The Holly And The Ivy

Right so first of all apologies for the lack of articles recently, but as every GCSE student knows the month of November is entirely centred around achieving the forecast mock exam results. Apologies aside in the interest of the festivity of this season, what does the Holly and the Ivy symbolise?

Holly And Ivy growing together.

Holly And Ivy growing together.

The importance associated with these plants is not as some may think it a Christian phenomenon, more correctly it’s foundation predates Christianity and instead was an important Druidic symbol which was then adopted by Christianity. The use of Holly was highly ritualised and there are reports of Druids wearing it as a form of ceremonial headwear in Northern Europe, when they processed to observe the harvest of Mistletoe by their priests. Many Druidic cultures believed that Holly remained evergreen throughout the Winter months to ensure that the land remained beautiful, when their most sacred plant the oak lost its leaves.

The Romans also believed that the Holly and Ivy plants held importance, as Holly was the sacred plant of one of their God’s Saturn, and because of this was used at the feast of Saturnalia to honour him. Saturnalia was a celebration of the last harvest and the sowing of a new autumn crop, it was a time where informal clothing could be worn, gambling was allowed in public, children were allowed out of school and were given gifts by adults, wild behaviour was accepted and slaves could act disrespectfully to their masters. Holly and Ivy garlands or wreaths were given as gifts as they were believed to be gifts that inspired luck and good fortune, especially if subsequently used to adorn effigies of the God. Then on July 19th 64AD, the city of Rome was set ablaze and rumours circulated that the Romans own Emperor Nero was solely responsible, in a panic to prevent these rumours (which are now thought to be true) Nero blamed a group of the populace who were already persecuted and feared because of their beliefs, Christians. As a result of this, persecution of the Christian faith increased and with the number of practitioners also increasing, Christianity began to develop into a mainstream religion with its own set of holidays. One of which was Christmas, by coincidence this celebration coincided with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, to avoid persecution many Christians adorned their homes with Holly and Ivy garlands so as not to cultivate suspicion amongst their neighbours, whilst inside their homes they celebrated Christmas in groups.

The associations of Holly and Ivy with Christmas and indeed the season persisted throughout the centuries as is evidenced with the number of songs that have been written concerning them or their symbolism. Indeed even Henry VIII wrote a love song concerning the virtues of Holly and Ivy ‘Green groweth the holly’ which concerns holly and ivy resisting the onset of winter and remaining evergreen ‘So I am and ever hath been Unto my lady true’, which he wrote and composed for Catherine of Aragon. However the most well-loved and well-known Christmas carol concerning the virtues of Holly and Ivy has to be ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ which was reputedly first mentioned in a Broadside of 1710, according to the book Early English Lyrics by Chambers and Sidgwick published in 1926.

It begins …

The holly and the ivy

Now are both well grown

Of all the trees that are in the wood

The holly bears the crown

Another such old carol is contained within a manuscript preserved at the British Museum, which was then published in 1823 in a book entitled Ancient Mysteries Described: Especially the English Miracle Plays founded on Aprocryphal New Testament Story extant among the unpublished manuscripts in the British Museum by William Hone (1780-1842).

Nay, my nay, hyt shal not be I wys,

Let holy hafe the maystry, as the maner ys:

Holy stond in the hall, faire to behold,

Ivy stond without the dore, she ys ful sore acold,

Nay, my nay etc

Holy and hys mery men, they dawnseyn and they syng,

Ivy and hur maydyns, they wepen and they wryng.

Nay, my nay etc’

Or in more modern language collected by Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) from Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, relates also to another carol which is known as ‘The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly’.

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:

Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.

Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;

Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,

Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.

Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;

Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

The aforementioned Contest of the Ivy and the Holly, is traditionally thought of as a contest between female (ivy) and male (holly) symbolism. In several social history manuscripts of the time there is evidence that in village life in ancient Britain there was a midwinter custom of holding and performing singing contests between men and women, in which men sang carols praising Holly for its masculinity and condemning Ivy, whilst women sang carols praising Ivy for its femininity and condemning Holly.
Holly has become a symbol of peace and joy, so Holly trees became place to settle arguments as they would help create lasting peace. Lots of superstitions have developed around Holly including the belief that it has the power to frighten away witches and protect a home from thunder and lightning. In England, farmers sometimes placed holly on their beehives, because they believed that on the first ever Christmas the bees hummed in honour of Christ’s birth. The hanging of either Ivy or Holly on a door or in the house first would determine which gender would rule the household for the following year, however it was bad luck to do so before Christmas Eve. This was also believed in the case of ‘she holly’ (smooth leaved holly) and ‘he holly’ (prickly leaved holly) e.g. if ‘she holly’ was hung on the door the female of the household would rule it for the year. In Germany it was believed that a piece of holly used in church decorations would be an effective charm against lightning. In west England it was thought that placing holly around a girls bed on Christmas Eve would protect her and keep away goblins. Holly was thought at this time of year to bring sweet dreams and a tonic of it was thought to cure a cough and ivy was still believed by some to cure hangovers (which was originally a Roman belief).

