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Archive for the month “May, 2015”

Bringing up the Saffron


Pare saffron plot,

forget it not. 

His dwelling made trim,

look shortly for him. 

When harvest is gone,

then saffron comes on. 

A little of ground,

Brings Saffron a Pound

The history of saffron, that exotic spice of the Levant, spans three millennia, landing in England some time in the mid-14th century – although certainly there are hints of its somewhat limited existence before that found in the household accounts of nobility.  In 1240, physician Gilbert of England mentions it as an aid in mental illness.  (Today there is ongoing research into saffron as a source of helping in depression which the early 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, may have dourly acknowledged in his admonition that saffron caused “some to have fallen into an immoderate convulsive laughter which ended in death”.)  There is a legend that sometime during the reign of Edward the Third, a pilgrim returning to Essex from the Middle East brought a Crocus bulb (the source of saffron) hidden in his staff thus starting the saffron industry.  In truth, it probably was returning Crusaders from Asia Minor who introduced saffron to the upper classes who, in turn, encouraged its cultivation in England, primarily Essex and Norfolk.  And just in time to benefit the population devastated by the Black Death in 1348 and during its re-ocurrence thirty-three years later.  Its medicinal qualities (such as it was thought) included halting hemorrhages, vomiting and headache while guarding against colic, cough and scabies.  In other words, a myriad of claims that is often made about most herbs and spices – today as well as in the medieval period.  In actuality, it was often used as a dye in the wool trade and as a bright paint for illustrations of religious texts and murals.  According to Essex saffron farmer, David Smale, England was the largest producer of saffron during the medieval period.

saffron 3

Saffron is the stigma of the Crocus – not the springtime harbinger of better times and weather but, instead, of the autumn flower.  Called Crocus sativus Linnaeus, it is a descendent of the wildflower Crocus cartwrightianus.   Thought to have originated in Persia, its brilliant red-orange stigmas were not only used in paint and medicine but also food coloration and for its pungent flavor and hay-like aroma.  And no one was more color or flavor conscious than the noble classes and royalty of medieval England!  The amount of stigma (or the less prized white styles) that must be collected to make even a small amount of saffron has made it the costliest spice in the world.  The most recent estimate is that it takes over 200,000 crocus flowers to obtain 450 grams of saffron.  Today, several farmers in Essex (particularly the market town aptly named Saffron Walden) and Norfolk are reintroducing this fascinating spice into their landscape but because of cost and labor, one gram (0.035 ounces) sells for 75 pounds.  Just a brief scroll through to see the prices of the finest saffron of Iran and Spain is enough to make one clutch the wallet a little tighter.

saffron 2In challenging the belief that saffron was introduced to England in the 14th century, we have the 13th century accounts book of Eleanor, Countess of Leicester (Eleanor Plantagenet), the wife of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester.  Her immense household (centered at Dover Castle) purchased modest amounts of the spice – only one pound at a time as compared to six of cinnamon.  She paid between 10s. and 14s. a pound for saffron while spices such as pepper and ginger were purchased for much less.  A little bit of saffron goes a long way and one can’t help but wonder whether her husband, de Montfort, had not developed a taste for the strong-tasting strands of gold while enjoying his rice pilafs during his two crusades to Syria and the Holy Land.  If the de Montfort family saffron was not purchased in England, it is likely that it would have been imported from Spain and Venice – two top importers during this period.

Sadly, the interest in saffron began to wane in the 18th century in Great Britain when sweet flavors such as vanilla began to supplant the somewhat bitter saffron.  Nonetheless, it still has its place in English cookery and I include a link to the famous Cornish Saffron Cake (or bun) for those cooks who tire of throwing a few precious strands of sunburst into the rice while cooking up their Chicken Tikka Masala and might prefer something a little bit more cozy.  As always, the BBC includes the Imperial measurements for us benighted types.


And here is a medieval recipe for mulled wine borrowed from “Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony” by Madeleine Pelner Cosman.  Perfect for a simple holiday meal for 300 guests:

Maumenye Bastarde

“Bastarde” refers to a popular medieval wine.

2 Quarts of clarified honey

1 Pound of Pine Nuts

1 Pound of Currents

1 Pound of Sandalwood

1 Pound of Powdered Cinnamon

2 Gallons of Wine or Ale

Plus: 3 pounds of Almond

1 Gallon of Vinegar

Saffron, Powdered Ginger and Salt to taste.

Mix these in a gigantic medieval pot.  Heat for ten minutes and then strew powdered ginger on the surface.

medieval wine 3


Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, Elizabeth David

Culpeper’s Color Herbal, edited by David Potterton


The Queen’s Beasts….

