Sunday, 30 December 2012

At home with a 17th century Vicar

Alfriston Vicarage - Tudor
I have recently been researching background information for the character of a 17th century parson, so I thought I'd share a few snippets of information about their households, or parsonages. First what is a parson? A parson is 'the priest of an independent parish church not under the control of a larger ecclesiastical or monastic organization.'(Wikipedia) Often the term is interchangeable with 'rector' or with 'vicar', but historically these terms are dependent on the status of the person with regard to their tithes. More information about this complex terminology can be found here
The first parsonages were very simple affairs constructed from wattle and daub, roofed with thatch or shingles.
Solar, Churche's Mansion, Nantwich Cheshire
As time went on more elaborate dwellings began to be built so that by the Middle Ages some parsonages were equipped wih a solar (warm sunny gallery on the first floor) or more chambers to receive guests, such as the one in West Dean Sussex with its tracery windows and newel staircase.
West Dean Rectory
Most 17th century parsonages were housed within church grounds or close by so that parishioners could know where to find the incumbent.At this time the parson was allowed to have 'husbote' or free wood for his fires and for repairs to his outbuildings. Most parsonages also had stabling for horses as it was a prerequisite that he should offer hospitality to those who demanded it.

Flitton Vicarage in 1827,built in 1606 painted by Rev. Henry Wellesley
Because of the duty of hospitality the household would usually consist of a number of servants as well as the vicar himself. Matthew Knyghtley's rectory in Leicestershire was run by 'a day-woman, two servants and a cook'. Although the rector or parson of the 16th and 17th century was more often celibate, there were a number of married clergy, known as uxorati, as well as untold numbers of 'co-habitations' with servants, 'nieces' and 'spiritual daughters'.

This behaviour was seldom censured by the church, but met with wide disapproval amongst parishioners. In June 1610 a Mr and Mrs Holland declared that 'The World was never merrie since priests were married'.
The practice of marriage was popularised in the West by the followers of Martin Luther who himself, a former priest and monk, married Katharina Von Bora, a former nun, in 1525. In the Church of England, however, the Catholic tradition of clerical celibacy continued after the Reformation, though in 1547, in the reign of Edward VI Anglican priests were allowed to marry for the first time.

Some parsons had such large families that they found it hard to manage financially. The Vicar of Hungerton in 1614 said, 'my livinge is very small...if I had not lately received a gratuity I had not been able to maintayne myselfe and eight children'.

In most rectories furniture was simple - trestle tables, benches and stools, with pewter dishes, horn drinking cups and iron cooking vessels. After the Reformation a parson or rector was supposed to avoid ostentation in his personal belongings but it was considered perfectly acceptable for him to brew his own beer and many parsonages also had a brewhouse attached.

In towns where the population was bigger, the rectory could be a grander affair. The parson's study had become a necessity since the Elizabethan drive to raise the standard of education of the clergy, so many 17th century clergy owned considerable libraries. When  Matthew Knyghtley died, his books were valued at twenty pounds, whereas his three silver spoons were worth only 12 shillings. As books were so valuable the study often contained a bed, for the books were too rare and costly to be left unguarded, and would frequently be studied deep into the night.
17th century Book of Common Prayer 
During the Civil Wars many parsonages and rectories were plundered - not always by the Roundheads but by both sides. Usually the troops were after bedding - plentiful in a vicarage where hospitality was the norm. John Dod, Vicar of Fawsley was looted three times by the Cavaliers. On the second occasion he was ill in bed and they stole the pillows from under him, on the third occasion he outwitted them by hiding some goods including his best sheets, under the cushion he was sitting on.

And at Kilworth in Leicestershire the disposessed Royalist rector Samuel Cotton, assisted by some Cavaliers, ousted the Presbyterian successsor and his wife in the middle of the night and took over their former home, placing guards at the doors to prevent them re-entering.The walls of the rectories would have some exciting stories to tell if we could only unlock them!
Church of St Lawrence, Alton, Hampshire showing shot holes from
the English Civil War
Thank you for reading, my website is at
and you can find out more about my novels here:
The Lady's Slipper  The Gilded Lily  A Divided Inheritance

Further Info: The Country Priest in English History by A.Tindal Hart
Birth Marriage and Death in Tudor and Stuart England by David Cressy

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The Twelve Days of Christmas: a historical meander

We all know the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas": I thought, for this post, I would have a look into its history. As with any research, one thing leads to another ...

