Sunday, 14 February 2016

Llewelyn The Last

I have spent the week before last in Builth Wells, a tiny town in the middle left of Wales, famous for a giant bull, a beautiful bridge over the River Wye and the show ground for the annual Royal Welsh Show, a kind of Glastonbury for farmers.

There's a beautiful mural too, vaguely Bruegelseque, my picture doesn't do it justice, of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, last true Prince of Wales' sad winter retreat. It's by Ronald Swanwick and was painted by the artist and Neil Chambers.

My picture of the mural in the gloom
I've copied a picture off the town website so you can get a better view.

Close to Builth, 2 miles north at the small village of Cilmeri, Lewelyn made his final stand against the forces of the English King Edward the first.  It was December 1282, and Wales and England had been fighting on and off for the last five years. There'd been successes on both sides. Edward had managed to push Llewelyn's forces back into the mountains of Gwynedd, while Llewelyn had scored some famous victories against Edwards forces, notably in Anglesey and at the Battle of Llandeilo Fawr.

Llewelyn was lured south out of his stronghold in Snowdonia by the promise of support from the people of Brycheiniog, what is now Brecon in South East Wales. But it was a trap to draw out the Prince and allow Edward and his massed army to crush Llewelyn's forces for good.

It's said that he turned to the Castle at Builth and asked to be taken in but they refused him. Were they scared? Did they want no trouble? Where were the English fighters stabled and fed and watered? Whose side was anyone on?

The battle was hopelessly one sided, a few thousand Welsh fighting men against a combined army of English and Marcher Lords soon wiped Llewelyn's army out. It's said nearly every man was killed. Wen they recovered Llewelyn's body the day after the battle, Edward ordered the head to be taken, and crowned in ivy it was paraded through the streets of London and stuck up on a stick on the Tower of London where it stayed for fifteen years.

I started walking out to Cilmeri but was defeated by mud and rain, so I went looking for information online. What I found made me feel a little bit queasy.

There's a ceremony every year at Cilmeri, people from all over remembering not only Llewelyn the Last but all the 'fighting men of Wales'. The pictures of the event made me uneasy. Men marching down village streets in faux military garb. Men with berets and lighted torches around the memorial to Llewelyn.

Hmmm. Not a good look.

Now, please, I am all for Welshness. And Builth Wells, has remarkably little of it. But I don't want those marching men speaking for  Wales or Welshness at all.

If we're going for remembering I would rather this: Gerallt Lloyd Owen, 1944-2014, reading his poem Cilmeri;

Happy February!

Catherine's latest book is The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo

Saturday, 13 February 2016

IN LOVE WITH THE SONNET – Elizabeth Fremantle

Anne boleyn
Valentine’s Day almost upon us, which means a plethora of gaudy scarlet gewgaws, overpriced cellophane-wrapped roses, the impossibility of booking a restaurant table for more than two people anywhere in the known universe and worst of all: bad poetry. A modern lover might be happy with a few kitsch emojis, or (perish the thought) a photograph of their beloved’s privates, but in the past expectations were higher and romance had more class and better poetry.

Tudor poet Tomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet to England during Henry VIII’s reign. Originating in Italy it was a form that became associated, more than any other, with the expression of love and particularly the forbidden or unrequited love of a man for a woman. In a sonnet the identity of the beloved is often deliberately obscured to protect her privacy, as is the case in Thomas Wyatt’s famous poem, Whoso List to Hunt, which is believed to be about the very married Anne Boleyn. There is no proof that Anne was ever Wyatt’s lover in a physical sense, and certainly not while she was married to Henry VIII, but when he wrote: 'there is written her fair neck round about,/Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,' it is thought he was lamenting the fact that Anne had become the untouchable wife of Henry VIII – the Latin phrase translating as ‘touch me not’.

Lady Rich
It was sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan soldier poet, who wrote the first sonnet cycle in English. Astrophel and Stella, a sequence of 108 sonnets and 11 songs, is a heartrending expression of Sidney’s profoundly jealous love for Lady Rich, a woman who had once been suggested as a bride for him but had been forced into marriage with a man who would bring great wealth to her noble but impoverished family.

The poems express a sense of lovelorn masochism and Sidney reasons that in writing down his feelings, 'She might take some pleasure of my pain'. He repeatedly uses the word ‘Rich’ in his descriptions of his beloved and when he says she: 'Hath no misfortune, but that Rich she is', he makes no attempt to hide Lady Rich’s identity, which suggests his love for her was common knowledge in court circles, leaving little need for secrecy.