So remember the importance of Holly and Ivy to almost all religions, respect it and its cultural importance. But most of all have a,

Merry Christmas Everyone!


An Early Greetings Card showing holly and mistletoe.

An Early Greetings Card showing holly and mistletoe.


Where Did The Celts Go?

As is already known I take a great interest in Celtic history and when given the opportunity to holiday in the lake district I began to ponder, which tribe had inhabited this land and what remnants related to there existence still remained?

The Celts had started migrating to Britain from Europe at around 500bc and remained undisturbed for about 550 years before the Romans arrived in Britain. During the Iron Age the Carvetii occupied Cumbria in north-west England, historical speculation places their settlement on either the Solway Plain, possibly the Lune Valley or the Eden Valley. The evidence of their existence is sparse and they are known from only three roman third and fourth century A.D inscriptions, unfortunately one of these is now lost. One is situated at Frenchfield (north of the roman fort of Brocavum)and another of the sites is situated at Langwathby fairly near Penrith both of these inscriptions were on milestones. One of the milestones closes with the statement ‘… R(es) P(ublicae) C(ivitas) Car(vetiorum)’, …the Public Works of the Carvetian State’.  The other was inscribed on a tombstone found in 1600 in Old Penrith (the Voreda Roman Fort) a fair way north of present day Penrith. The tombstone of Flavius Martius recorded poportedly that he was ‘Sen(ator) In C(ivitas) Carvetior (um)’, a senator on the tribal council of the Carvetii tribe. The combination of all three inscriptions infers the existence of the ‘civitas Carvetiorum’, the land of the Carvetii and the existence of its leading body. Suprisingly the Carvetii are not mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography. The capital of the Carvetii is thought to have been by many Luguvalium (modern day Carlisle) as this was the only walled town known in the region at the time. It has also been suggested that because of the vicinity of the inscriptions and the location of the most fertile land in the area and the known existence of an enclosed settlement some miles east of Penrith in the fertile Eden Valley that the logical location of the Carvetii capital is near the modern day Clifton Dykes. It is accepted that Carlisle was an important part of Carvetii lands as it was a centre of activity following the Roman invasion of Britain, preceding this the Eden Valley was certainly the centre of Carvetii lands. A strategic point within the Eden Valley is Brougham and its surrounding area which held importance with the cult of Belatucadrus, it also seems to be an important trade route with routes east across Stainmore and several important meeting places with several stone circles and monoliths and the presumed pre-roman capital of Clifton Dykes. This concentration of sites of importance may be at least a part of the reasoning behind the construction of the roman fort at Brocavum.

One of these sites is the Bronze Age stone circle Long Meg and Her Daughters is situated near Penrith in Cumbria. The stone circle is the sixth biggest example in north-western Europe, it consists of 59 stones 27 of which remain standing. The stones are stood in an oval shape and is 100m in diameter at its longest point. Originally there may have been as many as 70 stones in the circle. The megalith Long Meg herself is 3.6m high and is of red sandstone and is 25m to the southwest of the circle formed by her daughters. Long Meg is inscribed with examples of early art consisting of spirals and concentric circles. Several enclosures that predate the circle have been identified and Little Meg a smaller stone circle is situated close by. As mentioned earlier the monolith is local red sandstone, from either the River Eden or the Lazonby hills nearby, the circle stones however are rhyolite and are glacial erratic’s. Two large stones are placed to the east and west and there are two doorway stones placed to the south-west. The placement of Long Meg is aligned down the centre of the circle and the point of the midwinter sunset. In it’s early days the circle may have had a bank running around it and the centre may have been concave to some extent. Four of the stones in the circle don’t appear to be local and are formed from quartz crystal, they seem to have been deliberately placed at specific points that mark calendric events, for example on Samhain an alignment involves a portal stone, a quartz stone and Long Meg. The stones seem to mark solar and lunar timings as well as equinox’s. Long Meg and Her Daughters is the source of a great many legends, one being that the stones were originally a coven of witches who were turned to stone by the Scottish wizard called Michael Scott. Another legend is that the stones are uncountable and that if anybody counts the same number twice then Michael Scott’s spell will be broken and the witches released. Yet another legend is that when a local squire, Colonel Lacy planned to blow up the stones perhaps in search of treasure which was often said to be buried under such monuments in the 1700’s, but before they could ignite the black powder a fearful storm began to rage and the attempt was mercifully abandoned, a sought of supernatural protection. Long Meg is said to have been named after a local witch Meg of Meldon who lived in the early 17th century. It is said that if the monolith is damaged it will bleed.

