When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marion’s nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who, a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
William Shakespeare - Love's Labours Lost
William Shakespeare – Love’s Labours Lost (LLL V.ii.901)
The poem is near the end of the play, by way of a conclusion, two works are composed for the King of Navarro in praise of the Cuckoo and the Owl, one read by a representation of the Spring and the other by ‘Hiems’ the representation of winter.
In Lia Leendertz’ lovely ‘The Almanac – A Seasonal Guide to 2022’ she lists the following as in season for foraging:
Crab Apples and sweet chestnuts Roots: Dandelion, horseradish, Jerusalem Artichokes, and wild garlic Wild Greens: chickweed, dandelion, and wintercress Game: Hare, rabbit, pheasant, and venison
Sweet Chestnuts were introduced by the Romans and have long been a feature of Christmas. They can be ‘baked, roasted, boiled or microwaved’. You need to prepare them by scoring a cross in them; otherwise they will explode when cooked. They are often sold by street vendors (there is often a seller on the Millennium Bridge on the way to Tate Modern in London) and, in my family, are always a part of the stuffing for the Turkey. They can also be candied, puréed or stored in syrup. (The Woodland Trust Foraging in November and December).
John Evelyn, the 17th Century Diarist and author of a book on trees (Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber) wrote that the nuts were:
‘delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks, and able to make women well-complexioned’
He complained that in England they are chiefly given to pigs to eat.
Chestnut meal was also used for whitening linen and for making starch. Marones, imported from Italy, France, Switzerland, and S. Germany contain 15% sugar and so were used to make a thick syrup and a ‘very usable’ sugar, from which Marons Glacés are made.
The wood of the chestnut is very useful and is/was used for building, pit props, furniture, poles for hops etc. but is nowhere near as long-lasting as oak.
Medically, they were used for treating convulsive coughs such as whooping-cough, where the leaves were infused in a pint of boiling water. (A Modern Herbal by Mrs M Grieve)
First Published on 3rd December 2022, Revised and republished in December 2023
Advent Sunday is the beginning of the Christian Liturgical year, when the Church prepares for the major festivals of the Messiah’s life – his birth and his death. It begins with the ‘Hanging of the Greens’ when Churches and other public buildings were bedecked with seasonal foliage. The ‘Liturgical colours’, which are purple, green, gold (or white) and red – are changed to purple and used for altar linen, clergy robes and other hangings. At home, the Christmas Tree and decorations are taken out of the cupboard/cellar/shelf/box and put up.
Too Late to wed before Advent
Traditionally, you could not marry after Advent and before 12th Night. So it’s now too late to marry before that bump gets too big!
Wedding dresses were traditionally whatever beautiful dress you had. White only became de rigueur once Queen Victoria wore one, and the costs of material reduced because of mass production.
First Published 28th November 2022. Republished Dec 3rd 2023
December was originally the 10th Month of the unreformed Roman Calendar, now the 12th. For the Christian Church, it’s the period preparing for the arrival of the Messiah into the World. For the Anglo-Saxons it is the month of Yule, the midwinter festival. In Welsh, Rhafgyr, the month of preparation (for the shortest day). In Gaelic, An Mios (or Dudlach or an Dubhlachd) – the Darkness.
For a closer look at the month, I’m turning to the 15th Century Kalendar of Shepherds. Its illustration (see above) for December shows an indoor scene, and is full of warmth as the bakers bake pies and cakes for Christmas. Firewood has been collected, and the Goodwife is bringing something in from the Garden. The stars signs are Sagittarius and Capricorn.
The Venerable Bede has an interesting story (reported in ‘Winters in the World’ by Eleanor Parker) in which a Pagan, contemplating converting to Christianity, talks about a sparrow flying into a warm, convivial Great Hall, from the bitter cold winter landscape. The sparrow enjoys this warmth, but flies straight out, back into the cold Darkness. Human life is like this brief period in the light, warm hall, preceded and followed by cold, unknown darkness. If Christianity, can offer some certainty as to what happens in this darkness, then it’s worth considering.
This contrast between the warm inside and the cold exterior is mirrored in Neve’s Almanack of 1633 who sums up December thus:
This month, keep thy body and head from cold: let thy kitchen be thine Apothecary; warm clothing thy nurse; merry company thy keepers, and good hospitality, thine Exercise.
Quoted in ‘the Perpetual Almanack of Folklore’ by Charles Kightly
The Kaledar of Shepherds text below gives a vivid description of December weather and then elaborates on the last six years of a man’s life, with hair going white, body ‘crooked and feeble’. The conceit here is that there are twelve months of the year, and a man’s lot of ‘Six score years and ten’ is allocated six years to each month. So December is not just about the 12th Month of the Year but also the last six years of a person’s allotted span. The piece allows the option of living beyond 72, ‘and if he lives any more, it is by his good guiding and dieting in his youth.’ Good advice, as we now know. But living to 100 is open to but few.
