The Company of Nine

We, who come among the dead as far
 as to the very Goddess, nine girls,
 maidens, lovely in our dancing,
 in bright loveliness of folded
 woven-work, with fine-sawn necklaces
 of ivory, shine, brilliant
 to the dead eye as forgotten daylight
 (7th c. BCE Greek Papyrus, from Dances for Flute and Thunder, transl.Brooks Haxton)

The Nine Ladies

The idea of a group of nine women or maidens who perform healing, dancing, or magical ceremonies is very ancient – much more ancient than we might imagine. It has served as a kind of template for what we could call ‘women’s votive groups’ in both a historical and an archetypal sense. The poem above is from Greece, in the 7th century BCE, describing how nine female spirits dance their way through the realms of the dead to the Goddess. Move forward a thousand years or so to the British myth of nine sisters or priestesses who conveyed the dying King Arthur to the otherworld of Avalon, add in the classical Nine Muses along the way, and we begin to see a story here, of nine women engaged on sacred tasks.

The Nine Muses of ancient Greece: Engraving from a painting by Italian artist Baldassarre Peruzzi, of Apollo dancing with the nine Muses – (Credit: Science Source)

I knew about this template in historical terms to some extent when I first wrote The Circle of Nine, back in the 1980s. The book was conceived as a response to the groups that I and other women were involved in at the time, using a schema of nine feminine archetypes to understand the role they played in our own lives. We called it ‘Nine Ladies’, taking the name from the stone circle in Derbyshire, which we had visited on several occasions. As I wrote the book, I came across a few more historical references to ‘the circle of nine’, but with no internet resources to draw on in those days, and a deadline looming, I couldn’t investigate much further. Then, three years ago, came the opportunity to re-write the book and dig deeper into research. What I found astonished me. I learnt that ‘the Company of Nine’, as I prefer to call it in the broader context, seems to be the fundamental template for women engaged in a votive or sacred task. It’s widespread in time and space, found from Africa to Russia, and from around 10,000 BCE until the present era.

This has been an exciting discovery, and in this post my aim here is to give a brief view of this wide range of groups of nine women. (You’ll find a fuller version in my book, where I’ve dedicated the opening chapter to the Company of Nine.) Overall, there is a range both of those who had a historical reality, as well as those existing in myth, folklore, or are symbolised within the contours of the landscape. Each group seems to have a specific task or function, whether of divination or healing, serving a saint or goddess, or even simply dancing for joy. Their job is often to help others, work magic, or see into the realms of the future.

I would say that this symbolic grouping of women has a particular significance which is still relevant today. And its age-old form has a kind of life of its own. Since The Circle of Nine was first published I’ve been contacted by individual women who’ve discovered the book in a mysterious way, sometimes through dreams or omens. They, and others, have since created their own imaginative take on the Nine, ranging from organising drama courses around the nine archetypes, to making perfumes for the essence of each one. This is not, I’m convinced, just because of the book I’ve written, but because the book taps into something ancient that lives on in the female psyche. And I am just another mouthpiece for this.

The Nine Ladies stone circle of Stanton Moor, Derbyshire. (‘Visit Peak District’)

Above is the most recent edition of my book published in 2018 by Weiser. Below left, the first edition which came out in 1988 in a series called Compass of Mind which I devised for Batsford, with a cover by Gila Zur. Below right is the second edition in 1991 with Penguin Arkana. Re-writing the text for this new version, I realised that although much had changed for women, the Circle of the Nine archetypes remains a constant in our lives.

So now to some examples of the ‘Company of Nine’:

The Nine Priestesses of Sena

A very fine example of a ‘company of nine’ was recorded by the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela. He reported that a group of nine priestesses lived on an island called Sena, lying off the coast of Brittany – possibly the one known today as the Ile de Sein situated in what is known as the Bay of the Dead, and thought of as a portal to the ‘otherworld’. Here, the women tended the oracle of a Gallic god, and were ‘endowed with singular powers’. Navigators visited the priestesses seeking guidance, wanting to know their destiny, and asking to them to charm the winds and seas to give the mariners a safe passage. These women were also renowned for their ability to shape-shift into different animal forms, and to heal serious wounds and diseases.


The priestesses of Sena seem to have had a historical basis, and similar groups appear in medieval times, where accounts relate how companies of nine women travelled around Scandinavia, acting as seeresses. One such ‘volva’ or spae-queen is described in an Icelandic saga from Greenland; in the saga, a colourful description is given of her visit to a remote village, where she dresses in special robes, and utters her predictions from a throne specially erected for the occasion. Her forecasts relate to weather, health, and future marriages within the community. Legends of the nine abound too; in Brittany, nine witches or spirits are said to inhabit the mountain of Dol. Such myths spread out geographically – St Samson, a dragon-slaying saint from Wales, is said to have had an encounter there with a magical wild woman, the last survivor of a company of nine sisters living in a wood.

This drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (18128-1882) was created for Edward Moxon’s illustrated edition of Tennyson’s Poems (1857). It shows the legendary nine queens (or sorceresses) who carried King Arthur’s body across the waters of Avalon

Nine Stones in the Landscape

The British landscape too bears many traces of the nine, as with the case of the Nine Ladies stone circle in Derbyshire, which I mentioned earlier. Nine Maidens, Nine Sisters or Nine Ladies appear many times over on UK maps as the names of stone circles, stone rows, and wells. According to one study, for example, there are at least six circles in Cornwall called Nine Maidens or Nine Stones. Many of the stone circles bearing the name of ‘nine’ carry legends about nine girls being turned into stone because they danced there at a prohibited time, such as on Sunday. But, although they may be frozen into stone, they can still come to life again. It’s said that if you enter the Nine Maidens circle at Belstone, Dartmoor, at midday, and let the world go still around you, the nine maidens will start their dance again…

The Nine Maidens stone circle of Belstone, Dartmoor – where there are clearly more than nine stones! Painted by Robert Lee-Wade, RUA

Often the name retains the number nine even when the actual number of stones is entirely different. Nine is stubbornly adhered to in the naming or folklore of such a site. Of the six Cornish circles named for the Nine Maidens, apparently only one has nine stones and it’s doubtful that this was the case originally! Arguments by scholars that ‘nine’ is a misunderstanding of the original name have fallen on deaf ears. William Bottrell, the nineteenth century Cornish folklorist, said: ‘You know everybody hereabouts uses nine in all their charms and many other matters.’


Nine does indeed have magical connotations, and it’s likely that in terms of women, the Company of Nine stems from the widespread and ancient idea of the triple goddess, a feminine trinity of cosmic forces. This has often been related to the phases of the moon, and to the phases of a woman’s life as maiden, mother and crone.

A visit to the Nine Maidens stone circle at Belstone on north Dartmoor (© Rod Thorn). I often visit this site. In the photo below, which I took recently I did arrive just before midday, and with a winter sun behind me, practised being a sundial! (© Cherry Gilchrist)

Ancient Tradition

Although the tradition of the company of nine women may be ancient, it’s important to emphasise that it was not necessarily associated with these stone alignments when they were first built, some 4000 years ago. It’s more likely, in my view, that the nine were attributed to these places later on, still in ancient times but after the original purpose of the megaliths was forgotten, at which point the stone circles and rows could well have served as ritual places for a different mythology. But perhaps this mythology itself was seeded even before the stone circles were built. There is one really early image of the nine, which could push the timeline right back to between 10,000 and 7,000 BCE. This is a cave painting from Catalonia, which depicts nine women dancing round a male with an erect phallus. Perhaps the dance of the nine maidens was one of the very earliest of rituals.

Nine young women dancing around a male figure, from a prehistoric cave painting in Catalonia

There is much more of the story still to uncover, but my guess is that the nine maidens played a part in an early magical and perhaps shamanic type of religion, allied to the elements and the spirits of nature. It probably arose in pre-historic times, spreading to different parts of the globe and remaining in folk memory. Traces of it can still be found, where these old practices are still honoured in wilder parts of the world. It remains alive, in different forms, because it does correspond well with female roles, abilities and energies. Here’s a present-day shaman’s song from Mongolia, describing the ‘Nine Sisters’ as they dance between heaven and earth:

We play on the rays of the sun
 We ride on the rays of the moon
 We rise into the heavens
 We descend onto the hills
 …Nine young ones danced
 They met a glowing mother
 Three times in the ritual
 We will dance the ancient dance
 All nine will dance together! 

And don't forget that we still have 'Nine Ladies dancing' in the traditional song, 'The Twelve Days of Christmas'! How many of us previously suspected that this might have such a deep-rooted origin?

My book The Circle of Nine is chiefly about a schema of the nine archetypes, which again has its roots in tradition but has been freshly set up and described for women in modern times. In this schema there are three Queens, three Ladies and three Mothers. Each has her own identity, hence Queen of Beauty, Queen of Night, Queen of the Earth; Lady of Light, Lady of the Hearth, Lady of the Dance; Great Mother, Just Mother and Weaving Mother. This was a schema I inherited, rather than invented, but I have interpreted each one with observations from life and from many years of working with ‘Circle of Nine’ groups.

This post is a revised and newly illustrated version of one originally published on the ‘Singinghead’ blog in July 2018.

