Friday, February 28, 2020

Cold Remedies Before the Modern Era: The Posset

by Lauren Gilbert

Being February, the subject of health, particularly the way to cope with colds and flu, is of great interest. In western medicine, we visit the doctor, or have a chat with a pharmacist. What did they do before modern medicine became available? Home remedies such as willow bark tea or a fever drink, a plaister for a sore throat (a warm wrap for the throat, accompanied by a mixture of honey, juice of houseleek and a little alum blended and taken on a liquorice stick) were possibilities. There was even a specific Recipe to cure a Cold in THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE (containing Venice treacle [also known as theriac, a concoction going back to the Middle Ages of fermented herbs, animal parts, opium and honey], powdered snake root, powdered saffron, hartshorn, and syrup of cloves).

One popular remedy for colds and fevers was the posset.
Silver posset pot, London, England, 1698 
Possets were a fairly simple and nourishing concoction that would have been suitable for adults or children, and would have been easy to drink or eat. As other home remedies evolved (or disappeared), the posset seems to have been a staple, popular for centuries, which isn’t surprising as they were also eaten for pleasure.

Possets go back well before the Georgian or Victorian eras. The name itself goes back to the 15th century. Lady Macbeth slipped her drug into the guards’ possets in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth (Act II, Scene 2). King Charles I was supposedly given a posset by his physician in 1620. A similar word possenet or postnet refers to a small pot or sauce pan, which would have been a practical utensil for making a posset. In 1554, the Spanish ambassador gave Queen Mary I and her husband Philip of Spain a posset set that contained vessels for mixing and serving the possets and for the ingredients needed as a betrothal gift. Such sets could be made of silver, porcelain or pottery and were very popular, and are highly valuable today. (Queen Mary’s set was made of crystal, gold and gems.)

Posset pot with cover, tin-glazed earthen ware

The basic ingredients for a posset include milk or cream, eggs and some kind of alcoholic beverage. At its simplest, it appears that a posset would have been a creamy and nourishing beverage, soothing to a sore throat. There are a number of recipes for possets.

In ELINOR FETTIPLACE’S RECEIPT BOOK, her recipe (which may have come from her mother and go back years before 1647 when she left her book to her niece) contains cream brought to the boil, with egg yolks, nutmeg, sugar and breadcrumbs blended in together. Left to stand before the fire, it would thicken and curdle, at which sack (a fortified wine from Spain or the Canary Islands) and ale were blended it. This may have been more of a custard than a beverage, depending on the quantity of breadcrumbs used (and the taste of the cook).

In A SIP THROUGH TIME A Collection of Old Brewing Recipes, several recipes from 1669 appear. They range from a plain ordinary posset containing no spices, to more elaborate recipes including cinnamon, nutmeg, and ambergris (an excretion from whales found on the beach), and no thickener. These recipes would have resulted in a creamy beverage. There were also recipes with added thickeners including breadcrumbs (as used in Mrs. Fettiplace’s recipe) or French barley. The added thickeners would result in a heavier, more custard-like consistency. The alcohol used in these recipes was primarily Sack wine, varied with muscadine, which were blended with Rhenish or white wine sometimes. Ale did not appear in these recipes.

Eliza Smith included a couple of recipes for posset in her THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE (16th edition, published in 1758), neither of which contained added thickeners. (The quantity of eggs alone would have been sufficient to form a custard consistency.) Both seem to have been designed to be eaten at the table.

Elizabeth Raffald’s THE EXPERIENCED ENGLISH HOUSEKEEPER of 1769 included instructions to temper the wine with hot cream or milk to prevent the posset from curdling. Mrs. Raffald included six recipes using Sack or Lisbon wine, brandy, or ale. She also featured a lemon posset that includes the juice of a lemon, Mountain wine, and orange flower water or French brandy. Although the sack, brandy and wine possets were dishes to be served with toast or tea wafers and eaten, the lemon, almond, and ale possets appear to be more of a beverage or soup consistency.

Posset cup, silver decorated with repouse work, 1764-1765,

Mistress Margaret Dods’ COOK AND HOUSEWIFE’S MANUAL from the mid-1820’s included a sack posset with cream thickened with grated sweet biscuits (cookie crumbs) which was sweetened and spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg; a variation used milk and eggs (instead of the cream and crumbs). Her instructions include warming the wine before adding it. She recommended “pour it quickly from one vessel to another till perfectly smooth....”(1) (Based on these instructions, a consistency similar to modern eggnog or a bit thicker might be expected). There was also an ale posset thickened with breadcrumbs and sweetened but not spiced. This one is ready to be served when the head (curd) rises, so a spoon would have been helpful. 

Instructions with these recipes, especially the earlier versions, allow a cook a great deal of leeway in preparation. For the wealthy, the exotic spices, sugar and wine would have been easily procured. For those of lower income, ale and honey could have been substituted. It can be made with or without eggs. A variation of the posset would have been available to many households to provide a measure of warmth and comfort to a family member suffering from a fever or a cold. A posset would also be a welcome and soothing treat, especially if particular tired or distressed.

Lemon posset with almond bread 
Possets are still enjoyed today as a dessert. A simple internet search will generate numerous recipes for possets for the modern cook. (Lemon posset seems to be particularly popular these days.) With a consistency somewhere between a pudding and a custard, the posset can be found on menus and tables. Even though we would not consider them a medicament, their soothing sweetness is still enjoyed after all these centuries.

(1) Dods, Mistress Margaret. COOK AND HOUSEWIFE’S MANUAL. Page 463.

Image credits

Silver posset pot, London, England, 1698, Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images (CC BY 4.0)

Posset pot with cover, tin-glazed earthen ware (British, Bristol, early 18th Century) Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

Posset cup, silver decorated with repouse work, 1764-1765, Wellcome Library, London. (CC BY 4.0)

Lemon posset with almond bread by jules, CC BY

Sources include:

Dods, Mistress Margaret. COOK AND HOUSEWIFE’S MANUAL. First published 1829 by Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh. This edition was published in 1988 by Rosters Ltd., London.