The words to the song were first printed in a children's book, Mirth Without Mischief, in 1780.

(The title is quite delightful as is, but even more so with the addition "...or the Gaping Wide Mouthed Waddling Frog." You can buy a reproduction copy of Mirth Without Mischief through Amazon: click here.)

In Mirth Without Mischief, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is presented as a memory game. Players gather in a circle, and each one in turn says the first line. Then, when it comes around to the first player again, he gives the second line, and so on, until someone messes up and punishment ensues.

Of course the song itself dates further back, some even claiming its origin in the 16th century. It is generally thought that the original verse was French. Others claim it was a Catholic catechism memory song, taught to the children of oppressed English Catholics during the Reformation. (This theory is considered to be an urban legend by some.)

The twelve days of Christmas is a custom that originally goes back to the Roman celebration of Saturnalia followed by twelve holidays, ending January 1. Now (usually) the twelve days of Christmas—known as Christmastide and Twelvetide—begin on December 25, Christmas day, and end on January 5. In some cultures, the twelfth day is January 6, the first day of Epiphany.

As with any historical exploration across cultures, dates will differ. For some, Saint Steven's Day (Boxing Day) marks the beginning of the twelve days of Christmas, with welcome candles put in windows. A Yule Log (an ancient custom handed down from the Druids) was kept burning until the New Year to ensure good luck from year to year.

Twelfth Night marks the traditional end of the Christmas season: but does it fall on January 5th or 6th? That, too, depends. We live in very Catholic Mexico in the winter, and January 6th is the big event here. The night before, while children sleep, fathers swarm into the markets to buy their children a gift to discover in the morning. Even the big department stores stay open, and taxis and buses are busy taking parents from shop to shop in the dark of night.

The Twelfth Night party is celebrated with a King Cake (Rosca de Reyes here, Gateau de Rois in French-speaking countries) in honour of the three Wise Men. It's a yeast cake filled with dried fruits and nuts. It is based on an ancient Arab recipe, and has been made in this way by Christians throughout most of Europe since the Middle Ages.

In Mexico, as in times past, the person who gets the piece with a plastic baby Jesus in it (a pea or bean in former times, of course) is crowned. Here the tradition is that that person is then obliged to give the Twelfth Night party the following year.

I love this etching of Christmas festivity gone wild:

Rest assured that however you celebrate the holidays, whatever you do has a long and very merry tradition.

Here's wishing everyone Happy Holidays, and a wonderful New Year! Keep that Yule Log burning.

Sandra Gulland
(The Josephine B. Trilogy, Mistress of the Sun)
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Wikipedia on the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas"
Lyrics for "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Bacon's Rebellion

During the 1650s and 60s, the English population increased dramatically in Virginia. Economic situations and the addition of new arrivals caused conflicts with the Native people. Raiding from both sides resulted, and the colonists were either confused or didn't care as to which tribes were friendly. Governor Berkeley gathered a force to deal with the situation, but the colonists murdered five chiefs who had requested peace. The governor pleaded for restraint from the colonists.

Nathaniel Bacon, an owner of Indian and African slaves, captured some friendly Appamattuck Indians for "allegedly" stealing corn. This set the seeds for the rebellion, at a time when the colonists wondered which man was taking the right action.

As a result, the governor feared a complete Indian rebellion. In March 1676, the English declared war on the Indians with their Acts of Assembly, and laws were enacted to build forts for protection from the Indians. Farmers requested a force to suppress the Indians, but when they were ignored, they took matters into their own hands with Bacon as their leader.

Berkeley labeled them as rebels and attempted to control the situation by riding to Bacon's headquarters with 300 armed men. Bacon fled into the forest.