The longer description of December (shown below) by Breton in 1626 gives a detailed look at the excesses of Christmas, who is on holiday, and who working particularly hard. But it concludes it is a costly month.
The Kalendar was printed in 1493 in Paris and provided ‘Devices for the 12 Months.’ I’m using a modern (1908) reconstruction of it using wood cuts from the original 15th Century version and adding various text from 16th and 17th Century sources. (Couplets by Tusser ‘Five Hundred Parts of Good Husbandrie 1599, and text descriptions of the month from Nicholas Breton’s ‘Fantasticks of 1626. This provides an interesting view of what was going on in the countryside every month.
Saint Andrew was the first Apostle and he introduced his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus. Not much about his later life is known but the idea that he was martyred on a X-shaped cross, the saltire, is probably a medieval invention. Formerly, a simple fisherman and so patron of fishermen, and fishmongers. Also, the patron saint of Scotland and Russia; of singers and pregnant woman, and efficacious in offering protection against sore throats and gout. More about St. Andrew below.
His association with Russia comes from Eusebius who quotes Origen recording that Andrew preached in Scythia. The Chronicle of Nestor says he travelled to Kiev and Novgorod and so became a patron saint of Ukraine, Romania and Russia. (Wikipedia).
Scottish legends has St Andrew both visiting Scotland and some of his relics coming to Fife in the 4th Century or the 8th Century. St Rule was tasked with taking some of Andrew’s relics to the edges of the world, and he turned up in Fife with a kneecap, arm and finger bone which were kept in St Rule’s Church and which gave St Andrew’s name to the town. of St Andrews is also famous as the home of golf and the oldest University in Scotland, (founded in 1412). The relics were transferred to the Cathedral, but they were destroyed in the Reformation. In 1979 the Archbishop of Amalfi gifted a piece of Saint Andrew’s shoulder blade to St Andrews and Pope Paul VI gave further remains to Scotland in 1969
a shoulder blade reputedly belonging to Andrew was gifted to Scotland by the Archbishop of Amalfi in 1879 and Pope Paul VI presented further remains to the nation in 1969.
In Kent and Sussex Andrewtide gave the right to hunt squirrels, and in Hasted’s History of Kent (1782) the day is said to allow the ‘lower kind’ to form a lawless rabble hunting any manner of hares, partridges and pheasants. (Perpetual Almanac by Charles Kightly).
St Andrew in London
On the corner of Leadenhall Street and St Mary Axe in the City of London is one of the very few medieval Churches that survived the Great Fire of London is 1666. It was sheltered by the firebreak that was the Leadenhall, a big market building made of stone.
The Church is the Maypole Church as it was here the Maypole or the shaft was stored under the eves of the Church when not in use. Hence, St Andrew’s sobriquet of ‘Undershaft’. The MayDay riot in 1517 put an end to the dancing around the Maypole but the pole itself survived until 1547 when, in a Puritan riot, the ‘stynking idol’ was destroyed. (see my May Day blog post here for more more details of Mayday.)
This is where the great London historian John Stow is buried. His Survey of London is one of the best sources for Medieval and Tudor London. Every three years, on April 5th or thereabouts, there is a commemorative service and his quill is changed. The Lord Mayor attends and it is organised by Stow’s Guild – the Merchant Taylors.
There is also a plaque to Hans Holbein, but no one knows, for sure, where he is buried. He died in London in 1543, possibly of plague.
First Published on 30th November 2022, Revised and republished on 30th November 2023
Catherine was high-born, beautiful and learned. She disputed with pagan learned men against the worship of idols. She wiped the floor with them, and Emperor Maxentius had 50 of the learned men burnt alive for their failure to answer adequately.
Catherine was imprisoned where many people came to visit her and were converted to Christianity. The most illustrious visitor was the Emperor’s wife, Valeria Maximilla who was, herself, martyred. Then, the Emperor offered to marry Catherine, but she refused to abandon her faith, so he had her tortured. In prison, she was fed by the holy dove and had visions of Christ.
Her gaolers then tried to break her on a wheel, although the wheel broke, killing spectators with the splinters, she stood steadfast. Two hundred soldiers were converted to the faith on the spot. They were then beheaded, followed by Catherine herself. Milk, not blood, flowed from her severed veins.