Secrecy though is a feature of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He experimented with the form, turning it on its head, as a large number of the sonnets in his collection are, unusually, addressed to a ‘fair youth’. The idea of the bard’s possible homosexuality has often been explained away by suggesting that the poems are written to express a platonic admiration for a benefactor, but whether or not they describe a chaste love the mystery of the person he described as ‘the master mistress of my passion’ has captivated Shakespeare scholars for centuries.

A number of sonnets in Shakespeare’s collection are addressed to a woman and in these he experiments further with the form. Traditionally a sonnet used particular tropes of fairness to describe female beauty. In his poet beginning: 'My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun', he goes on to list the ways in which the woman’s looks diverge from what was then considered beautiful. There has been much speculation about the identity of the so-called ‘Dark Lady’, but Shakespeare’s secret has never been unlocked.

Today’s young lovers are more reluctant than their sixteenth century counterparts to spill their feelings in poetic form, and are more likely to resort to a few trite lines of doggerel in a hastily bought Hallmark card. But I wonder if anyone has ever tried to write an emoji sonnet– now there’s a challenge.

Elizabeth Fremantle’s novel Watch the Lady explores the love between Lady Rich and sir Philip Sidney and takes a look at the possible identity of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.

Friday, 12 February 2016

A thoughly bad egg by Tanya Landman

I moved to Devon when my children were small and then spent a lot of time with them pottering around on Westward Ho! beach.  On clear days there was always Lundy in the distance, looking appealing but unattainable. I didn’t take the boys there for years because the responsibility of supervising two boys on the deck of a ship for two hours terrified me.  So we didn’t make our first crossing until both of them were
in primary school and could swim.  

We set off from Bideford early one morning on the Oldenburg and sailed downriver towards Appledore and the open sea.  And that was when I heard the story of Thomas Benson for the first time.

Before it reaches Appledore the Oldenburg passes Knapp House. Tucked in a valley that leads down to the water the house and grounds are now a campsite and activity centre, but in the 18th century it was home to Thomas Benson, landowner, merchant trader, High Sheriff of Devon, Member of Parliament and in his spare time, smuggler, fraudster and notorious villain.

Benson inherited the family fortune in 1743 and soon became the leading merchant trader operating from the port of Bideford. His vessels exported woollen goods to the America colonies and brought back tobacco from Maryland and Virginia.  Each year, his fishing fleet sailed to the Newfoundland cod banks.  When France became an ally of Spain and joined the war against England he fitted out one of his ships as a man-of-war and operated as a privateer – a legalised pirate - with some success.

Wishing to strengthen his position still further, Benson entered politics.  After presenting a magnificent silver punch bowl to the Corporation he was elected unopposed as MP for Barnstaple in 1747.  It put him in an ideal position to land a lucrative government contract to transport convicts to the American colonies.  But operating within the law didn’t prove lucrative enough – or perhaps thrilling enough – for Benson.  Following a brush with Customs officers over unpaid import duties on his tobacco cargoes he became involved with various crimes including breach of contract, smuggling, tax evasion and finally an insurance fraud that involved the scuttling of his own ship, The Nightingale.

When this last fraud was exposed, Benson fled, abandoning the ship’s captain – John Lancey – to his fate. Benson lived out the rest of his life in Portugal, while Captain Lancey faced a trial, conviction and execution for a crime that Benson has instigated.

It’s a sad, sorry tale and yet I had no plans to write anything based on  it until the  MPs expenses scandal and the banking crisis set me thinking.   It occurred to me that things hadn’t changed nearly as much as one might have hoped in two and a half centuries.  Power still corrupts and the innocent still suffer at the hands of the guilty.

Fifteen years after moving back to north Devon  Hell and High Water was published.  Ideas for novels sometimes have a very long gestation period!

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Real Wicked Lady by Katherine Clements

Today is paperback publication day for my second novel The Silvered Heart, so between sips of celebratory fizz (or more likely a huge pot of tea) it seems only right to post about the woman, and the legend, that inspired the book.