The governor issued pardons for Bacon's men if they went home peacefully. Instead, Bacon marched on the friendly Occaneechi tribe. He convinced them to attack the Susquehanock. When the Occaneechi returned with captives, Bacon and his men killed the captives. They then turned their fire on the Occaneechi, killing most of the people of the town.

In order to try and keep the peace, Berkeley agreed to pardon Bacon if he turned himself in. Ironically, Bacon was elected to the House of Burgesses due to sympathy from his Indian attacks. When he appeared in Jamestown for the June Assembly, he was captured. Tensions flared between Berkeley and Bacon, but in the end, Bacon became the commander-in-chief to fight the Indians. He lead a revolt and drove the friendly Pamunkey from their lands, killing and capturing many of them in doing so.

Soon after, the governor declared Bacon's commission void. Bacon returned to Jamestown, and Berkeley immediately fled. Each of the men tried to gain support, promising freedom to the slaves that would join in their cause. In September, Bacon set fire to Jamestown.

The rebellion ended when a royal force arrested many of the rebels, and it failed completely soon after Bacon died from dysentery in October 1676.

Kim Murphy

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Maitlands of Thirlestane Castle

During my research, and search for another worthy heroine [!] it struck me how often names and places crop up repeatedly. The 1600’s were an almost incestuous time where all the prominent families were related to each other somewhere along the line.  The hero of my book was John Maitland, 2nd Earl Lauderdale, whose great uncle was William Maitland of Lethington, the renowned, ‘Secretary Lethington’ to Mary Queen of Scots.  

Mary Queen of Scots
Maitland married Mary Fleming, one of the "Four Marys" who attended Mary, Queen of Scots, in France and accompanied her to Scotland in 1561. As an ambassador at Elizabeth I's court, he was also involved in the conspiracy to murder David Rizzio (the private secretary and rumoured lover of Queen Mary) by her King consort, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley and his supporters. 

William accompanied Mary into the Scottish Highlands against the powerful Earl of Huntly, who led his troops at the Battle of Corrichie in 1562 where he was killed. William regained the Queen's favour and continued in her service until Mary surrendered herself to Sir William Kirkaldy, another accessory to Rizzio’s murder, and the insurgent nobles at the Battle of Carberry Hill. William then openly joined them and was present at the Battle of Langside, which finally ruined Mary's cause in Scotland.  

Sir John Maitland was created the 1st Lord of Thirlestane and married Jean Fleming, the heiress of Lord Fleming, Lord High Chamberlain of Scotland during Mary’s reign.

When Mary fled to England in 1567, Maitland joined with the new government, but acted in Mary’s interests and formed a party to restore her to power. In 1573, Kirkaldy, held Edinburgh Castle for Mary, along with William and his elder brother, John.

Elizabeth I sent troops to quell the uprising, the defences of the castle were demolished and John, 1st Lord Maitland of Thirlestane was imprisoned in Tantallon castle, while William was held at Leith prison where he died, either from illness or, some said, suicide.

The Maitlands were notorious for playing both sides in their own interests, a tradition continued when John Maitland, 2nd Earl Lauderdale, a staunch Covenanter up to 1647, then he rode south and attempted to help Charles I escape his captors at Hampton Court. When that plan didn’t go quite the way he wanted, he joined the young Charles II and was eventually to become part of his famous Cabal when the king was restored to the throne in 1660.

The Maitlands came from France with William the Conqueror in 1066, and settled in Northumberland. In about 1250, Sir Richard Maitland married Avicia, the daughter and sole heiress of Thomas du Thirlestane. Their Norman name, originally spelled Mautalent, Matulant or Matalan, translates as ‘evil genius’, a name the men of that family seemed to live up to through the centuries.

Thirlestane Castle, Lauder, Scotland
Their ancestral home is Thirlestane Castle at Lauder on the Scottish borders which dates back to the 13th century, when a Border fort was built on the site to defend the approach to Edinburgh from the south. The central part of the present Castle was completed in 1590, remodelled in the 1670s, and then again in the 1840s.

