Monday, 20 March 2017

High Jinks At Hanbury Hall

For me, one of the joys of being an historical author is visiting stately homes. We are so lucky in the United Kingdom in the number of properties run by the National Trust, English Heritage and other such organizations and thus open to the public. If I can visit a country house in the company of another author or a good friend, then even better. I love first to go for a walk around the grounds with my dog and then take my time absorbing details of architecture, furniture and furnishings.

I write Regency romance and am proud to do so, but I also like to weave real historical detail into the fabric of my stories. If, therefore, I can come across real-life romance and true scandal I can use, then all the better! In few places could you find a more newsworthy and juicy story than at Hanbury Hall.

On St. Patrick’s Day, I met up with lovely Regency author Elizabeth Johns and we spent the afternoon at Hanbury. We went first to view the Ice House, which is set in the grounds of a cottage a short walk from the Hall. Ice Houses vary in design; this one is approached via a low, dark tunnel which I confess I found somewhat claustrophobic even though it was only a few yards long. At the end is a railing, because the tunnel opens into a circular chamber which drops three metres below ground level. It was rather disorientating, looking down into the shaft and with the air temperature considerably cooler than outside, even though it was quite a cold day. Water from a pool was drained into the ice house via a sluice gate and when it had frozen, was removed via the tunnel. It was used all the year round, for drinks, cooling foods, ices, sorbets etcetera. Having seen the base of the chamber, where there is a drainage hole for meltwater, I am very glad I have a fridge!

We then returned to the house for a guided tour, something I had always missed on previous visits. The house dates from 1701, according to the date on the stone plinth over the doorway, but this may be disputed. The house was built by wealthy lawyer Thomas Vernon, although the estate was bought by his grandfather Edward Vernon in 1631. Somehow, Thomas persuaded Court painter Sir James Thornhill (the first English artist to be knighted) to travel into Worcestershire and execute various paintings in the house. Hanbury Hall is justifiably proud of the works, particularly the staircase murals. According to Nikolaus Pevsner, the staircase dates from c. 1710 and can be compared with those at Hampton Court, Drayton and Boughton, both in Northants. This then dates the paintings to that time. The main mural depicts Achilles being found by Odysseus.

Finding of Achilles
Attribution Sjwells53

Intriguingly, although this is ostensibly a painting of classical mythology, Sir James Thornhill was the Court painter and one piece of salacious gossip is wickedly referred to by the artist. The two ladies to the rear and right of the painting were ‘bosom buddies’, you might say. The lady in turquoise, who looks enceinte, is Queen Anne. The little boy peering behind her is Prince William, who suffered from Water on the Brain (Hydrocephalus). The lady on the left is Abigail Masham (née Hill, cousin of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough). A former servant, Abigail was brought to Court by Lady Sarah.

Brought up together in the household of the Duke of York, Princess Anne and Sarah Jennings (Jenyns) became the most devoted of friends and companions. They even coined the names Mrs. Morley (Anne) and Mrs. Freeman (Sarah) in order to exchange letters and converse freely on an equal footing. Anne was a bit of a dull, easily coerced personality, while Sarah was forceful, blunt and opinionated. Sarah’s close friendship with and influence over Princess, and later, Queen Anne led to her becoming a most powerful figure of the Court, with a meteoric rise to fame and fortune. She was made Lady of the Bedchamber, among several other titles. This success was in no way hindered by her marriage to John Churchill, Earl of Marlborough and later 1st Duke of Marlborough, a soldier and statesman who rose to Captain-General of the British Army. The Queen described her relationship with Sarah as a ‘most sincere and tender passion’. Unfortunately for their Graces, however, Sarah’s political manoeuvrings eventually tried the patience of even her close friend the Queen and they drifted apart. When she discovered that not only was Abigail occupying apartments in Kensington Palace Sarah considered hers, she was spending two hours a day in privacy with Anne, Sarah was furious. It is suggested she may have instructed her secretary, Arthur Maynwaring, to produce satirical pamphlets and poems proclaiming the ‘sweet service’ and ‘dark Deeds at Night’ that Abigail allegedly provided to Anne the ‘sweet service’ and ‘dark Deeds at Night’ that Abigail allegedly provided to Anne.

Whether or not there was a ‘romantic friendship’ between Anne and Abigail, a rift occurred between the Queen and the Duchess which was never repaired. Sarah was made to resign her offices and the Churchills were dismissed from Court.

So, to return to the painting at Hanbury, Abigail is pointing towards Achilles (centre, with the spear) and smirking. Achilles has the face of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and is depicted looking away. Sir James was having a little laugh at their expense. If you now cast your eye to the foreground, dear reader, you will espy two more tongue-in-cheek inclusions. The lady in green is holding a hand glass and in the arms of the seated lady behind her is a King Charles spaniel. Of course, neither of those things existed in Achilles’ time!

No matter her personal preferences, Queen Anne conceived eighteen children. For those of us who love the Georgian and Regency eras, it is perhaps as well none of them lived beyond infancy, or we would not have had the Hanoverian rule which has given us so much in the way of architecture, furniture and literature, not least Jane Austen. Without her, Sir Walter Scott and others, Georgette Heyer would not have created the Regency genre, so loved by readers across the globe, nor would the many wordsmiths writing now have been inspired to bring their own Regency stories to life.

We continued our tour of the ground floor, progressing via the Smoking Room to the Dining Room, once part of Thomas Vernon’s own apartments. In about 1830, a wall was removed and the ceiling aligned to conjoin his withdrawing room and lobby. On the ceiling of the Dining Room (Withdrawing Room) are two more Thornhill paintings, one of the North Wind, Boreas; the second of Apollo and his chariot. My apologies for the quality of the photo.

The pies in the centre of the table are mutton ‘Kit-Kat pyes’, so named for the Kit-Kat Club and the pieman who made them, Christopher Catt. Thomas Vernon was a member of the Kit-Kat Club. (See blog post on the Gentlemen’s Clubs.)

Thus we come to the true high jinks associated with Hanbury Hall. It is a piece of Georgian scandal which rocked the higher echelons of Society and is a cracker. Thomas Vernon (1654-1721) had no children and bequeathed the Hall to his second cousin, Bowater Vernon (1683-1735). Although the Will was unsuccessfully disputed by Richard Acherley, husband of Thomas’ sister, Elizabeth and himself a lawyer, Bowater enjoyed the benefits of his inheritance. He spent some of his time at his London residence in New Bond Street and some at Holt Castle in Worcestershire, taking his place at Hanbury in 1733 after the death of Thomas’ widow, Mary Vernon. Bowater died only two years later, following a stroke. He was succeeded by his son, Thomas (1724-71) who also died young and from a stroke. He left one daughter, Emma, who was brought up in London by her mother.

