Wednesday 12 December 2012

Anyone for snowballs? by H.M. Castor

Detail from Allegory of Winter by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1285-1348)
[Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Though financial paperwork would not usually be a favourite topic of mine, accounts made centuries ago can be fascinating. In the case of the Tudors – my current area of study – they can give us marvellous details of pageants, feasts, orders of clothing and equipment, and even the layout of rooms (“Made anew in the Queen’s dining chamber a great carrall window on the west side, with new leaning places, and a halpace [half-pace/half-step] underfoot, new made... A jakes made at the north end of the Queen's dining chamber” – this at the Tower of London in 1532, in preparation for Anne Boleyn's coronation) – and they can, in the case of a single person’s accounts, give us tantalising glimpses of what he (or she) got up to, and where.

They can also, of course, be puzzling. One of my favourite examples – and one for which I haven’t yet found a satisfactory explanation (can anyone help?) – is amongst Anne Boleyn’s last purchases for her daughter, the future Elizabeth I, who was two and a half at the time:

20 Feb. [1536]: “A pair of pyrwykes” for my lady Princess, delivered to my lady mistress [i.e. Elizabeth's governess].

The word “pyrwykes” has been left in quotation marks, and without a footnote, in the transcript of these accounts, I assume because the (Victorian) editors could not explain it. Fascinatingly, pyrwykes or pilliwinks originally meant “thumbscrews” – an instrument of torture – which surely guarantees that, in its use here, it was a nickname… but for what? The late Eric Ives suggested finger-straighteners, but as far as I can tell that was simply a guess, and I cannot find further evidence elsewhere to help one way or another. Yes, Elizabeth I grew up to be very proud of her long fingers, but were unstraight fingers really a concern in aristocratic circles at the time? 

Thankfully, other information deriving from accounts is more straightforward. The personal accounts for Henry Courtenay, Earl of Devon, for example, for the early part of 1519 give details that are still vivid for us today. Courtenay was a first cousin of Henry VIII (their mothers had been sisters) and a great favourite of the King’s too, at least at this time. By 1519 Courtenay was, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us, “one of the select band [amongst Henry’s friends] afforded daily livery and apartments within the royal household”. And thus his accounts give us a glimpse of what life in this innermost circle of the court involved.

4 Feb. For playing money in the Queen’s chamber, 40s.; at shuffleboard, 2s.

…the Queen at this time was Catherine of Aragon…

5 Mar. To a poor man at Greenwich, for helping to walk horses on the day my lord rode at the tilt at Eltham, 1d.

27 Feb. For eggs, bread, drink, and oranges in my lord of Burganye’s chamber for my lord when they were there masking before the King, 12d.

…though why it was Courtenay who paid for the food on this occasion I don’t know…

18 Feb. For costs of the King’s tennis court at Richmond when my lord played there with young Mr. Care, 2s. 8d.; to young Care for my lord’s losses at tennis, 8s.

My favourite entry, however, has to be this one:

25 Jan. To a lad at Charleton, for lending his cap to my lord when the King and his lords threw snowballs, 4d.

Henry VIII – king already for almost ten years – played snowballs! How very nearly might we not have known this, had not Courtenay borrowed that cap?

Would you have dared to hit the King (surely a sizeable target, even at this early point)? Courtenay had a good few years still to come of royal favour, though finally – after tangling with Thomas Cromwell – he was sent by Henry to the block. (Indeed, most of the King’s close buddies from this time – those who didn’t succumb to illness – eventually got the chop.)

But let’s focus on that earlier, happier image… the King and his friends laughing (I think we can safely imagine) in the snow. A lovely reminder that human beings – whoever they are, and in every age – have always had a great deal in common. Some wonderful portrayals of ancient games of snowballs, in paintings and frescoes, can be found here.

If it's wintertime wherever in the world you are, happy playing!

Giant snowball - Oxford, by Kamyar Adl
(Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII, for teenagers and adults - is currently on the longlists for the Carnegie Medal and the UKLA Book Award. It is published by Templar in the UK, by Penguin in Australia, and will be published in the US by Simon & Schuster in 2013.

H.M. Castor's website is here.


Mark Burgess said...

Lovely post, Harriet, and appropriate today as we have our first (very slight) dusting of snow here in Somerset. As for Anne Boleyn and the pyrwykes, I wonder if the gift was symbolic - Anne's way of telling her daughter to 'show them who's in charge'.

michelle lovric said...

So much fun! I do love the Lorenzetti detail. Such a serious face for a man who is about to splatter someone with snow!

Katherine Roberts said...

Wow, that's the kind of snowball you hope nobody is strong enough to throw at you...

Dorian said...

My guess for the pyrwyckes would be jewellery - fancy, jewelled thumb-rings.

H.M. Castor said...

Thank you for the comments and the suggestions, Dorian and Mark. Michelle, I agree, though I do think I spot a glint in his eye... and yes, Katherine, I had the same thought - but if someone had managed to land it on Henry in 1519 a few wives (and lives) might have been saved...