Compass pointing east showing the alignment from Long Meg through the monoliths.

One of the earliest and largest stone circles - Long Meg And Her Daughters

One of the earliest and largest stone circles – Long Meg And Her Daughters

Concentric circle inscription on the Long Meg monolith.

Concentric circle inscription on the Long Meg monolith.

The Long Meg monolith in all her glory.

The Long Meg monolith in all her glory.

Little Meg although less impressive is equally important and would have been revered by the Carvetii although it is much older than the tribes origins. It is the remains of a burial mound or round cairn, it would have originally consisted of a central burial cist surrounded by kerb stones, the cist unfortunately has been destroyed but was found to contain a cremation urn. The central mound is now gone though there are 10 or 11 kerb stone remains. The cairn is situated half a mile north-east of Long Meg and Her Daughters. In age it is thought to have been constructed in the later Bronze Age. Two intricately carved stones were found there one still remains in place the other was removed and can be seen in all its glory in Penrith Museum, it shows a spiral motif and a series of concentric circles.

Late Bronze Age Cairn - Little Meg

Late Bronze Age Cairn – Little Meg

At the time of the Carvetii, both monuments would have been magnificent in all their glory. We can only speculate that there use continued and indeed what there use may have been. I personally believe that such noble monuments would have been sites of political and spiritual importance, places of worship and meetings, as indeed they continue to be today.

And now I will continue with a bit of a rant, whilst holidaying in the lake district I search the nearest town Ambleside high and low for reading material concerning Cumbria’s Celtic heritage, I was dismayed not only that I could not find any reading material at all on Cumbria’s Celtic heritage but the sheer lack of history books concerning any era. I hate to see any history being ignored, I have hope and am sure that this absence of recorded history is not wide spread. Get out there and write about the Celts!

Anyway rant over, there are some stunning Bronze and Iron age sights in the Lake District, you should definitely go see them I know I will!

Dying To Be Famous

It was just recently that I went on a short holiday to the lake district, during this short stay I climbed the 3rd highest mountain in England, the mighty Helvellyn. After a hair-raising climb over Striding Edge and then enduring the steep scree scramble to the summit, I was surprised to see (even through the fog) an impressive stone monument. Upon closer inspection this monument was dedicated to Charles Gough (born 1784) an aspiring artist of the early English Romantic movement.

Memorial stone for Charles Gough erected in 1890, with an inscription containing quotes from Wordsworth's poem 'Fidelity'.

Memorial stone for Charles Gough erected in 1890, with an inscription containing quotes from Wordsworth’s poem ‘Fidelity’.