Emma made the acquaintance of one Henry Cecil (1754-1804), both nephew and heir of the 9th Earl of Exeter, incumbent of one of the great stately homes, Burghley House. One cannot help wondering if Lady Vernon had a hand in the marriage, for it was certainly not a love match. How many were in those days? The bride had a portion of £6,000 a year and the groom £3,000.They married in 1776 at St. George’s Chapel, Hanover Square and on removing to Hanbury, set about landscaping the gardens in the style of Capability Brown, who had completed the sweeping vistas of Croome Court, near Pershore (also in Worcestershire) for the Earl of Coventry. They did away with the formal parterre, but thanks to the detailed plans commissioned by Bowater, the National Trust has been able to restore the original gardens. The interior was also substantially remodelled.

Nevertheless, despite a combined fortune of £9,000, the marriage ran into debt and disillusionment. Emma had a mind of her own and was inclined towards wilfulness, while Henry was, on the whole, disinterested and detached. The one child of the union died when but a few weeks old. Possibly as a result of this loss, Emma began to imbibe Madeira and Norris’ Drops, a Georgian cure-all. The latter contained opium, but she may have taken them to combat early symptoms of Consumption.

Then, in 1785, just weeks after his arrival to assist the rector, she fell in love with the new curate from Lichfield, William Sneyd,. They had a passionate affair, conducted over four years. William also suffered from tuberculosis, so did they share the Norris’ Drops along with billets doux? In May1789, with her lover convalescing in Lichfield, Emma finally confessed to her husband. The marriage was in disarray. Henry had had no idea, but it would appear he was more bemused than irate. Emma was deeply in love with William and after much soul-searching, eloped with him whilst on a business trip with Henry to Birmingham. In an ironic twist, the lovers travelled first to Exeter, followed by Devon and thence to London. The Countess acquired lodgings and was visited there by William. Cecil sued Sneyd in 1790 and was awarded £1,000 in compensation.

Deep in debt, Henry shut up Hanbury and assuming a new identity, departed to a village in a remote part of Shropshire to lick his wounds. A year later, he had a nine day sale and sold the contents of Hanbury Hall. While in Shropshire, he met and bigamously married (albeit under his false name of John Jones) the sixteen-year-old daughter of Thomas Hoggins, a local farmer. This was a serious matter at the time and he and Sarah had to undertake a second wedding ceremony in London in October 1791. Known as the Cottage Countess, Sarah never quite settled into her role as the mistress of a large house when Henry succeeded to his uncle’s estates in 1793 and they moved to Burghley.

Following an Act of Parliament, Emma and Henry were divorced in 1791, enabling Emma to marry William. Since he was in poor health, they moved to Lisbon, but he died only two years later. Distraught, Emma came back to England, but she could not mourn for long. A further two years on, in 1795, she married for the third time, to John Phillips, a friend and executor of her second husband. They moved to a house near Bewdley to live retired from Society. However, Fate had not finished with Emma. In 1804 she once more took up residence at Hanbury Hall, following Henry Cecil’s death. Much work on the estate then had to be undertaken, in the way of repairs and rebuilding work to the farms, due to neglect. She had returned to where she belonged and the Vernon name to the family seat.

Emma herself lived at Hanbury until her death in 1818. Whether or not she was happy with John Phillips, we shall never know, but it is said she refused to be buried in the Vernon family vault, instead choosing to be wrapped in a sheet which had once covered William Sneyd, thence to be buried near the Hanbury churchyard wall.

Life is often stranger than fiction, but love did at least triumph in the end!

With ideas buzzing in our heads, Elizabeth and I toured the rooms upstairs, viewing some Worcester and Meissen porcelain, before returning to the car and a rather late picnic lunch!

We didn’t get to the Orangery on this occasion, but one of these days I will post some pictures of that. However, here is a view towards the house along the Cedar Avenue. You can imagine what it must have been like in the house's heyday!

Unless otherwise stated, all images are the property of the author and may not be copied or republished without expressed permission.

© Heather King

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Lemon & Sugar or Something Else?


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word pancake comes from late Middle English, a thin, flat cake made of batter, fried in a pan. This suggests the flat batter rounds we still enjoy today were known in the Middle Ages. Further, according to an article in the National Geographic, prehistoric man may well have eaten pancakes. Research suggests, from remains of starchy compounds found on grinding tools from 30,000 years ago, that flour was made from such items as cattails. It further seems possible, from educated guesswork, this flour was mixed with water and baked, perhaps on a hot rock, with or without fat.

“The ancient Greeks and Romans ate pancakes, sweetened with honey; the Elizabethans ate them flavoured with spices, rosewater, sherry, and apples.”

It has long been the tradition in Great Britain to eat several pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, partly to use up foods such as eggs, butter and milk (which would not keep in the days before fridges and freezers!) and partly as a last feast before the fasting decreed by Lent.

In Georgian and Regency times, pancakes were enjoyed by all members of society, from the royal table, where cream-filled crêpes prepared by His Majesty’s French chef tantalized the guests, to the poor road sweeper filling his stomach on flour and water cakes.

There were a host of instructional tomes written for housewives and domestic cooks by retired chefs and housekeepers. In 1774, Hannah Glasse published The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (Which far exceeds any Thing of the kind yet Published).

To make pancakes
TAKE a quart of milk, heat in six or eight eggs, leaving half the whites out; mix it well till your batter is of a fine thickness. You must observe to mix your flour first with a little milk then' add the rest by degrees; put in two spoonfuls of beaten ginger, a glass of brandy, a little salt; stir all together, make your stew-pan very clean, put in a piece of butter as big as a walnut, then pour in a ladleful of batter, which will make a pancake, moving the pan round that the batter be all over the pan; shake the pan, and when you think that side is enough, toss it; if you can't, tum it cleverly, and when both sides are done, lay it in a dish before the fire, and so do the rest. You must take care they are dry; when you send them to table strew a little sugar over them.

Hannah also gives four recipes (or receipts) ‘To make fine pancakes’. Here are two of them.

TAKE half a pint of cream, half a pint of sack, the yolks of eighteen eggs beat fine, a little salt, half a pound of fine sugar, a little beaten cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg; then put in as much flour as will run thin over the pan, and fry them in fresh butter. -This sort of pancake will not be crisp, but very good.

A quire of paper.
TAKE a pint of cream, six eggs, three spoonfuls of fine flour, three of sack, one of orange-flower water, a little sugar and half a nutmeg grated, half a pound of melted butter almost cold; mingle all well together, and butter the pan for the first pancake; let them run as thin as possible; when they are just coloured they are enough and so do with all the fine pancakes.