Here’s the book blurb…

1648. Orphaned heiress Lady Katherine Ferrers is forced into marriage for the sake of family honour … but with Cromwell’s army bringing England to its knees, her fortune is the real prize her husband desires. As her marriage becomes a prison and her privileged world crumbles, Katherine meets her match in Rafe – a lover who will lead her into a dangerous new way of life where the threat of death lurks at every turn…

Enter Kate Ferrers, highwaywoman, the Wicked Lady of legend – brought gloriously to life in this tale of infatuation, betrayal and survival.

The popular legend of Lady Katherine Ferrers is classic high romance: a young, orphaned heiress is forced into a marriage of convenience, her inheritance squandered by a neglectful, dissolute husband. Desperate and frustrated, she finds escape and adventure with a dashing local highwayman.

But there is no happily ever after for our heroine. Her lover is hanged. Driven insane with grief, she dies tragically, shot during a hold up. Her body is discovered at the foot of a concealed staircase, at her family home, Markyate Cell. She is buried, shrouded in secrecy and shame, to be remembered ever after as the wandering ghost of Hertfordshire folklore: the Wicked Lady.

It’s a swashbuckling adventure that has inspired novels and films, the most famous, a 1945 version starring James Mason and Margaret Lockwood. But the life of the real woman with whom the legend has most often been associated, tells a different tale. Katherine Ferrers certainly suffered grief, hardship, and the devastation of a family fortune, as did many women during the English Civil War and its aftermath, but did she really turn to crime? And what does her story tell us about the position and fate of women during this tumultuous time in British history?

Margaret Lockwood as The Wicked Lady

Those are the questions that intrigued me when I first encountered the legend some years ago. Delving deeper I found that we know very little about the real Katherine, but there is enough information to piece together a picture of her life. We can trace her from Hertfordshire origins, via Oxford, Cambridgeshire and London, to her final resting place at Ware. Her family connections to prominent Royalists gave me insight into her intimate circle and her likely experiences and attitudes during the civil wars and the difficult years that followed. We know something of her financial hardship, her husband’s involvement in Royalist conspiracy rings and military uprisings, and his resulting imprisonment in the Tower. The challenge and opportunity for me was to merge these tantalising facts with the fiction.

The only known portrait of Katherine Ferrers, recently restored at Valence House Museum

It’s easy to imagine the scenario as legend tells it. The English Revolution really did turn the world upside down for many people, and for more than a decade, aristocratic families who believed they had a right to their inherited status and wealth found their estates taken away, heavy fines and taxes imposed, and in some cases, no choice but to live a life of poverty in exile. Married women, considered the property of their husbands, and with no means of their own, were forced to cope with painfully reduced circumstances that were the very opposite of the life they had been raised to expect. It’s not unreasonable to conceive that some may have taken matters into their own hands.

And such women were not necessarily powerless. Many rose to the challenges of war and misfortune, exhibiting great fortitude and strong political views, changing the world around them through a variety of means. Katherine's relative by marriage, Anne Fanshawe, who appears in the novel, is just one example of a woman who suffered great loss, adversity and danger but wielded considerable political influence via her husband. Her writing still influences our view of Civil War women today.

In other social spheres, women were prominent in radical political movements, some demanding equal rights with men. Female preachers and prophets played key roles within new religious sects and published their ideas in pamphlets and tracts. Women took over family businesses, defended their homes and even took to the battlefield. Once sampled, these freedoms might have been hard to give up.

I’ll be clear: The Silvered Heart is not a biography; it’s a work of imagination and I make no claim that my version of Katherine’s life is the truth. The mystery of how she became the Wicked Lady of legend remains obscure. The book is my attempt to answer these questions: What if Katherine really was a highway robber? What would have driven a woman to such extreme lengths? And what might have been the devastating results?

Me reading from The Silvered Heart with Katherine looking on

Katherine Clements

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Domes of beauty – Michelle Lovric

Those readers who know me personally will detect a certain irony in this post. Those who don’t know me personally must be informed that I have a plenitude of bosom and frequently complain about my burdens. Indeed, I work on the theory that I was given the wrong breasts and that daintier ones would suit my character and lifestyle better. But enough of that ...

A few years ago I researched an illustrated book about feminine nostrums: quack preparations for women that played – for profit – on feminine insecurities and body dysmorphic disorders. Much work went into that small volume, and much outrage too. Only a fraction of the material could be used in the published book, so I have raided that research for several of my novels – a Bankside notion-monger called Valentine Greatrakes in The Remedy, quack complexion cures in The Book of Human Skin, London mermaids with the vapours in The Mourning Emporium, and hair treatments in The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters.

