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A Tudor Christmas. December 22, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. A reader recently came on to our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, with the query “Was the Tudors’ Christmas like ours now?” Now, I’m assuming they meant Tudors as in Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth I, not Tudors as in Tasha Tudor, American children’s book author and illustrator. (Tasha’s amazing and delightful Christmas celebration and rituals can be enjoyed through the wonderful book Forever Christmas and the video/DVD “Take Joy!”)

But getting back to the British royal line, the short answer to our reader’s query is “not so much.” Why? Well, think of what epitomizes Christmas to us: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, a roasted turkey and all the trimmings, eggnog, stockings “hung by the chimney with care,” Christmas cards, The Night Before Christmas, Ebenezer Scrooge and A Christmas Carol. We all know that Christmas movies and TV specials wouldn’t have been a part of a Tudor Christmas. But none of the rest of this would have been, either.

So what would a Tudor Christmas have been like? Let’s take a look:

A season, not a day. For people in the Tudor era, Christmas lasted an entire month, from the 6th of December (St. Nicholas’s Day) through Twelfth Night (Epiphany, January 6). The month wasn’t one long holiday, of course, but there was plenty of time for feasts, traditions, churchgoing, and celebrations.

The Yule Log. One key tradition was the Yule Log. Of Viking origin, the Yule Log was adopted by everyone, since it fit in nicely with the winter woodburning and huge fireplaces of the time. (All heating and cooking was done with wood, and fireplaces in the kitchen and great hall were large enough to sit in very comfortably. No wonder Santa came down the chimney in later traditions!) On Christmas Eve, a huge, previously selected log was cut, festooned with ribbons, and brought into the hall. It was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas to usher in the Christ Child and a prosperous New Year, and any scraps that hadn’t completely burned were kept to kindle the following year’s Yule Log to bring good luck . 

The Holly and the Ivy. Christmas trees didn’t become popular until Victorian times, when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced them from Germany. But the concept of using evergreen plants—be they pine or fir trees, holly branches, ivy, boxwood, yew, laurel, or mistletoe—to celebrate the winter solstice and the promise of rebirth and new life to come—was the same, and of Druidic origin. “The Holly and the Ivy” was a popular carol that commemorated this tradition, and the Tudors would have sung it. Folk in Tudor times would have decorated their homes with greens on Christmas Eve rather than, as we do, long before, because if you didn’t wait, it was considered bad luck.

Caroling. Yes, caroling—singing Christmas songs and dancing for joy—was as popular in Tudor times as it is today. (Though somehow we forgot the dancing part of the original caroling.) You might even know some popular Tudor carols, like “The Coventry Carol,” “The First Nowell,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” In fact, “What Child Is This?” is based on a popular Tudor tune, “Greensleeves,” which legend attributes to Henry VIII himself, as a love song to Anne Boleyn. The wonderfully-named Wynken de Worde published the first collection of carols in 1521, so Henry and his court would have been familiar with it. Religious plays centered around Christmas were also popular aspects of a Tudor Christmas; they were often called “mystery plays” because they celebrated the mystery of the Incarnation.

Wassail. Another legacy of the Viking occupation of Britain, the Wassail Bowl is still recalled by most of us as a Christmas legacy, even if, like us, you’ve never tasted Wassail punch. According to the website www.historic-uk.com, Wassail was composed of hot ale, sugar, spices, and apples. Its name derives from the Saxon Waes-Hael, “be whole,” “be healthy.” Click the link and you’ll discover how our custom of “toasting” came to be, and it’s a pretty amazing story. Sounds like our own version of Wassail is hot mulled cider, though our friend Ben and I prefer ours with Gosling dark rum, not ale.

Christmas Dinner. Two meat pies dominated Christmas dinner in Tudor times. The “folk” ate mince pie, including dried fruit, spices, and mutton, and shaped like a crib in honor of Baby Jesus. The Court ate Christmas pie–a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon, all packed into a pastry casing called a “coffin” and dressed with jointed hare, small game birds, and wild fowl. Yow!

