Monastic hospitality

The Abbot’s Lodge, Kirkstall Abbey

All who arrive as guests are to be welcomed like Christ, for he is going to say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Rule of Saint Benedict 53:1)

Monastic hospitality was of key importance during the medieval period for travellers, pilgrims and rulers. For the monastery it was an opportunity to fulfil its spiritual obligations, find out what was going on in the outside world and also to gain patronage. Reputation for hospitality was an important thing – abbots wished to be seen as generous to their guests.

Houses in York and London could find themselves swamped with guests – the Cluniac priory at Bermondsey being an excellent example of how its location just off the London-Dover road did it’s finances no good at all because it was such a popular stopping off place. In Reading the number of guests resulted in the abbey finding itself in debt. The result of this being that rich guests continued to be welcome but the poorer ones were turned away. Eventually a new hospice was built for poorer travellers outside the abbey gates.

It was also possible for guests to outstay their welcome. It was expected that visitors at larger houses would leave on the third day unless they were ill or travel was made difficult by bad weather. Visiting monks would be permitted to stay longer and of course it’s hard to tell a monarch or a bishop to go away.

The abbot would be expected to dine with guests and on those occasions he didn’t have to stick to the monastic diet – which didn’t help monastic reputation for clerical abuses. By the end of the twelfth century most abbots had their own lodgings and ate separately from the rest of the brethren. I have posted about the abbot’s lodge on a previous occasion:

It was the responsibility of the guest master and the cellarer to accommodate and supply the guests. They would be housed according to their rank. Those with fourteen or more horses in their retinue would find themselves in the abbot’s house whilst those on foot would be provided with a space in the communal hall. Guests were provided with candles and given tours of the monastery where appropriate. There were restrictions of females entering monastic cloisters and on monks interacting with female guests. There were rules about when male visitors could enter different parts of the monastery as well so that the monastic day was not interrupted.

At Kirkstall near Leeds (A Cistercian foundation) there was a separate guesthouse and kitchens and even piped water, elsewhere the guest chambers were within the abbey precincts. Guest quarters would also have fires in them, unlike the monastery itself where a warming room was provided for use by elderly and infirm monks at given times of the year.

Burton, Janet. (1994) Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain 1000 – 1300, Cambridge, 1994

Kerr, Julie. Monastic Hospitality: The Benedictines in EnglandC.1070-c.1250 (Studies in the History of Medieval Religion)

Elizabeth I’s health before she became queen.

According to existing records Elizabeth I was healthy and active child apart from teething problems as documented by Lady Margaret Bryan. However as she arrived at adolescence her health deteriorated and she began to experience a series of chronic ailments.

There were some very obvious additional stress factors to take into consideration – at six she’d gained her fifth step-mother, a cousin, Katherine Howard. Less than two years later Katherine was sent to the block.

In Katherine Parr Elizabeth found some sort of family life and stability, although on occasion wife number six’s head did not rest easy on her shoulders.

Not long after the death of her father, Thomas Seymour asked her to marry him. She was thirteen. Less that six weeks after Henry VIII’s death Thomas went on to marry Katherine Parr and Elizabeth found herself living in the same household as Seymour. It was not long before the thirty-eight year old began making in appropriate advances to the fourteen year old princess. Ultimately she was sent away from the household, Katherine died after giving birth to Seymour’s daughter and Seymour’s ambition became so great that he once again looked to a taking a Tudor bride. This resulted in his execution. Elizabeth now became ill and required the attended of Edward VI’s physicians.

When Mary Tudor became queen Elizabeth used her health – stomach ache in particular- to avoid attending mass. After Wyatt’s Rebellion in 1554 Elizabeth began to look ill – so much so that the French ambassador de Noailles reported that she was being poisoned. Mary’s doctors examined her and blamed her poor health on watery humours. And no wonder, Elizabeth spent the years between 1554 and 1558 dissembling. Just before Mary’s death Elizabeth became ill and complained of pain when moving. She also experienced painful swelling. One of the problems was that Mary and her advisors did not know whether she was really ill or not.

Elizabeth also experienced fainting fits, insomnia, debilitating headaches, nightmares and depression. There was much stress involved in the preparation to become Gloriana!

