John the Evangelist, St George and Pluto. They were all carried on platforms and the Pluto pageant included a serpent that spat fireballs. There was also a model giant called Lord Marlinspikes, not to mention morris dancers and naked boys dyed black to represent devils. Giants were popular, as were dragons and pyrotechics. In 1541 the Drapers’ Guild procession including a dragon that burned aqua vitae in its mouth and in Chester there were unicorns, camels (model ones, we assume), hobbyhorses and sixteen naked boys.

It was, of course, expensive. But at times of political tension, gathering so many people together (some of them presumably drunk) could also lead authorities to fear civil unrest. In 1539 Henry VIII banned the London Midsummer Watch on the pretext of saving money, and it did not return until 1548. We can only imagine how people felt about that…

 

 

(For further reading, see:

Alison Sim, Pleasures and Pastimes In Tudor England

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars

Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England

Margaret Baker, Folklore and Customs of Rural England)

 

 

 

Review: BRAZEN by Katherine Longshore

I admit when I found out Katherine Longshore had a book coming out about Mary Howard, I ground my teeth.

This is because I too am writing a novel about Mary for teenagers. As Anne Boleyn’s youngest maid-of-honour, cousin of both  her and Katherine Howard, married at thirteen to Henry VIII’s bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, Mary was connected in different ways to all of the king’s six queens. So she’s an obvious subject for someone who wants to write about the court of Henry VIII from a teenager’s point of view.

Longshore has a fabulous track record on writing about the Tudor court. Her first book, Gilt, tells the story of teenage Katherine Howard’s marriage to the king, written from the point-of-view of her best friend. Her second Tudor novel, Tarnish, is about a young Anne Boleyn, before she hooked up with Henry, and follows her through the entanglements with Henry Percy and Thomas Wyatt that would later come back to bite her. Gilt established Longshore’s very distinctive and appealing style. She takes refreshingly believable teen characters and places them in a highly authentic setting, researched to a very great level of detail. Her characters banter, flirt and play games with each other. But because this is Tudor England, where female sexuality was tightly controlled, particularly for the aristocratic characters Longshore writes about, flirting and romance are dangerous and the stakes are frighteningly high.

In Brazen, Longshore focuses on the years from Mary’s marriage, up until she returns to Kenninghall in Norfolk, aged sixteen, giving us a ringside seat for the fall of Anne Boleyn and the brutal executions of Anne and her supposed lovers. Primarily, though, it is a love story. Longshore’s Mary falls in love with the young prince she marries, but they are kept apart due to fears that early marital relations might damage Fitzroy’s health as it was thought to have damaged the king’s older brother’s. (And, Longshore hints, so that Henry could keep his options open, in case a more advantageous match for Fitzroy came along and he needed to have this one annulled.) The novel charts their efforts to maintain their relationship in secret, with lots of stolen kisses and secret meetings.  We have no evidence that this happened – in fact, we don’t even know for certain that they ever saw each other again after the wedding – but it could have done. Longshore is expert at finding the gaps in history where you can make a space for a story. (Completely different from my version then – phew!)

The first person viewpoint of the novel takes us vividly into the world of the Tudor court. Longshore’s greatest strength as a historical novelist is her ability to bring the past alive through tiny details, because she doesn’t just describe things, she shows you people reacting to them emotionally. One of my favourite scenes in her earlier book Gilt has Katherine Howard sneaking into a room in the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s house and sitting on a forbidden chair which has lions carved on the arms. I can never see an impressive piece of furniture in a historic house now without wondering who wanted to use it but wasn’t allowed to, and who did it in secret when no-one was looking. The key object in Brazen is what is now called the Devonshire Manuscript, a book which was passed around between Mary and her circle with poems and secret messages written in it. She’s equally effective with emotional responses to the rules and traditions of Tudor life: everyone made grumpy by Lenten fasting, or jostling over who has the highest rank and should therefore take precedence when entering a room.