Raffald, Elizabeth. THE EXPERIENCED ENGLISH HOUSEKEEPER. First published 1769. This edition was published in 1997 by Southover Press, Lewes.

Renfrow, Cindy. A SIP THROUGH TIME A Collection of Old Brewing Recipes. 4th printing April 2008.

Smith, Eliza. THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE. The Sixteenth Edition, with Additions. First published in 1758. This edition published 1994 by Studio Editions Ltd., London.

Spurling, Hilary. ELINOR FETTIPLACE’S RECIPT BOOK. Published 1986 by Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth. “Possets” posted April 28, 2012. “Historic recipes: Sack posset, a rich pudding to cure all ills” by Regula Ysewijn, posted April 7, 2016. “Posset”. (Copied from Wikimedia 12 February 2020).


Lauren Gilbert lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book, HEYERWOOD: A Novel was published in 2011. She has articles in CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS volumes 1 and 2. She has just released her second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, and is working on a non-fiction book. Visit her website or her Facebook author page for more information.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What to do about the nudes? Women Artists & the Slade School of Art, Victorian London

By Karen Odden

The Slade School of Fine Art in London is currently ranked as the top art and design school in the UK—but like so many of my favorite elements of England(!), it has its origins in the Victorian period. In 1868, a forward-thinking lawyer and philanthropist named Felix Slade (1788-1868) donated funds to create three Chairs in fine art, based at Oxford, Cambridge, and University College London. Students would only be taught in London—and, in an unprecedented condition set by the founder, women and men at this new school would study art together.

This directive was met with consternation and resistance—for what should be done about the anatomical drawing classes, with live nudes present? The accommodation made was to place the men and women in separate classrooms for the live models, draping the loins when desired. The drawing of nude marble statues, however, was done together.

 Requiring that women be admitted on equal footing with men was a significant swerve away from norms and set a new path for the University College London. Significantly, the Annual General Meeting Report of 1872 recorded that women were permitted to compete for scholarships, and during the first four years, four women and four men were awarded scholarships; the first two recipients in 1872 were women.

The first Chair hired was Edward Poynter, an esteemed artist who painted in the popular “Aesthetic” style which valued “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake).

Poynter - Portrait by Legros

The son of an architect, Poynter was born in Paris. His early education was in England, but he returned to Paris for his training in art, attending the studio of Charles Glevre, where James McNeill Whistler and George du Maurier were also students. Well known for his large historical paintings, he served as professor at the Slade from 1871, when it opened, until 1875, when Alphonse Legros, a friend of Whistler, was given the Chair and Poynter took a position as principal of the National Art Training School.

One of the earliest students at the Slade was Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), the daughter of a working-class engraver who had once been commissioned to create the wood-cut illustrations for Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. So from childhood, Kate—an avid reader—was acquainted with the relationship between books and art. When she was twelve, she enrolled in the Finsbury School, in night classes, which were open to women. The curriculum leaned toward the training of artisans in the design of geometric materials such as wallpaper and tile, rather than the more imaginative, creative arts of painting and sculpture.

Subsequently she moved to the Royal Female School of Art, where she became friends with Elizabeth Thompson, with whom she shared a studio. Together they honed their craft, and Kate was able to draw figures from plaster casts and costumed figures but was frustrated that she was unable to practice anatomical drawing from nudes—which was finally permitted when she moved to the Slade. Even before she arrived there, however, Kate had exhibited and sold her work. She received commissions for illustrations for children’s books, exhibited her watercolors, and had been hired by the successful greeting card company Marcus Ward & Co. where she was praised for her “special talent … in the direction of costume figures and dainty colours.” Kate continued her education, studying painters and illuminated manuscripts at the National Gallery and British Museum, and made her living illustrating books, designing bookplates, and exhibiting her work both in England and America. In 1955, the annual Kate Greenaway Medal was established to honor an illustrator of children’s books.

Greenaway illustrated "Diamonds and Toads" for Frederick Warne & Co in 1871.

Another early Slade student is one of my favorite Victorian artists—Evelyn de Morgan, born Mary Evelyn Pickering (1855-1919) to upper-class parents, descended from landowners, politicians, artists, and nobility. Educated at home, she was tutored in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian, classical mythology, literature, and science, like her brother. As a child, she poured her creativity into poetry, which reflects the spiritual and feminist themes she would explore later in her painting. She found daily tasks expected of women tedious and reportedly told her father that if she were forced to attend the Drawing Room to be presented to society, she would “kick the Queen.” Struggling to be taken seriously as an artist, she entered the Slade in 1873 and won one of the prestigious Slade scholarships. Around this time, she began to use her middle name, Evelyn (think Evelyn Waugh), which was used for both men and women, so that her work would be judged on its merits rather than her gender. She made meticulous studies of the human form, paying particular attention to hands and feet, which many artists find challenging. After graduating from the Slade, she sold her works to prominent members of society, and she became friendly with painters in the pre-Raphaelite movement including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. In 1887, she married William De Morgan, a ceramicist whom she helped to support; later he became a novelist and freed Evelyn from the need to sell her work. Although her artistic style changed over her fifty-year career, her paintings are generally figural, often allegorical, and gorgeous, and many were displayed in various galleries and museums throughout England during her lifetime.

“The Love Potion,” 1903 

Since the 1870s, women have been included in every class. The Slade School currently offers degrees from the BA/BFA through the PhD, and according to its site, the Slade approaches “the practice of contemporary art and the history and theories that inform it in an experimental, research-oriented and imaginative way.” You can find the Slade in Gower Street, with its easily identifiable façade (illustration); and the University College London Art Museum nearby houses reserve collections, available for viewing by appointment, that include prize-winning work from the Slade students as well as works by Old Master artists and sculptural masterpieces. The closest tube station is Euston Square.