The 2nd Earl was made Duke of Lauderdale by Charles II and he and his second wife, Elizabeth Tollemache, renovated Thirlestane in the 1670’s, and turned it into a magnificent residence fit for their king to visit, as they did with Ham House in Richmond. The stone surround on the front door at Thirlestane bears the entwined initials of the duke and Elizabeth, who was Countess of Dysart in her own right.

Early in 1680, Lauderdale suffered a stroke and resigned his posts, although he had quarelled with Charles II before that. He retired to Tunbridge Wells to take the waters and died there in August 1682. The Dukedom died with him and his brother Charles became the 3rd Earl of Lauderdale.
Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale 1679
Much of the furniture in the Castle today is from the 19th century, mainly because the earlier contents were removed on the Duke's death by Duchess Elizabeth who dispatched fourteen wagon loads of furniture to Ham House in Richmond, before the people of Lauder grew so incensed that they prevented the last wagon from leaving.

Duchess Elizabeth was at heart a Scot, a tradition she maintained when her daughter by Lionel Tollemache, another Elizabeth, married Archibald Campbell, 1st Duke of Argyll in 1678, who was the son of James Stuart, 4th Earl of Moray, a direct descendant of a daughter of the Regent James Moray, half brother to Mary Queen of Scots.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, stayed at Thirlestane in 1745 after victory at the Battle of Prestonpans when he led the clan armies south through Lauder, and the troops camped in the Castle Parklands.  

A dividing arch in the dining room contains a bust of Captain Sir Frederick Maitland, to whom Napoleon surrendered on board HMS Bellerophon after the Battle of Waterloo.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Hildegard's House of Light

Elizabeth Erickson’s 2008 painting “Hildegard’s House of Light.” 

Today marks the First Sunday of Advent and the first post of our Viriditas Interfaith Advent Calendar, “Journey into Light.”

Here in Northern England, I find myself plunging into the depths of midwinter darkness. It is in this womb of night and stillness that the Light is reborn. Through the ages and across cultures, world faith traditions have marked this sacred passage through the darkness, as our guest bloggers shall explore in the coming days of Advent.

In Christian tradition, Advent is a period of expectant waiting, of anticipating the birth of Christ. The word Advent comes from the Latin adventus, which means “coming.” This First Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the Western Christian liturgical year.

The Advent wreath and Advent calendar are relatively recent innovations. Christmas and Advent celebrations have gone through many permutations throughout history, as our guest bloggers will reveal, from boisterous celebrations with mummers and feasting to Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan backlash in which he outlawed Christmas because he believed the feast was far too pagan.

Back in Hildegard von Bingen's day, in the 12th century, Advent was a season of fasting and penitence in preparation for the Twelve Days of Christmas, which begin on Christmas Eve and end on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.

The season would have been especially numinous for Hildegard as a child anchorite at the remote Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg. Imagine the enduring the depths of midwinter without central heating or electric lights, in an age when even religious people believed that there were demons lurking in the shadows. This would have pitched Hildegard into the deep drama of the season—the rebirth of the Light out of teeming darkness.

One German seasonal tradition that young Hildegard might have treasured was the Barbara Zweig, or the Barbara Branch. This was a branch cut from a fruit bearing tree on the Feast of Saint Barbara, December 4. Kept in a vase of water in a warm and sunlit corner, it would bloom on Christmas Day.

There were other, more atavistic traditions associated with the season. In Northern Europe, long before the Christian era, the Twelve Nights of Yule were held in awe—time out of time when fate hung suspended, when secrets were revealed and fortunes could be reversed, when the most powerful magic was afoot. Well into the Christian era, people believed that the ghostly Wild Hunt still roared across the midwinter skies along with the gales and storm winds.

I experienced these traditions first hand when I lived in Germany. In the Bavarian town of Kirchseeon, just east of Munich, mummers in hand-carved wooden masks perform the “Perchtenlauf,” a wild torchlit procession through the winter forest to awaken the dormant nature spirits and call back the dwindling sun. I'll discuss these folkways in greater depth in another post.

