Saturday, December 22, 2012

Medieval Christmas and the Christmas of 1377

On the Sunday before Candlemass, in the night, one hundred and thirty citizens, disguised and well horsed, in a mummery, with sound of trumpets, sackbuts, cornets, shames, and other minstrels, and innumerable torch lights of wax, rode from Newgate, through Cheape, over the bridge, ... and so to Kennington beside Lambhith, where the young prince remained with his mother and the Duke of Lancaster.

The royal Christmas celebrations of 1377 have been thought to be quite the gold standard in holiday affairs by those who study medieval English Christmas celebrations. Doubtless planned by Gaunt in the first year of his nephew's minority, they rivaled those of the previous year at Windsor in which Gaunt's father, Edward III, presented his grandson Richard of Bordeaux as his intended heir2. Festivities and feasting were reportedly provided for more than 10,000 people, requiring the slaughter and preparation of 28 oxen and 300 sheep. As indicated above, the good citizens of London seemed to have temporarily put aside their political differences with Gaunt and provided mummers, games & gifts for the entertainment of the boy-king and his entourage, which included the royal courts of his mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales Joan of Kent, and that of his powerful uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, at Kennington Palace.

In the first rank did ride forty-eight in the likeness and habit of esquires, two and two together, clothed in red coats and gowns of say or sandal, with comely visors on their faces; after them came riding forty-eight knights in the same livery of colour and stuff; then followed one richly arrayed like an emperor; and after him some distance, one stately attired like a pope, whom followed twenty-four cardinals, and after then eight or ten with black visors, not amiable, as if they had been legates from some foreign princes...

Kennington Palace was no courtly backwater; earlier that year, when Gaunt was experiencing some difficulties and personal affronts from the Londoners, he was thought to be at his famous Palace of the Savoy where an unruly mob sought him as well as Henry Percy, Marshall of England. Gaunt and Percy instead happened to be dining with John of Ypres at his Inn and, when alerted of the mob, hastily departed by barge to Kennington where the Princess of Wales and her son Richard of Bordeaux were residing and were given shelter, so the palace was doubtless a luxuriously confortable, if not entirely defensible, palace and an altogether appropriate place to celebrate the first Christes' Mass of the boy-king Richard II. It was a place in which, as we've seen above, was a good place in which to spend the celebratory days of Christmas rife with feasting, gaming and pageantry.

One reason for Christmas feasting and merriment was that it followed Advent, a period during which no animal products were to be consumed, with the exception of fish (which one simply did NOT serve during Christmas as people were sick of it and the host thought the more poorly for it serving), goose (as long as one claimed in good conscience that it was the mythical barnacle goose) and tail of beaver (it was declared sufficiently fish-like as it lived in the water). The hours of daylight were shorter and the cold could be bitterly so. The feasts on Christmas day, however, served to mitigate some measure of all that. Eggs, cheese, milk and meats could be eaten (the boar's head presentation was fairly common throughout the land and even in those areas where there were no boars to eat, it was still traditional to serve up some foodstuff resembling a boar's head). Goose, ox, all manner of other birds, pigs and venison were artfully served at the aristocrat's table, basted and baked with butter and saffron to give a golden hue. The royal even ate swan (The Carmina Burana songs written from a set of 13th century German poems, even contain a humorous entry “Cignus ustus cantat “ about a swan being cooked for dinner which ends somewhat amusingly if ominously with the line, “dentes frendentes video”).

Frumenty, a fruited and spiced grain pottage, was also popular as was mincemeat (actual minced meat with spices) and, well, anything you could do with the meat you could procure. For the period between here and Lent people found reason to come together in food, wine or ale, the warmth of the pagan Yule log, games and the singing of songs that the church at the time was not particularly fond of (one can almost see why they would not be enthralled by the idea of drunken revelers singing non-liturgical songs in their hallowed grounds). Collectively, these would be the precursors to the caroling tradition – the joyful, sometimes dancing, probably always inebriated singing of non-liturgical songs or “carols” that we continue to see today. Additionally the greenery of the Roman Saturnalia festival would decorate the dining hall.

