Friday 18 March 2022
Friday 11 March 2022
This could be anybody. An effigy worn by time into a generic female face and form. Hundreds of years old. Where there are few written records it is hard to bring back to life historical figures, even ones born into the nobility. As for ordinary people, they are lost to posterity.
In fact this woman is a member of the nobility - no peasant would warrant the expense of a tomb effigy. She is Cecily Bonville-Grey, subject of a new book by Sarah J. Hodder, and one of the reasons we know anything about her is that she was fabulously rich.
She was born in 1459 or1460 and at that time the only two ways for a woman to be rich was to inherit or marry money and Cecily did both. She was a member of the wealthy Neville family on her mother's side and a niece of the Duke of York, head of the Yorkist faction in the Wars of the Roses. Her father, William Bonville, was a descendant of a Norman noble who had come to England in the 12th century, so not quite with the Conqueror.
William's grandfather had married a great heiress, who brought to the marriage a vast inheritance from her late first husband.
Around the time of Cecily's birth, her father and grandfather - both called William - were killed at the Battle of Wakefield, where the Duke of York was killed by the Lancastrians. Only her great-grandfather (another William naturally) survived to take the news back to Cecily's mother. But he was soon executed after another battle in which the Lancastrians were the victors.
So before the age of two, little Cecily was heir to a lot of wealth from the three men called William, whom she would not have been able to remember. Her mother, Katherine, was only nineteen when she lost her husband, father-in-law and grandfather-in-law, so she did the logical thing and remarried.
No, not a lion but a very important man at court, William Hastings, who was one of the greatest supporters and confidants of the new king, Edward lV. For the seesaw of this turbulent period now had the Yorkists firmly at the top Henry Vl had been deposed and the Duke of York's oldest son sat on the throne.
So Katherine and Cecily left their beloved home in Devon for Hastings' home in Leicestershire and a life at court. The family soon grew with the birth of three half-brothers for Cecily. But as the 1460s went on, the king and Cecily's uncle Warwick (the "kingmaker") fell out over Edward's choice of bride and soon Katherine found herself caught between her husband, King Edward's right-hand man, and her brother, who was now actively supporting the king's younger brother, Clarence, as a candidate for the throne.
It is hard to keep Cecily disentangled from the complications of the Wars of the Roses and Hodder doesn't do so. In fact, the well-known details of this period help to pad out this rather slim volume (144 pages, including notes and bibliography).
The trouble with people about whom not much is known is that the biographer has to resort to "likely," "most likely" and "maybe." This is the case with Julia Fox's book on Jane Rochford as much as with Germaine's Greer's Shakespeare's Wife. And then something that has been "likely" in one place becomes the basis for the next assertion.
Cecily seems to have got on well with her stepfather, though her mother must have suffered from his well-known infidelities; he was a brother-in-arms to the king, a notorious philanderer. Hastings and her mother planned a marriage for Cecily that would bring her even closer into the Royal circle: her intended husband was to be Thomas Grey, the king's stepson by his wife's first marriage. The marriage took place when Cecily was fourteen or fifteen and Grey four or five years older.
Shortly after the wedding, Thomas Grey was made Marquis of Dorset so now Cecily was a Marchioness; they were just one rung down in the scale of nobility from Duke and Duchess. But with great honours come duties and responsibilities. King Edward launched a new French campaign and took his stepson with him, leaving his new wife behind.
Cecily was sixteen or seventeen when she gave birth to her first child, a boy named after his father. Young Thomas was the first of fourteen children of Cecily's first marriage. It does seem that noblewomen of this period were either prolific, like Philippa of Hainault, the wife of Edward lll or Cecily Neville, the wife of the Duke of York. The king's wife bore him eleven children in addition to her two sons by her first marriage.
Not all these children would grow to adulthood but these medieval women would have spent a couple of decades being pregnant, as there were miscarriages too. But there were exceptions like the two Margarets (Beaufort and the Princess of Anjou) who had one single son each.
Cecily, however, in addition to fulfilling her duties as a wife and mother, was a great landowner and spent time and money restoring her childhood home of Shute. She could employ a vast army of household staff to look after her growing family, while she devoted her time to building projects, in this regard resembling the later Bess of Hardwick.
And then, in 1483, everything changed. Edward lV died suddenly in his early forties and - notoriously - his youngest brother, the Duke of Gloucester, declared his nephew Edward Prince of Wales, illegitimate and had himself installed on the throne as Richard lll.