Until now, I had not given breasts - or breast quackery - a second look, except for a little flurry in the History Girls private forum last year when we traded historical names for breasts. Over that, I also draw a veil.

But all things quack are of interest to me, historically and linguistically, so I have decided it is time to revisit charlatanism of the cleavage.

In the days before silicone and surgery, various ‘laboratories’ developed creams and tablets that purported to increase breast size. As is typical of quack medicine, they attempted to blind their clients with pseudo-science, using words that smacked of the laboratory but were in fact empty confections of senseless syllables.

Regularly invoked were the names of doctors and physicians (of dubious qualifications) - the historical equivalent of television advertising featuring people in white laboratory coats. Adulatory testimonials were published. The advertisements invariably claimed that the products were ‘100 per cent safe’, and they may well have been so, but they were certainly also 100 per cent useless.

Peruna advert courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons
During the American Civil War, many soldiers became addicted to an alcohol-based tonic called Peruna, sold as a cure for catarrh (although the maker defined catarrh as the basis of half the world’s diseases). The effects of this 28% proof liquid even gave rise to a new phrase, ‘Peruna drunk’. (Later, when his ingredients were outed, it was suggested that the inventor should put some real medicine in his drink - or open a bar.)

Clever quacks set about selling remedies to cure dependence on Peruna, especially after it was outed as a temperance-busting fraud in the early 1900s. But manufacturers turned their sights on the female market and the same drug was sometimes sold as a breast-enlarger.

 Then there were the ‘flesh-making’ bust creams for the ‘undernourished’ tissue. Ingredients usually included lanolin or other natural fats. ‘Flesh-firming’ creams relied on astringents to ‘tighten and lift’. One recipe entailed a night-time painting of the breasts with ‘elastic collodion’ to keep the sleeping bosom supported overnight. E.A. Fletcher, The Woman Beautiful, 1899, suggested that a firming cream should be dotted on but not rubbed in before the collodion mask was applied.

Allure Cream for ridding yourself of body dysmorphia

A Doctor (of course) R. Vaucaire of Paris (naturally) introduced goat’s rue, Galega officinalis, as an indispensable remedy for flat breasts. It had previously been used to encourage milk production in domestic animals.The 1930s were a grand time for the breast quacks. Biological ingredients such as placenta or embryo extracts were introduced with much fan-fare. Hormones were also much vaunted. The makers of Milo-Crème Lion attributed their product’s efficacy to its ‘30,000 Estrogonic Hormones’ that were ‘easily absorbed by the breasts’. The suppliers of Pro-Forma tablets claimed that they were prescribed by many doctors for weak and sagging breasts.

Pro-Forma with
'extract of Galega'
Quacks love to denounce their rivals.

‘Doctor Colonnay, the distinguished Physician of the Faculty of Medicine, Paris’ explained that he had performed experiments upon 200 ladies and could definitely refute the claims of others propagating ‘medicines, nostrums, prescriptions, dieting, apparatus, appliances, greasy creams, massage’. He claimed that his system, on the other hand, could create eight to eleven pounds of extra flesh in the desired parts, with healthy tissue created at will.

Strenuous arm exercises were popular, on the principle that the muscles of the chest could be developed to aesthetic advantage. I am sure you will have heard of the mantra ‘I must, I must, improve my bust’. This was originally
meant to accompany an exercise that entailed clenching the palms of the hands in front of the chest. Lifting heavy books was supposed to generate breast-enhancing muscle. (I must say that I can think of better uses for heavy books). Spring-loaded devices were also popular, promising that resistance combined with persistent exercise would create extra breast tissue. As late as 1966, there was a patent out for the Mark Eden Bust Developer, a clam-shell wire-sprung device in baby-doll pink. Breathing exercises were also suggested – because bigger lungs could only, of course, create a more splendid bosom. And that splendid bosom of course required harnessing in the correct corsetry, as shown at right. In the Victorian period, you could take advantage of Bazalgette-quality engineering to put you right, as seen below.

Combined breast pads by Henry S. Lesher from 1859,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Some of the quack breast treatments involving pumps and suction must have been very painful. The instruments themselves were rarely illustrated in the advertisements: just the delectable result, as in the Fem-in-a Bust Developer. What was not shown, usually, was the hand or foot pump that was used to suck fluid into the breast via a mammary cup. While these treatments must have been painful, with the introduction of electricity they became positively dangerous, with a risk of ruptured blood vessels.