On the 17th of April 1805 the 21 year old artist visiting the Lake District (reputedly by Wordsworth for the sake of angling in Patterdale) from Manchester set out to walk over Helvellyn to Grasmere. At the beginning of the 19th century mountaineering for enjoyment and not out of necessity was a relatively new pursuit, and as such Gough would be facing the mountain with no specialist clothing or equipment. It was advisable even then to take a guide with you when scaling the mountain, Gough had indeed secured a guide, however as a member of the local militia his guide was called up for training that unfortunate day. So Gough set out alone, with the exception of his dog Foxie on his way eventually to Grasmere via Striding Edge. He was never again seen alive, with no one expecting him to venture back the way he came and seemingly no one expecting him to arrive in Grasmere. For 3 months he seemed to have vanished, until on the 27th of July a shepherd heard a dogs frantic barking near Red Tarn and upon further investigation discovered Foxie beside Gough’s dispersed bones and threadbare clothing. Depending on which report you read it is debatable as to whether the shepherd then asked the assistance of some walkers or left the scene and returned with a crowd and collected Gough’s remains and possessions consisting of some fishing tackle and reel, a gold watch, a silver propelling pencil and two Claude glasses (a darkened convex mirror used by landscape painters), they also recovered Gough’s hat which had been torn in two. From this it was surmised that Gough had fallen to his death from the treacherous Striding Edge and had died from the head injuries procured or from exposure to the elements. The barks which had alerted the shepherd to Gough’s resting place had of course originated from Foxie, not only had she survived the months exposed to the elements beside her dead master, but also given birth to a pup, which unfortunately died shortly after their discovery and subsequent rescue. Foxie’s seemingly impossible health and the skeletal remains of her master caused a Carlisle newspaper to report  ‘The bitch had pupped in a furze near the body of her master, and, shocking to relate, had torn the cloaths from his body and eaten him to a perfect skeleton.’ Yet another report suggested that Gough had been eaten by Helvellyn’s resident ravens. The mystery encompassing Gough’s death, not only how he died but why he took the risk of ascending Helvellyn without a guide, continues to inspire those who climb Helvellyn lending the mountain an element of history all its own. Gough had been asked by a local artist to copy some drawing, but Gough was known for taking risks. Thomas Clarkson an abolitionist who had met Gough stated that Gough was a ‘venturesome person’ whose headstrong nature had caused the local shepherds alarm. Gough’s body is now interred in a Quaker graveyard in Tirril.

A view of the knife-edge striding edge, where Charles Gough fell from.

A view of the knife-edge Striding Edge, where Charles Gough fell from.

At the time William Wordsworth lived at Grasmere and news of this tragedy inspired his creative genius. As word spread Sir Walter Scott also became intrigued by the calamity and Wordsworth guided him and Humphry Davy (a chemist) to the area in which Gough met his end. Subsequently both poets were motivated to write poems romanticizing and recording the event for eternity. They both certainly believed that Foxie remained guarding Gough’s body out of loyalty, the truth however was probably darker.

William Wordsworth’s poem ‘Fidelity’ written in 1805 and published in 1807.

A barking sound the Shepherd hears,
A cry as of a Dog or Fox;
He halts, and searches with his eyes
Among the scatter’d rocks:
And now at distance can discern
A stirring in a brake of fern;
From which immediately leaps out
A Dog, and yelping runs about.

The Dog is not of mountain breed;
It’s motions, too, are wild and shy;
With something, as the Shepherd thinks,
Unusual in its’ cry:
Nor is there any one in sight
All round, in Hollow or on Height;
Nor shout, nor whistle strikes his ear;
What is the Creature doing here?

It was a Cove, a huge Recess,
That keeps till June December’s snow;
A lofty Precipice in front,
A silent Tarn below!
Far in the bosom of Helvellyn,
Remote from public Road or Dwelling,
Pathway, or cultivated land;
From trace of human foot or hand.

There, sometimes does a leaping Fish
Send through the Tarn a lonely chear;
The Crags repeat the Raven’s croak,
In symphony austere;
Thither the Rainbow comes, the Cloud;
And Mists that spread the flying shroud;
And Sun-beams; and the sounding blast,
That, if it could, would hurry past,
But that enormous Barrier binds it fast.

Not knowing what to think, a while
The Shepherd stood: then makes his way
Towards the Dog, o’er rocks and stones,
As quickly as he may;
Nor far had gone before he found
A human skeleton on the ground,
Sad sight! the Shepherd with a sigh
Looks round, to learn the history.

From those abrupt and perilous rocks,
The Man had fallen, that place of fear!
At length upon the Shepherd’s mind
It breaks, and all is clear:
He instantly recall’d the Name,
And who he was, and whence he came;
Remember’d, too, the very day
On which the Traveller pass’d this way.

But hear a wonder now, for sake
Of which this mournful Tale I tell!
A lasting monument of words
This wonder merits well.
The Dog, which still was hovering nigh,
Repeating the same timid cry,
This Dog had been through three months’ space
A Dweller in that savage place.

Yes, proof was plain that since the day
On which the Traveller thus had died
The Dog had watch’d about the spot,
Or by his Master’s side:
How nourish’d here through such long time
He knows, who gave that love sublime,
And gave that strength of feeling, great
Above all human estimate.

And Gough was not only immortalised in words, several famous painters of the time also immortalised him and Foxie. Both Francis Danby and one of queen Victoria’s favourite painters Edwin Landseer painted the event. Landseer’s painting entitled ‘Attachment’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1830 in conjunction with Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘Helvellyn’.

Edward Landseer's painting entitled Attachment. Painted in 1829.

Edward Landseer’s painting entitled ‘Attachment’. Painted in 1829.

So Charles Gough achieved fame certainly not in the way he would have wished, his death on the mighty Helvellyn and the subsequent interest of poets and painters romanticizing the loyalty of his dog Foxie, has immortalised him forever more on the eerie summit of Helvellyn. As for me I realised when I reached the summit that despite my aching joints and burning lungs I had enjoyed the challenge and the summits landscape unaffected as it was by time, is I believe a memorial enough for Gough. In short I loved every moment of it and dad and me will definitely be climbing Helvellyn again, although he may not know it yet!

Me and Dad about to climb Helvellyn.

Me and Dad about to climb Helvellyn.

CaseStudy 2: Anne’s Sweating Sickness

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn, possibly derived from a lost original of 1533-1536

On the 22nd of June 1528, Anne Boleyn future queen of England fell gravely ill with the sweating sickness, on the same day William Carey, Mary Boleyn’s husband succumbed to the disease.

It was on the 16th June 1528 one of Anne’s ladies in waiting fell ill. Henry VIII fled court in London seeking refuge against the epidemic and along with queen Catherine and Anne Boleyn fled to her family home at Hever. Upon hearing of her sudden illness Henry wrote to his beloved saying he ‘would gladly bear half of your illness to make you well’ and also wrote to reassure her that ‘few women or none have this malady’. At Hever her father Thomas Boleyn also contracted the sweating sickness during the epidemic. The king responded by sending Thomas Butts his second best doctor to treat her, with him Butts carried a letter offering ‘sympathy and support’. In this letter Henry pleaded that Anne ‘be guided by his (Dr Butts) in your illness’ so that she might recover and that would be to the king a ‘greater comfort than all the precious jewels in the world’.

A report from the French ambassador to the English court Du Bellai in 1528 states:

…One of the filles de chambre of Mlle Boleyn was attacked on Tuesday by the sweating sickness. The King left in great haste, and went a dozen miles off…This disease is the easiest in the world to die of. You have a slight pain in the head and at the heart; all at once you begin to sweat. There is no need for a physician: for if you uncover yourself the least in the world, or cover yourself a little too much, you are taken off without languishing. It is true that if you merely put your hand out of bed during the first 24 hours…you become stiff as a poker

Butts succeeded in his treatment of Anne Boleyn and for his effort by December 1528 he had been appointed Royal Physician and received a salary of 100 pounds a year. Henry’s concern for Anne’s life was not misplaced, many towns recorded the deaths of half their population as down to the sweating sickness, the afflicted were not expected to survive and death often came within 24 hours.

The sweating sickness over wise referred to as ‘the sweat’ or the ‘English sweat’ reached epidemic status in England in the years 1485, 1508, 1517, 1528 and 1551. The outbreaks happened again and again but on only a single occasion did the sweating sickness strike outside England. People were seemingly afflicted at random and after the 1500’s the sickness seemed to simply disappear.

Symptoms included shivers, dizziness, headaches, pain in the arms, legs, shoulders and neck, fatigue, exhaustion and ‘a sense of apprehension’. And this last symptom is perhaps the one that scared people most, it effected their emotions and their were cases of people foreseeing  their own deaths. There were stages to the disease the first being shivering, cold stage closely followed by the hot stage including a raging fever. As to the cause of this terrible illness there are various theories such as Hantavirus, poor hygiene and relapsing fever.

Thomas Forestier recorded his observations of the 1485 epidemic in two accounts the first ‘Treatise on the venyms fever of pestilens’ summarizing the virulent disease (in English) and the second account ‘Tractatus contra pestilentiam thenasmonen et dissinteriam’ written to aid his fellow physicians (in Latin). The second of these includes a description of the disease.

… The exterior is calm in this fever, the interior excited… the heat in the pestilent fever many times does not appear excessive to the doctor, nor the heat of the sweat itself particularly high… But it is on account of the ill-natured, fetid, corrupt, putrid, and loathsome vapors close to the regions of the heart and of the lungs whereby the panting of the breath magnifies and increases and restricts of itself…

Henry VIII busied himself with a study of the disease and its possible cures herbs laced with molasses and bleeding from the arm, between the thumb and forefinger or between the shoulders to balance the humours. In the Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland the variety of people most inclined to contract the disease was recorded

It is to be noted, that this mortalitie fell chieflie or rather upon men, and those of the best age as between thirtie and fortie years. Few women, nor children, nor old men died thereof

The disease as evidenced above mainly effected men between the ages of thirty and forty.