We Americans know that turkeys are native to our land, so how would they have figured in a Tudor Christmas? Well, the colonists sent turkeys to England in 1523, and King Henry VIII was the first king to include turkey in his Christmas celebrations. According to the website www.historic-uk.com, turkeys quickly gained popularity, and “large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot, a journey which they may have started as early as August.” Talk about some very fit turkeys!

Most Britons of the day feasted on swan, goose, woodcock, venison, wild boar, or peacock. (Elizabeth I insisted that goose be the choice for Christmas dinner, a tradition most of us in the U.S., who’ve never had goose, recall fondly from Bob Cratchit’s Christmas dinner.) Another popular dish was souse, consisting of pickled pigs’ feet and ears. Christmas pudding was a sausage of meat, oatmeal and spices. And a boar’s head on a platter was ceremoniously presented at the table in wealthy households and—gulp—served.

There was a version of our dreaded fruitcake even back in Tudor times, called Twelfth Night Cake. And the Tudors even ate a variation on our salads, including sprouts, but pressed into the shape of the Tudor coat of arms. 

Gingerbread and sugarplums. Gingerbread men were presented to guests by Queen Elizabeth I, cunningly designed to resemble the fortunate recipient. Less lofty individuals enjoyed gingerbread men and pigs (!) and eaten on Bonfire Night, November 5th. Sugarplums, by contrast, didn’t make an appearance until the 1600s, so they weren’t a Christmas treat on Tudor tables. And by the way, they weren’t made from plums; the word “sugarplum” referred to a plum-shaped sugar candy. 

Presents. Our all-important custom of giving Christmas presents was also a big deal in Tudor times, but not for Christmas; it was a New Year’s custom. If you happened to be a noble or a courtier, not only were you expected to give gifts to your extended family, dependents, and friends; you had to give a gift to your monarch (aka Henry) as well. And if he rejected your gift, God help you. 

Christmas cards. In Tudor times, people didn’t send Christmas cards. But they did send original poems—typically, epigrams—for New Year’s. Since Henry VIII himself was an accomplished poet, his court had to meet a pretty high bar.

Mistletoe. Another sacred plant of the Druids, mistletoe was brought into the home for good luck, protection from witches, and fertility on the winter solstice, December 21. But sorry, all: The kissing ball (usually hung in the entrance hall) and kissing under the mistletoe is an 18th-century custom. Needless to say, Henry VIII didn’t need the excuse of mistletoe to kiss whomever he liked!

There you have it. I’m sure I’ve forgotten many other traditionas that characterized a Tudor Christmas, so if you can think of any, please let me know!

          ‘Til next time,



Pointing the finger at Anne Boleyn. June 24, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here (again). Someone came on to our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, this morning searching for “scientific proof of Anne Boleyn’s sixth finger.” Let’s try to lay that ugly slander to rest once and for all.

From everything I can discover, Anne Boleyn was extremely intelligent, talented, and enchanting, but not likeable. She used people and then discarded or, worse, turned against them. She caused the downfall of a Queen beloved by everyone in England. Because of her insistence on gaining the crown, the Catholic Church in England was overthrown and monasteries and convents were sacked. Because of her insecurities, powerful men were executed or hounded to their deaths, their families left imbittered and impoverished. To add insult to actual injury, tact appeared to be one talent that was unknown to Anne. In the ten-odd years of her rise to and fall from power, she made more enemies than a small nation. To say that she was unpopular is like saying that Limburger cheese has a mild aroma after being left in the sun on a hot day. She had the wit to rise, but not the wisdom to rise well, and the fireworks of her ascent were matched by the meteor shower of her fall.

All of which is simply to say that a lot of people hated Anne, for personal, professional, and ideological reasons. And their hatred didn’t end with her death. Strangely, it seemed to intensify instead, and rumors about her—once she was no longer alive to disprove them, defend herself, or persecute her disparagers—abounded. Two of these claimed that she had deformities, a sixth finger and a third nipple. Both are simple, outright lies.

Here’s why: In Anne’s day, any deformity was viewed as a mark of the Devil. Innocent babes faced a lifetime of ostracism and loathing if they bore “the Devil’s mark.” Had Anne borne any deformity, especially one so obvious as a sixth finger, she would have been shut away for life in her family home, Hever Castle, or exiled to a convent to moulder away in obscurity.