Karen Odden earned her PhD in English literature from New York University, where she wrote her dissertation on representations of railway disasters in Victorian medical, legal, and popular literature, tracing our current ideas about “trauma” back to a time before the shell-shock of WWI to the railway disasters of the 1850s-1880s. She has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; her critical essays on Victorian literature have appeared in numerous books and journals; and for nearly a decade, she served as an assistant editor for the academic journal Victorian Literature and Culture. Her first Victorian mystery, A LADY IN THE SMOKE, was a USA Today bestseller, and her second novel, A DANGEROUS DUET, won for best Historical Fiction at the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards. Her third, A TRACE OF DECEIT, was published in December 2019 by William Morrow. She lives in Arizona with her family and her beagle-muse, Rosy.

twitter: @Karen_odden
Instagram: @karen_m_odden
Facebook: KarenOddenAuthor

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Seventeenth Century Library

by Deborah Swift

As soon as the printing press had opened up the world of print, people couldn't get enough books. What were once luxury items, individually copied for one particular patron, were now mass-produced for the first time, and in the 17th century, publishers and booksellers proliferated.

A seventeenth century print works

Many of these new publishers began as printing or bookseller apprentices. After their apprenticeship, they saw the profits made from books and opened their own businesses. Book piracy is nothing new, the reprinting of a popular book in its entirety without the permission of either author or publisher was a common practice, and booksellers openly sold these unauthorised editions. Some of these facsimiles even ended up in libraries.

Just like today, not all printing was accurate and seventeenth century typos were rife. Due to the vagaries of spelling in this period, which was not standardized, mistakes with the type-setting could easily be made. But one error was particularly disastrous - in 1631, the word ‘not’ was left out in a reprint of the King James Bible. King Charles I and the Archbishop of Canterbury were somewhat taken aback to read the commandment: Thou shalt commit adultery.

Barker and Lucas, the printers who produced it, immediately had their printing license revoked. All the bibles were ordered to be destroyed, but eleven escaped the cull, and still exist today. This version is now known as The Wicked Bible, the Adulterous Bible or the Sinner’s Bible.

In this period there were many ecclesiastical libraries, but not many had escaped Henry VIII's hatchet job on Catholicism. One example is the 17th century library at Winchester, named after Bishop Morley, whose books are part of the collection. Behind the beautifully carved bookcases, grooves can still be found where secret compartments were made to hide the communion vessels and other paraphernalia. In 1688, when the King had been restored, this library was constructed to hold rare medieval manuscripts such as the illuminated Winchester Bible.

Morley Library Winchester
With the burgeoning popularity of books in this period, it was unsurprising that someone would come up with the idea of a public library. One of the first ever libraries was founded in Birmingham between 1635 and 1642, by Puritan minister Francis Roberts. A building to house the library was finished in 1656, and the accounts of the High Bailiff of Birmingham for 1655 include 3 pounds, 2 shillings and 6 pence paid to Thomas Bridgens towards buildinge ye library. It was obviously meant to be of use to scholars because £126 2s 9d was paid out the next year for buildinge the library, repayreing the Schoole and schoole-masters' houses. This library was one of the first public libraries in England, but its Puritan roots led to the collection being broken up once the King was restored in 1660. It is so fascinating how such precious books have been either banned or preserved by the different religious factions of the day. The Birmingham library doesn't survive in its original seventeenth century building.

St John's Library Cambridge

Another notable library founded in this time is the Jacobean St John's College Library, Cambridge. There is a great artcle here about its history. Its shelves were categorised by lists in the 17th century and these hand-written labels still exist, with the following headings: philologi, philosophi, medici, theologi recentiores, theologi scholastici, historici ecclesiastici, SS Patres, liturgica, biblia sacra, concilia, iurisconsulti, lexicographi, historici, mathematici. So you can see that most libraries were heavily weighted towards scripture.

In Scotland, The Leighton Library, or Bibliotheca Leightoniana, in Dunblane is the oldest purpose built library in Scotland. Take a tour of it on the Youtube video above. It houses about four thousand books from the 16th to the 19th century. Robert Leighton, the then bishop of Dunblane and archbishop of Glasgow, had left the books to Dunblane Cathedral, and these were the bedrock of the collection. Built with £100 from the late Archbishop Leighton, this modest and unassuming building was completed in 1687. The structure is one long panelled room, with two stone vaults below, lit by windows to the south and west. During World War II, it was used as an air-raid shelter and had fallen into neglect, but more recently renovation, repair, and cataloging was carried out, and the library was officially re-opened in May 1990.
Pepys's custom-built bookcases
A more personal library of the time was Pepys's library, which is housed at Magdalene College, since the death of his nephew, John Jackson, His three thousand books, are the end product of a lifetime’s love for books, as evidenced in his diary. The books are housed in twelve matching and sumptuous late seventeenth-century oak bookcases. The collection's fine leather bindings, mostly commissioned by Pepys himself, are of the highest quality, showing how much he held his books in regard, and how much he wanted to show them off. Not everyone could afford to commission cases, and in the 17th century, books were often stored in coffers or trunks. There is a story of a young lad called Grotius escaping persecution and prison in a trunk used to carry books. The prison was Loevestein Castle, a state prison in the Spanish Netherlands, and he made his escape in 1621. Read the story here.
The book chest in which Grotius hid

Also popular in the seventeenth century were travelling libraries of miniature books - especially the Bible and books of Psalms or other religious tracts. Below is one that was brought up for auction recently and dates from 1627. Often these were put together in a series, like in the one below.