Also doubtless present at the Kennington celebrations' cosy if prominent royal family affair were Gaunt's family, including his Duchess, Constance, and their daughter Catherine/Catalina; his son and heir Henry; his daughters Philippa and Elizabeth, as well as their governess, Katherine Swynford, and her then-three children by Gaunt, John, Thomas and either Henry or Joan Beaufort, all of whom would have been young children of the approximate age of 5 and under. Also likely present was Katherine's sister, Philippa Chaucer, who had joined the court of Gaunt's Duchess Constance in 1372 (her husband, Geoffrey Chaucer, however, was away this Christmas on the King's diplomatic business). Though Gaunt had had his problems with the Londoners and their disapproval of his handling the affairs of his father in his dotage and now his nephew in his minority, 1377 had been a good year for Katherine. Earlier that March she had received confirmation of Gaunt's grant to her of the Nottingham manors of Gringly and Whetly, the resources from which may have been used for her improvement programme at Kettlethorpe, where she may have sometimes retreated in times of advanced pregnancy (we know, for example, that Gaunt ordered wine to be immediately delivered to her there, and some of his financial registry entries are dated from Kettlethorpe). Katherine was secure in her position, both as governess to Gaunt's daughters as well as his recognized mistress and preferred female companion. Indeed, these were heady years for her prior to the tumult of the 1381 Peasant's Revolt and the uncertainty it would bring to her position at court. But in 1377, at Christmas, she likely enjoyed family, the mummeries, games, and smells and sights, good food and the happiness and security of her life near the very center of the court of the country's largest land owner and richest magnate.

These masters, after they had entered Kenington, alighted from their horses, and entered the hall on foot; which done, the prince, his mother, and the lords, came out of the chambers into the hall, whom the said mummers did salute, showing by a pair of dice upon the table their desire to play with the prince, which they so handled that the prince did always win when he cast them.

Then the mummers set to the prince three jewels, one after another, which were a bowl of gold, a cup of gold, and a ring of gold, which the prince won at three casts. Then they set to the prince's mother, the duke the earls, and other lords, to every one a ring of gold, which they did also win...

The playing of various games was another important feature of medieval Christmas festivities. The 1377 accounts clearly reference various dice-based games of chance that somehow always ended in the doubtless delighted nine-year-old Richard II winning. These pre-Christian activities were to be repeatedly denounced by the church and yet repeatedly ignored by the populace for a few hundred years. Participants would bet upon the outcome of the dice thrown, usually two or three, as shown in the image to the left. Below is a bone die which may belong to the 14th Century in France:

Also popular quite possibly were the card games which may have come to England by 1377 via the Castilian companions of the Duchess Constance, who themselves likely acquired the carding habit from Spain's Moorish population11. The church wasn't fond of these games, either. A card game named “naibbe” was forbidden by decree in Florence by May, 1376 and another card game preached against in Switzerland by a Dominican friar in Basle in 137712. But merriment was the order of the day and likely all such games that were known to the English at the time were played that season at Kennington.

After which they were feasted, and the music sounded, and prince and lords danced on the one part with the mummers, which did also dance; which jollity being ended, they were again made to drink, and then departed in order as they came.

Unlike today, in which Christmas is a single day of celebration (two at most if you consider Christmas Eve), Christmas in the high middle ages for the wealthy was an extravagant series of events lasting for several weeks from Christmas through 12th Night, through New Year and to Candlemass in early February. According to John of Gaunt's extant printed financial Registers and other sources, the family exchanged the more extravagant gifts on New Year's rather than on Christmas, as it was the more celebratory holiday in terms of gift-giving.

John of Gaunt was particularly magnanimous in his New Year's gifts. We know, for example, from his 1373 financial accounts, that he spent a fair amount of money on gifts to his household and that he purchased his luxury goods from the finest London guild of goldsmiths, comprising of divers silver-gilt hannaps and divers gold beads [paternosters] and gold brooches and rings and phials and other jewels bought from them for us and given away on New Year's Day at Eltham last year. Indeed, in that same year, Gaunt had provided a gift for Philippa Chaucer, of his wife's court, of a “botoner” and six silver-gilt buttons; he later in 1381 and 1382 gave her gifts of a covered silver hanap and two additional silver hanaps.