Le Massosein (get it?) of France in the mid 1930s sold a machine with a massive cup and hose for douching the breast with cold water. The Abunda Bust Developer also used hydrotherapy to ‘stimulate’ breast growth. The device was plugged into a tap that sent water gushing through perforations in a plastic breast cup.

Bust massage was popular, though advertisers were always aware of the moral dangers of conferring pleasure. Lucille Young, who offered Bust Massage in Chicago, advertises herself with a picture of a gentle, smiling young lady, who surely never knew a moment of transgression. Mechanical rollers and later electrical vibrators were sold for discreet and strictly medical self-massage in the home.

The Sears-Roebuck Catalogue of 1897 offered both the Princess Bust Developer and Princess Bust Cream Food. The 1905 catalogue devoted half a page to these products. The Developer was a bell-shaped cup of aluminium and copper, with a metal rod for handling. The advertising promised that correct use of this device could increase bust size by three to five inches.
A quick look at the internet reveals that the quacks have never abandoned the profitable field of breast-enlargement. Painful pumps are still marketed today, as are ‘natural’ vegetable drugs. And the makers are still using pseudo-scientific terms to describe their expensive contraptions and concoctions. 

I leave you with a genuine quack advertisement. Below is a letter sent out by The Olive Company for the National Developer for the Bust, 1920s. It deploys all the mischief of nurtured body dysmorphia, impossible promises and emotive language that are the trademark of the medical charlatan. Read it and weep, ladies, and think about it the next time you see a beauty product advertised on television.


… No longer need you be ashamed of your bust or your scrawny neck, nor need you fear evening gowns or low-necked dresses, which are all the fashion now, for you may have beautiful breasts yourself, little domes of beauty on a shapely chest.

Oh, lovable woman, don’t waste your moments in regrets and unrealized hopes any longer, for we bring you ‘Good Tidings of Great Joy!’ and you will bless us for years to come for giving you the opportunity to secure this glorious invention at this special price …

Think of all the stage beauties who have become famous – Lilian Russell, Maude Adams, Lina Cavalieri; the moving pictures stars – Lillian Walker, Marguerite Snow, and Kathlyn Williams. What was it but the charm of a perfect figure that helped to make these celebrities famous? You never saw a famous actress or a moving picture star with a scrawny, flat chest.

Think of all the women you know in your town, who are most prominent socially, and who have the most friends. In nearly every case they have beautiful figures, well-developed busts, the charm of perfect development. It is not the pretty face that makes a lasting impression on men, but the charm and poise of a beautiful figure, a PERFECT BUST – the crowning glory of womanhood.

Send us your order now, and let your fallen, flaccid, undeveloped breasts expand and blossom into that superb development which it is perfectly natural and right that every woman should have – a beautiful bust of real, firm flesh and blood.

Michelle Lovric’s website

Her most recent adult novel The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, an account of hair quackery, is published by Bloomsbury.

Note, a further update on the London Borough of Southwark’s conservation policies: a wooden hut advertising a certain pod company has mysteriously appeared in front of the replica of the Golden Hinde. It has been erected in a pedestrian area with traffic of up to 200,000 pairs of feet a week. But its site also happens to be within the Borough High Street Conservation Area, and it is squarely positioned in a protected historic view of the Scheduled Ancient Monument of Winchester Palace. The pod first appeared a month ago, though there is no record of it on Southwark’s planning register. We have been told that it was ‘donated as an office’ to the Golden Hinde, which already has an office in Clink Street, luridly festooned with its own advertising. The pod is empty apart from its advertising billboard for the company that manufactures it. Southwark seems to be on the way to establishing itself as a natural haven for those companies that wish to profit from propinquity to genuine historical stock while at the same time destroying the historic aesthetic of that very spot. The sadness is that, as with the subtenant of the Famous Chain of coffee shops mentioned in my previous posts, Southwark allows this happen. And yes, Famous Chain’s subtenant is still sporting his illegal A frames, balloons and merchandise, even though there is now a non-compliance case number.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Did Ancient Romans have...?

by Caroline Lawrence

As a History Girl, one of my obsessions is Detailing the World. 

In an historical novel it's not crucial to the reader what kind of hinges you put on the door or if your hero passes a rodent that hasn't been imported yet, but I like to get it right. 