The Experienced English Housekeeper, Elizabeth Raffald, gave some different recipes in 1782.

To make Wafer Pancakes:
BEAT four eggs well with two spoonfuls of fine flour, and two of cream, one ounce of loaf sugar, beat and sifted, half a nutmeg grated, put a little cold butter in a clean cloth, and rub your pan well with it, pour in your batter and make it as thin as a wafer, fry it only on one side, put them on a dish, and grate sugar betwixt every pancake, and send them hot to the table.

To make Clary Pancakes
BEAT three eggs with three spoonfuls of fine flour, and a little salt, exceeding well, mix them with a pint of milk, and put lard into your pan; when it is hot, pour in your batter as thin as possible, then lay in your clary leaves, and pour a little more batter thin over them, fry them a fine brown, and serve them up.

To make Tansey Pancakes.
BEAT four eggs, and put to them half a pint of cream, four spoonfuls of flour, and two of fine sugar, beat them a quarter of an hour, then put in one spoonful of the juice of tansey, and two of the juice of spinage with a little grated nutmeg, beat all well together, and fry them in fresh butter: garnish them with quarters of Seville oranges, grate double refined sugar over them, and send them up hot.

To make a pink-coloured Pancake.
BOIL a large beet root tender, and beat it fine in a marble mortar, then add the yolks of four eggs, two spoonfuls of flour, and three spoonfuls of good cream, sweeten it to your taste, and grate in half a nutmeg, and put in a glass of brandy; beat them all together half an hour, fry them in butter, and garnish them with green sweetmeats, preserved apricots, or green sprigs of myrtle.—It is a pretty corner dish for either dinner or supper.

Writing in The Art of Cookery in 1802, John Molland had some interesting advice.

To half a pound of best white flour sifted add a little salt, grated nutmeg, cream or new milk, and mix them well together; then whisk eight eggs, put them to the above, and beat the mixture for ten minutes till perfectly smooth and light, and let it be of a moderate thickness. When the cakes are to be fried, put a little piece of lard or fresh butter in each frying-pan over a regular fire, and when hot put in the mixture, a sufficient quantity just to cover the bottom of each pan, fry them of a nice colour, and serve them up very hot. Serve with them, likewise, some sifted loaf sugar, pounded cinnamon, and Seville orange, on separate plates.
N. B. Before the frying pans are used let them be prepared with a bit of butter put into each and ' burnt; then wipe them very clean with a dry cloth, as this method prevents the batter from sticking to the pan when frying.

In 1811, John Farley, ‘formerly principal cook at the London Tavern’ published The London Cook and Domestic Housekeepers’ Complete Assistant. It is interesting to note that his recipe for Milk Pancakes would appear to be the same as quoted above from Hannah Glasse, almost word for word. He also includes a recipe for A quire of paper. Guess what? Yes, not quite word for word, but today it would be considered plagiarism without a doubt! However, I have included his rice pancakes as I did not include Hannah’s.

Rice Pancakes
TAKE three spoonsful of flour of rice, and a quart of cream; set it on a slow fire, and keep stirring it till as thick as pap: pour into it half a pound of butter and a nutmeg grated: pour it into an earthern pan, and when cold, stir in three or four spoonsful of flour, a little salt, some sugar, and nine eggs well beaten; mix all well together, and fry them nicely. When cream is not to be had, use new milk, and a spoonful more of the flour of rice.

Happy Pancake Day!

© Heather King

Thursday, 16 February 2017



One of the most famous racehorses of a generation, this portrait is an oil on canvas, painted by James Seymour (1702 – 1752) circa 1742 and measures 40” x 50” (101.6 x 127 cm). It is part of the Paul Mellon Collection and hangs in the Yale Center for British Art.

The Duke of Devonshire's Flying Childers
Flying Childers was a Thoroughbred stallion belonging to the 4th Duke of Devonshire. He was bred in 1715 by Colonel Leonard Childers of Carr House near Doncaster, and sold to the Duke when still young. The colt was sometimes known as the Devonshire Childers or simply Childers. He was by the Darley Arabian out of a mare called Betty Leedes by Careless. Careless (sometimes called Old or Wharton’s Careless) was by the famous grey stallion, Spanker and out of Sister to Leedes by the Leedes' Arabian. The Darley Arabian was, in the main, kept as a private stallion and Betty Leedes was one of the few visiting mares accepted. Flying Childers was – and is still regarded as – one of the fastest horses ever raced. In the History of the British Turf by James Christie Whyte has this to say:

“About the year 1721, Childers ran a trial against Almanzor and the Duke of Rutland's Brown Betty, carrying 9st. 21b. over the Round Course* at Newmarket in six minutes, and 40 seconds; and it was thought that he moved 82 feet and a half in one second of time, which is nearly at the rate of one mile in a minute, a degree of velocity, which no horse has been known to exceed.”

* The Round Course is 3 miles 4 furlongs, and 93 yards in length.

In 2011, the unbeaten Frankel won the 2000 Guineas Classic over the Rowley Mile at Newmarket in a time more than thirty seconds faster than the then course record. This was forty seconds slower than Flying Childers.

He is described by James Whyte as a chestnut horse with part white on his nose and four white socks, although the General Stud Book states he is a bay with a white blaze. If James Seymour’s portrait is accurate, he would certainly appear to have a bay coat. Although the Duke of Devonshire received several offers for the colt, including, it is reputed, one of the horse’s weight in gold, he remained in the Cavendish ownership until his death aged twenty-six and stood at his Grace’s stud at Chatsworth.

The painting shows Flying Childers held by a groom, on Newmarket Heath or a racecourse. The post behind the horse is probably the ‘Rubbing Post’, so-called because after a race, the horses gathered at this point to be rubbed down. The horse has his ears back and is showing the whites of his eyes. This could be taken as a sign of bad temper, but given the surroundings, and the fact that he appears ‘tucked up’ (the line of his belly rises sharply from behind the girth to his hind leg), it suggests to me that he is still ‘wound up’ with the excitement of either racing or training.

Flying Childers’ Arabian heritage is clear for the knowledgeable to see. The painting shows the fine legs, tapered nose, dished face and, although docked after the custom of the time, his tail is raised, suggesting the characteristic high carriage of the Arab. Standing 15.2 hands at the withers, he was tall, not only for a racehorse of the time but also the Arabian breed in general. Purebreds usually stand between 14 and 14.2 hands. He did, however match the height of his sire, himself unusually tall for his breed. 