“The Medical Personnel of Elizabeth I (1558–1603).” The Royal Doctors, 1485-1714: Medical Personnel at the Tudor and Stuart Courts, by Elizabeth Lane Furdell, NED – New edition ed., Boydell & Brewer, Rochester, New York; Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2001, pp. 67–97. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Jan. 2021.

Taylor-Smither, Larissa J. “Elizabeth I: A Psychological Profile.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 15, no. 1, 1984, pp. 47–72. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Jan. 2021.

Medieval calendar – January

British Library – calendar page for January  ‘Isabella Breviary’ (Add MS 18851)

This calendar was created for Isabella of Castile in the 1480s.

Remember medieval calendars are perpetual.

The Roman numerals or golden numbers on the left hand side of the page tells you when the new moon will appear and logically when 14 days later the full moon will appear. The numbers are from 1 to 19 and represent the metonic cycle.

Thus you need to know where you are in the 19 year cycle to work out which of the 19 numbers is the new moon fo 4th year you happen to find yourself in.

The metonic cycle basically works on the premise that across a period of 19 years there are approximately 235 lunar cycles after which the cycle will repeat itself on the same day ie the moon will be in the same place in the sky with the same stars. The cycle was discovered by the Ancient Greeks.

The golden number of any calendar year (Julian or Gregorian) can be worked out by dividing the year by 19. Now add 1 to the remainder, and that number is the golden number for the year. 


2021 divided by 19 = 106 remainder 7

7 + 1 = 8. So in 2021 the Roman number 8 will provide the day in the metonic cycle on which a new moon appears. Of course you’d need to know which days fell where within the cycle to do the calculation. Then it’s a question of counting on 14 days to calculate the full moon. This was important for working out when Easter would fall in any given year (the first full moon after the Spring equinox.) Across the metonic cycle Easter could only happen on 19 specific dates and if you knew where you were within the cycle you could calculate this.

Calculating the golden number for any given year. table to work out when the new moon would fall in any given month using the golden number.

2021 is the eighth year of the metonic cycle but applying the medieval perpetual calculator to work out the date of the new moon in 2021 won’t work because of the drift in the Julian calendar – when we changed to the Gregorian calendar we lost 10 days! The first new moon of 2021 falls at about 5.00am on January 13th and is apparently a wolf moon whereas the Golden Numeral method of calculation states that the new moon falls on the 6th…which is clearly not correct!

The calendar page for January often depicts Aquarius- usually a bloke pouring water from a downturned jug. There may sometimes be an image of Janus – the two-headed god after whom January is named looking towards the future and back towards the past.

The main agricultural/seasonal illustration is often a winter scene or someone warming themselves by the fire as above.

The British Library has a lot of useful information on medieval calendars.

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.

The complicated extended family of the Tudors – The St John family

Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe

I’ve posted about Margaret Beauchamp of Bletsoe before. She is the mother of Margaret Beaufort – to the maternal grandmother of Henry VII. She was born in about 1410, the daughter of Sir John Beauchamp of Bletsoe in Bedfordshire.

In 1421 her brother John died and she became an heiress. She inherited the manors of Lydiard Tregoze in Wiltshire, Ashmore in Dorset as well as Bletsoe and Keysoe in Bedfordshire.

Four years later she married Sir Oliver St John. He died in 1437 in France. Margaret would marry again to John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and have one child – Margaret Beaufort the mother of Henry Tudor. Margaret Beauchamp had effectively been elevated from the gentry to the aristocracy and her St John children became, at different times, more significant players upon the political chessboard as a consequence, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Margaret Beaufort (Hever Castle)

Sir John St John, Oliver St John, Edith St John, Mary St John, Elizabeth St John, Agnes St John and Margaret St John were Margaret Beaufort’s half-siblings. Where there was close contact to Margaret Beaufort and the Tudors elevation followed.

Margaret St John became the prioress of Shaftesbury Abbey. She was elected in 1492 demonstrating that the nuns knew which sides their bread was buttered and were demonstrating their loyalty to the Tudor regime.