It isn’t Mary who dominates the book, though, so much as her best friends, the forthright lady-in-waiting Madge Shelton and romantic Margaret Douglas, the King’s niece. Longshore’s Mary, in contrast, is awkward and introspective, nurturing a love of language (‘I run the word queen around in my head and roll it on my tongue. The beginning is tart and brittle like the skin of an apple. But the long e is bright and sweet.’ ‘Divorce tastes like a posset. Curdled and fermented and heavily spiced’). Fitzroy, made insecure by his royal father’s inconsistent affection, makes a moving and plausible love interest for her.

Anyone who has enjoyed Longshore’s previous Tudor books will love this one. Teens will enjoy the intensity of emotion and the stylishness of the Tudor setting, while adults will appreciate Longshore’s ability to introduce us to Tudor characters we haven’t met yet, and give us fresh perspectives on those we have.

 

 

BRAZEN by Katherine Longshore, Simon & Schuster, 2014

 

 

 

Review: LOVE IN REVOLUTION by B.R.Collins

I had this book in my ‘Young Adult Historical’ folder for a while but it was only when I was a few chapters in that I realised it wasn’t historical: Collins has set her story in an imagined country at a time that is never made clear. There are televisions, but many of the people still live a peasant lifestyle, so it’s some time in the late twentieth century.

She’s written historical before (The Broken Road, a story about the Children’s Crusade, based in medieval Germany) and a ghost story with a brilliantly realised partly historical setting (Tyme’s End). But the refusal to tie Love in Revolution to a particular time or place is a very successful decision. It gives it a mythical quality that makes the story resonate, it increases the sense of isolation and thus the intensity, and finally, it allows Collins to create a national sport, pello, which the characters are fanatical about.

Pello sounds a lot of fun. It’s a brutal, aggressive game involving two players bouncing a ball against a wall, hard enough to do each other considerable damage. It can kill. Every year the top players compete for the King’s Cup. One of the most famous pello players, known as The Bull, comes from the village where the main character, Esteya, lives, and the story begins when he returns for a visit and is challenged to a game.

Present at the game are Esteya, her brother, Leon, who has revolutionary sympathies, and Skizi, a young outcast from persecuted, gipsy-like community.

Through the summer Esteya’s secret relationship with Skizi grows stronger. But Communists like Leon are fomenting revolution, and when it comes, the consequences are bloody.

Love in Revolution is a moving, gripping, haunting book. Collins’ writing is plain and expressive all at the same time – ‘I felt like a chocolate bar left in the sun, all sticky and oozing’ ‘Skizi nodded, once, her eyes on my face as if I’d caught her doing something illegal’. (I wish I could write with such unpretentious beauty as she does.) It’s a coming-of-age story which fits seamlessly with the story of the coming-of-age in a country, as it abandons optimism and faces the reality of the post-revolution world. This is a book which deserves more attention, and should be read by teens and adults alike.

Love In Revolution by B.R.Collins, published by Bloomsbury Children’s, 2013.

 

 

 

Sugared rose petals – and other lovely Tudor things to do with roses

2014-06-09 15.13.31The hedgerows are covered in wild roses at the moment.

Unlike hybrid tea roses which are a bit tough, wild roses are excellent for eating. Using roses in cookery has gone out of fashion in England in the last few hundred years, though thanks to their being more common in Middle Eastern and North African cookery, you can get rosewater at Lakeland and in many delis. The Tudors, of course, were big on eating flowers, partly for colour and flavour but also because of their ‘virtues’.

‘Virtue’ meant the particular healing or health-giving properties that many plants were believed to contain. These could be physical or psychological. Books, called herbals, listed the virtues of different plants. The idea of foods being medicinal or healthy makes sense to us but it sometimes tipped over into the magical. It wasn’t just plants that had virtues – precious stones could have them too, and a jewel that was thought to have lost its virtue might fetch much less money than one that still had power, say, against epilepsy, or to protect in childbirth.