Although the style of painting could be described as naïve, Seymour has captured the horse’s tension and also a certain wariness on the part of the groom – shown in the way he is holding the reins and the slightly defensive stance, as if he is ready for trouble – although his expression is calm. His charge was a stallion and they can be notoriously difficult to handle. His sire’s original name was ‘Ras el Fedowi’, which translates as ‘The Headstrong One’.

Flying Childers was himself successful at stud, but he was eclipsed (if you will excuse the pun) by his generally-accepted full brother, Bartlett’s Childers, owned by Mr. Bartlett of Nuttle Court near Masham in Yorkshire. Young or Bartlett’s Childers did not race, due to his propensity to bleed from the nose. This gave rise to his other name, Bleeding Childers. However, he was extremely successful at stud, siring several influential horses, not least Marske, sire of the mighty Eclipse, whose top speed, it is claimed, was matched only by Flying Childers.

© Heather King

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The English Country House ~ The Library

Those of us who love books very often have our own collections, carefully arranged on bookcases and shelves, or, in this modern age, stored in electronic devices. We correlate them by type (paperback or hardback), by author, by fiction or non-fiction, by subject. We caress them lovingly, re-read favourites over and over and admire glossy pictures in educational tomes.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books were also a sign of status and wealth. A leather-bound volume was an expensive item – a far cry from the digital e-book of today. Many landowners gathered together large collections of books, sometimes from all over the world, just for the distinction of possession and with little interest in their contents. That said, there were many scholars who collected rare manuscripts, and a classical education – including, of course, the Grand Tour – were a pre requisite of the English gentleman. It was considered of enormous importance that a Regency gentleman had a sound knowledge of the Antiquities, of politics, philosophy, literature and science, so a wide a range of subjects as possible was collected by most. The owner could thus converse with authority at his Club, at House Parties and other social occasions. Even the bruising rider to hounds could turn his mind to more elevated concerns when in the company of such notables of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as Sir Robert Walpole, John Locke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles James Fox and Thomas Charles Bunbury, to say nothing of the esteem conferred by ‘hob-nobbing’ with the Duke of Wellington, William Wilberforce, Lord George Byron and Beau Brummell.

The library was often a place of sanctuary for the master of the house, where he could smoke his pipe, indulge in a glass or two of brandy and contemplate upon his next speech in the Lords or how to persuade his lady not to bankrupt him during the course of his daughters’ comings out. It was usually furnished in a masculine style, with comfortable armchairs, robust cabinets and tables and a solid library table, the correct term for a flat-topped desk with drawers and knee space. As all aficionados of Georgette Heyer will know, a young lady desirous to ‘cut a dash’ in Society did not wish to be thought ‘bookish’. Too much book learning was not considered pleasing unless one was immensely wealthy, in which case one was likely to be indulgently deemed eccentric.

Sometimes, books were housed in specially constructed oak or walnut stepped units, such as at Boughton, where they were installed for the 1st Duke of Montagu. In earlier centuries, however, it was frequently the case that books were stored randomly and not placed with spines facing the observer as they are nowadays. At Charlecote Park in Warwickshire, early seventeenth century volumes are titled across the leaves between the opening edges of the covers. Furthermore, in Charlecote church, the marble tomb of Sir Thomas Lacy shows them carved in this way. By the Regency era, and the resurgence of classicism, many libraries became designed specifically to display the owner’s book collection. Pedimented bookcases to reflect the architecture can be seen at Holkham Hall in Norfolk, where they were a revolutionary introduction by William Kent. At Holkham, the fifty-four foot long library is part of Lord Leicester’s private apartments and is still used as a family room. I find it hard to imagine children and dogs rampaging around this elegance, though, as in the 1732 painting by William Hogarth of The Cholmondeley Family in a similar book room.

The painting belongs to a private collection and is currently on display in the Tate (Gallery).

The long library at Holkham Hall by John Chapman
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The original design for above the fireplace was an oval painting of Apollo with his lyre, but the lion depicted is an antique mosaic, brought back from his Grand Tour by Lord Leicester.

The pedimented feature on the bookcases was recreated at Berrington Hall in Herefordshire. Berrington was built by Thomas Harley, who inherited his library from his great-grandfather, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, who died in 1724. He was succeeded by his son Edward, who left this world in 1741. Sadly, much of the collection was sold in 1744. Edward Harley was ‘a close friend of Pope, Swift and Matthew Prior’ and was one of the first to instigate the practice of keeping large collections of books in the country, where there was greater opportunity to peruse and appreciate them. Unfortunately, those books enjoyed by Thomas Harley were sold by the 7th Lord Rodney, who turned the library into a billiard room.

Library, Berrington Hall

The library at Berrington has several interesting features for the historical author. The picture above (apologies for the quality) does not show the pediment on the fitted bookcases designed by Henry Holland, but it is reflected on the pier-table and over the fireplace, as are the narrow Ionic pilasters. A ‘Greek key’ decoration, embellished with mistletoe berries, links the various features. The frieze above has some lovely classical plasterwork to reflect the origins of the architecture, and on the ceiling there are ‘portrait medallions’, attributed to Biagio Rebecca, according to the guidebook, commemorating various famous authors. These are, clockwise from the fireplace, Matthew Prior (poet, political ally of Robert Harley), John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon and Joseph Addison.

Frieze, Berrington Hall

Fireplace, showing pediment and Ionic pilasters
Berrington Hall

Portrait Medallions, Library, Berrington Hall

On Wednesday 27 September 1826, diarist William Cobbett visited Stanford Court, the Worcestershire seat of Sir Thomas Winnington, while on one of his Rural Rides. He arrived on the previous day, and had time ‘…to see the place, to look at trees, and the like, and I wished to get away early this morning; but being prevailed on to stay to breakfast, here I am, at six o’clock in the morning, in one of the best and best-stocked private libraries that I ever saw; and, what is more, the owner, from what passed yesterday, when he brought me hither, convinced me that he was acquainted with the insides of the books. I asked, and shall ask, no questions about who got these books together; but the collection is such as, I am sure, I never saw before in a private house.’

In his Guide to Worcestershire of 1868, John Noakes wrote: ‘The Court is delightfully situated, and contains some good paintings and an extensive modern library, with also an ancient one, with panel paintings of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in the attics, where Sir Thomas frequently brings to light MSS. of great value and interest.’

The house was almost destroyed on 5 December 1882, with only the ashlar-faced North Front surviving. The collection of manuscripts and books was sadly lost.

