History does not repeat but it does rhyme – Mark Twain.

Please follow the link to the Disasters Emergency Committee website to donate:


I don’t often write about modern history and definitely not about current affairs unless it involves kings under carparks. History tells us who we are and where we came from. We listen to stories and arrange facts and ideas in an order. Its why historians are constantly revising their understanding of the past – they start listening to new voices and assimilating new ideas. Even if we’re not that keen on history we are all the products of learning about our past from family, friends, education and the media. Its probably one of the reasons the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are is so popular. Unless we remember what our societies have experienced we cannot progress because we cannot answer current challenges by looking at the patterns of our previous experiences so that we at least try to avoid making the same mistakes.

A German nationalist movement developed in western Czechoslovakia following the end of World War One – It became known as the Sudetenland. A list of unacceptable demands were placed before the Czech government which fanned a crisis that was then exploited by the Nazi regime in Germany. In May 1938, German army units took part in “military exercises” near the border with Czechoslovakia resulting in the Czech government mobilising its own army – sound familiar? What followed was Neville Chamberlain going to Munich and the Czechs ceding the Sudetenland to Germany – Chamberlain returned home and gave his ‘peace in our time speech’. And we all know how successful that proved to be.

At the end of August 1939 Nazi Germany signed a pact with Stalin – or if you want to be fussy the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the Soviets invaded on the 17th and the country was torn apart. France and the United Kingdom both had a pact with Poland. War with Germany was declared on the 3 September 1939.

On the 1st September, Polish Cavalry charged and dispersed a Nazi Infantry battalion supported by machine guns and armoured cars. The charge at Krojanty became the blueprint for the story of the cavalry charging panzers. The cavalry charge against tanks never actually happened despite the fact that for years it featured in history books – perhaps the heroism of the Poles in the face of the adversity has something to do with the longevity of the legend. The world war that followed was long and bloody and it was fought, in part at least, so that free peoples would not be suppressed by tyrants in the future – our present. In seeking to understand the mistakes made in the aftermath of World War One the leaders of the post-war world sought to create a better future where a war in Europe was unthinkable. it had its ups and downs – the Cold War wasn’t a bundle of laughs but largely speaking the desire to avoid a physical war worked.

Unfortunately as Abraham Lincoln stated in a speech discussing the American Civil War ‘human nature will not change.’ He was echoing the words of Machiavelli. Inevitably Churchill also had something to say on the subject in 1948 – ‘Those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it’ – he wasn’t the only one, Edmund Burke said something very similar in the eighteenth century and the American philosopher George Santayana said much the same thing in 1905.

So here we are in February 2022 – at the end of an era when, largely speaking for the better part of a century, peaceful European countries did not find themselves being invaded by their neighbours. History is, as they say, the winners version – a handy saying for anyone looking at primary sources. What will history make of the events of Zmiinyi Island near Odessa in the Black Sea? The first casualty of war is the truth -another handy saying- so there are two versions of events of what happened. The official Russian version is that 80 or so guards on the island all surrendered peacefully on Thursday 24 February when a Russian warship requested that they should do so. The Ukrainian version supported by unverified audio clips, that are widely available (let’s not get into media manipulation and fake news at this point), tells a rather different tale. The tiny garrison 13 border guards elected to tell a Russian warship to go do something unmentionable to itself rather than surrender. The Ukrainians knew what the end result would be – they were told what they were facing and the consequences of refusal. I know who from this human tragedy I would describe as heroic.

After the Fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 Churchill gave his ‘finest hour’ speech. In it, he said, ‘If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.’ Until this week I believed that despite its problems I was blessed to live in a period of history where largely speaking European leaders had learned from the past and if not the sunlit uplands that Churchill eulogised about, at least we had progressed as a civilisation to uplands with sunshine and occasional showers. Events of the last week suggest otherwise. Mark Twain said rather more optimistically than Burke and Santayana that history does not repeat itself but that it ‘does rhyme’ – history is not an irrelevance. Carr’s What is History which was required reading many moons ago more or less saw history as a problem solving mechanism for the present and future; that historians didn’t stand on the outside looking in but that inevitably their own culture and society would impact not only on how they saw history but in the way that it could be used. We all see history differently and use different language to describe those narratives.

And me?

Slava Ukraini!

Three camels and an ostrich

Nicholas Jone was an Italian merchant during the fifteenth century married to an Englishwoman. Like most men of his time he realised that patronage was essential. In 1442 or early in 1443 he went to Turkey and he came home with gifts – three camels and a turkey (bet he was popular during the voyage.). Henry VI was delighted with the new additions to the royal menagerie and gifted Jone the office of the brokerage of the exchanges and securities of carracks, ships, and galleys coming to England – if I’m honest I think I can see who got the better end of the deal.