Gaunt purchased his luxury gift items from only the best; his favorite seems to have been the Nicholas Twyford noted in his financial accounts as well as London record. Nicholas Twyford was most fortunate in securing the favor of both John of Gaunt as well as the young Richard II. Twyford was a member of the London Company of Goldsmiths (a guild), recognized as early as 1327 and having a membership of 135 by 1368. Twyford himself would become Mayor of London in 1388 having no doubt distinguished himself in 1377 for the coronation of the boy-king: "When the royal procession reached Cheapside where the shops of the goldsmiths were concentrated, beautiful young ladied showered the ten-year-old monarch with leaves of gold and presented him with gold cups full of fine wine. A golden angel descended with a golden crown, which was offered to Richard as he rode past. The king must have been well pleased with the spectacle, as well as the guild's generosity, because the entire pageant was restaged as part of his 1392 royal entry into London.” John of Gaunt would continue to utilize Twyford's services for a decade or more to come.

Ahh, and then, there was the food itself. Richard II is notable for many things, including increasing the numbers of women and their roles in the Order of the Garter (Katherine herself would be inducted in 1386/7), and his artistic as well as his culinary interests. The “Forme of Curye,” ca. 1390, is a collection of his court's recipes and provides an interesting insight into what may have been consumed on that Christmas period of 1377 inasmuch as it is a collection of what was likely Richard's favorites. It contains 196 recipes, many of which would appear strange to the modern eye.

Fish, of course, was entirely out of the question. People were likely sick of eating nothing but fish and little else during Advent. Cooking with (mostly imported) spices heightened the dining activity, and known to have been in use are cinnamon, mace, cloves, ginger, pepper, cardamom and nutmeg. Honey was likewise more prevalent in use than 'white sugar' as a sweetener, and it was sometimes clarified by boiling it with egg whites. Every manner of bird and flesh animal (any bird that could be caught, deer, rabbits, hens, pigs, cows, boars), when provisioned, would be served, often in sauces that might make some of us wince. Almond milk was used rather a lot, as was wine. Sweets, too, such as marchpane, would be served in curiously devised forms meant to delight the person eating them. For the wealthy, dishes as well as goblets for wine, both domestic as well as imported, would be provided, and the evening would end with people singing, dancing, drinking and, eventually, sleeping. You can find more on the subject, including recipes, here.

Christmas in later medieval England for the non-noble classes, however, was a somewhat different affair. Certainly, the period was celebrated albeit in a less luxuriant manner. The period would be amongst the last feasting days sanctified by the Church, itself perhaps a grudging admission that there simply wasn't much celebratory foodstuffs available to the non-noble class in winter. In an age of no refrigeration and few preservatives, village laborers – who may have received time off from work – could perhaps expect to share a hen with another; maybe a whole hen if he or she were really fortunate. Such persons were welcomed to the local manor, such as Kettlethorpe, where such a feast would be prepared, together with the lighting of a Yule log, and Katherine would have presided over the festivities at the head table as Lady of Kettlethorpe. Each villager would have been expected to provide his own plate/trencher or use the supplied bread as a plate to be scooped out and filled with meats and other savory fare; each was also to supply his or her own firewood lest s/he receive insufficiently cooked meat as well as a tankard or other cup. (And, if you wished for a napkin, you were on your own, although if you brought one, you were sometimes allowed to carry away any excess food that would fit.) Each was also to be provided with continued ale or alcohol (some of which ironically could be purchased at the larger churchyards) and sometimes a bed in which to sleep. It was good, celebratory, hearty fare, and Katherine's Kettlethorpe residents no doubt appreciated every minute of the days of feasting. However, it was nothing like the 300 sheep slaughtered for Gaunt's spectacular celebration for 10,000 Londoners at Kennington.

Reading Materials:

Bowers, John M. The Politcs of Pearl: Court Poetry in the Age of Richard II., (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001)

Wintle, Simon. “A 'Moorish' Sheet of Playing Cards.” The Journal of the International Playing-Card Society (London), Vol. XV, No. 4, May 1987

'Vintrie warde', A Survey of London, by John Stow: Reprinted from the text of 1603 (1908), pp. 238-250.

Royal panoply: brief lives of the English monarchs‬. Erickson, Carolly

Taylor, Charles. The Literary Panorama. Vol. 10, p. 1124. (London: 1810.

Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days: a miscellany of popular antiquities... Vol. 2, p. 739. (London: 1832).

Murray, Alexander, "Medieval Christmas", History Today, December 1986, 36 (12)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The "other" Katherine Swynford & the Importance of Remembering our Roots

Though Katherine Roet Swynford didn't live long enough to see her namesake granddaughter, her son Thomas Swynford and first wife Joan Crophill did indeed produce a daughter whom they named Katherine, after his famous mother.

In 1404, Thomas Swynford, Hugh and Katherine's son, became Captain of Calais under the authority of his half-brother, John Beaufort. This was apparently an appointment of trust for Beaufort; the previous year had witnessed the treachery which has arisen between the lieutenant and the soldiers there….

He would stay overseas for the next couple of years as one of two negotiators appointed by step-brother Henry IV seeking a treaty with Flanders. By 1406, son Thomas would be born with daughter Katherine following in 1410. Katherine's birth seems to have come at a difficult time for her father, who by 1409 had been relieved as Sheriff of Lincoln and been declared an outlaw due to indebtedness to a London draper. By 1411, he seems to be desperate to claim an inheritance in his mother's father's lands in Hainault; the occasion was accompanied by letters patent issued by Henry IV in which he declares his step-brother's legitimate birth.

It's an odd document. Thomas' legitimacy was not questioned at his birth, nor in his father Hugh's inquisition post mortem, nor was it questioned when he took possession of his patrimony of Kettlethorpe and assumed his father's arms. Even if Lindsay Brook of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy is correct in his proposition that Paon Roet was identical with the known Giles du Roeulx of the same era, there simply would not have been any Hainault lands to inherit as the last Lord of Roeulx -- Eustace -- and surviving brother, Fastré, were forced to sell back their patrimony to their Count due to economic circumstances. Regrettably, many secondary genealogy sources state that the House of Roeulx died out for lack of heirs; however, this is clearly not the case as the last generation of Roeulx and certainly the two preceding it had no lack of heirs or heiresses.

But such is the stuff of family remembrance and legend, and what had occurred 3 or 4 generations previously is likely to have escaped Thomas' notice, and thus memories of a long-disposessed patrimony were forgotten in favor of remembering the family's possible glory days. Such is the power of ancestral memories, the key to a person's identity. For the family of Swynford, these were enshrined in heraldic remembrances, several of which no longer exist but were once established with pride and taken note of by passers-by.

By 1421, Thomas' wife Joan Crophill had passed away and he remarried a widow, Margaret Gray, first the wife of John Lord Darcy. His son was 15 and his daughter 11, and added to his financial responsibilities were the many minor children of his new wife, later joined by the addition of Thomas and Margaret's own son, William Swynford, last Swynford owner of Kettlethorpe. Thomas himself evidently alienated Kettlethorpe before his death as his IPM does not show him owning any lands in Lincolnshire.

His daughter Katherine, however, was to be married into the ancient (as in, living in England as of the Conquest) Drury family of Rougham, Suffolk. She married William Drury, knight, son and heir of Sir Roger Drury and Margaret Naunton. The marriage would have had to have taken place at some point prior to 1429 when their eldest surviving son, Thomas, perhaps named for his ailing grandfather, was born; Thomas, son of Hugh and Katherine Swynford, died in 1432. Other children followed: Roger (who appears to have survived until at least 1475), George (Parson of Wolpitte; also alive as late as 1475), and at least three daughters, one of whom was also named Catherine. Daughters Ann and Catherine Drury took the veil, but third daughter, Mary, married into the Grimston family.

Living to the ripe old age of ~67 years, Katherine Swynford Drury died in 1478. Many internet sources place her internment at Lincoln Cathedral but this seems unlikely. Her husband William, who predeceased her in 1450, requested to be buried in the Church of the Friars Minor of Babewell in his will. This building is no longer extant. Other Drury relatives were buried in the Rougham Church in Suffolk, and her daughter Mary's monument was once to be seen in a Thorndon, Suffolk church:

in the chancel of a stone is the portraiture of a woman above whose head are these arms per pale france and Ingland qtrly a label of 3 points and azure a chevron charged with 3 boars heads coupd, about the arms these words, these be the arms of dame Katherine Swinford.

