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.

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:

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:

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.

Boar’s head anyone?

Day 4: Throughout the medieval period the boar’s head was regarded as a key part of the Christmas festivities – unfortunately by the time of Henry VIII there weren’t any left so Henry was reduced to wild boar pate sent as a gift by the king of France.

The Boar’s Head Carol dates back to the fifteenth century and references the “rarest dish all the land.” The actual serving of pigs at this time of year dates back much earlier to Neolithic times. Archeologists at Durrington Walls have discovered pits of pig bones that tell a story of midwinter feasting. The Anglo-Saxons referred to November as “blood month” because animals that couldn’t be kept over winter were slaughtered and many medieval books of hours depict November with a pig about to meet his end. Even the Vikings get in on the pig eating act with sagas recounting feasting upon wild boar.

Elizabeth Ayrton’s Cookery of England (1975) provides a recipe for the boar’s head, her recipe substitutes a pig’s head with that of a boar (incidentally can you still by such things?)

In wealthy medieval households the boar required much preparation. The head itself was stuffed with forcemeat and often gilded and decorated – it’s tusks may have been retained to make it look more lifelike and it might be given eyes created from sugar paste. It was carried to the table amidst much fanfare.

These days there are once again wild boar in England – follow the link for more information. I think I’ll stick to pigs in blankets and sausage rolls though.

A rendition of the Boar’s Head Carol can be found here:

Cooking and Dining in Medieval England by Peter Brears. 167-171.

Christmas – Anglo-Saxon style

The Stroud wassail bowl – National Trust.

Day two of the History Jar advent calendar of festive food and drink. Cristesmæsse is first recorded as a word in 1038. The Venerable Bede was not impressed with the Anglo-Saxon winter festivities:

They began the year with December 25, the day we now celebrate as Christmas; and the very night to which we attach special sanctity they designated by the heathen mothers’ night — a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies they performed while watching this night through. 

Least said soonest mended I think! I don’t think we need linger on Bede’s disdain for the primitive behaviour of the locals. And rather unfortunately he did not think so far ahead as to ask for some recipes so we’ll just have to move on to the booze.

Wassail is a traditional Christmas and New Year toast. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon words for “to your health” – “waes hael”.

A wassail cup often involves quite a lot of cider but not always. It would be offered to guests throughout the festive period. In some cases a large wassail cup was taken from door to door (not appropriate in these socially distanced times.) The other kind of wassailing involves gathering in orchards to pour the wassail over the roots of the trees to encourage a good return on the next year’s harvest. This kind of wassail can involve singing to bees as well. It often takes place on twelfth night.

This recipe dates from 1722 from a book entitled Food in England by Dorothy Squires:

Take 1 lb. of brown sugar, 1 pint of hot beer, a grated nutmeg, and a large lump of preserved ginger root cut up. Add 4 glasses of sherry, and stir well. When cold, dilute with 5 pints of cold beer, spread suspicion of yeast on to hot slices of toasted bread, and let it stand covered for several hours. Bottle off and seal down, and in a few days it should be bursting the corks, when it should be poured out into the wassail bowl, and served with hot, roasted apples floating in it.

I’m not sure what “suspicious yeast” looks like but I think after that lot no one would particularly care. The National Trust has a rather more palatable looking recipe which could be served as an alternative to mulled wine. The are lots of modern versions available.

And the non- alcoholic version courtesy of Saga magazine:

Serves: 6-8


  • 6 small cooking apples, cored
  • 125g (4½oz) demerara sugar
  • 1.5 litres (3 x 500ml bottles) of rich, fruity ale (I used a mix of Abbot Ale and Old Speckled Hen)
  • ½ grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp freshly grated or ground ginger
  • Cinnamon sticks, to serve


Preheat the oven to 120C/250F/gas mark ½. Bake the cored apples on a lightly greased baking tray for about 1 hour, until soft and easy to peel.

Meanwhile, put the sugar into a large heavy-based saucepan and cover with a small amount of ale. Heat this gently, stirring until the sugar dissolves. 

Add the grated nutmeg, ginger and the rest of the ale. Stir and keep at a gentle simmer.

Cool the baked apples for about 10 minutes, then peel, reserving a few strips, and blend to a soft purée. Add this to the simmering ale and whisk thoroughly.

Leave to gently simmer for about 30 minutes. The frothy apples should rise to the surface. Ladle into sturdy glasses and serve with cinnamon-stick stirrers and a strip of peel.

The wassail bowl and the Yule goat leading us in a Scandinavian direction.