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)

 

 

 

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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.

 

Falconry and the Tudors

Calendar page for July with a miniature of a nobleman going hawking, with haymakers behind him, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Brtish Library Additional MS 24098, f. 24v - See more at:

Calendar page for July with a miniature of a nobleman going hawking, with haymakers behind him, from the Golf Book (Book of Hours, Use of Rome), workshop of Simon Bening, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1540, Brtish Library Additional MS 24098, f. 24v

My novel opens with a scene on a hillside, where my heroine, Nan, is hoping to see her young merlin falcon make its first kill.

When I put the first few pages up for critique in my writing community, I had a reaction I didn’t expect. ‘I’m confused about the family. How rich are they? They seem to live in a big house so why does she have to hunt for food?’

Good question. So I’m going to devote this post to falconry, because it’s one of these areas where the Tudors are just very, very different from us.

In 21st century England falconry is a very niche hobby. (The only person I know who does it is my plumber, who flies Harris hawks.) Judging by Youtube it’s mainly practiced by middle-aged men in khaki combat gear. In Tudor England it was huge, and cut across all ages, genders and social classes. If you were poor, a goshawk could help you feed your family. If you were rich, a beautiful, big and rare bird could be a status symbol to help display your wealth, provide you with sport, and secure  you another interesting dish to serve at your table, not because you couldn’t afford to buy meat but because ‘Have some plover, I caught it myself!’ is fun in the same way as we get a kick from ‘I grew it myself.’ One of my favourite details in C.J.Sansom’s fantastically well-researched Tudor murder mystery Sovereign is the elderly lawyer who lives in a York townhouse with a goshawk, which he will have taken out to the fields at weekends to hunt with.

There’s a famous hawking treatise in an early printed book called The Book of St Albans, supposedly written by Dame Juliana Bernes, prioress of Sopwell Priory near St Albans in 1486. This gives a list of suitable birds to be owned by people of different ranks. It starts with an emperor – eagle, vulture and merlin, works its way down through an earl (peregrine falcon), lady (merlin) young man (hobby), poor man (tercel) and priest (sparrowhawk) and ending up, famously, with ‘a kestrel for a knave’, or servant.

Actually, the list wasn’t meant to be serious. (Apart from anything else eagles aren’t particularly effective birds for falconry and nobody ever flew vultures…) There’s a letter from 1533 (September 26th, Sir William Kingston to Lord Lisle) that says ‘The King hawks every day with goshawks and other hawks, that is to say, lanners, sparhawks and merlins’ – none of them suitable for a king according to the list! What it does show us, though, is that anyone might hunt with hawks and there was a wide variety of birds used. Some will have been more expensive, better hunters and cooler-looking than others. I like to think of a bunch of Tudor noblemen comparing new falcons the way modern people compare their new gadgets like phones. They’ll have argued about which birds were best (‘Merlins? They’re rubbish! You want to get hold of a saker!’) They’ll also have compared their bits of falconry kit: the falconer will have worn a thick leather gauntlet, sometimes richly decorated, to protect his or her wrist from the bird’s sharp claws, while the hawk will have had a hood, a bell and strips of leather called jesses to tether it by. In 2013 a Norfolk metal detectorist found a vervel, a tag for identifying the hawk. It was silver-gilt with the arms of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who was married to Henry VII’s sister – we don’t know whether the tag fell off, or whether he lost a bird that day. Either way, someone might have been in trouble – silver-gilt isn’t cheap, and some birds were valuable, especially once they were trained – James IV paid £3.10s for a goshawk.

The Harris Hawk. Cool-looking but definitely not Tudor. Photo by Alan Vernon.

The Harris Hawk. Cool-looking but not Tudor. Or medieval. Or Arthurian. Photo by Alan Vernon.

Incidentally, if you see falconry portrayed on tv and film, what you’re usually seeing is a Harris hawk. Harris hawks are big and hence look good for the camera, and they’re among the easiest and cheapest birds to get or train. But they’re American. You can imagine what the falconers who watched the 2013 tv adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s fifteenth century novel The White Queen thought about that.

So how did you train a bird? What was the basic process?

You would start with a young bird, taken from the nest – people will have made money climbing trees and taking fledglings to sell. As the bird learned to fly you would make sure it always came back to you by rewarding it each time, letting it fly slightly further each time, first on a tether and then freely, until you were confident enough that it would come back, that you would let if off the leash. It was important to judge the bird’s diet correctly so that it was hungry enough to want food, or it might fly off. You then needed the bird to learn to hunt without it ever realising it could just fly off and fend for itself. So it had to associate bringing prey back to you with being rewarded. Sometimes a lure was used, with meat attached to it, to get the bird’s interest. Sometimes the bird was taken out to hunt with a more experienced, well-behaved hawk, so it could copy what it did!