Indeed, by the close of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the library reached its height as a book room. It seems that Robert Adam was ahead of the game when he designed a library-sitting room combined at Kenwood House for Lord Mansfield. This was in a side wing, but was nevertheless designed to be a gathering place for guests as well as close members of the family. There are various allusions, in literature of the time, to rooms of this type containing such amusements as billiard tables, piano fortes, paintings, card tables and even French windows leading to gardens and/or conservatories. Paintings show groups of people conversing or engaged in other occupations. Lovers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will recall the scene where Lizzie and Miss Bingley patrol the room when Mr. Darcy is writing a letter.

In his Fragments, Humphrey Repton is said to have considered this switch of use of the library to a ‘general living-room’ and ‘the best-parlour… of late years the drawing-room, is now generally found a melancholy apartment, when entirely shut up and opened to give the visitors a formal cold reception’ an occurrence of fairly recent usage. However, this might not be the case. At Houghton Hall, Sir Robert Walpole installed his library next to his bedchamber and dressing room, while at Petworth in 1774, the King of Spain’s Bedchamber on the ground floor was converted by the 3rd Earl of Egremont into the present White Library.

The Drawing Room, Calke Abbey
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Comfortable clutter was, at times, overshadowed by architectural importance in the form of statuary, literary busts and portraits of men of letters and learning. This was often a conscious reflection of the philosophers, poets, playwrights and scientists whose works adorned the shelves. The Georgians had ever an eye for placement and design. Already mentioned in this article are the plaques on the ceiling at Berrington Hall. At Chesterfield House, a set of literary portraits, beginning with Chaucer and finishing with Dr. Johnson, were displayed in the library, while at Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, there are busts by Peter Scheemakers of Dryden, Milton, Shakespeare and Spenser, as well as a portrait of Pope by Jonathan Richardson.

Henry Holland’s library at Woburn Abbey is a warm, inviting room, in direct contrast to the austere and grand proportions of the same room at Sledmere Hall in Yorkshire, which looks more like a ballroom, especially since the carpet (lost in a fire that gutted the room in the first years of the twentieth century) was replaced with parquet. The bookshelves here are recessed into the wall, almost forgotten, whereas at Woburn they are proudly a part of the room’s architecture. Alongside the dry reports of parliamentary proceedings and matters of law, one-time necessaries in an Englishman’s library, march the 6th Duke of Bedford’s own volumes about the wildlife and plants to be found on the estates. Such tomes were surely far more inviting reads!

As remarked at the beginning of this piece, the library was considered a male preserve, as was also the case with the dining room. Lady Bessborough, a visitor to Woburn in 1797, is quoted as being very taken with the furnishings, describing the ‘…finest Editions magnificently bound…’, ‘…some very fine pictures…’, ‘…three great looking glasses, all the ornaments white and golden, and the furniture blue leather.’ Leather was often chosen as the upholstery for the library, since it would, in the way of a saddle or a fine pair of Hoby’s boots, mature and be the better for use, unlike the fragile velvet and silk fabrics employed in the saloons and drawing room. Not only would they speedily show signs of wear, they would need to be replaced according to the dictates of fashion.

Very little changes, it seems. Beautiful Georgian furniture can be picked up for a few pounds nowadays, while modern ‘designer’ suites will cost the purchaser a small fortune and last a quarter of the time – perhaps. I know which I would prefer.


Unless otherwise stated, photographs are the property of the author and may not be copied without the owner’s expressed permission.


© Heather King

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Twelfth Night Cake

Last year, I wrote a post about the celebrations traditionally associated with Twelfth Night and the now almost forgotten Twelfth-Day, which you can find here:

Twelfth Night Revels

The fifth of January is ‘the eve of the Epiphany, or Twelfth-night eve, arid is a night of preparation in some parts of England for the merriments which, to the present hour, distinguish Twelfth-day,’ states William Hone in his Every-day Book of 1825. Twelfth-Day, the sixth of January, is the Epiphany and commemorates the arrival in Bethlehem of the Three Wise Men with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is on this night (Twelfth Night) that decorations are taken down and the King and Queen of the Bean are elected through the auspices of the Twelfth Cake. On the eve of the Epiphany, it is still the custom in parts of the country to toast the apple orchards with pitchers of cider, usually by forming a circle around one of the most fruitful trees and drinking ‘the following toast three times.’

“Here's to thee, old apple-tree,
hence thou mayst bud, and whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! caps full!
Bushel—bushel—sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!”

In days of yore, itinerant minstrels were given to taking a bowl of spiced wine from house to house, especially those of the gentry, where they expected the best of hospitality and to be toasted for their musical endeavours from the wassail bowl. It is a night for games, singing joyous songs and much merriment.

On Twelfth-Day, the confectioners pulled out all the stops to create fabulous displays in their shop windows, of a wide range of cakes and delicacies to suit all purses. These ranged from the most exotically decorated and iced confections – the largest on an enormous salver – to simple buns.

Scarcely a shop in London that offers a halfpenny plain bun to the purchase of a
hungry boy, is without Twelfth-cakes and finery in the windows on Twelfth-day.
The gingerbread-bakers—there are not many, compared with their number when
the writer was a consumer of their manufactured goods,—even the reduced
gingerbread-bakers periwig a few plum-buns with sugar-frost to-day, and coaxingly
interpolate them among their new made sixes, bath-cakes, parliament, and ladies’
fingers. Their staple-ware has leaves of untarnished dutch-gilt stuck on; their
 upright cylinder-shaped show-glasses, containing peppermint-drops, elecampane,
sugar-sticks, hard-bake, brandy-balls, and bulls'-eyes, are carefully polished; their
lolly-pops are fresh encased, and look as white as the stems of tobacco-pipes;
and their candlesticks are ornamented with fillets and bosses of writing paper;
or, if the candles rise from the bottom of inverted glass cones, they shine more
sparkling for the thorough cleaning of their receivers in the morning.


Such are the scenes, that, at the front and side
Of the Twelfth cake-shops, scatter wild dismay;
As up the slipp'ry curl), or pavement wide,
We seek the pastrycooks, to keep Twelfth-day;
While ladies stand aghast, in speechless trance,
Look round—dare not go back—and yet dare not advance.

One of the most celebrated, and possibly oldest, confectioners was at 15, Cornhill, established during George I’s reign by Mr. Horton. It was taken over by Lucas Birch, who was succeeded by his son Samuel, who was born in 1757 and among other offices, was Lord Mayor in 1815.

15, Cornhill

Traditionally, the Twelfth Cake was a very large fruit cake, iced and decorated. By the nineteenth century it was often garlanded with gilded paper and dressed with figures made out of marzipan, sugar-paste or Plaster of Paris. These could be crowns, coronets, swans, horses or people etc. 