Now we return to young Hildegard, the child anchorite at Disibodenberg Monastery.

Here is an excerpt from Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

After Vespers, I went to see if our Barbara Branch still had enough water. Though the buds had once seemed to swell, it now felt like a dead twig I could snap between my fingers. The forest would not stop haunting me. How the wild places called out to me in the face of Jutta’s direst warnings. Again and again she told me that I must dread everything dark and untamed.

Demons ruled the nocturnal hours, she insisted. On stormy nights, outside our anchorage walls, trees writhed, tossing their branches against the moon-drenched sky. As I lay in my narrow bed, my ears rang with the shrieking wind, the cries of owls and wolves in search of prey.

Little did it matter that Christmas was fast approaching. For centuries before the Irish missionaries brought the faith of Christ to this land, before Carolus Magnus toppled the Irminsul, the idolatrous pillar of the heathens, my ancestors had held the Rauhnaechte, the Twelve Nights of Yuletide, in awe—time out of time when fate hung suspended, when secrets were revealed and fortunes could be reversed. This I knew from Walburga’s tales. The servants and peasant folk back home had muttered stories of the Old Ones roaring across the midwinter skies: the Wild Hunter of a thousand names in pursuit of his White Lady with her streaming hair and starry distaff, the whirlwind before the storm.

Leaving Jutta to her dreams, I crept out of bed and stole into the courtyard where I pranced barefoot in the swirling snowflakes like the mummers who came to Bermersheim every Yuletide in their fearsome wooden masks to frighten away harmful spirits.

A gale howled overhead, and the cold stung my soles, sending me spinning as the Wild Hunt of Walburga’s nursery stories raged overhead, that endless stream of unbanished gods and the souls of the unchristened dead. Anyone who dared venture out on a night such as this risked being swept along in that unearthly train.

But did I cross myself and flee inside to safety? No, I raised my face to the clouds racing across the full moon and I begged those invisible riders to take me with them.

Clouds shrouded the moon. Everything went black. I plummeted, down and down, as if there would be no end to my falling. De profundis clamavi ad te. Gazing up from the depths, I saw a circle of sky, now emptied of moon and stars. Had I been cast into hell for my sin? From out of that murk came a white cloud bursting with a light that was alive, pulsing and growing until it blazed like a thousand suns.

In that gleaming I saw a maiden shine in such splendor that I could hardly look at her but only catch glances like fragments from a dream. Her mantle, whiter than snow, glittered like a heavenful of stars. In her right hand she cradled the sun and moon. On her breast, covering her heart, was an ivory tablet and upon that tablet I saw a man the color of sapphire. A chorus rose like birdsong on an April dawn—all of creation calling this maiden Lady. The maiden’s own voice rose above it, as achingly beautiful as Jutta’s singing.

  I bore you from the womb before the morning star.

I didn’t know whether the maiden was speaking to me, lost and wretched, or to the sapphire man in her breast. My vision of the Lady was lost but her voice lingered. You are here for a purpose though you don’t understand it yet.

Barefoot and mother naked, I found myself within a greening garden so beautiful, it made me cry out. Each blade of grass and newly unfurled spring leaf shimmered in the sun. Every bush and tree was frothy with blossom and heavy with fruit at the same time. In the midst of that glory, the Tree of Life with its jeweled apples winked at me, and yet I saw no serpent. The Lady’s voice whispered: See the eternal paradise that has never fallen.

I saw a great wheel with the all-embracing arms of God at its circumference, the Lady at its heart. Everything she touched greened and bloomed.

Pealing bells wrenched me back into this world. The monks were ringing in Christmas morning. I lay on my pallet, the blankets piled over me, my legs swaddled in damp cloth. Above me hovered a maiden with glowing blue eyes. Her veil had slipped and the sun shone through her halo of cropped auburn curls. Whispering my name, Jutta held out a blossoming apple branch, each pink and white flower scented of the Eden I had glimpsed.