Edith St John married Geoffrey Pole a member of the Cheshire gentry and that would have been fine had not her son Richard then been married to Margaret the daughter of the Duke of Clarence (the one who drowned in a vat of wine). Henry VII regarded it as a safe marriage which would effectively remove Margaret from the political game of crowns. Unfortunately for Edith’s Pole grandchildren and at least one great grand child Henry VIII was less convinced – Henry, Reginald, Arthur and Geoffrey Pole came to represent the last of the Plantagenet line. Margaret, Countess of Salisbury was executed without trial. Henry Pole her eldest son was executed and his son who had been imprisoned in the tower with his grandmother Margaret never emerged. Geoffrey narrowly escaped execution and went into exile where he had a breakdown. He eventually died in 1558 a few days before his more famous brother Cardinal Reginald Pole who spoke out against Henry VIII’s divorce.

Two more of Margaret Beaufort’s half-siblings married into the Scrope family. The Scropes were an important North Yorkshire family who spent a lot of time on the borders fighting the Scots. Elizabeth St John was initially married to William la Zouche, the fifth baron. The Zouches were later attainted for their loyalty to Richard III but by then Elizabeth having been widowed in 1462 had married John Scrope, Baron Scrope of Bolton (Bolton Castle in Wensleydale) and another Yorkist.

Elizabeth, despite her Lancastrian antecidents, was one of Edward V’s godparents. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising given that Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth’s half-sister, was herself godmother to one of Edward IV’s daughters. It reflects the fact that all parties thought that the battle for the throne was over and were settling down to winning power and influence under the Yorkist regime. There was no reason to suppose that Edward IV would die young and leave a minor on the throne.

John Scrope despite being Henry Tudor’s step-uncle supported Richard III at Bosworth so required a pardon, which was forthcoming. Unfortunately he then became involved with Lambert Simnel’s rebellion of 1487 and was forced to pay a large fine and stay in London. Ultimately his services as a northern lord were required for the traditional activity of fighting the Scots which he did in 1497 by which time Henry’s Aunt Elizabeth had died.

Elizabeth’s brother Oliver, the younger of the Margaret Beaufort’s two half-brothers married the twice widowed Elizabeth Scrope of Bolton, sister of John Scrope. He died in 1497 in Spain but his body was returned for burial to East Stoke.

And that just leaves John St John who for the purposes of this post married and had children – all related to the Tudor crown. What it takes is a little bit of digging to discover is that John’s grandson born in 1495- perhaps unsurprisingly another John – was raised by Margaret Beaufort and that he became a courtier. We know for instance that he went to Calais with Cardinal Wolsey in 1521 and that he began to take a key role in the administration of Bedfordshire and Huntingtonshire.

We know that John attended the coronation of Ann Boleyn in 1533. Much of the information comes from the inscription on his tomb. It describes him as ‘custos’ to Princess Mary. A letter of 7 Jan. 1536 sent to Cromwell by ‘John St. John’ request that the King excuse the writer’s wife from being a mourner at the ex-Queen’s funeral, both because she was recovering from a pregnancy and because the writer, ‘being in service with my Lady Princess’, could not furnish the horses and servants needed for the occasion. Although Princess Mary had been officially deprived of that title since 1533, this is who St John must have meant. History can continue to track St John at his royal cousin’s family occasions including the funeral of Jane Seymour and the baptism of Prince Edward. He was also on hand to help put down the rebels in the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace. In 1547 he stood down from Parliament so that his eldest son – an Oliver- could take his place. He died in 1558.

John had positioned his son to advance in the Tudor court by obtaining a place for Oliver in Prince Edward’s household. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that when Elizabeth I was crowned in 1558 that Oliver became Lord St John of Bletsoe. The family continued its loyalty to the Crown into the Stuart period gaining titles on the accession of Charles I but siding with Parliament at Edge Hill.

So on one hand the St John family remained part of the gentry but on the other they were trusted by the Tudors because they were family and as a consequence their value on the political board rose…sometimes rather dangerously.

And why am I digging around the St John family? Well it turns out that Sir Robert Dudley the illegitimate son the Duke of Leicester was descended via his maternal grandmother from the St John family making him a someone distant member of the Tudor family circle, proving once again that in Tudor England everyone appears to be related to everyone else!