Anthony Askham‘s Little Herbal, written around 1550, gives this recipe for ‘melrosette’. If you’re interested in Elizabeth I, you might also like to know that Anthony Askham is believed to have been the youngest brother of Roger Ascham, who tutored Princess Elizabeth in Greek and Latin from 1548-50. So while Anthony was writing down recipes, Roger was giving grammar lessons to the future queen.

I’ve updated the spelling but left the language exactly as it is. See? You can follow a Tudor recipe! Easy!

‘Melrosette is made thus. Take fair purified honey and new red roses, the white ends of them clipped away, then chop them small and put them into the honey and boil them meanly [ie for a little while] together; to know when it is boiled enough, you shall know it by the sweet odour and the colour red. Five years he may be kept in his virtue; by the roses he hath virtue of comforting and by the honey he hath virtue of cleansing.’

In other words, the virtue will last for five years. ‘Fair purified honey’ just means normal honey, as far as we’re concerned – it’s a reminder that in the Tudor kitchen or stillroom, things came in different states and you might have to do a fair bit of work on an ingredient before it was ready to use!

 He also suggests several different recipes for a sugar rose syrup. Here is the simplest:

‘Syrup of roses is made thus. Some do take roses dight [done] as it is said and boil them in water and in the water strained they put sugar and make a syrup thereof.’

And another:

‘Some do stamp new roses and then strain the juice out of it and [put] sugar therewith, they make syrup, and this is the best making of syrup. In winter and summer it may be given competently to feeble, sick, melancholy and choleric people.’

‘Melancholy’ and ‘choleric’ mean something more than just ‘sad’ or ‘irritable’. They relate to an idea which dominated Tudor medicine, that people’s health was governed by four ‘humours‘. The humours, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, needed to be in perfect balance, and their relative quantities in your body made you a certain type of person, melancholy, choleric, sanguine or phlegmatic. Personally I think this rose syrup would be nice on ice cream or rice pudding but please don’t feed it to anyone sanguine or phlegmatic – there might be awful consequences… Notice he also specifies that you can eat it in winter or summer. Askham was an astrologer, so he would have known that you had to eat things at the right time of year, as well as being the right type of person. Tudor nutrition was complicated….

The problem with these recipes from our point of view  is that they need a LOT of rose petals. I don’t have old-fashioned roses in my garden and I didn’t want to go and strip all the local hedgerows, so I’m going to show you sugared rose petals, which you can do with just a few, and with no risk of sugar burns. There are Tudor recipes where you dip the rose petal in boiling syrup, but this works just as well.

You need:

rose petals

Not this sort of rose.

Not this sort of rose.

egg white

white sugar (granulated or caster)

a small paintbrush

small scissors

First, gather your rose petals carefully. I didn’t wash mine because it had just been raining so I dried them by gently pressing them between two layers of kitchen roll. You have to make sure not to bruise them, because they’ll turn brown.

Petals drying on kitchen roll

Petals drying on kitchen roll

Then use the scissors to trim away most of the white part from the base of each petal (this part is tough and tastes bitter). Spread some sugar out on a plate. Paint each rose petal with egg white, then dip or sprinkle it with sugar until it’s completely covered. Leave to dry overnight.

They are crunchy and ridiculously delicious, like very delicate sweets. I used mine to decorate my daughter’s birthday cake, because she’s nine and that’s her idea of the height of sophistication.

Of course, in Tudor England they would have been pretty sophisticated, because sugar was a luxury item. For this reason, the people we have to imagine using these recipes are wealthy women, who would have learnt sugarcraft as girls and carried on making sweetmeats and preserves even once they were in charge of a whole household with several cooks. And while flavours like this are very good at evoking the sixteenth century, we’d better not forget that sugared rose petals were something most ordinary Tudor people would never even have tasted!

 

Delicious. And all gone.

Delicious. And all gone.