They were not the only camels and ostriches to be given as gifts. Edward IV was presented with a camel and in 1472 sent to Ulster, ‘She resembled a mare and was of a yellow colour’.1


1 The Irish Digest, vol 36, issues 1-3, 1950, p.84

Frances Vavasour – the tangled loves of Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting.

Robert Dudley son of the Earl of Leicester

I posted about Anne Vavasour a couple of years ago. She was one of Elizabeth I’s maid-of-hounour who became a mistess to Sir Henry Lee having previously had an affair with Edward de Vere. Sir Henry Lee was Elizabeth’s champion and master of armouries and Edward de Vere was the 17th Earl of Oxford. https://thehistoryjar.com/2018/06/12/anne-vavasour-scandal-bigamy-and-a-portrait/

Frances Vavasour (1568-1606) was Anne’s sister. She also came to court to serve as a maid of honour and wasn’t without her own share of scandal.
In 1591 Robert Dudley, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Leicester, contracted to marry her – though the queen felt it wise for the couple to wait for a few years given the age of the groom. Despite his illegitimacy and lack of title he was a wealthy catch. His late father had left him many properties including Kennilworth Castle.

Somewhat bizarrely instead of marrying the young and handsome Robert Dudley Frances ran off with Sir Thomas Shirley (1564-1633.) The marriage was a secret one and whilst the marriage was still under wraps Shirley courted Frances Brooke, Lady Stourton. This was not a clever thing to have done as France’s brother-in-law was Robert Cecil. Frances was also the daughter of Lord Cobham.

Inevitably the secret wedding was uncovered and Elizabeth behaved in a familiar way i.e. banishing the couple from court. Thomas found himself imprisoned in the Marshalsea but was released in 1592. But there wasn’t any happy ever after for the couple.

The Shirley family fell upon hard times. Thomas’s father had been appointed Treasurer-At-War to the English army in the Netherlands. Unfortunately he borrowed the boney he should have been using for the Crown for his own ends – which went wrong. Essentially he ended up to his neck in debt. As an MP Shirley found a medium of sanctuary. A law was passed saying that MPS couldn’t be arrested for debt – only when they stopped being MPs could creditors take the matter further.

Thomas recognising that the family fortune was lost took up privateering (piracy licensed by the Crown.) This did not help matters very much as his father’s creditors continued to pursue him for payment. Nor did he help himself when he attacked a German ship taking goods to Holland.

Eventually he took himself off to the Levant where he was captured and help prisoner in Constantinople until a ransom was paid in December 1605. By the time he got home Frances was dead.

Cumberland rum Nicky and rum butter

Not sure how festive it is – but we have Cumberland rum Nicky at Christmas! Essentially it’s a tray bake with a pastry bottom and a lattice top. The middle is made from butter, ginger, brown sugar, rum and dates. I think it should probably be a tart but I’ve always made it as a tray bake for ease of cutting. Having now done a little digging it is clear that the origins of the name have been obscured although there is a theory that the top layer pastry was “nicked” to create the lattice.

The ingredients originate from the 18th Century when the Cumbrian port of Whitehaven was part of the ‘triangular trade’ – shipping sugar, rum and ginger in from the Caribbean, taking English cloth to West Africa and slaves from there to North America. Maryport and Workington were also thriving ports at this time.

Whitehaven rum was apparently very popular and it was in the 18th century that rum butter made it’s appearance – butter, sugar and rum. There seems to have been a fair amount of tax avoidance in Cumbria in the eighteenth century as well – rum smuggling was part of the local scene.

“He who is occasionally obeyed” remembers being sent, as a child, by his nana at Christmas to fetch a quarter bottle of rum from a shop close to her house for the treat to be made. He also remembers the butter and sugar being placed on the hearth to melt.

It should be added that I’m not wildly keen on rum butter and much prefer a good helping of vanilla ice cream. It’s not the least calorific or most healthy pudding I’ve ever served but having said that it’s definitely a once a year treat.

Wigg Bread

Wigg Bread was often served at funerals in the past – which with the best will in the world doesn’t sound particularly festive. However as well as being served at wakes it was also served as a festive treat.

Wigg comes from the Norse word which means chunk or wedge giving an indication that the bread was originally a round loaf meant to be divided into wedges. By the eighteenth century it would be served as a bun.

The bread seems to have survived most effectively in Cumbria and Yorkshire but I also stumbled across a Dorset wigg during my perambulations of the net.

So what is it exactly? It’s a spiced yeast bread. The yeast came form ale. And the spice is caraway. I should add that a wigg loaf makes a very fine bacon sandwich…which I obviously only ate in the interests of research.

Caraway originally arrived in England with the Romans. Apparently the seeds are good for indigestion.