Cecily's husband was now in great danger, as a son of the widowed queen. No title or Order of the Garter was protection now. A rift had grown between Dorset and his father-in-law Hastings, Cecily's stepfather. They both seem to have been enamoured of Jane Shore, who had been one of the king's many mistresses. But the two men had put aside their differences to support the new boy king
Richard had other ideas. He summarily had Hastings put to death, without trial, for treason. Dorset had gone into hiding in France but Richard, who had already executed Dorset's brother Richard and the former queen's brother, was determined to hunt him down. However, Henry Tudor and the Battle of Bosworth Field intervened and in 1485, Dorset was back in England, with his title and lands restored.
But all was not plain sailing. Henry didn't really trust Dorset, who had after all married a prominent Yorkist and who had been Edward lV's stepson. Dorset didn't help himself by his support of a Pretender, who turned out to be Lambert Simnel. After that pretence was exposed Dorset and Cecily lived quietly, completing their large family. He died in London at the age of forty-six, having escaped the wrath of one king and the suspicions of another.
That was not the end of Cecily's adventures, however, as, at the age of forty-five, she made a second marriage to a man twenty years younger than her, Lord Henry Stafford. Given the age difference, Hodder suggests, convincingly, that this was a love match, maybe the first time Cecily had exercised her own choice. As might have been expected, this choice was very unpopular with Cecily's children. Nevertheless, the marriage lasted eighteen years until Henry's death.
Cecily spent the last seven years of her life as a wealthy widow building memorials to members of her family. She died at 61 in 1530, by which time, Henry Vlll had been on the throne for twenty years. There had been five monarchs in her lifetime, a particularly turbulent period in English history. And, in another twist of history, Lady Jane Grey, the "Nine Days Queen," was her direct descendant.
|The Dorset aisle in the church of Ottery St Mary|
The book would really have benefitted from the addition of a family tree or two, especially with so many carrying the same name (too many Williams, Elizabeths and Cecilys!) But it fills a gap in our knowledge of a very remarkable woman who bridged the Plantagenet and Tudor eras.
(Published by Chronos Books)
Friday 4 March 2022
|Black Mustard Flowers|
Photo: Aryan Murmu
The second in my new Jacobean thriller series, Traitor in the Ice, is set in Battle Abbey in 1607, then occupied by the redoubtable dowager and recusant, Lady Magdalene, Viscountess Montague. When her grandson, Anthony Viscount Montague, inherited his estates in 1595, the 22-year-old wrote a rule book for the servants of his household detailing the duties of each officer and servant, from the high steward to the scullery man. While all the other servants were assigned a long list of tasks, I was intrigued to discover that the Sculleryman, had only two duties – to clean and safely store all the pewter and silverware, and ‘to have a single regard to the tempering and making of mustard with good seed and to the well keeping and serving of it.’
Preparing the mustard doesn’t sound like a task that would occupy much of the working day, but when you realise how important mustard was to the Tudor and Jacobean household and the vast quantities they used, it was a key job.
Thomas Tusser (1524-1580) in ‘His points of Good Husbandry’ advises –
Maids, mustard-seed gather, for being too ripe.
And weather it well, ere ye give it a stripe:
Then dress it, and lay it in soller up sweet
lest foistiness make it, for table unmeet.
(Soller – a dry loft or upper room)
|Black Mustard, Brassica nigra, in seed|
Councillor's Marsh at Le Verdon-sur-Mer, France
Photo: Touam (Herve Agnoux)
Mustard seed, when ripe scatters from the stem at the slightest touch, so had to be gathered before it was fully ripe. Maver in 1615, says this should be done early in the morning when the dew was still on it. Depending on the quantity to be harvested, the whole plants were usually gathered up in the maid’s skirts or in a sheet carried between two poles, to minimise the loss of seed.
When dried, the plants were lightly beaten on a hurdle or put into linen bags and ‘striped’ with a thin cane to dislodge the seed. The chaff was blown off, and the tiny seeds sorted by hand or sieved to get rid of pieces of stem and husk. Another method was to wash the beaten seed, so that husk floated off, then put the seeds into a cloth bag, dry them, then stamp on them to crush them, before sieving to make a fine mustard flour.
They could also be ground up using a pestle and mortar or quern, but this had to be done carefully to avoid getting mustard dust and oil in the eyes which could be an irritant. By the Elizabeth period, those who could afford it, equipped their sculleries with mustard mills alongside other utensils such as a bread grater and a mortar for spices. But grinding wasn’t the end of the process. The mustard then had to be made into a sauce.
|Black Mustard Seeds. Photo: Sanjay Acharya|
A 17th century recipe for mustard to be eaten with beef, calls for one and half pints of mustard seed to be ground into honey, olive oil and vinegar.
A more eye-watering sauce was made by soaking slices of horseradish in vinegar, squeezing them out, and adding sugar and a chopped onion to the vinegar. You used this flavoured vinegar to mix into your mustard flour to make a cooking sauce, which you spread beneath beef before braising it, or poured over slices of brawn.