Mary Drury took the memory of her famous heritage to her death. As the great-granddaughter of Katherine Roet Swynford, the memory of her grandfather's arms were still fresh in her mind (the the label of three points has been noted elsewhere as being the arms of Thomas, son of Hugh and Katherine), and she knew that her family was closely related to the royal family itself, as indicated by the inclusion of the royal arms, just as happened in her grandfather's time at the church of Ss. Peter and Paul at Kettlethorpe. Sadly, the Thorndon monument seems to have disappeared in the remodeling efforts that destroyed many medieval relics, including most of Kettlethorpe's.

Mary likely had another sister who tends not to be found in Drury genealogical accounts but whose existence seems confirmed by the 1471 Bylaugh, Norfolk, brass to her and her husband, Sir John Curson/Curzon. Her name was Joan and she outlived her husband, and though many accounts give her family name as Bacon, the heraldry on her husband's brass clearly allude to her Drury-Swynford heritage:

Finally, the family Swynford and Roet were remembered in the mid-15th century tomb of Lewis Robessart in Westminster Cathedral. Swinford, Thomas Swynford, and Katherine Roet were remembered on Robessart's tomb emblazonings. What we don't know is why. Robessart was a Hainaulter, like Katherine Roet Swynford's father. He may have served abroad with Thomas Swynford. In any case, the relationship was clearly worth remembering for one reason or another that may well be lost to us now.

We only know about some of these otherwise obscure relationships because tombs were the vehicle for immortality. There was a time when it was important to know from whence we came and our relationships with our relatives and close friends.

Further Reading:

THE ROBESSART TOMB IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY. Cecil Humphery-Smith, Foundations (2004) 1 (3): 178-192.

Humphery-Smith, C R (1957). The Blount Quarters. The Coat of Arms. 4: 224-227

Humphery-Smith, C R (1964). The Robessart Tomb in Westminster Abbey. Family History. 2 (11): 142-149.

Engravings of Sepulchral Brasses i N orfolk and Suffolk..., John S. Cotman, Vol. 1 (London: 1839).

KATHERINE ROET'S SWYNFORDS: A RE-EXAMINATION OF INTERFAMILY RELATIONSHIPS AND DESCENT. Judy Perry, July 2003, Foundations 1 (2): 122-131.]; Foundations (2004) 1 (3): 164-174.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Observations on Dugdale's Drawing of Katherine & Joan's Tombs

Icy gist Dame Katerine Duchesse de Lancastre, jadys feme de la tres noble et tres gracious Prince John, Duke de Lancastre, fitz a tres noble Roy Edward le tierce, La quelle Katerine morust le x jour de May l'an du grace M. cccc. tierz, de quelle alme Dieu yet merci et pité.  Amen.

I only recently looked closely enough at the Dugdale drawings to notice what seem to be a few errors. You can find Dugdale's drawing of Joan Beaufort's and Katherine Swynford's Lincoln Cathedral tombs above.  You can view a larger version of this drawing at my Katherine Swynford Facebook group page. Katherine's tomb is at the top and Joan's at the bottom, reflecting the fact that the two tombs were originally side-by-side rather than end-to-end as they are now (seemingly chopping of a portion of the head of Joan's tomb).

The tombs were constructed of Purbeck marble (although photos make it look as if only the top of Joan's tomb was made of the same marble as her mother's) and both originally sported memorial brass effigies, despoiled during by Cromwell's men during the English Civil War in 1644.  Joan was instrumental in finally establishing the chantry altar chapel envisioned by her father before his own 1399 death for that of his third wife, who died in 1403 but whose tomb and architectural surroundings date its construction to a good 20  years later if my memory serves me (q.v. the Harvey pamphlet, referenced below, which I've seen available online for about £14 -- I'll warn you:  it's a pamphlet, not a book, but I'm glad I bought it at the cathedral when it could still be had cheaply!).