I've been studying the Classical world for over forty years, but I'm always learning something new. As I was making a final pass over my forthcoming book set in first century Roman Britain, a couple of details brought me up short. Here are six questions I asked myself: 

1. Did Romans have inches?
2. Did Roman doors have hinges as we know them?
3. Did Roman tombs have doors?
4. Were there rats in Roman Britain?
5. Did Romans shake hands the way we do today?
6. Did Romans have pancakes?

Classicists, how would you have answered those? 

We can never be 100% sure of anything, but here are the answers I came up with. 

1. Did Romans have inches?
Yes. They're called unciae
cf. Pliny NH VI.39, 214

gnomonis C unciae umbram LXXKKVII unciarum faciunt:
A gnomon 100 inches long throws a shadow 77 inches long. 
We know Romans had plumb lines, but they probably didn't have a Roman Ruler like this: 

2. Did Roman doors have hinges?
Yes, they had the butterfly hinges as we know them but more common was the cardo. This type of Roman hinge was a dowel added to (or built into) one side of the door. The protruding ends — pivots — fit into sockets, one in the threshold at the bottom of the door and one in the lintel at the top. So one whole side of the door was a hinge. cf. Virgil Ciris, 222 sonitum nam fecerat illi marmoreo aeratus stridens in limine cardo: For the bronze hinge made a sound, squeaking in the marble threshold.

3. Did Roman house tombs have doors? 
Yes. One Pompeian tomb still under construction when Vesuvius erupted featured a door made of a single piece of marble, but carved to resemble the sort of folding wooden doors typical in Roman houses. (pictured: the Tomb of the Marble Door from Pompeii)

4. Were there rats in Roman Britain? 
No. According to my research, the black rat didn’t reach Europe until the 3rd century AD and the earliest evidence for them in Britain is from material in a well on Fenchurch Street, London dating to the late 3rd century. I came upon this fact when I tried to find the Latin word for rat. Rattus doesn't exist until the late Antique period, so mus has to do service until then. 

5. Did Romans shake hands?
Yes. Especially in farewell. We have hundreds of depictions of Greeks and Romans shaking hands and not a single instance of the forearm grasp, used by Hollywood and many writers of historical Roman fiction. The forearm grasp is totally bogus! 

6. Did Romans have pancakes?
Because this blog post is going out on Shrove Tuesday AKA 'Pancake Day' of 2016, I thought it would be fun to see if Romans had pancakes. I went to my shelf and pulled down the indispensable Classical Cookbook and sure enough, they did. Author Sally Grainger quotes the second century Latin author Galen (AD 129-199) and gives a recipe. Essentially it's pancake batter without eggs and substituting clear honey for sugar and with the addition of a very Roman ingredient: sesame seeds! The recipe goes right back to ancient Greece where actors on the Athenian stage speak of warm pancakes steaming over a brazier at daybreak with honey drizzled over them. It might have been a kind of fast food as it is in parts of the world today.   

Little details like these are just one of the many factors that go to making an historical novel good. Now I just have to get plot, character and pace right...

Escape from Rome, the first in Caroline Lawrence's new Roman Quests series, launches in May 2016. 

Monday, 8 February 2016

'Go Tell The Bees' - by Karen Maitland

'Bacchus discovering honey'
“If you would take a swarm of bees from a hollow tree. Saw off the top of the tree and cover the swarm with a cloth soaked in wet clay. Then saw through the tree beneath the swarm and carry it home. But it is best you do this swiftly.” – Advice given to Medieval Beekeepers.

This last line sounds particularly wise advice. Beekeeping was vital in the Middle Ages for the production of honey for use both in cooking and to preserve food, such as fruits. It was important in medicine too. It had been recognized since ancient times that honey helped to prevent wounds from festering, healed ulcers and helped internal ailments.

Beeswax was equally valuable for making the vast number of candles needed to light homes, workshops and churches. It was also needed to make polish to preserve wood and leather, for waterproofing and for sealing storage jars and documents. Bees also pollinated many food and forage crops. So, not only were bees kept in huge numbers in monasteries and manors, many medieval cottagers would have also have been beekeepers.
Bee skeps beneath a fruit tree in 1400's

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the hive was ruled by a king bee, not a queen, with a social structure that paralleled human society, with the monarch at the top. In Shakespeare’s “King Henry V”, the Archbishop of Canterbury describes this belief. This parallel between human society and that of the industrious bee was frequently alluded to in sermons, as proof of the divine and natural order, which no one should even think about rebelling against. Although, a number of people down through the centuries had claimed it was a queen not a king, who was centre of the hive, it wasn’t until the second half of the 17th century, that the Dutch naturalist, Jan Swammerdam, finally managed to get the idea generally accepted.