Instead, her family recognized her potential and did everything in their power to show her off, sending her away to the court of France. Her musical prowess was legendary, which should be enough to lay these claims to rest: Nobody in their right mind would play an instrument, which displays one’s hands like few other activities, if by doing so they’d reveal a damning deformity like a sixth finger to the world. You’d have to be a ring or nail-polish model to draw more attention to your hands.

There’s one final proof that Anne could not have been deformed: Henry VIII loved Anne, and he had a horror of illness or deformity of any kind. His fear and dread of illness was so great that he would abandon his wives, relatives, and courtiers and literally flee to another of his residences if there was illness in one of his castles. Similarly, he would flee any city where illness had broken out. There is no way in the world that he would have viewed a potential paramour with anything but the most extreme horror had she not been physically perfect in every way.

So how on earth did such a bizarre rumor get started? Two things: First, at Anne Boleyn’s trial, she was accused of witchcraft, since her enemies could not imagine how she had gained such a hold over Henry through her own enchantments (as opposed to with some help from the Devil), and they wanted to give him an ironclad reason to execute her. (They added adultery and incest for good measure.) And second, Anne had introduced French styles to England on her return from the French court, making them popular and thereby making Queen Katherine’s style of court dress seem hopelessly dowdy and old-fashioned by comparison. One hallmark of French style at the time was sleeves so long they trailed over the fingers of one’s hands. After Anne’s fall, it would have been easy for the malicious, seeking support for the witch theory, to have speculated that there had to be an ulterior motive for her fashion sense, as for everything else that she did in her short life.

Finally, here’s another nail in that particular rumor’s coffin: It wasn’t circulated until after her death. Now, I ask you, how likely is that? Anne had dozens of maids of honor attending her as Queen; privacy for such a public figure was inconceivable, then as now. Suppose Princess Di or Oprah or Paris Hilton or, say, Miley Cyrus or Michelle Obama had a sixth finger. Do you think the celebrity-watchers simply wouldn’t notice? How much more unlikely when you were the chief celebrity, the focus of all eyes, including the extremely unfriendly ones of the Spanish Ambassador, who dutifully reported every negative thing he could find to say about you? And yet, no one did notice, because the sixth finger simply wasn’t there.

Ultimate proof one way or the other will never be forthcoming, because Anne Boleyn was buried anonymously and no one knows where her bones really are. So the dreadful rumors continue to this day. But for me, at least, the evidence is overwhelming. Anne was guilty of truly gross arrogance and unkindness, of hubris in its most extreme sense, of shortsightedness. But she was not guilty of the crimes that condemned her, not any of them: not adultery, not incest, not witchcraft. She had no sixth finger or third nipple. In the words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Anne Boleyn was a ruthless woman who gambled everything on gaining a kingdom and both lost (her head) and won (the throne for her daughter Elizabeth). Her rise to sit beside Henry VIII on the throne of England was, indeed, improbable. But she did it without the Devil’s assistance, and she did it without a sixth finger. And that not only must be, but is, the truth.

            ‘Til next time,


A poem about… deer? June 1, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshops. Wordless Wednesdays. Even, apparently, Garden Bloggers’ Death Day (pertaining, we hope, to dead plants, not an unfortunate trend among garden bloggers). Our friend Ben’s somewhat feeble wits are boggled by the number of structured theme posts available to the garden blogging community. But one that always catches my eye is Garden Bloggers’ Muse Day, which I deduce is the first of every month and involves posting a garden-related poem. I’m mostly aware of this because Nancy of Soliloquy (http://nancybond.wordpress.com/) is really good about posting a garden poem a month (and moreover, one that relates to that month), but apparently it originated with Carolyn Gail Choi of of Sweet Home and Garden Chicago (http://sweethomeandgardenchicago.blogspot.com/).