The Queen's Beasts

There was a item posted at Facebook today showing one of these fascinating heraldic creatures. A quick look online has revealed a site where you can see them all, and zoom in on them.

The set comprises ten models, and was made circa 1955. It was modelled by James Woodford and issued in a Limited Edition, comprising The Lion of England, The Unicorn of Scotland, the White Horse of Hanover, the White Greyhound of Richmond, the Red Dragon of Wales, the Yale of Beaufort, the Falcon of the Plantagenets, the Black Bull of Clarence, the White Lion of Mortimer and the Griffin of Edward III, richly decorated in gold, silver and bright enamels, 15cm, marks in gold, boxed, with original booklets discussing The Queen’s Beasts and The Queen’s Vase. Originally made to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, it was subsequently issued as separate models.

Arming Richard

When I was in Leicester for the re-interment I was lucky enough to be able to attend a lecture by the armour expert, Richard Knox, and Dominic Smee, Richard’s body double.

Demonstration of Richard III double being armed

Richard Knox arming Dominic

As an osteopath I was interested in some of the information Dominic gave about that and this included the height of Richard and how much he would have lost because of the scoliosis. Dominic said that his orthopaedic consultant told him that he had lost three inches because of the scoliosis. As we know, Richard would have been 5 feet 8 inches without taking it into account, so that means his actual height would have been 5 feet 5 inches (not 4 feet 8 inches which I saw reported in a local Leicester paper!) Additionally, Dominic told us that his scoliosis began one vertebra lower than Richard’s and that this would mean that Richard would have been a little more flexible in the hips than him but a little less flexible in the shoulders. (As an aside, Dominic also told us his brother’s name was Richard!)

Dominic in body armour

Dominic shows that his scoliosis is not apparent in armour (nor, indeed, when in normal clothes)

As far as the actual arming went, they showed us the kind of armour Richard would have worn and then how it would have been fitted. Dominic wore his leg armour from the start of the talk as he said that was quite tricky to put on and fairly easy and light to wear, so perhaps Richard would have worn his leg armour in advance of the battle as well. Nor would the leg armour prevent them answering the call of nature! The rest of the harness took about twenty minutes to put on and, to demonstrate, Dominic was armed by Richard Knox while they commented on what they were doing and what it was called, etc. One fascinating photo-slide that they showed was of the view Dominic had while wearing the armour during his charge on horseback. All he could see was his horse’s ears! It must have been terrifying! And he didn’t have enemy soldiers trying to kill him. I later tried on one of the helmets and it was terribly claustrophobic. Not only could you see very little, nor could you hear clearly – everything was muffled. And Dominic confirmed it would get very hot after wearing it for a while, especially in the summer. So now I can understand why some knights in armour would have removed their helmets, despite the danger. I could almost feel the panic if one was claustrophobic.

Dominic armed - note the helmet's narrow eye slit

Dominic armed – note the helmet’s narrow eye slit

In conclusion, I now appreciate even more how courageous Richard and the other knights must have been to charge into battle against the enemy, whilst being half deafened, half blinded and suffocatingly hot!

Castle Barnard celebrates the life of Richard III with a weekend of festivities….

Richard Weekend

This article has been taken from The Northern Echo, and was first published Sunday 24 May 2015 in the Barnard Castle News.

Barnard Castle Town Council and the Northern Dales Richard III Group, alongside the Friends of the Bowes Museum, are holding a several events between July 3 and 5, to celebrate the town’s close connection with the monarch who was Lord of Barnard Castle from 1474 until his death at Bosworth.

On Friday, July 3, Prof Lin Foxhall, Head of Ancient History and Archaeology at Leicester University, will be speaking at the Bowes Museum while on Saturday, July 4, a medieval fair will be held on Scar Top which will feature living history ‘Time Will Tell’ theatre as ‘King Richard’ and ‘Queen Anne’, medieval musicians ‘Caliban’s Dream’ and the period re-enactors ‘Time Bandits’.

At 6.30pm that night, an 80-ticket medieval banquet will also be held in St Mary’s Church, with a medieval-inspired menu of soup, a hog-roast and baked pudding, and specially-brewed ale.

The weekend will close with a commemorative evensong, on Sunday, July 5, at 4pm, at St Mary’s Parish Church, with the Heritage Singers and Heritage Masterworks Chorale leading the music, and the Right Reverend John Pritchard, former bishop of Jarrow and Oxford, preaching.

Kim Harding, Chair of the Northern Dales Richard III Group, has been working with children from Green Lane Church of England Primary School to create medieval banners of local ‘Ricardian’ families to decorate the church with.