What's interesting about the Dugdale drawing is that it purports to show Joan's tomb as being the one with the circular enameled insets along the side.  However, an 1809 drawing by John Buckler, below, and reproduced in the Lincoln Cathedral publication "Catherine Swynford's Chantry" by John Hooper Harvey, shows that it was the larger of the two tombs, that of Katherine, whose tomb had such side circular enameled insets:

The above drawing does not seem to show The Irons which can be clearly seen in the photo below, taken by Christy Robinson and which can be seen in a larger size here at The Beauforts Facebook group page:

Christy Robinson's image seems to show shield-shaped insets, perhaps originally painted (as on the arms of the weepers on the tomb of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk, at Ewelme) on the smaller of the two tombs.  Also, the Dugdale drawing shows four circular insets, while the Buckler drawing and modern photographs correctly indicate that there were five:

Photo (c) Alistair Ross and found here.

Photo (c) "Palimzest" and found here

So, too, does this shot, taken from a family history website:

As does this top-shot of Katherine's tomb and part of Joan's taken by Roger Joy and (c) him, found at the website of The Katherine Swynford Society:

Dr. Joy has proposed a lovely recreation of Katherine's brass top, taking perhaps some liberties not supported by either the Dugdale drawing or the remains of the tomb itself, but liberties which are certainly to be artistically appreciated:

(see larger version at link above)

Joan's tomb seems to have heraldic shields marching at the bottom of her feet, but not Katherine's.  This recreation, however, shows the arms of Swynford, St. Edward the Confessor and those of Roet.  The arms of Roet show a somewhat controversial pierced mullet, described in only two places:  a purported forgery of a grant of arms by Katherine's father to the Brothers Andrewe, and in a physical examination of her seal when it was still extant in the 19th century.  Dr. Joy has also included a small pet dog at Katherine's feet -- a charming and historically authentic touch.

Not to feel too sorry for poor Joan, however, inasmuch as while Katherine's tomb inscription was the conventional request for a passers-by's prayer and basic information on Katherine's identity (see quotation at the top of this post, below Dugdale's image), Joan's originally recorded something to the effect that the entire nation mourned her passing (Below is Joan and some of her daughters).

All of this makes me wonder, however, what exactly happened with the Dugdale drawing?  It would seem that a very hurried sketch was made with notes that were perhaps later misinterpreted.

I wonder what the five insets originally were.  My guess would include an emblem of the Order of the Garter, a Lancastrian collar of SS's, her own arms encircled by either, her arms impaled by those of John of Gaunt (and encircled)... and just maybe her encircled arms impaled by those of Swynford?  And the photos above, taken from both sides of the tomb, show that those circular insets were on both sides of Katherine's tomb.

Any alternative ideas?

Friday, September 24, 2010

$50 for a compilation of Wikipedia articles? I think not!

Well... I'm certainly not paying that much for a compilation of wikipedia entries. Thanks to Susan Higgenbotham for this heads-up!

New Book on Katherine Swynford?

There's apparently another new book out on our Katherine:

Katherine Swynford by by Frederic P Miller, Agnes F Vandome, John McBrewster, SBN: 6130655827 / ISBN-13: 9786130655822, Alphascript Publishing, 2010, 94 pages.

$US50 for a 94-page paperback?


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Looking for information on the Beauforts?

Historical fiction author Susan Higginbotham has created a new resource for fans of Katherine Swynford and her family. If you are on Facebook, go here to visit her Facebook group dedicated to the Beauforts.

Of course, you can also read the brief bio's I've got posted at


Friday, July 09, 2010

New Hollar Portrayal of Old St. Paul's Discovered

One of only a few known preparatory drawings made by the Bohemian artist Wencelslaus Hollar for his spectacular series of 14 engravings of Old St. Paul's Cathedral for Dugdale's monumental history of the structure was recently discovered and is expected to fetch between £60,000 and £80,000 on auction at Sotheby's.

It is only the second known Hollar preparatory drawing of Old St. Paul's in existence.

I have compiled a PDF of all the Old St. Paul's images I could find online that you can find here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Roet Pendant Give-Away

Wonderful news from Michelle Moore! She produces a line of unique jewelry related to her favorite fiction and historical fiction authors, including Anya Seton, and she has provided a copy of her Roet arms pendants to the folks over at the Historical Tapestry blog.

Michelle also offers several beautiful other items with the same design, so be certain to go enter yourself into the give-away contest!