Although Anne Boleyn survived this most feared disease she tragically was executed by the man who professed to love her. But she left her mark upon history in a story most children around the world will have heard, she was the woman who changed a countries religion and acted as the catalyst for the reformation. She gave England our greatest queen in the form of her daughter Elizabeth Tudor.

So we conclude that certainly the sweating sickness was terrible, but what WAS the sweating sickness? My hopes rest that within time science or indeed history will provide an answer. In the meantime we don’t know the untold numbers of people who lost there lives to the sickness, but we do know that Anne Boleyn survived the sickness and that her survival wrote English history.

The Time Traveller’s Guide To Medieval England: A Handbook For Visitors To The 14th Century

The Time Travellers Guide To Medieval England By Ian Mortimer

The Time Travellers Guide To Medieval England By Ian Mortimer

Author: Ian Mortimer

This book is a true masterpiece that allows people to experience the past as living history in all its vivid glory. Mortimer takes us through an industry free landscape furnished with heraldic knights, pitiful peasants and melancholic monks. The author puts across complex processes such as the feudal system with simplistic language allowing readers of all abilities to comprehend such processes. There is a thread of humour running throughout the pages of this book, that makes it truly a joy to read. Perhaps the part that made me giggle most was the twisted meaning quite apart from chivalry, of the phrase ”women and children first’ used in such a way as to describe the quickest way to lighten a sinking ship. Mortimers approach allows people to see the facts not merely as cold statistics but personified, clothed is flesh and bone, as real people! We can only assume at the hours upon hours the author has spent in dusty archives searching for the personal experiences of medieval people, so that we are no longer distanced from the past. Most people have heard of the terrible disease that is leprosy and how it putrefies and deforms a person, but when we hear that in Medieval England people with the disease were forcibly excluded from society and treated with open hostility wherever they wandered, we as readers feel we know them and feel such pity for their plight. But Mortimer goes one step further actually naming a sufferer of the ‘living death’ London baker, John Mayn who refused to leave the city when ordered to do so by the mayor in 1372, and its no surprise he refused asked to leave his home, possessions and livelihood.

‘Amazing’ – Alison Weir

It is indeed a marvel that Mortimer has managed to scavenge such imagery from the eddies of time, particularly when you consider the lack of official documents to provide backbone to his gripping narratives. Though it is perhaps unsurprising when you take into account the rich resource of literature from the period. Namely William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer, both their masterpieces adding rich texture and perspective of Medieval England with their richly detailed characters portraying a diverse range of echelons. Throughout the text second person and present tense is used making the reader truly a part of living history so that you are the one fearing for your life when the black death spreads rampantly through the country and you are the one seated in the place of honour in the main hall of a noble household. Everyday life is described with great zeal from peasants pottage to the meat-rich diets of nobles and kings. However beware this jovial journey is seldom peaceful, your life is not your own if you are below the rank of tradesman and especially not if you are a woman. As you walk down the muddied streets of Medieval England, know that you are constantly watched, because although sparsely populated there is no shortage of travelers keeping pace with you, whether they be on pilgrimage or simply journeying to trade.

‘After The Canterbury Tales this has to be the most entertaining book ever written about the Middle Ages’ – Sue Arnold Guardian

There is many an insightful gem of advice making this a valuable travel guide, of particular interest to me was the ‘Ten places to see in London’ from the marvel that is London Bridge to the solemnity of the permanent gallows at Tyburn. Each chapter within this archive of a book has a specific purpose, the chapter on Medieval Character allows you to know those you travel with better and understand both the injustice and the beauty of medieval society. In the Medieval world ‘a streak of violence runs through the whole population’, so beware!

Though we are then assailed by sentimentality with ‘The Warrior’s Love Of Flowers’, so you see there is more to the medieval people than violent humour and brutality, they were as multi faceted as we are today and we have them entirely misunderstood. A hero’s tale told alongside that of a thief’s, a knight’s alongside that of a fair maiden’s and a medieval world we adore, it could almost be fiction… but its not, its HISTORY!

In short, read the book!

CaseStudy 1: Elizabeth’s Smallpox

Elizabeth 1

Queen Elizabeth 1 in her coronation robes. Painted by an unknown artist, c. 1600.