…all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate.
Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions,
milk maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary,
painted with variegated colours, glitter by ‘excess of light’ from mirrors against the walls
festooned with artificial ‘wonders of Flora.’

Over time, this cake has evolved into what we know today as Christmas Cake. Twelfth Cake was baked with a dried bean and a dried pea in the mixture, one in each half of the cake. On Twelfth Night it was cut into slices and everyone in the household had a slice, no matter how lowly their position. Ladies were served from the left and gentlemen from the right. The man who got the bean became King for the night and the woman or girl who claimed the pea became Queen. Their rule lasted until midnight and it was an excuse for all kinds of jests, foolish commands and silliness. At house parties, sometimes a coin was put in the cake instead of the bean or another alternative was the drawing of tickets or characters (often produced by the confectioners).

Traditional Twelfth Cake

There is no standard recipe for Twelfth Cake. It can be a fruit cake or even a sponge cake (all you need to do is put ‘Twelfth Cake recipes’ into your search engine and many possibilities come up!) I have therefore searched Cookery books of the Regency era for those listed below.

This is possibly the first printed recipe for Twelfth Cake and comes from The Art of Cookery by John Mollard, published in 1802. It is somewhat large!

Take seven pounds of flour, make a cavity in the centre, set a sponge with a gill and a half of yest and a little warm milk; then put round it one pound of fresh butter broke into small lumps, one pound and a quarter of sifted sugar, four pounds and a half of currants washed and picked, half an ounce of sifted cinnamon, a quarter of an ounce of pounded cloves, mace, and nutmeg mixed, sliced candied orange or lemon peel and citron. When the sponge is risen mix all the ingredients together with a little warm milk; let the hoops be well papered and buttered, then fill them with the mixture and bake them, and when nearly cold ice them over with sugar prepared for that purpose as per receipt; or they may be plain.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery quotes three recipes for Twelfth Cake, one of which is Morrell’s, above. This is also a massive cake.

Before beginning to mix the cake all the ingredients should be pre-pared, the flour dried and sifted, the currants washed, di-ied, and picked, the nutmegs grated, the spices pounded, the candied fruit cut into thin slices, the almonds bruised with orange-flower or rose water, but not to a paste, the sugar sifted, and the eggs thoroughly whisked, yolks and whites separately. Care should be taken to make the cake and to keep the fruit in a warm place, and, unless the weather is very warm, to whisk the eggs in a pan set in another containing hot water. To make the cake, put two pounds of fresh butter into a large bowl, and beat it with the hand to a smooth cream: then add two pounds of powdered sugar, a large nutmeg grated, and a quarter of an ounce each of powdered cinnamon, powdered mace, powdered ginger, and powdered allspice. Beat the mixture for ten minutes, add gradually twenty eggs, and beat the cake for twenty minutes. Work in two pounds of flour, four pounds of currants, half a pound of bruised almonds, half a pound each of candied orange, candied lemon, and candied citron, and, last of all, a claret-glassful of brandy, and beat the cake lightly between every addition. Line a baking-hoop with doubled paper well buttered, pour in the mixture, and be careful that it does no more than three-parts fill it, that there may be room for the cake to rise. Cover the top with paper, set the tin on an inverted plate in the oven to keep it from burning at the bottom, and bake in a slow but well-heated oven. When it is nearly cold, cover it as smoothly as possible with sugar-icing three-quarters of an inch thick (see Frost or Icing for Cakes). Ornament with fancy articles of any kind, with a high ornament in the centre : these may frequently be hired of the confectioner. In order to ascertain whether the cake is done enough, plunge a bright knife into the centre of it, and if it comes out bright and clear the cake is done. A cake of this description will, if properly made, and kept in a cool dry place, keep for twelve months. If cut too soon it will crumble and fall to pieces. It will be at its best when it has been kept four months. Time to bake, four hours and a half. Probable cost, 12s. for this quantity.

Then this recipe is of great interest to Regency aficionados. It is of rather more modest size. 

Twelfth Cake, Lady Caroline Lamb's. —

 Quarter of a peck of pure flour carefully dried, three pounds of cui-rants, a quarter of a pound of raisins, half a pound of refined sugar, quarter of a pound of sweet and half an ounce of bitter almonds blanched and sliced, two ounces of orange and two ounces of candied lemon-peel, and spices according to taste, mix all thoroughly; then take one pint of cream, and put to it three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter washed first in pure and afterwards in rose-water; place in a gentle heat. Beat up the white and yolks, separately, of six eggs, and the yolks only of six more. Add to them a little rose-water, two table- spoonfuls of cardamom brandy, half a glassful of old Rhenish, hock, or champagne, quarter of a pint of fresh yeast, and a little fine salt. Mix the liquids together, strain them, add the dry materials warm, and mix the whole into a light smooth batter. Place it before a fire for twenty minutes to rise, butter your hoop, and use what flour is necessary to make the cake sufficiently stiff. Set it in the oven with some sheets of brown paper well floured to prevent its burning. In about a couple of hours it will be done. Ice it in the usual manner, and stick any ornaments you choose upon the icing before it is dry. 

In his Book of Christmas of 1888, Thomas Hervey quotes an account from an earlier work, the Cook and Confectioner’s Dictionary, edited by one Nutt. According to Mr. Nutt, the nursery rhyme ‘Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pye,’ who ‘When the pye was opened all began to sing,’ was based on fact. It seems there were ‘two great pies, made of coarse paste and bran, into one of which, after it was baked, live frogs were introduced, and into the other, live birds; which, upon some curious persons lifting up the covers, would jump and fly about the room, causing ‘a surprising and diverting hurly-burly among the guests.’

Thomas Hervey continues to describe Victorian Twelfth Cakes:

What feeble imitations are the castles, ships, and animals that now adorn our Twelfth-night cakes, to the performances of Nutt! How much, every way, inferior are the specimens of art produced, even by the renowned author of the ‘Italian Confectioner,’ the illustrious Jarrin!

On the battlements of the castles of former days were planted ‘kexes,’ or pop-guns, charged with gunpowder, to be fired upon a pastry ship, with ‘masts,’ ropes, we doubt not of spun sugar, ‘sails, flags, and streamers.’ Nor was the naval power of England lost sight of; for the ‘kexes’ of this delicious ship were, also, charged with gunpowder, and, when she was fired upon from the castle, her guns were able to return the salute.

In order to get rid of the smell of the powder, eggshells were prepared, filled with rose water, which guests then threw at each other! Finally, there was ‘a stag of pastry filled with claret…’ ‘…which, when wounded, poured forth its blood, free and sparkling as a ruby, for those whose nerves were delicate and needed the refreshment of a glass of wine.’