References

The Quest for the Nine Maidens, Stuart McHardy, (Luath Press Ltd, 2003)
Siberian Shamanism: The Shanar Ritual of the Buryats, Sayan Zhambalov, Virlana Tkacz, (Inner Traditions, 2015)
“The Stone Circles of Cornwall”, B. C. Spooner, Folkore (Vol 64, Dec 1953), pp. 484-487

Checking in for the New Year

Sunrise from the top floor of our house in Topsham on January 1st, 2021

Happy New Year, dear readers!

This is the 42nd post I’ve written for Cherry’s Cache. The site was launched in April with three posts already in place, and new posts have gone up at weekly intervals since. So, I’ve been kept busy through lockdown and through a very mixed year – a year of challenges for all of us.

The idea had been brewing for a while; my author’s website had an intermittent blog, but I felt it was time to strike out again in a more purposeful way. I also needed to get my teeth into a project which wasn’t writing a book every two years, which I’ve been doing for a long time now. It wasn’t the right moment either in terms of my own ideas or the publishing market for that. But I needed to write, all the same!

And then an email popped up in my inbox, a notification from The Gentle Author, of Spitalfields Life blog, that he was preparing to give his last ever courses on blog writing. I’ve long been a subscriber to the G.A.’s blog, which is an incredible compendium of articles about London life, so I decided that this was my one and only chance. I signed up for the advanced course in early March, for those who already had experience of blogging and writing. I felt it would hone my skills and perhaps help me to discover a format for the new blog.

The old houses of Spitalfields, with Christ Church built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 18th c

It was a magical weekend, staying in an old weaver’s house in Spitalfields, right opposite the Hawksmoor church. A small but committed group of us gathered to talk about our aspirations, and to check out ways of presenting material, designing a website and keeping ourselves on track with the writing. I’m bound by group confidentiality not to discuss exactly what we did, or said, but I’m proud to include give links below to some of the blogs that others are writing, with their kind permission.

The bedroom I stayed in, in the old weaver’s house in Fournier St, for the weekend of the blogging course. We met in the sitting room downstairs.

The weekend was intensified for me because of the sense of a looming crisis, as the Covid virus epidemic gathered pace. There were no actual restrictions in place then; the general advice was to be cautious, but the crowds I saw gathering in and around Spitalfields pubs in the evenings made a mockery of that. I made a few careful expeditions. A friend and I visited the Dennis Severs house by candlelight on the Friday evening before the course – magical! And I spent a blissful early Sunday morning rediscovering my (very) old haunts of Sclater and Cheshire Street, at the end of Brick Lane, where I had once ‘fossicked’ for vintage clothes for my shop Tigerlily. (We’re talking Cambridge, 1970s, here.) I plan to write something more about Tigerlily later on.

Below: Signs of the old rag markets in the Cheshire St area. I spent some time reminiscing with the stall holder on the left, who remembers coming down to his Dad’s stall there when he was a boy. From the bookstall I bought a copy of Daniel Defoe’s ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ – an ironic touch in the situation.

But I decided to cut short my visit after the course, as it was plain matters were getting worse, and I had to get back to Devon by train. I cancelled a follow-on stay with my son in Stockwell, and a planned visit to the Tate, and left the course a couple of hours early. As I jumped on the train at Paddington, I felt as though I was fleeing before a tidal wave.

Spitalfields, March 2020 – Note the poster in the centre: ‘It can only get better’ – another touch of unintentional irony.

However, I had reaped huge benefits from the course. I pounced on a suggestion from The Gentle Author, that I should celebrate the diversity of my writing – I’ve never fitted easily into one category – and tend to write about a variety of subjects that fascinate me, and which I research enthusiastically. On the journey home, the name ‘Cherry’s Cache’ came to me, and I also jotted down a wealth of topics that I might cover. In the weeks that followed, with the friendly but ‘remote’ help of designer Jason, who handles the Spitalfields Life website, I became the possessor of a smart new website. The G. A. had advised me not to try and do it myself – time wasted, for a writer, he said! And although I had already learnt how to construct a basic site through one of the blogging platforms, Jason’s work gave me something far more sophisticated and user-friendly than I would have been able to create.

So here I am. I decided to put up one post a week, and I aim to hold to that until the 12 month year is up, in April. Then I may slow it down a little, perhapsposting once every two weeks. Although it’s exciting and stimulating, getting a weekly blog into place, it’s also a great deal of work! I enjoy research enormously, and probably for that very reason, it always takes me further than I expect into new areas. Some blogs, like those on Anna Zinkeisen and the Zodiac Calendar and cinematographer Walter Lassally require a considerable amount of background preparation, and I try and ensure that the facts are as solid as I can make them. Others I revisit from existing material, but I nearly always want to re-craft blogs or articles which I’ve written before. So my aim is that everything on this site, whether written from scratch or discovered in my ‘trove’, has a freshness to it, and a guarantee that I’ve put my spirit and energy into it.