Whatever the case, June is a month in which many gardeners are either cursing deer depredations in their gardens, trying to find deer-proof plants for their gardens, or checking out deer fences and other supposedly deer-repelling devices for their gardens. (Our friend Ben suggests getting a dog.) Drivers—at least around here—are cursing car-crashing deer in a manner which puts even the most irate gardener to shame. Hunters are setting out salt blocks and checking out resident populations. And romantic types who don’t garden are oohing and aahing when they see a deer in the woods along the roadside or, gasp, in their own backyards.

Through human history, deer have been perceived in many ways, as a source of sustenance, a worthy opponent, a majestic emblem, a figure of legend, a creature of kings. (Through much of European history, deer could only be hunted by the nobility and posession of a deer by a “commoner” was a hanging offense.) A deer sighting in Arthurian legend was fraught with significance, for deer were seldom what they seemed. But however they were viewed, there was always something otherworldly about them, something usually pertaining to the fairy realm, the time between times when daylight is giving way to dark and magic is at large, when anything can happen. (Appropriate enough, since deer are crepuscular creatures, most active at dusk.) A white deer was always a sign of magic, and despite the claims of the narwhal was probably the origin of the legend of the unicorn. And a black deer signified magic as well.

Our friend Ben has actually seen a black deer—a majestic buck leading a group of does through the woods. And yes, it was magic. I’ve also been fortunate as a driver, having never hit a deer in the road, and as a gardener, since deer have never ventured onto our property. Unfortunately, though, thanks to modern medicine, the association our friend Ben most often draws with deer these days is deer ticks and Lyme disease, which is prevalent in this rural part of Pennsylvania. We’re having our puppy Shiloh vaccinated for Lyme and are also applying Frontline, a topical tick repellant, monthly just in case. Poor deer, to have come to this!

But about that poem. Let’s return to the days when deer still were embued with magic and were the exclusive property of kings. Specifically, to the time of that great rogue Henry VIII, and a poem one of the prominent poets of that age wrote about a deer. Or, at least, it appeared to be about a deer, also known then as a hind. Do you know who wrote it, and who it was about? Our friend Ben will add the answer tomorrow so no one needs to remain in doubt. Right now, however, let me note that the key line, Noli me tangere, means “don’t touch me” or, in modern parlance, “hands off!” And “list” in this case doesn’t mean the alleys where knights jousted or a sheet of paper with the weekly groceries but rather, simply, “wants” or “desires.”

Here’s the famous (and at the time, infamous) poem, a poem that despite its seeming innocence sent its author to the Tower of London and almost cost him his life:

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,

Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,

As well as I, may spend his time in vain;

And graven with diamonds in letters plain

There is written her fair neck round about,

‘Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am, 

And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’

“Wild for to hold” indeed this particular deer proved. So wild, that all of Europe teetered in the attempt, and the world has never been the same. So wild, that the fawn she produced rose to heights never equalled before or since, unless the sun itself (in the form of Louis XIV, the Sun King) eclipsed her in the end. For us moderns, the poem remains as a haunting prelude to all that was to come.


(Answers, as promised: Thomas Wyatt wrote the poem. His hind was Anne Boleyn, and Caesar was, of course, Henry VIII himself.)

The late, irate Henry VIII. January 24, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood and our friend Ben have been having something of a Tudorfest here at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, of late. It all started with the two movies on the life of Elizabeth I, starring one of our favorite actresses, Cate Blanchett. Then there was “The Other Boleyn Girl,” a movie we found rather dull. (Silence points out that the book on which the movie was based, also called The Other Boleyn Girl, was better than the movie. Silence also read Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford—the tale of the perfidious woman whose testimony condemned both Anne Boleyn and her own husband, Anne’s brother George Boleyn, to death—and we understand a movie based on this book is in the works as we write.)

Most recently, we’ve been watching the Lifetime series “The Tudors” (thank you, Netflix), and have worked our way through season two. Though the history is rather shaky, we’ve enjoyed the series itself and the performances in it (especially Jeremy Northam as St. Thomas More, Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey, and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Catherine of Aragon) very much.