How modest in comparison are our celebrations today, but then, the Georgians really knew how to feast and make merry!

 A very merry Twelfth Night to you all!

Images from non-copyright books quoted unless otherwise stated. 

© Heather King

Monday, 26 December 2016

The Feast of Stephen

Good King Wenceslas by John Mason Neale

Good King Wenceslas look’d out,
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about,
Deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither:
Thou and I, we’ll see him dine,
When we bear them thither.”

Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament,
Through the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”

“Mark my steps, be brave, my page;
Tread thou in them boldly;
Then thou’lt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which his foot had printed.
Therefore Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.

Although strongly criticized by the purists, and compilers far more learned than I, this popular carol is one of my favourites. It was written by John Mason Neale and published in 1853, the music being a Finnish melody for spring, dating from three hundred years earlier. But who was King Wenceslas and who was St. Stephen, whose day many of us now celebrate as Boxing Day, 26 December?

Wenceslas was Duke of Bohemia in the tenth century. A Catholic, he attempted to spread Christianity among his people and so was murdered by his brother Boleslaus (also Boleslaw and Boleslav). Wenceslaus (original English spelling) was martyred following his death and is the Patron Saint of the Czech Republic. His Saint’s Day is 28 September. The regal dignity was conferred on him posthumously by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, according to the Catholic Encyclopaedia. The carol tells of a legend connected with Wenceslas’ life.

John Mason Neale set his words to ‘Tempus adest floridum’ or ‘The Time is Near for Flowering’, a spring carol of Finland, which first appeared in the collection ‘Piae Cantiones’ of 1582. Good King Wenceslas was first published in 1853, in a collection entitled Carols for Christmas-Tide by Neale and Thomas Helmore.

The Feast of Stephen is the Saint’s Day of Saint Stephen, in the west nowadays more usually referred to as Boxing Day. Stephen, who died circa AD 35, was the first Christian martyr. He belonged to a primitive Christian community in Jerusalem and is mentioned in Acts as one of those seven who were ‘of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom’ chosen by the community to support the twelve apostles. Stephen is given credit as ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’. He apparently died (stoned to death) near the so-called Damascus Gate in the northern wall outside Jerusalem, killed by a mob. His death is celebrated on 26 December in the Western Church and 27 December in the Eastern Church. Some countries commemorate him on 9 January, the same day in the Julian calendar. Stephen is the Patron Saint of Serbia and his day is a public holiday in many countries.

In Finland, there is a tradition whereby sleighs pulled by horses take to the village streets in the merry ‘St. Stephen’s Day ride’, a chance for the people to rejoice following the piety and silence of Christmas. Other old traditions include parades of singers and people dressed in festive costume.

In Ireland, Boxing Day is still sometimes called Wren Day. It was once the case that a wren would be killed, then carried by children from house to house, asking for money in exchange for a wren’s feather, which was believed to bring good luck. Visiting each house on St. Stephen’s Day is a tradition which survives in many countries, particularly in Scandinavia, where the day is spent in partying and going to see friends.

By the Regency, Stephen’s feast day had become a day for the wealthy to give Christmas boxes to their dependents, either servants or tradespeople who had given them good service through the year. While the term Boxing Day was most likely coined by the Victorians, who so liked to propound the myth and customs of Christmas, the tradition of giving ‘boxes’ of money or a small gift certainly predates the 1800s. In his diary entry of 19 December 1663, Samuel Pepys states ‘Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas.’

There is some conjecture as to when the custom originated – it may have been in the Middle Ages with alms put in boxes for the poor, but there is no doubt it was in existence by the Georgian era. Required to work on Christmas Day to provide for the family they served, servants were often allowed to visit their families on the Feast of Stephen, clutching boxes of leftovers and largesse from their employers. However, it must be remembered that in those times Christmas wasn’t necessarily a public holiday, as it is now. For many it was just another working day.

Happy Christmas!

© Heather King

Friday, 16 December 2016

Who is Father Christmas?

Father Christmas, with his rich, red suit and bushy white beard, has been an iconic figure since Victorian times, but the personification of Christmas has been part of English folklore since the fifteenth century. After the Puritans banned Christmas during the English Civil War, supporters of the Royalist cause published political pamphlets marrying the old customs of feasting and merrymaking with the festivities, in the process taking Old Father Christmas as their ‘figurehead’.

‘The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas’ (1687) from a pamphlet by Josiah King.

Although his popularity dwindled following the Restoration, Christmas folk or mummer’s plays kept Old Father Christmas alive through the late eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth.

Christmas as a festivity for children developed during the Victorian era. Prior to then it had been a time of feasting and carousing strictly for adults, sometimes even with an air of menace when associated with the Lord of Misrule, a mock king introduced by the Normans, who wore red robes and made sure the celebrations were run in the old pagan manner. Villagers would leave out food and drink to pacify any malicious spirits. This association gradually died out when the tradition of the Lord of Misrule also became lost in the annals of time, although into the Regency, a servant was made a king or queen for the night on Twelfth Night and a misruling lord still exists in the British military through the officers and NCOs serving the men Christmas dinner.

In a fifteenth century carol purported to be written by the Rector of Plymtree between 1435 and 1477 makes an early mention of Sir Christmas. This is quoted from Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, 1833, by William Sandys.

In Die Nativitatis

Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell.
Who ys there thay syngith so nowell, nowell?

I am here, syre cristsmasse;
Well come, my lord sr crstmasse,
Welcome to vs all bothe more & lasse,
Com ner, nowell.

Dievs wous garde, brewe srs, tydyge y zow bryng,
A mayde hath born a chylde full zong,
The weche causeth zew for to syng,

Criste is now born of a pure mayde,
In an oxe stalle he ys layde,
Wher'for syng we alle atte abrayde,

Bevvex bien par tutte la company,
Make gode chere & be right mery,
And syng wt vs now joyfully,

This celebrates the birth of Jesus and exhorts parishioners to ‘Make good cheer and be right merry, And sing with us now joyfully, Nowell.’ So it is clear that already the seed of Father Christmas was there, beginning to be nurtured.

In the seventeenth century, various plays and masques, including The Masque Of Christmas, 1616, by Ben Jonson, continued to preserve the persona of Christmas as an individual.


Enter Christmas, with two or three of the guard, attired in round hose, long stockings, a fine doublet, a high-crowned hat, with a brooch, a long thin beard, a truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, his scarf and garter: tied cross, and his drum beaten before him.