On the 10th of October in the year 1562 the queen of England Elizabeth 1 fell gravely ill. At the age of 29 the queen had contracted the smallpox in one of the worst outbreaks in England in her reign, this sent her counsellors into a flurry and the queen was practically begged to name a successor. To us in the modern world where smallpox has been eradicated this reaction may seem extreme, but with a 30% mortality rate Elizabeth’s counsellors had ample reason to worry. The queen was taken ill at Hampton Court Palace with what was originally thought to be a bad cold, however this early symptom quickly developed into a severe fever and the verdict was clear, smallpox.

The only known prevention that was used against smallpox during this period was prayer and pious living, no surprise then that many died and those that survived were often blinded. The disease was particularly dangerous for infants. Infant mortality rates ranging as high as 90% this is one reason why infants were baptised early. Smallpox displays a number of symptoms including aches, nausea, a high fever and most notable of all a blistering rash containing puss, the rash first appears on the face, hands and feet then quickly spreads throughout the rest of the body. If the patient survived for twelve days they generally lived, though more often than not suffered horrific scarring.

Variola Virus

The Variola (Smallpox) Virus

For many ordinary people there was no cure for smallpox. However Elizabeth 1 was subjected to the most up to date treatment by her physicians, the red treatment. Elizabeth was wrapped in a red blanket the theory being that the red light cast by the material was able to weaken the symptoms or even completely cure the smallpox. This rather outlandish cure was first suggested in Europe by Gilbertus Anglicus in his medical text Compedium Medicinae. Fortunately Elizabeth recovered with what was reported to be only minor scarring, though it is thought that this caused her to wear a thick layer of lead paint to hide the scars for the rest of her life.

A more usual outcome of smallpox is evidenced in the case of Lady Mary Sidney a lady-in-waiting to the queen, who helped attend the queen during her illness and consequently contracted the disease herself. Although Mary too survived she was badly scarred, Sir Henry her husband described the outcome of her illness in a manuscript describing his service to the crown (Memoir of Services), written in 1583.

“When I went to Newhaven [Le Havre] I lefte her a full faire Ladye in myne eye at least the fayerest, and when I retorned I found her as fowle a ladie as the smale pox could make her, which she did take by contynuall attendance of her majesties most precious person (sicke of the same disease) the skarres of which (to her resolute discomforte) ever syns hath don and doth remayne in her face, so as she lyveth solitairilie sicut Nicticorax in domicilio suo [like a night-raven in the house] more to my charge then if we had boorded together as we did before that evill accident happened.”

So bad was the scarring that Mary remained a recluse separating herself from her family and did not attend court as frequently, it is perhaps because of this seclusion that a myth developed stating that she wore a mask for the rest of her life. As to the queens reaction to the disease we have little knowledge except to say she wore a wig and painted her face with lead paint. There is record of one incident in 1599 when the queen was 66, where the queen’s ‘favourite’ Robert Devereux (2nd earl of Essex) entered her chamber at Nonsuch Palace before she had hidden her scars beneath a thick layer of lead paint. Understandably, she was most upset with him and had him confined to his chamber with the comment ‘an unruly beast must be stopped of his provender’ (his confinement was also due to the fact that the queen had expressly forbidden his return to court). Her displeasure at him may have partly caused his rebellion in 1601.

Lady Sidney

Lady Mary Sidney, lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth 1. Attributed to Hans Eworth, c. 1550-1555

Thankfully the queen survived to reign over what is even now known as the ‘Golden Age’ of English history.

The whole populace rejoiced at Elizabeth’s recovery from the smallpox and coins were struck to celebrate her survival.

Commemorative Coin

A commemorative coin celebrating the queens recovery from the dreaded smallpox.

But what if she hadn’t survived? What if there was no ‘Golden Age’?

When the queen died on the 28th of April 1603, she was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey, a life-like effigy adorning her tomb. John Stow a historian who was in attendance recorded that:

“Westminster was surcharged with multitudes of all sorts of people in their streets, houses, windows, leads and gutters, that came to see the obsequy, and when they beheld her statue lying upon the coffin, there was such a general sighing, groaning and weeping as the like hath not been seen or known in the memory of man, neither doth any history mention any people, time or state to make like lamentation for the death of their sovereign”

Elizabeth was a remarkable queen and her reign will forever be remembered as a ‘Golden Age’ of English history.