Mustard was also eaten with Poor Jack, dried salt cod, also known as haberdine, served in the cheaper inns or taverns. The fish was inexpensive, but had little flavour, so was consumed with large quantities of mustard. At the other end of the social scale, in wealthy households, plaice, ray and ‘White,’ pickled fish such as herring, ling, or whiting, was also served with mustard sauce. Minced salmon was dressed in a mustard, sugar and vinegar sauce. Goose, wild duck, gulls, woodcock and young herons came served with a mustard sauce, as did rabbit.
|British mustard pot, John Gold, 1793|
Huntington Museum of Art, West Virginia, USA
Perhaps Voltaire (1694-1778) had a point when he said, ‘In England there are sixty different religions, but only one sauce.’ Actually, the English Tudors and Jacobeans had a large array of different sauces, but mustard sauce was the one consumed in vast quantities by both the farm labourer and the wealthiest noble, and this was because all were agreed mustard was excellent for the digestion. ‘Let such whose stomachs are so weak they cannot digest their meat or appetite it, take of mustard seed a dram.’ Culpepper (1616-1654)
But while the English could scarcely eat a meal without mustard, the Scots viewed mustard consumption as a sign of weakness. They had long prided themselves on eating their meat with only the good natural gravy that sprang from the juices. In the 1630s, Robert Monro of Opisdale, was appalled by the Scottish soldiers serving in the armies of the King of Sweden whose ‘stomackes could not digest a Gammon of Bacon or cold Beefe without mustard,’ which he saw as evidence of moral degeneracy and feebleness among the once-tough Scottish soldiers.
|USA Newspaper ASdvert 1922|
Mustard still advertised as
good for the digestion.
But mustard wasn’t just used in cooking. Horseradish and mustard are often found growing wild together on old monastic sites and near medieval inns. In the days before heat-gels, aching bones, stiff joints and muscles, the result of spending long, cold days walking or riding, could be eased with ointments made from a mixture of mustard and horseradish, sometimes provided as charity by monasteries, but which innkeepers also sold to suffering travellers. A body rub with the same ointment before setting out was a good way to keep out the cold. Mustard was also used as a cure for all kinds of other ailments, but as with early recipes, it’s not always clear which type of mustard they were using. White mustard, black mustard, hedge mustard, treacle mustard and garlic mustard were all used in cooking and medicinally, but modern botanists class some of these plants as being from different families.
Throughout the Middle Ages, households mostly grew the mustard they required for their own use, not least because young mustard greens were considered an excellent pick-me-up and purge after the long winter months of salt meat and dried beans. Medieval monasteries and manor farms supplied some surplus seed for market, but in Tudor times in ever-expanding cities such as London, many people no longer owned an herb patch, and mustard started to be collected on a commercial scale in the country to be sold in the city.
It was usually transported in the form of solid dry balls, hence Shakespeare’s biting insult in Henry IV when Poins is described as having ‘wits as thick as Tewkesbury mustard.’ In Tewkesbury and elsewhere, cannonballs in iron mortars were used to grind the mustard seeds, which women had gathered from hedgerows and fields. Legend has it when Henry VIII visited Tewkesbury in 1535, he was presented with mustard balls covered in gold leaf.
|Hedge Mustard, Sisymbrium officinale|
Photo: Ian Cunliffe CC BY-SA 2.0
To make the balls, mustard had to be mixed with a variety of other ingredients to bind it, such as pease-meal, flour, wine or spices and then they were dried. An Italian recipe of 1465, combined the mustard with pounded raisins, cinnamon and cloves. When the ball was crushed and mixed into milk or vinegar, wine or cider, the result was an ‘instant’ sauce. This made it particularly useful for provisioning travellers or using onboard ships.
Not everyone was impressed with the result, though. Peter Mundy 1608-1667 noted in his journal that Tewkesbury mustard ‘is much spoken off, made up in balls as big as hen’s eggs, at 3d and 4d each, although a farthing worth off the ordinary sort will give better content in my opinion, this being in sight and taste much like the old dried thick scurf that sticks by the sides of a mustard pot.’
|Treacle Mustard or Wormseed|
Principly used in Tudor times
to counteract poisons
Photo: Jason Hollinger
But whether it was for eating or rubbing on, the household and servants in Battle Abbey would have been connoisseurs of mustard, and if Viscount Montague’s sculleryman didn’t ‘cut the mustard’ and temper his seeds perfectly, his wages would have been ‘moonshine in the mustard pot,’ a delightful Jacobean phrase, meaning he’d be paid nothing.
Writing as KJ Maitland, her new novel, Traitor in the Ice, the 2nd in her Jacobean crime thriller series, is published on 31st March 2022, by Headline.