This 17th century Travelling Library is delightful, and contains forty volumes. While scholars don’t know exactly who made it, they believe it was commissioned by William Hakewill, an MP, a lawyer, a student of legal history, and an early member of the Society of Antiquaries. The miniature library was held in a wooden case, covered in brown turkey leather,effectively disguising it as one large volume, but it contains three shelves of books, each bound in vellum and tooled with gold-leaf.
The books include works by Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, Horace and Julius Caesar. Hakewill seems to have given four similar sets as gifts to friends in the years 1617 and 1618. You can read more about the collection in this Daily Mail article, which calls this set of books 'the Seventeenth Century Kindle'.

Pictures from wikipedia, unless linked.
Sources ;
Samuel Pepys - Tomalin
Every One a Witness - Wolfenden
Voices from The World of Samuel Pepys - Bastable

This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally published on September 26, 2016.


Deborah Swift is the author of nine historical novels as well as the Highway Trilogy for teens (and anyone young at heart!). So far, her books have been set in the 17th Century or in WW2, but she is fascinated by all periods of the past and her new novel will be set in the Renaissance. Deborah lives on the edge of the beautiful and literary English Lake District – a place made famous by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.

For more information of Deborah's published work, visit her Author Page

Friday, February 21, 2020

A Thought for Edward VI on a Difficult Day for Him

by Janet Wertman

Despite his enormous promise, Edward VI was a tragic figure, on so many levels.

The first level involves the wrongs his father did to get him. Henry VIII firmly believed he needed a male heir. When his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, proved unable to fulfill this obligation after twenty years of marriage, Henry abandoned her. That the Pope disagreed didn’t matter – Henry abandoned the Catholic Church as well, founding the Church of England to seal his right to remarry. Then when Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, birthed only a daughter and experienced several miscarriages, Henry had her executed on trumped up charges to pave the way for the third wife who would finally give him the son he craved. Jane Seymour, Edward’s mother, is often said to have “walked through Anne’s blood” for her title. In Jane’s defense, we must remember that she paid for the privilege with her life.

The second level involves the circumstances of Edward’s youth. His mother died in childbirth, and his first two stepmothers were little involved in his life. Edward got lucky with his third stepmother, Katherine Parr, who finally gave the five-year old prince a real experience of family life. Life further opened up to him as other children were brought into his household to share his life and his education.

Barnaby Fitzpatrick, the son of an Irish peer, became his whipping boy (since Edward’s teachers could not in good conscience administer corrective beatings to “this whole realm’s most precious jewel”). Still, the fear that surrounded the young prince must have been oppressive: Henry was terrified that something would happen to his only son. Very few people were allowed to visit Edward’s household out of fear of the plague. All of his food was tasted. Every servant was schooled in the rigorous standards of security and cleanliness that Henry imposed. Such constant caution would inevitably be deeply internalized.

Even when Edward acceded to the throne, things did not improve by much. He was so young, only nine years old. This is wonderfully captured in many of the unintentionally poignant entries in his Chronicle (which was, in the words of Wilbur Kitchener Jordan, “in part private diary, in part an educational exercise, and in part considered notes on policy and administration”), like the one he wrote about his coronation, in which he proudly described how he had dined with his crown on his head. Yet the real power belonged to his uncle, Edward Seymour Duke of Somerset, who was named Lord Protector to rule while Edward was still a minor. Importantly, this went against Henry VIII’s wishes – Henry hadn’t wanted anyone to be in a position to divert power from his son: he had envisioned a “Regency Council” that would rule collectively. Nevertheless, Somerset was able to quickly seize control thanks in large part to a last-minute “unfulfilled gifts clause” added to Henry’s will under the dry seal that allowed the executors to distribute lavish gifts to their friends.

Unfortunately, Somerset was not as respectful of his young nephew as he should have been. Somerset was proud and self-interested and kept the young King dependent on him for as much as he could. This encouraged Somerset’s younger brother, Thomas Seymour, to hatch a scheme to replace Somerset as proxy ruler. In the middle of the night on December 16, 1549, Seymour tried to break into the sleeping King’s apartments at Hampton Court Palace. He made it into the privy garden (he had keys), but one of the King’s pet spaniels started barking. Seymour shot and killed it, which brought guards running. There was no defense for being outside the King’s bedroom in the middle of the night with keys and arms – and using them both. It was alleged that Seymour’s plan was to kidnap the King, perhaps force him to marry Lady Jane Grey (Seymour’s ward); this was treason enough. It was suspected that he might himself marry the King’s sister Elizabeth then kill the King and seize the throne. There could be no mercy. Thomas Seymour’s was the first death warrant that Edward VI had to sign, and today is the anniversary of Seymour’s execution (a topic I have covered in a companion post on my own blog, I hope you’ll visit!).

And as if sentencing one uncle to death wasn’t bad enough, less than two years later the not-even-fifteen-year-old King had to do it again. John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, engineered a coup d’etat against Somerset. The charges were less clear than the ones against Thomas Seymour, but no less deadly. Edward himself summarized them in his Chronicle as "ambition, vainglory, entering into rash wars in mine youth, negligent looking on Newhaven, enriching himself of my treasure, following his own opinion, and doing all by his own authority, etc." Although Somerset survived this plot, he tried to fight back against Warwick (who had by then become the Duke of Northumberland) – and lost. That was fatal. To use Edward VI’s own words again, on January 22, 1552 "the duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o'clock in the morning".

The next year was a good one for Edward VI – Northumberland made every effort to incorporate him into the running of the government. But then the young King fell ill from what is now believed to have been tuberculosis. As death approached, the fervent Protestant grew terrified at the idea that his staunchly Catholic sister Mary would inherit his throne. He created his own Devise for the Succession which bypassed both his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and settled the crown on his cousin, Lady Jane Grey. It is not clear whose idea this was, but we do know that Northumberland stood to benefit greatly from this arrangement: Lady Jane Grey was married to his son. Regardless, the Devise failed when England rallied behind Mary as the next rightful heir (in case you were wondering, Northumberland was the first person executed during Mary’s reign).

Tragic all around.