While we wait for season three of “The Tudors” to make its way onto DVD, we decided to do a little time-travel to renowned depictions of Henry the Eighth from the past. We rented “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” with Keith Michell playing the title role. Unfortunately, we found it unwatchable, and gave up after the first episode. This was no reflection on the actors, but rather on the early BBC’s inability to distinguish between a cheaply produced filmed play and a movie. As Silence pointed out, poor Henry the Eighth wore the exact same suit of clothes through ten years of action! If the King of England could afford just one outfit per decade, clearly his country was in desperate straits.

We’ve had better luck with “Anne of the Thousand Days.” It’s hard to beat Richard Burton as Henry, and the supporting cast is excellent. So far, the movie has been historically accurate (we’ve watched about half), and since it’s a period piece, it doesn’t seem dated, despite having come out in 1969. However, our favorite version remains “A Man for All Seasons,” that magnificent production with a delightful Robert Shaw as Henry, Paul Scofield’s majestic performance as St. Thomas More, a very young John Hurt in a marvelously sleazy performance as Sir Richard Rich, and a great supporting cast.

We invite you to enjoy your own Tudorfest and choose your favorites. (Warning: Most of these productions, especially the modern ones, are anything but family fare, so if you have young kids, wait to put them on ’til everybody else is in bed.) But meanwhile, we’ve asked our fellow blog contributor and resident historian, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, to create a little quiz to test your knowledge of Henry VIII and his six wives. (The answers are at the end, but no cheating, now!) See how you fare:

1. How many wives did Henry VIII order executed?

a. 1

b. 2

c. 3

d. 4

e. 5

2. How many of Henry’s wives and mistresses were related?

a. 2

b. 3

c. 4

d. 5

e. all of them

3. Which of the following was not claimed of Anne Boleyn?

a. she was a witch

b. she had six fingers on one or both hands

c. she had an incestuous relationship with her brother George

d. she had affairs with over 100 men

e. she was a transvestite

4. Which of these famous people were not contemporaries of Henry VIII?

a. Leonardo da Vinci

b. the great painter Hans Holbein

c. the famous Humanist Erasmus

d. Michaelangelo

e. Beethoven

5. Why did Henry behave so violently towards those who were closest to him?

a. he was desperate for a male heir and would let nothing stand in his way to get one

b. he was an autocratic, indulged monster

c. he was terrified of any threat, including opposition and disease

d. he had syphilis, which eventually drove him insane and made him more and more erratic as time went on

e. he had type II diabetes, which slowly sickened and eventually killed him, creating episodes of instability

6. What was Henry’s greatest achievement?

a. marrying six wives

b. breaking with Rome and creating the Church of England

c. composing the famous ballad “Greensleeves” 

d. executing over 72,000 people during his reign

e. producing Elizabeth I      

Ready for some answers? Here you go:

 1. Henry ordered Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard (wives 2 and 5) executed. Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour (wives 1 and 3) died of natural causes, and Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr (wives 4 and 6) survived Henry. 

2. At least three and possibly four. Anne Boleyn (wife 2) and Katherine Howard (wife 5) were cousins. Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary was an acknowledged mistress of the king before he took up with Anne; their relationship lasted for six years and resulted in two children. It is a not-ungrounded rumor that a much-younger Henry VIII also briefly took Anne and Mary Boleyn’s mother Elizabeth as a mistress, presumably before they were born; this has never been decisively proved or discounted.

3. The correct answer is e. Anne was never accused of being a transvestite, but was wrongly accused of every other of these charges. There is no doubt today of her innocence.

4. Henry was a contemporary of all these famous men except Beethoven, though the only one he actually met was Hans Holbein, who painted him and many famous members of his court.

5. All these answers may be true, though the theory of his having progressive syphilis has now been overshadowed by the view that he had type II diabetes. However, we think that, given his behavior, the answer is “all of the above.”

6. There is now some doubt cast on Henry’s composing “Greensleeves” for Anne Boleyn, as has long been thought, but there is no doubt that he was a prolific composer and quite accomplished musician and poet. All the other items in this list are (sadly, in the case of the executions) true. But in our view, one alone is relevant: the fathering of Elizabeth, England’s greatest monarch. Henry’s contribution to British history in this respect may have been unintentional, and certainly was unacknowledged by him (another useless female heir!), but history has proven its value beyond all dispute.