WHY, gentlemen, do you know what you do? ha! would you have kept me out? CHRISTMAS, old Christmas, Christmas of London, and captain Christmas? Pray you, let me be brought before my lord chamberlain, I'll not be answered else: ’Tis merry in hall, when beards wag all: I have seen the time you have wish’d for me, for a merry Christmas; and now you have me, they would not let me in: I must come another time! a good jest, as if I could come more than once a year: Why I am no dangerous person, and so I told my friends of the guard. I am old Gregory Christmas still,
and though I come out of Pope’s-head alley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish.

In a court masque of 1638, by Thomas Nabbes, it is said the stage directions assert that Christmas is represented by ‘an old reverend Gentleman’ in a furred gown and cap etc.’

By the eighteenth century, it seems, traditions muddled on much as before, but in the middle of the century, according to William Sandys, Stevenson introduced ‘…Old Christmas talking of the former festivities of the season, of sitting by the fire with a bowl of lamb’s wool; after which some sang carols; the servants went to dancing, and sung one to the tune of Hey,

            Let’s dance and sing, and make good cheer,
            For Christmas comes but once a year. 

So, it would appear from this that the character of Father Christmas as we know him today is beginning to evolve.

In 1774, David Garrick produced A Christmas Tale at Drury Lane, to popular acclaim. Although forgotten once the season was over, it ran for nineteen performances and was a spectacular piece of magic, music and romance.

‘…Mr. Palmer, in the character of Christmas:


Behold a personage well known to fame;
Once lov'd and honour'd - Christmas is my name!
My officers of state my taste display;
Cooks, scullions, pastry-cooks, prepare my way!
Holly and ivy round me honours spread,
And my retinue show I'm not ill-fed.
Minc'd pies by way of belt my breast divide,
And a large carving knife adorns my side;
'Tis no Fop's weapon, 'twill be often drawn;
This turban for my head is collar'd brawn!
Tho' old and white my locks, my cheeks are cherry,
Warm'd by good fires, good cheer, I'm always merry:
With carrol, fiddle, dance and pleasant tale,
Jest, gibe, prank, gambol, mummery and ale,
I, English hearts rejoiced in day of yore;
For new strange modes, imported by the score,
You will not sure turn Christmas out of door!
and though I come out of Pope’s-head alley, as
good a Protestant as any in my parish...

In the Georgian era, any gifts given were usually exchanged on Saint Nicholas’ Day, the sixth of December. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors and Russia. The North American tradition of Santa Claus is a corruption of his name and stems from the Dutch custom of giving presents to children on his feast day. However, it is likely that the custom of giving presents on Christmas Day, the Nativity of Christ, has travelled across the Atlantic. The holy demeanour of the bishop became a jolly, fat gentleman with ruddy cheeks and a white beard. In 1809, Washington Irving, in the Knickerbocker’s History of New York, portrayed Saint Nicholas as a portly, jolly chap who drove a wagon through the skies. This was further augmented by Clement C. Moore in 1822, when he wrote the poem which starts, ‘’Twas the night before Christmas…’ This portrayal was of a gentleman with twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks with dimples, a red nose, snow-white beard and a round stomach ‘that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.’ As with Saint Nicholas in Holland, he is a supernatural and generous figure, who comes at night down the chimney and leaves gifts for the sleeping children.

Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly. It was Thomas Nast who immortalized the modern perception of Father Christmas when he produced an initial illustration, in an issue of the same magazine in 1863. It proved so popular, he created this 1881 image.

Saint Nicholas was born in the fourth century in the then Greek village of Patara, near Lycia (now in Turkey). His parents were wealthy and he was brought up a devout Christian. He devoted his life to God and the needy, using his inheritance to help those suffering sickness or poverty. He became Bishop of Myra and his fame spread, leading to his persecution and imprisonment for his faith. When he died, on 6 December 343, he was buried in the cathedral at Myra. His life inspired great devotion and in 1087, Italian sailors are said to have removed his bones to Bari in southeast Italy to preserve them from the many wars around Myra. A shrine was built over his remains and became a major place of pilgrimage. There is now a magnificent church there. 

Saint Nicholas’ Day became a day of rejoicing and giving, as a celebration of his teachings. Due to his reputation for kindness and giving, many legends evolved through the centuries, of the miracles he performed. Stories are told of his calming storms, saving his people from famine, rescuing those in dire need and saving those wrongfully accused. One story goes that the father of three daughters was too poor to provide dowries for marriage. On three consecutive nights, a bag of gold was thrown through an open window, to land in stockings or shoes drying by the fire and thus save them from shame and slavery. The tradition of hanging up stockings or putting out shoes for gifts comes from this legend. Another story has Saint Nicholas bringing three boys back to life, having been variously murdered by a wicked innkeeper and put in a salting barrel or killed by a butcher to be made into pies.

There are a variety of customs in Europe to celebrate Saint Nicholas’ Day. In some countries he is believed to ride a white horse while spreading his largesse; in others, boys pretending to be bishops beg monies for the ‘poor’. This tradition of feasting and exchanging gifts on this day continues still in many European countries. The sharing of sweets, gifts, riddles and initials made of chocolate takes place on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day in the Netherlands, and the children fill shoes with carrots and hay for his horse, in the hopes of presents being left in return. It was this tradition of Christmas being primarily a holiday for children which was instrumental in bringing about the switch of Saint Nicholas into Father Christmas/Santa Claus and the exchange of gifts from Saint Nicholas’ Day to Christmas Day.

 The Yuletide feast of midwinter among Briton, Norse and Saxon peoples, along with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, among others, were probably influential in this regard as well, since feasting, ceremonies, decorations, symbolic figures and values, spiritual beings and the giving of gifts have long been a part of the winter solstice. It is not too far a stretch of probability to consider the association of Father Christmas with the North Pole, reindeer and snow to have come from Norse or Scandinavian customs in connection with Yuletide. In A Visit from St. Nicholas (’Twas the Night Before Christmas), eight tiny reindeer fly up to the house-top drawing a miniature sleigh. Kris Kringle of Nowegian tradition has a sleigh and reindeer which glide over the house tops in a fantastic manner, this having definite connections with the ancient Norse legend of Odin’s white horse Sleipnir, who was possessed of eight hooves and was the fastest horse in the world.

Supernatural beings have been a part of winter celebrations since pagan times. In many northern countries, demonic creatures such as vampires, witches, ghosts and trolls are thought to be abroad on Christmas Eve, but folklore also allows for the tiny manifestations of goblins, sprites, fairies and elves, so the cheery, green-suited human ushering children into ‘Santa’s Grotto’ is not so very surprising after all.

I will leave you with this lovely word picture of Christmas, courtesy of William Sandys’ Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern.

All images public domain, most courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Happy Christmas!