Wilbur Kitchener Jordan, England’s Boy King: The Diary of Edward VI (1966)

Wikipedia, Luminarium

This Editor's Choice was originally published on March 19, 2015.

Janet Wertman is a freelance grant writer by day and a writer of historical fiction by night. Books 1 & 2 of the Seymour Saga will be joined in 2020 by The Boy King, which will cover the reign of Jane’s son, Edward VI.

Janet regularly blogs about the Tudors and what it’s like to write about them. Connect with Janet:  Website:

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Beowulf: The Mound and the Dragon

By Mark Patton.

In earlier blog-posts, I explored the survival of the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, and the likely contexts for the poem's performance in the mead-halls of Anglo-Saxon royal courts. Kim Rendfeld has also discussed the origins of the two monsters that the eponymous hero has to defeat in the early stages of the poem, Grendel and his terrifying mother. These early conflicts represent a rite of passage that rulers in the real world of the early Middle Ages had to go through as they came of age. Beowulf is of royal blood, but must prove himself in battle before he can take his rightful place as his father's heir: a king who could not deliver victory in battle was not a king worthy of the title at all.

In the final section of the poem, however, Beowulf is, in his own right, King of the Geats (a people who lived in part of what is now Sweden), a successful warrior and respected ruler. One might think that he had nothing more to prove, but that's not how early Medieval kingship worked: a king always had something to prove, and the final proof was that of his own mortality, something that hangs particularly heavily over Beowulf and his people, since he has no son or heir to succeed him.

Beowulf's last encounter is with a different sort of monster, a dragon:

" ... the wide kingdom reverted to Beowulf. He ruled it well
for fifty winters, grew old and wise
as warden of the land
until one began
to dominate the dark, a dragon on the prowl
from the steep vaults of a stone-roofed barrow
where he guarded a hoard; there was a hidden passage,
unknown to men, but someone managed
to enter by it and interfere
with the heathen trove. He had handled and removed
a gem-studded goblet; it gained him nothing,
though with a thief's wiles he had outwitted
the sleeping dragon; that drove him into rage,
as the people of that country would soon discover."
(Translation by Seamus Heaney).

The awakened dragon wreaks vengeance on the entire community, and, although he was not the thief, it is Beowulf's duty, as protector of his people, to deal with it, even at the cost of his own life.

The "barrow" is recognisable as a burial mound, thousands of years older than the Seventh or Eighth Century poem. Since it is in Scandinavia, it is probably a Neolithic "passage grave," built by early farming people between five and six thousand years ago, but the "long-barrows" of England and Wales are of similar antiquity and significance.

The "passage grave" of Tustrup, Denmark. Photo: Malene Thyssen (licensed under GNU).

The "long barrow" of Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire. Photo: Dick Bauch (licensed under CCA). Wayland the Smith is a figure from Anglo-Saxon and Nordic mythology, so the monument must have been known to the contemporaries of the Beowulf poet. 

Although the Stone Age people who built these monuments had no knowledge of metal-working, objects of bronze and gold were sometimes placed in them by later people, either as ritual offerings or for safekeeping. There are also individual burial mounds, "round barrows," built during the Bronze Age, three to four thousand years ago, both in England and Scandinavia.

"Round barrows" on the Dorset Ridgeway. Photo: Jim Champion (licensed under CCA).

For the people of the Middle Ages, prehistoric burial mounds (whether "passage graves," "long barrows," or "round barrows") were distinctive features of the landscape, places of mystery and fear, but also places where a man, if he were brave enough, might dig in search of treasure.

The Rillaton gold cup dates to the Bronze Age (1700-1500 BC), and was found in a "round barrow" in Cornwall. Photo: Fae (licensed under CCA).

The Ringlemere gold cup is of similar antiquity (it may even have been made by the same goldsmith), and was found on a site in Kent where Anglo-Saxon burial mounds sit alongside those of the Bronze Age. Photo: Dominic Coyne (licensed under CCA).

The "passage grave" of Maes Howe, on the Mainland of Orkney, provides a remarkable parallel to the story of Beowulf. The Orkneyinga Saga tells how, in the year 1153, a party of Norsemen entered the monument, and took refuge there: "On the thirteenth day of Christmas they traveled on foot over to Firth. During a snowstorm they took shelter in Maeshowe, and two of his men went insane, which slowed them down badly, so that, by the time they reached Firth, it was night time."

The "passage grave" of Maes Howe. Photo: Tim Bekaert (image is in the Public Domain).

The archaeological evidence shows that Maes Howe really was entered, on at least one occasion, by Medieval Norsemen, who carved runic inscriptions on the stone walls. Some of these are timeless and predictable graffiti: "Inigerth is the most beautiful of all women ... Thorni f****d, Helgi carved." Others, however, refer to treasure: "Crusaders broke into Maeshowe: Lif, the Earl's cook, carved these runes. To the north-west is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find that great treasure. Hakon alone bore treasure from this mound, signed, Simon Sirith."

Runic inscriptions at Maes Howe. Photo: Islandhopper (licensed under GNU).

The"dragon" of Maes Howe. Image: Islandhopper (licensed under GNU).

There is even a picture of a dragon. Was it fear of this that drove later intruders insane? Did Hakon and Simon Sirith really find treasure, or had their imaginations been ignited by an oral performance of Beowulf, or a similar poem? Might it really still have been being performed (almost certainly in another language - Old Norse, rather than Anglo-Saxon), five centuries after it was composed, and one hundred and fifty years after the only written version to have survived was placed in a monastic library? Neither history nor archaeology provide definitive answers to these questions, but fiction can travel where the historian and archaeologist cannot go.

"Conversation with Smaug," by J.R.R. Tolkien ("The Hobbit"). Tolkien, who taught Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, and translated "Beowulf," drew extensively on the poem, and on the tradition to which it belongs, in his own fictional writing (image reproduced under fair usage protocols). 