She said: “Some of Richard III’s closest friends lived in and around Teesdale – the Fitzhughs of Cotherstone and Ravensworth, Brackenburys from Gainford amongst others – and it’s great for the children to be able to connect their locality to people and events well over 500 years ago.

“Barney is privileged to have such a close association with Richard who invested hugely in the castle, town and church, regarding it as one of his most favoured homes.

“We are delighted that Time Will Tell theatre will be recreating Richard and Anne as our hosts at what promises to be a unique experience: a medieval banquet in the presence of the Lord of Barnard Castle and his Queen, in the church he endowed and where his sculpted head still adorns the chancel arch and his boar symbol underpins a window.

“But for anyone worried about sourcing a doublet and pointy shoes, although our banquet will be late C15th, medieval costume is definitely optional.”

Banquet tickets cost £30 and are available from Ms Harding by calling 01833-637018 or emailing

Polydore Vergil’s destruction of evidence.

The claim that Polydore Vergil destroyed a large amount of evidence while compiling his history is often derided. Indeed, in certain circles it is the basis of running jokes – I rather think these people think it is an allegation invented by the Richard III Society, or perhaps by ‘romantic lady novelists.’

In Jeremy Potter’s book, Good King Richard? the source of this story is identified. ‘The most serious charge was made as early as 1574 by John Caius of Cambridge, who vouched for the fact – which he boldly claimed to be a matter of certain truth – that Polydore Vergil had committed to the flames as many ancient manuscripts as would have filled a wagon, in order that the faults in his history might not be discovered.’ (Good King Richard? p.101).

Who was John Caius? Born in Norwich in 1510, he was an eminent physician who served three English monarchs in that capacity. (Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.) He is considered a founder of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge, as he paid for the college to be extensively restored. He remained a Catholic all his life, but there is no evidence to show that he was either a member of the Richard III Society or a romantic lady novelist.

Although Potter does not footnote his source, from the context it appears that this information came via the Victorian editor of Vergil’s work, published in 1844.

At last, Richard gets a smidgeon of the Renaissance credit he’s due….

A man of the reign of Richard III A woman of the reign of richard III

English Costume from William I to George IV by Dion Clayton Calthrop, published 1937.

I have just received this book, and of course turned immediately to the reign of Richard III. Dismay promptly ensued. Hump-backed Richard! Oh, natch. Then: “The axe of the executioner soiled many white shirts, and dreadful forebodings fluttered the dovecots of high-hennined ladies.” Really? Sez who?

Richard’s death, predictably, means the burial of winter, while Henry VII’s reign heralds the first day of spring. Oh, my, how things had changed when the Tudors’ very own ‘Winter King’ finally turned up his blunt toes. Off we went again, declaring that the winter years were over and a new spring had begun. Erm, with Henry VIII? If ever dovecotes should have been fluttering with dreadful foreboding, this was the time. My, my, we never did learn, it seems.

But not even this biased tome can condemn Richard entirely, although it must have galled the author to concede it:

“It is in the reign of Richard III that we get, for the men, a hint of the peculiar magnificence of the first years of the 16th century; we get the first flush of those wonderful patterns which are used by Memling and Holbein, those variations of the pineapple pattern, and of that peculiar convention which is traceable in the outline of the [hrumph!] Tudor rose.”

So Henry doesn’t get the credit. And about time too! The first buds of the Renaissance did not appear after Bosworth, but before it, when Richard was king!  What a wonderfully enlightened realm England would have been if the last Plantagenet had been given the chance to prove it.

What was Stillington’s motive?

Although Commines is the principal source for Robert Stillington being the clergyman who informed Richard of the alleged marriage between Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Talbot, the treatment of the bishop after the accession of Henry VII does appear to support the idea that he was the man involved. Indeed it appears that the Lords wished to (at least) examine the bishop, but that Henry protected him from such an inquisition.

On the assumption that Stillington was the person responsible, what was his motive? This was a man already in his 60s, who had in our terms settled into a comfortable retirement. He had held high office under Edward IV, notably as Lord Chancellor from 1467-1473 (with a gap during the restoration of Henry VI.) Given the nature of the job, it seems reasonable to assume that he was a senior administrator of considerable ability.

Now of course Edward sacked him in 1473, and later, following the fall of Clarence, the bishop spent a short time in prison, apparently for speaking out of turn. Neither experience was unique, and neither seems to justify a burning desire for revenge. It’s not as if the bishop spent the rest of his life on Job Seekers Allowance. He had, for a start, the very substantial revenues of the See of Bath and Wells, the equivalent of which today would be a very handsome pension pot indeed.

So did Stillington look for any reward? If so, he must have been sorely disappointed. There is no evidence that Richard III did anything to advance him. He certainly did not appoint him to high office or translate him to a better see. Nor was he in any sense part of Richard’s affinity.