The hawks had to be used to people, and for this reason people carried them everywhere. At a time when it was the height of bad manners to take your dog into dinner with you, hawking treatises advised owners to keep their birds on their fist at the table. Nuns were scolded by bishops for taking them into chapel. One aristocratic teenager used to keep merlins in her bedroom, where they soiled her gowns. If you imagine your town in medieval times, several of the people you might meet when walking down the street might be carrying falcons, and there’s a good chance there might be a perch somewhere in your house, if you’re not rich enough to have a whole collection of birds in a mews and a proper falconer to look after them.

A merlin. Definitely not rubbish, especially if you like eating partridge. Photo by Just A Prairie Boy

A merlin. Definitely not rubbish, especially if you like eating partridge. Photo by Just A Prairie Boy

The birds caught a whole range of prey, other birds and small mammals, depending on their size. Your goshawk might bring you a hare, or even a heron – remember, the Tudors ate a wider range of meats than we do. Merlins were known for taking skylarks, which was probably more use for its entertainment value than for catching you a decent dinner – they duel impressively high in the sky but you don’t get many mouthfuls out of a lark. However, they were effective hunters of partridges, too.

In the end, it was the advent of firearms that pushed falconry out of fashion, with shooting replacing hawking as a gentlemanly activity. By the seventeenth century, it was no longer part of the fabric of daily life the way had it been for many centuries before.

However, there’s an increasing number of places you can go to see trained falcons. One of my favourites is Bolton Castle in Wensleydale, where the (very cool) girl falconer flies hawks in the castle courtyard, and you can admire the plumage of the other birds in the mews.

Introducing FIVE WOUNDS

Five Wounds is an adventure. It has romance, swordfighting, danger, executions, a VERY hot blacksmith, and my heroine Nan Ellerton, a sixteen year old girl with a falcon, who I hope my readers will love as much as I do.

The historical reality that lies behind the book is harsher.  Early Tudor England was a cruel, often frightening society. But it was also a society with a rich religious life, colourful (literally) and infused with magic. At the time I am writing about, old beliefs were being challenged and traditions swept away, sometimes by force.

So how did people feel about that? Did they fight it?

Well, in the north of England they did, and the rebellion that took place against Henry VIII, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, forms the setting for my novel.

The story takes place in 1536-7, when the north of England boiled over into rebellion. Nan is sixteen years old and has been sent home from the nunnery where she has been educated.  Desperate to restore ‘true’ religion to England so she can avoid marriage and return to the nunnery, Nan joins the rebels.

But the rebellion fails and the Duke of Norfolk begins a brutal crackdown across the north. Now the rebels have a hard choice to make, between paying the penalty for treason, and eternal damnation.  In the face of danger, betrayal and temptation, Nan’s only source of courage is a tiny splinter of wood she rescued from an abandoned abbey: a fragment of the True Cross, the most powerful relic on earth…

Hello and welcome!

Welcome to my blog!

If we were Tudor I would probably say something like ‘God keep you’ and kiss you. On the lips. People did a lot more kissing of strangers than we do and the air kiss doesn’t appear to have been invented then. (Neither had the toothbrush, though there were lots of ways to sweeten breath, like cloves and slices of lemon.)

But as we are NOT Tudor, a fact for which I am thankful almost every day, though sometimes I forget – hello, and thanks very much for visiting! Have you travelled far? Pull up a stool – no chairs, we’re not gentlefolk – and I’ll fetch you a cup of ale.

I’m a writer of historical fiction (you can read a bit more about my background in the ‘about me’ section) and I’ve started the blog up in the lead-up to the publication of my book, Five Wounds, as a place to share the inspiration and above all, the research, some of the fabulous and fascinating bits and pieces about Tudor life that exist in the background of the book. I’ll tell you a little bit more about the book itself in my next post.

I’ll also be blogging my work-in-progress (another YA historical, this time about Mary Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk and cousin to both Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard) and the research I’m doing for that.

Lastly, my blog is going to look at some wider themes: women’s history and feminism, as well as writing in general, especially histfic writing and starting out as a writer. I might also talk a little about crafts – I have a spinning wheel, and do plenty of non-Tudor things too, like patchwork and vintage dressmaking.

Now, here’s your ale and a handful of nuts. You don’t mind a horn beaker, I hope, it’s just you look like you’re used to silver. Shall I put another log on the fire? God’s wounds, that rushlight is flickering. I’ll trim the rush so it burns more brightly and then we’ll get started….