[This is an Editors' Choice post, originally published on 17 August, 2017]


Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at He is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

Monday, February 17, 2020

An Accomplished Young Lady

by Maria Grace

During the Regency era, a proper education was crucial to a middle or upper class young lady’s future. Since a woman’s only ‘proper’ aspiration was to marriage, her education focused on making her noticeable to potential husbands. Her accomplishments enabled her to display cultural distinction and set herself apart from women who were merely ‘notable’—those who could only manage a household but not cultivate elegant socializing.

The number of accomplishments a young lady acquired reflected the financial state of her family and the level of sacrifice they were willing to make to improve her chances of marrying well.

Men of the middle and upper classes sought a wife who would be a social asset to them (in addition to a good dowry of course.) A "social asset" was to never be an intellectual threat to her husband, but to able to follow conversation, and perhaps more importantly to keep a conversation away from unpleasantries and steered toward good humor for all. She could understand what was being said around her, but did not have ready opinions or advice to offer.

Certain subjects were considered necessary for becoming that desired social asset.


No young woman could be considered accomplished without the ability to read. Not only was it necessary for basic household management and correspondence, but it formed a foundation for intelligent conversation and for reading aloud for the entertainment of others.

Though young ladies were not encouraged to read heavy subjects like philosophy and theology, serious books were considered appropriate as they enabled interesting conversation. Similarly, scripture to enable her to recognize passages and sermons, such as Fordyce’s, aimed at young women, were appropriate reading for an accomplished lady.


In this context, writing did not refer to a creative endeavour, but rather being able to create a letter with beautiful penmanship, correctly spelled and with excellent grammar. Young women would be schooled in the art of letter writing, with books dedicated to the topic and offering examples of good letters for her to emulate. She might even copy particularly pretty phrases out of these books for use in her own letters.


No mistress could run a household or estate without a solid understanding of basic math. She had to be able to keep accounts, balance a budget, calculate how much food and others supplies needed to be bought, track expenses and even forecast trends in the use of supplies.
Few women would have exposure to advanced algebra or other pure mathematics. She had no practical use for them and would be dangerously close to challenging her husband’s expertise if she knew them.

Sciences and Social sciences

The natural sciences and social sciences were significant to young ladies only insofar as they facilitated the art of refined conversation. General awareness and rote memorization in areas of history, politics, geography, literature and philosophy were sufficient for ladies of quality.

A cursory knowledge of botany was common. Ladies who were more interested might also become learned in the use of plants as home remedies since the mistress of an estate was often the first one consulted in cases of injury and illness.


Despite the Napoleonic wars, a working knowledge of French was indispensable for a young lady. Italian and German, for singing and understanding sung performances were also useful, but conversational fluency was not expected. Greek and Latin, beyond a handful of commonly used phrases were the purview of men and not included in a young lady’s curriculum.


Though not expected to be virtuosos, quality young ladies were expected to be proficient musicians. Playing and singing were considered seductive to men since they displayed her body and bearing to potential suitors. Furthermore, once married, musical skills would be useful for long evening of entertaining both her husband and her guests.

Only a few instruments were considered appropriate for young ladies. Anything which needed to be blown into was a risk for causing a reddened face and heaving bosom, neither of which would be attractive, much less alluring, so they were out of the question. The violin, which required raised arms, was also inappropriate. The short bodied dresses of the era presented too many possibilities for embarrassing mishaps. Moreover, the violin required a higher level of expertise to perform and the potential for embarrassing oneself with a mediocre was greater.

The harp was the most desirable instrument, but most had to make do with the piano which had replaced the harpsichord in popularity. Some young ladies also learned the guitar.

Not only did girls need to be able to play and sing, but they had to be able to dance. The dance floor was the place for young ladies to interact with their suitors, a place where they could escape the watchful eyes of their chaperones and engage in somewhat private conversation and even touch, which was otherwise entirely forbidden. Skilled and graceful partners were highly desirable. Girls who danced poorly could expect to spend a lot of time without a partner.

Artistic endeavors

Girls were encouraged to draw and paint and given training in it whenever possible. Particularly talented girls might even exhibit their work at local or national levels, or teach other girls, all of which could be valuable if she failed to obtain a husband.

Filigree work, now known as quilling, and japanning, now called decoupage, were also encouraged as ways for ladies to display their artistic skills. Screens, small
chests and trunks and various bric-a-brac were frequently the object of their efforts.

Needlework (plain and fancy)

Needlework was one of the most practical subjects for a young lady. No matter what her future might hold, clothing, plain or elegant, would be a part of it. Clothing required mending and making. Even ladies who could hire out their own sewing would often engage in making garments for charitable cases in their parish. Fancy work included embroidery, cross stitch, knotting, netting and more.

Needlework need not be a solitary endeavor. Often, women would bring along their work baskets during social calls and work as they visited. If someone arrived without something to work on, a hostess might offer something from her workbasket to her visitor. Of course, the elegance of the project would reflect upon the seamstress and fancy projects were more desirable for working in company than plain.

Boarding Schools

Girl’s education was a bit of a controversial subject. Girls from wealthy and cultured homes were often educated by their mothers since they could hire enough help with the household work to have time to invest in their daughter’s education. They might enlist the aid of additional teaching masters for training in music, languages and dance. Alternatively, at the age of ten, parents might consider sending their daughter to a boarding school, sometimes for as little as a year or two to ‘finish’ their accomplishments. If the girls was in the way at home, she might be sent off for much longer.

Boarding school could be a risky proposition. Many girls' school were underfunded, badly managed, and were never quite respectable. Teachers frequently came from the ranks of clever, but poor former students, impoverished gentlewomen, poor relatives of the clergy or retired servants of the upper classes.

Subjects taught at these schools included decidedly nonacademic subjects like sewing and fancy needlework, drawing, dancing, music. Polite literature, including mythology, writing, arithmetic, botany, history, geography, and French formed the balance of the more academic studies. Rudiments of stagecraft and acting might also be taught as training in elocution and grace of movement.