Yorkshire Christmas pie

The pie is designed to be presented at the table as a glorious hand raised pie that’s heavily decorated. Inside is a big bird, stuffed with a smaller bird etc etc – think of it as an edible Russian doll covered with elaborately decorated pastry.

The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse (1740) gives a recipe for the pie using ‘whatever sort of wild fowl you can get’ alongside four pounds of butter and four bushels of flour for the pastry – which seems like rather a lot to me.

Harewood House used a recipe in the nineteenth century that involved a goose as the largest bird.

The Yorkshire pie may also be described as a stand pie because the pastry crust is hand raised.

For further information on Yorkshire pies follow here: https://countryhousereader.wordpress.com/2014/12/24/yorkshire-christmas-pie/

Pies with elaborate crusts have been served at feasts since medieval times.

Dressed swan

Medieval Kitchen by Adriaen van Nieulandt

Since we’ve tackled a roast peacock it makes sense to look at the roasted swan – which like the peacock would often be served in all it’s feathers along with a yellow pepper sauce and a side helping fo food poisoning as the skin, with the feathers attached wasn’t cooked. It appeared on the tables from medieval times and is listed in the accounts of Henry VIII’s and Elizabeth I’s feasts. They have, of course, been royal property since 1482.

 Liber Cure Cocorum (or “The Art of Cookery” ) written in 1430 has a recipe for “Chaudron [Entrails] for wild ducks, swans, and pigs.” Please don’t try it at home given that bird flu is on the increase and all the swans belong to the Queen.

Take, wash the entrails of swans anon,
And scour the guts with salt each one;
Seethe all together and hew it small,
The flesh and also the guts withal;
Take galingale and good ginger
And cinnamon, and grind them all together;
And grated bread you take thereto,
And mix it up with broth also;
Color it with burned bread or with blood,
Season it with vinegar, a little for good;
Boil all together in a little pot;
In service you shall set it forth.

If you must eat swan then could I suggest a meringue swan?

Morrisons has even very handily provided a recipe which can be found here: https://groceries.morrisons.com/webshop/recipe/meringue-swans/54961

And meringue is very festive – but I’ll talk about subtleties in due course.

Caudell – a festive drink.

15th century glass wine goblet – The V & A

Thursday’s festive drink! Wine thickened with eggs. A medieval eggnog. I don’t think that this would work with red wine purely on the resulting colour!

Caudell. Draw yolkes of eyron thorow a streynour with wyne or with ale, that hit be ryght rennyng; put therto sigure, safron, & no salt. Bet well togedyr; set hit on the fyre on clene colys. Stere welle the bottom & the sydys tyl hit be ynowghe scaldyng hote; thu shalle fele be the staffe when hit begynnys to com. Then take hit of and styre alwey fast, & yf be nede, aley hit up with som of the wyne; or yf hit com to hastyly, put hit in cold watyr to myd syd of the pot, & stere hit alwey fast; & serve hit forth.

– Hieatt, Constance B. An Ordinance of Pottage. An Edition of the Fifteenth Century Culinary Recipes in Yale University’s MS Beinecke 163. London: Prospect Books Ltd, 1988.

Smoking Bishop

Image from Eliza Acton’s Cookery Book 1845 – smoking bishop

This is not a post about the demise of Thomas Cranmer during the reign of Mary Tudor – rather it’s another festive drink. This particular beverage retained its popularity into the Victorian period and gets a mention in The Christmas Carol.

It is effectively a mulled port. You will require a bottle of ruby port, an orange stuck with six cloves, sugar to taste and about 1/2 pint of water but that’s optional. Cut the orange in half and place it in the pan with the port and a little sugar. Bring it to simmering point and then set it alight. Allow it to burn for a few seconds. Pour into a punch bowl and dilute with water if you wish.

Apparently in earlier times the fruit might have been roasted to caramelise it and there might also have been red wine as well as the port. A smoking cardinal was made with champagne which seems like a waste of good champagne but that’s only my opinion. The recipe comes from the National Trust Book of Christmas and Festive Recipes.

And why the name? It has been suggested that it was served in Oxford and Cambridge Universities and medieval guilds in a bowl that resembled an upended mitre.

Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit sharing a bowl of smoking bishop.

Medieval plum porridge

Hannah Glasse The art of cookery made plain and easy published in 1747.

Sounds lovely – and it is the forerunner of Christmas pudding but it was served by way of an appetiser and was more of a broth than a pudding. In fact it contained meat, vegetables and raisins. Essentially this is an upmarket version of a pottage and could be boiled in a cauldron. Why do I get the feeling that I’m not particularly selling it to you?

As time passed more in the way of bread crumb was added as well as egg to thicken the whole concoction. Eventually the meat would be replaced by suet and it progressed from an introduction to the festive meal to the pudding.