The persecution in the early 4th Century was real, but it wasn’t driven by Maxentius, who came to power promising religious tolerance. But, following the accession of Constantine the Great, Maxentius’s reputation was blackened. There is no contemporary evidence for the events of Catherine’s life. There is a modern theory that her tale was conflated with the remarkable story of Hypatia of Alexandria (d. 415), a pagan and a real learned woman; The first female Mathematician we know any facts about. She was murdered by a rampaging mob of xenophobic Christians.
Catherine is remembered by the firework: the Catherine Wheel and is, of course, the patron of Philosophers, Theologians, and Royal women; young women, students, spinsters, and anyone who lives by a wheel: carters, potters, wheelwrights, spinners, millers. And, I imagine, Formula 1 drivers.
St Catherine in London
There are several Churches in London dedicated to St Catherine or St Katherine, dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria. The one in Coleman Street, rebuilt by Christopher Wren and his team, was demolished in the 1920s. There was a Chapel to St Catherine at Westminster Abbey (c1160), the ruins of which are visible in St Catherine’s Garden. I would guess that St Katherine’s Dock and St Katherine’s Cree Church are also so dedicated, but cannot as yet find a dedication for either.
First published on 25th November 2022. Revised and republished 25th November 2023
According to the Kalendar of Shepheardes 1604, women born on this day should marry at age 13, shall have many sons and live to 72 years old. Men will be merciful, far-travelled, prosperous after early dangers and live to 72 years and 8 months.
First published 24 Nov 2022. Republished 22 Nov 2023.
I was interested in this site because it was one of the many palaces owned by Henry VIII, and it began as a moated manor house before a transition into a small red brick courtyarded Palace, as seen above. Henry had, if my memory serves me well, approximately 57 Palaces and Manor Houses. 16 in the London area and 11 along the River Thames
But what I really liked when I visited the website was the charm of this lovely video by the Enfield Archaeology Society. Now those who know the wonderful TV Sitcom called the ‘Detectorists’ starring Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Diana Rigg and others, will recognise the styling of the amateur archaeologists – all looking like rumpled would be Indiana Jones’s! Very English.
The anniversary was celebrated in London with bonfires and bell-ringing, lighted fire-barrels were rolled along Cheapside. It was, in a way, the precursor to Guy Fawkes Day (1605 onwards). Protestants celebrated it with such joy as it was the end of the reign of her sister Queen Mary I. ‘Bloody’ Mary, as she was named by Protestants, had 287 Protestants burnt at the stake, mostly relatively ordinary people: clergy, apprentices, artisans, and agricultural workers. 60 were women; 67 were Londoners: the majority were of the younger generation, and most from the South East of England.
The executions were overwhelmingly unpopular, ghastly exhibitions of brutality, and in 1555 the weather was very wet so the burnings an even slower form of torture. The savagery was blamed on the old religion and particular the people who came over with Mary’s Spanish husband. Ironically, Philip, in fact, urged caution. When Mary refused to be as lenient to religious dissidents as she was to political ones, he suggested they should, at least, be in private. She felt that as immortal souls were at risks the public nature of the death was a useful deterrent.
So, when, three years later, in 1558, in the early hours of the 17th November (6am) Queen Mary died, London rejoiced. An old regime, a foreign regime, a Catholic regime was sweep away by a young Queen (Elizabeth was 25), with a young Court sworn to protect the new Protestant religion.
Soon, Foxe’s Book of Martyr’s outsold all other books printed except the Bible, and enthusiasm for religious reform morphed into anti-Catholic intolerance.
One of the martyrs in the book is Thomas Tomkins, a weaver and a Londoner from Shoreditch.
Tomkins was a humble but godly man who was kept imprisoned by Bishop Bonner, the Bishop of London, at his Palace at Fulham. Here he was beaten. The Bishop personally beat him around the face and ripped off part of his beard. The beatings continued for six months. Finally, exasperated at his failure to persuade the weaver of his error, Bonner burnt Tomkins hand with a lighted taper until ‘the veins shrunk and the sinews burst’. Bonner wanted to give him a foretaste of the fires of heresy, indeed the very fires of Hell that the weaver faced.
But nothing would avail; Tomkins, simple man that he was, would not accept that bread was made into flesh. (Transubstantiation). He would not say that which he did not believe. So he met his end at Smithfield by fire with his bandaged hand in the reign of Queen Mary on 16th March 1555.
Thomas Parr was said to be 152 years old when he died in 1635 on a visit to London to visit King Charles 1st. If we are to believe his story, he was born in 1483 and was married when he was 80, producing two children and married for a second time at 120 years old. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
There are, or were, at least 3 London Pubs named Old Parr’s Head or Parr’s Head in Camden, Islington, and West Kensington.