Parents typically paid twenty to thirty guineas per year for these schools. Some of these subjects, particularly those which required additional masters to be brought in, like dance, might incur additional fees. Washing and the privilege of being a ‘parlor boarder’ who enjoyed extra privileges like eating with the mistress of the school and using the parlor, also incurred additional fees.

Armed with these skills, a young woman would be considered ready to enter society and engage in the all-important task of finding a suitable husband.


Baird, Rosemary. Mistress of the House, Great Ladies and Grand Houses. Phoenix (2003)
Collins, Irene. Jane Austen, The Parson's Daughter; Hambledon (1998)
Collins, Irene. Jane Austen & the Clergy; The Hambledon Press (2002)
Davidoff, Leonore & Hall, Catherine. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850;  Routledge (2002)
The Female Preceptor. Essays On The Duties Of The Female Sex, Conducted By A Lady. 1813 and 1814
Fullerton, Susannah. Jane Austen & Crime; JASA Press (2004)
Harvey, A. D. Sex in Georgian England; Phoenix Press (1994)
Ives, Susanna Educating Your Daughters – A Guide to English Boarding Schools in 1814, March, 10 2013.
Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen & Marriage; Continuum Books (2009)
Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen's World; Carlton Books (2005)
Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L. The Regency Companion; Garland Publishing (1989)
Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels; Harry N. Abrams (2002)
Martin, Joanna. Wives and Daughters; Hambledon Continuum (2004
Selwyn, David. Jane Austen & Leisure; The Hambledon Press (1999)
Sullivan, Margaret C. The Jane Austen; Handbook Quirk Books (2007)
Watkins, Susan. Jane Austen's Town and Country Style; Rizzoli (1990)

This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally published June 10, 2014.

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Mystery of The Queen’s Pearl

by Judith Arnopp

Since my youth I have been awed by the story of La Peregrina, the ‘royal’ pearl that had passed from queen to queen until it was given as a Valentine present to Elizabeth Taylor by Richard Burton. As a girl I quite envied Elizabeth Taylor‘s ownership of such a historic piece of jewellery. It was good to see a perfect specimen that had once graced the bosom of a Tudor queen dangling in the cleavage of a twentieth century heroine. I was disappointed to learn a few years ago that it was indeed a different, if very similar, pearl. Unsure if it was true or just more fake news, I scanned the internet for information but the articles I found just increased my confusion.

Mary Tudor by Master John 

There is a lot of misinformation out there. I even found one article stating that:

‘The Spanish master, Diego Velazquez, in the mid 1600s painted Queen Isabel wearing the pearl, and he also painted young sweet Mary, Queen of England wearing the pearl before she became Bloody Mary and had her namesake niece, Mary Queen of Scots, beheaded.’

Oops, big boo boo! I didn’t read this unreliable article any further but I did find some offering useful information.

Elizabeth’s Taylors jewel is smaller than the one that Mary wore and it seems that the one of Tudor fame has been mislaid. The mystery becomes more complex when you discover there is another similar pearl with the almost identical name of La Pelegrina. Wikipedia explains it thus:

"La Pelegrina" is a Spanish word. Some gem historians translated it as "the Incomparable", but actually "La Pelegrina" has no such meaning in Spanish. Other gem historians believe that the name "La Pelegrina" was made to show a connection between "La Pelegrina" and another famous pearl “La peregrine”. "La Peregrina" means ‘The Pilgrim" or "the Wanderer", and rhyming the names "La Pelegrina" and "La Peregrina" could mean that the name "La Pelegrina" was meant to be also "the pilgrim" or "the Wanderer", and a single letter was changed to distinguish between the two different pearls.”
Confused? I am.

But undaunted, I set out to see if I could trace the path of two gems, almost identical in appearance, with almost identical names.

La Pelegrina was discovered on the coast of Santa Margarita in the Gulf of Panama in the 16th century. The man who found it was a slave who was rewarded for his discovery with his freedom. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega wrote about this in his Royal Commentaries of Peru.

‘This pearl, by nature pear-shaped, had a long neck and was moreover as large as the largest pigeon’s egg. It was valued at fourteen thousand four hundred ducats but Jacoba de Trezzo, a native of Milan, and a most excellent workman and jeweller to his Catholic Majesty, being present when thus it was valued said aloud that it was thirty – fifty – a hundred thousand ducats in order to show thereby that it was without parallel in the world.’ (La Pelegrina pearl. (2019, August 31). Retrieved from

In 1660 Philip IV of Spain gave the pearl to his daughter, Maria Theresa, on her marriage to Louis XIV of France. The pearl travelled with her to France and disappeared after Maria Theresa’s death in 1683. It did not reappear until 1826 when it showed up in St. Petersburg. It is believed that it then entered the French crown jewel collection but was stolen during the revolution along with the rest of the crown jewels. Sometime after that it travelled to Russia where Zinaida Yusupova was painted wearing it. The pearl then passed to her son, Felix Yusupov, (who interestingly, was involved with the murder of Rasputin.)

In 1917 during the October Revolution Felix smuggled the pearl, together with other royal jewels out of Russia. He later sold many of his treasures but hung on to La Pelegrina until 1953 when he sold it to a jeweller in Geneva.

Portrait of Zinaida Yusupova (1861-1939)
by François Flameng

La Peregrina
The first mention of this pearl is in Commentarios Reales de Los Incas by Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616). He describes a pear-shaped pearl arriving in Spain from Venezuela (although according to Wiki other sources mention Panama) in 1579. It was sold to King Phillip II of Spain who later married Mary I of England. (This made my ears prick, perhaps he did give it to her after all). He intended it as a gift for his daughter but instead added to the crown jewels where it is recorded as being for two hundred years.

Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, Margaret of Austria, 
Queen of Spain wearing the pearl (c. 1606) 

It seems to me that Philip may very well have given it as a marriage gift to Mary but there is no record of that ever having taken place. There are portraits of Mary sporting a very similar one. It would be lovely to think this was THE pearl but it is not recorded and neither is it listed with the jewels he did give her that were later returned to Spain after her death.

La Peregrina was worn by many Spanish queens. Margaret of Austria wore it while married to Philip III and it appears in portraits of Elizabeth of France and Mariana of Austria who were wives of Philip IV.

Peter Paul Rubens, Elisabeth of France, 
Queen of Spain wearing the pearl (c. 1625) 
When the elder brother of Napoleon Bonaparte ruled Spain in the 1800s it came into his possession but he left the kingdom after the French lost the Battle of Vitoria. At this time he made off with several of the crown jewels and it is believed La Pelegrina was among them. He bequeathed the pearl to his nephew who would become Napoleon III of France. It was Napoleon III who sold the pearl while in exile in England to James Hamilton, Later Duke of Abercon, who purchased it as a gift for his wife, Louisa. It remained in the Hamilton family until they sold it at Sothebys in 1969.
During the course of its history the pearl came close to catastrophe on several occasions. Once it was lost down the back of a sofa at a party at Windsor Castle, the second time during a ball at Buckingham Palace.

It was bought in 1969 by Richard Burton for $37,000 as a Valentine’s gift (hint-hint husband) for his wife Elizabeth. In her book My Love Affair with Jewellery she relates a story of it almost being swallowed by one of their dogs.

‘At one point I reached down to touch La Peregrina and it wasn't there! I glanced over at Richard and thank God he wasn't looking at me, and I went into the bedroom and threw myself on the bed, buried my head into the pillow and screamed. Very slowly and very carefully, I retraced all my steps in the bedroom. I took my slippers off, took my socks off, and got down on my hands and knees, looking everywhere for the pearl. Nothing.‘

Then on seeing one of the puppies chewing something …

‘I just casually opened the puppy's mouth and inside his mouth was the most perfect pearl in the world. It was—thank God—not scratched.’ (Elizabeth Taylor: my love affair with Jewelry - Simon & Schuster; 1 Oct. 2002) N.B: Ms Taylor seems to have recounted this tale several times, each one slightly different.’

Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth 1554, NPG 4861
© National Portrait Gallery, London 

The Burtons, at the time believing the pearl to have belonged to Mary Tudor purchased a portrait of Mary wearing the pearl and when it was discovered the connection was likely to be false, they donated the painting to the National Portrait Gallery.

La Peregina was sold after Elizabeth Taylor’s death fetching more than eleven million dollars.

La Peregrina.” La Peregrina - Smithsonian Institution,
Photo by NMNH Photo Services.
So, curiouser and curiouser. We now have two different pearls, neither of which seems to be have been worn by Mary although she is clearly wearing a very similar one is several portraits.

I found an article from a few years ago by jewellery exhibitor Symbolic & Chase who showcased a jewel which they called ‘The Mary Tudor Pearl.’ According to their description the Renaissance pearl surfaced in 2004, having been lost since the late 16th century, and can be dated back to 1526. It measures 258.12 grains (64.5 carats, 69.8 carats with its diamond cap) making it the third largest well-formed natural pearl documented to date.

The provenance leads at last to Mary.

‘Between 1526 and 1539 the pearl entered into the outstanding jewellery collection of the Empress Isabella of Portugal (1503-1539), either as a diplomatic gift or by the Empress purchasing it. When the Empress died in 1539 the pearl was inherited by her daughter, Juana of Austria (1535-1573). Following a short marriage to Prince John of Portugal (1537 – 1554), Juana returned to Spain to assume regency for her brother, Philip II. The pearl became part of Philip’s dowry for his new bride, Mary Tudor (1516-1558), after whom the pearl has been christened.'

Mary Tudor, Queen of England, 
second wife of Felipe II’ by Anthonis Mor 

‘It is an outstanding asymmetrical drop-shaped pearl that was much admired by the Tudor courts and is featured in Royal portraiture of Mary Tudor, namely ‘Mary Tudor, Queen of England, second wife of Felipe II’ by Anthonis Mor at the Museo del Prado and ‘Queen Mary I’ by Hans Eworth, which has been included below courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library. A similar painting by Hans Eworth of Queen Mary I also hangs at the National Portrait Gallery.' ("The Mary Tudor Pearl Unveiled", Kari Pearls: Natural Pearls - A Trusted Resource.)

But is this and Mary’s pearl one and the same? The stories of all three jewels are so close, the provenances quite similar with it passing through the hands of so many European Royals, could their stories not just been horribly mixed up? Just as I was beginning to believe it was, I came across this website and discovered I wasn’t the only one in search of it. This website sums the whole thing up far more succinctly than I could ever do. He believes there is a third jewel, now known as Queen Mary’s Pearl and concludes that:

‘Mary Tudor never owned La Peregrina, though she did own a slightly larger pearl now known as the Mary Tudor Pearl.
Mary Tudor wore her pearl suspended from a golden brooch set with the Grande diamond that Philip II inherited from his mother, Isabel de Aviz.
Upon her death, Mary Tudor returned this brooch to her husband, who removed the pearl and gave it back to his sister Joanna.
Upon Joanna's death, the pearl was put up for auction.
The pearl failed to sell at the 1574 auction, but a man by the name of Diegor Ruiz purchased it in 1581 for 3,300 reales. After this, the pearl disappears from record.
In 2004, this pearl appears on the block at Christie's London, at which time it is purchased by Symbol & Chase of Bond Street.’
©2006-2020 EraGem®

For more information, read this very fascinating blog post.

Judith Arnopp is the author of twelve Historical Fiction novels and has contributed to several non-fiction anthologies. you can find more about Judith's work on her webpage: or her Author Page:
Judith's latest novel is The Heretic Wind: the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England available on Kindle and Paperback. The audio version will be available later in 2020.