Newstead Abbey

Newstead Abbey

First things first – it should actually be Newstead Priory rather than Newstead Abbey given that it was the home to Austin Canons or Augustine Canons. They are also described as Black Canons because of their robes. All Austin Canons were priests as well as monks. They were not an enclosed order they believed that they should serve within the wider community.

The priory of St. Mary of Newstead in Sherwood was founded by Henry II in about 1170. The charter granted the manor of Papplewick, it’s church and mill to the new priory as well as meadowland at Bestwood and 100s. of rent in Shapwick and Walkeringham.

The charter was confirmed by King John and added to by other Plantagenet monarchs including Henry III, Edward I, Edward II and Edward III. Queen Joan of Scotland left many of her goods to the priory.

Despite this the priory faced a variety of financial difficulties across the decades. So it wa probably just as well that the Austin Canons who had a reputation or being good hosts entertained Edward I when he was hunting in Sherwood Forest and also Edward II. The royal hunting lodge at Clipstone isn’t that far away but the relationship between the Plantagenets and the priory protected the canons from the problems of financial constraint.

The Plantagenet desire to ensure that the canons of Newstead Priory could meet their financial obligations meant that they gained more church livings, mortmain lands, tenements, and rents. They were also excused many of the fees that were liable to the Crown due to the priory’s status as Lord of the Manor.

Richard II continued the Plantagenet patronage of the Austin Canons at Newstead by granting them an annual allowance of a tun of wine in the port of Hull in aid of the maintenance of divine service.

Both Henry VI and Edward IV continued the tradition of granting lands to the priory. The rent that Henry VI charged for eight acres within Sherwood Forest was one midsummer rose to be delivered to the exchequer.

There were various visitations across the centuries. Archbishop Ludham of York visited personal in 1259 and whilst he approved the rule of the prior he added a note that the canons shouldn’t drink after compline and they shouldn’t wander around the cloister. In 1280 Archbishop Wickwane required the prior to be more earnest about divine service, canons shouldn’t keep private property and they were still drinking after compline. Later a visitation said that the canons should maintain silence and that when anyone took a new set of clothes they had to return the old ones to the common store.

By 1535 and the Valor Ecclesiasticus that gave a value to the wealth of the monasteries, Newstead was worth £167 16s 11 1/2d of which 20s was given on a Maundy Thursday to the poor in commemoration of Henry II who founded the priory. It was clearly worth less than £200, making it a lesser monastery. The act for their suppression was passed in 1536.

The canons managed to avoid this by paying a fine of £233 6s 8d but on the 21st July 1539 they succumbed to the inevitable. Cromwell’s commissioner – London- took the surrender. The prior received £26 pension, the sub prior £6 and the ten canons who also signed the surrender document received a pension ranging between £3 and £5.

In 1540 the property passed into the possession of the Byron family – as in mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In later years, the eighteenth century, whilst the monk’s fish pond was dredged a medieval lectern was discovered. It appears to have been thrown there by the canons hoping to save it from Henry VIII’s commissioners. It can now be seen in Southwell Minster.

In 1817 the property was sold to Colonel Thomas Wildman and from him into the Webb family. It was finally bequeathed together with its gardens to the City of Nottingham in 1931.

‘Houses of Austin canons: The priory of Newstead’, in A History of the County of Nottingham: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1910), pp. 112-117. British History Online [accessed 27 December 2020].

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.

Christmas ham origins

Freya, the Norse goddess, was the goddess of fertility. Traditionally Friday is named after her. The midwinter festival celebrated by the Norse incorporated Mother’s Night – the feminine festival that Bede definitely disapproved. And how does this get us to ham?

Well, Freya rode a boar with golden bristles when she wasn’t using her other method of transport – a chariot pulled by two black cats. Pigs were sacred to her and yes we have arrived at feasting and pork.

From there it is a short step to the medieval boar’s head and with a hop and a skip you have arrived at glazed ham.

Let’s try and be a little practical here. In rural communities many families kept a pig – did you ever read the Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden? It could be fed from household scraps rather than requiring an expensive diet, acorns could be foraged. Even during World War Two people were encouraged to keep a pig.

So it really isn’t such a step to see how practicality and a tradition of pork on the festive table gives us a glazed ham. Now where is my recipe book? And how long will it take two people to eat a ham that can feed ten people comfortably for two days…