So are we really to believe that the bishop woke up one morning, and thought up a secret marriage for Edward IV, just for the hell of it? It was a risky thing to do, surely. Why should he be believed? What were the likely consequences if he were not believed? He risked, at the minimum, another spell in the Tower. Indeed, would he have dared to come forward with nothing more than his unsupported word? Say for the sake of argument it was pure invention. Would he not at least have had to ‘square’ the remaining members of the Talbot family, to be sure that his statement would not be met with universal contradiction? If he had been disbelieved, his future under Edward V would have been very far from rosy!

On balance, the easiest explanation seems to be that he genuinely had something on his conscience. Moreover, it seems likely he had some form of proof. We know that proofs of some kind were offered, even if we have no idea what the ‘proofs’ were. If you think the contrary, you must surely ask yourself what kind of man this Stillington was, and what was his motive. I think you would have to conclude that he was very odd indeed, malicious and exceptionally vengeful.

A Fishy Tale…

Keeping on the subject of mediaeval food, I decided to write about a foodstuff that is no longer commonly eaten or even very well known of in the UK – the lamprey. The lamprey, an ancient and primitive species of fish, was popular in mediaeval times because of the Church’s ruling that people were not allowed to eat meat on certain days, often the eve of Church feast days, Fridays and Lent for example. Fish was allowed however, and lamprey was liked because it was meatier than most other fish. It was considered a delicacy and was eaten at feasts and special occasions, especially by the nobility. In fact, Henry I was so fond of it that he was famously thought to have died from ‘a surfeit of lamprey’ in 1135 and Samuel Pepys refers to it in his diary as popular among ‘mediaeval epicures’.

Picture of sea lamprey

So what does this fish look like? Well, it is a long, eel-like fish with no scales or jaw and is a dark colour on its back (olive green to greyish brown) with a silvery underbelly. It has no bones, but only cartilage and no normal gills, just seven pairs of gill holes behind its ear. It has only one nostril on the top of its head. Instead of a regular fish mouth it has a round tooth-like opening with sucker-like lips and a rasp like tongue. Some species attach themselves to host fish and use their tongue to make a wound in the other fish and secretes an anti-coagulant so they can suck their blood, but they rarely kill the host fish, moving on to another host before this happens. Yes, it sounds lovely doesn’t it? Like a cross between an eel, a leech, a vampire and the Alien!

lamprey mouth -Fish Lamprey

There are three types of lamprey, the brook lamprey, the river lamprey and the sea lamprey. The sea lamprey is the largest, reaching up to a meter in length. The river lamprey grows up to 30cm and the brook lamprey only 15 cm. They all spawn in fresh water silt beds and the young can take several years to develop before they become adult. They only choose to spawn in water which is unpolluted, so their presence shows the water quality is good. Although they were alive before the dinosaurs, they are now an endangered species in Britain.


They were often eaten in a pie and there are recipes for lamprey pie on the internet. A fifteenth century one is as follows:

The fish placed in a crust and baked in a sauce of wine, vinegar, cinnamon – and its own blood.

The lamprey is then removed and served separately, while a syrup of sweet wine, sugar and ginger is added to the crust, along with white bread.


So what connection does the lamprey have to Richard III? Well, this was a very popular food with the royalty of mediaeval times and it was therefore almost certain that Richard III would have eaten it. The best lamprey was found in the river Severn estuary and there was a tradition which is apparently ‘centuries old’, dating from at least the Middle Ages, that the City of Gloucester would bake a lamprey pie for the reigning monarch for special occasions such as Christmas, Coronations and Jubilees. I was unable to ascertain exactly when this tradition started, but as Henry I enjoyed them perhaps Richard did have a lamprey pie presented to him at his Coronation and Christmas by the City which bore his Ducal name.


This tradition was discontinued at the time of the Industrial revolution but was revived in 1952 for the present Queen’s 1953 coronation and subsequently her Silver and Golden Jubilee. However, by the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, the lamprey had become so scarce in the Severn that Gloucester had to source them from Canada’s Great Lakes for the first time. Here is a link to a video reporting this and showing the pie being made: Gloucester makes pie for Queen

The latest from Reading Abbey …

An article on Old Ipswich …

… which, sadly, refers to the Old Cattle Market as a venue but doesn’t discuss the previous purpose – a cattle market that I visited in c.1980, just before it was demolished to build the new bus station.

The cattle had just left after the day’s trading although I can still visualise the building. The market had several previous locations, such as the part of Princes Street that hosted HMRC until last year , where oxen often escaped to roam among the tight-knit streets nearby:

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