In Britain, bee skeps have been traditionally made from whatever people used for making byres and cottages. In areas where reeds were used for thatching houses, it was used for skeps. Where corn was grown, they used corn straw. Pallandius writing in the 4th century, recommended hives made from wood or woven from wicker, covered with daub, and insulated with wool and moss. Sticks were laid across inside the skep to give the bees something on which to build the comb, which, if the bees co-operated, made it easier to remove honeycomb at intervals throughout the season, without damaging the skep or colony. Pallandius also advocated putting out dishes of honey boiled in water, infused with rosemary in the early spring to feed them. We now know that rosemary has antiseptic properties which might well have helped the bees to fight disease.

Medieval beekeepers were advised to put sweet smelling herbs inside a new skep, together with castor (oil from beaver glands). This may not merely have soothed the bees into staying, but might also have helped to discourage mites which can weaken and kill bees.

The Normans introduced the stone ‘bee tower’ or ‘honey pot’. The Cistercian monastery at Mellifont had a 40 ft high bee tower. The one erected by Nicholas de Verdon in 1230, in Clonmore, County Louth was 50 ft high and 10 ft square. It had tiers of louver openings on three sides, but not on the north wall, with lofts lined with straw on each tier to keep the hives warm and a central ladder.

Medieval manuals give detailed instructions on capturing wild bee colonies. Someone wanting to restock his own hives from the wild was advised to go and sit by shallow water in a forest. If he saw a large numbers of bees, he caught some by sucking them up them in a hollow reed and then marked them by sticking small pieces of feathers or petals of different colours to them with wax. He was then instructed to release them and observe which bees came back to the water first. This was a sign their nest was the closest, so he could follow those. But in reality, I suspect most medieval country dwellers would not have bothered with anything so complex. They, or their children, would have spotted colonies of wild bees whilst driving pigs into the forest in autumn or collecting kindling, and would simply have marked the sites to return to in spring.

Up to a few decades ago, it was thought that medieval beekeepers were pretty wasteful with bees, killing off most of the hives to take the honey in autumn and replenishing them from wild sources or a stock hive in the spring. But we have come to realise that medieval beekeepers were just as careful to keep any healthy hives going over winter, as the modern beekeeper. They knew how to combine colonies with a weak ‘king’ to a stronger colony. And they claimed that by setting out troughs of ‘toasts of bread soaked in strong ale’ near the hives in March, a colony could thrive for ten years.

To separate honey from wax, the combs were broken inside sacks and the sacks hung up and left to drip, this produced the finest honey. The combs were then bruised and beaten in the sack and hung in a warm place, often in front of the fire, so that a lesser quality honey ran out. The final few drops of honey were extracted by pressing the combs in straw under heavy stones. Monasteries who had cheese or fruit presses would use those, but in cottages the family quern or grinding stone was often used as the weight. Afterwards, the straw was pressed into bundles while still wet and hardened into a waxy tapers or spills, which could be used to light fires or to smoke the bees, to stupefy them.
King Louis XII of France riding to attack
rebels in Geneo. The bees and skeps
 illustrate the motto - "The king whom
we obey, does not use his sting."

Medieval laws regard bees were very complex and often varied widely across the country. In Ireland, if a swarm from a known hive settled in the hollow trunk of neighbour’s tree. The produce in the first three years had to be divided, with two-thirds going to the person who owned the tree and a third to the owner of the hive from which they came. In the fourth year, the bees became the sole property of the tree-owner. But if the bees instead settled in branches of the tree, the proportions were reversed, with only a third going to the tree owner. However, rather unfairly, if the owner of the original hive was of humble birth, he was only entitled to a half of the produce, not two-thirds.

If some passing a hive got stung, providing he hadn’t struck the hive, under Irish law he was entitled to a full meal of honey, unless he killed the bee which stung him, then he got nothing as the crime had been avenged.

There are many ancient superstitions connected to bees, often originating in the belief that they were the messengers between earth and heaven. One is that bees must be informed of births or deaths in the family immediately, otherwise they will fly away. And even twenty-years ago, I remember an elderly relative going out to tell the bees about the death of her husband before she would utter a word to anyone.

Telling the bees