A glass pendant, perhaps from Venice, which I bought at the Cheshire St market at the time of the blog writing course, which I count as a talisman of Cherry’s Cache

With that aim of refreshing the spirit, for any and all of us, I made a decision at the start that I wouldn’t usually reflect current events in my posts. I’d like some of the stories to be relevant in the future, not tied to the circumstances in which I wrote them. Also, I reckoned that readers were getting enough of the news and the prevailing pandemic anxieties, and that it would be better to tackle topics which could interest and cheer people. My Gentle Author coach was kind enough to say: ‘I am so pleased that you are writing your blog, these things take on a greater meaning when people are searching hungrily for stories beyond the news.’ Indeed. And it’s not my task to write as an activist, or agitate for particular kinds of change – others do that better. Once, I was asked in a visualisation exercise what my job was, I spontaneously replied, ‘I bring the fire from the mountain.’ Make of that what you will.

I’ve had enormous fun too, for instance consulting with my old schoolfriends Helen Leadbeater and Mary Cutler about how we all got involved with writing for Jackie magazine. Reliving the ‘unusual exhibition’ my husband and I put on in France, with the assistance of actors Bill Homewood and Estelle Kohler. Foraging for Black Country jokes, and writing about the adventures of my runaway 4x great grandmother, Mary Max. Just recently, my post on Pangur Ban and the Old Irish Cats was taken up by readers of the Facebook page, British Medieval History, and resulted in an explosion of reader numbers, for which I am truly grateful and honoured!

For these 42 posts, I’ve written a staggering 90,835 words, give or take a thousand or two. I am staggered because this is actually longer than any book I’ve ever written. Perhaps I shall be able to turn these posts into a book one day?

Some of the many images which I compiled for the last nine months of posts. I find that creating and choosing pictures is incredibly rewarding; I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of images and text, as in slide lectures, which I gave for many years as a NADFAS (Arts Society) speaker.

The game’s not over yet. I hope I can continue at least for another year, even if with fewer posts. And here’s a big THANK YOU for reading my posts, and for subscribing to the email list, if that’s how you get the alerts. There have been some lovely comments. I quote a few here as they help motivate me to keep going!

Hi Cherry – It wouldn’t be Sunday with your blog. Many thanks! (KC)
Love your cache writings. (JP)
I really enjoyed this. What a fascinating and profound experience. (MC responding to On ‘Meeting the Shaman’))
Absolutely fascinating Cherry! I love your researched and interesting blogs.(JW)
I just loved all your Russian content – especially the red corner etc. Thank you! (BM)
Hope you can keep up your Cache which I have been enjoying very much. Laughed out loud at the masterly Sign collection, and enjoyed another journey to Topsham. You write so entertainingly! (LO)

The adventure continues! Happy New Year again – please keep reading, and do share the link with anyone who might enjoy Cherry’s Cache.


Blog updates


Cosmo, a cat of Hidden Topsham
Do you remember Cosmo, the ‘six dinner Sid’ cat of Topsham? He’s still around, as you can see from a more recent photograph. One morning, I found him lurking on the corner of Monmouth Street, standing guard over something. As I got closer, I could see that it was a dead fish. And moreover, it wasn’t something washed up on the riverbank, but a splendid fancy koi-carp type of fish, with elegant wavy fins. Or it had been. Oh, Cosmo! Did you go fishing in someone’s pond? Or should we give you the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that a passing heron dropped its catch right in your path? It’s possible, after all. Just.

Golden Quinces – I used the last of this year’s crop of quinces to make Quince Chutney. Chutney needs to be left for 4-6 weeks before it’s ready to eat, to reduce the vinegariness and meld the flavours. We’ve now just tried the first pot, and it’s pretty good! It has quite a tart flavour, but rounded out in a lovely Christmassy spice way. The Quince jelly, which was ready to eat straight away is superb. Last year, I don’t think I boiled it long enough and the resulting jelly was light both in colour and texture. This year’s is much stronger in both senses, and especially delicious eaten with soft cheese on an oatcake!

Venetia, the Woman who named Pluto – The Stats which I can look up for this website are a fascinating collection of information as to whereabouts in the world readers come from, what links they’ve clicked, and what pages they’ve looked at. My post on Venetia Phair was published back in October, describing how I met Venetia, and the story of how she named a newly-discovered planet back in 1930. This week, the post suddenly had 24 hits from China. Was it a class of Chinese students learning about space exploration? I will probably never know.

And the final update – the Twelfth Night cake!

In my post about The Twelve Days of Christmas I gave a Spanish recipe for a Twelfth Night cake/loaf celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings at the Christian festival of Epiphany and what used to be ‘party night’ in the last of the Twelve Days. It’s in a circular shape, rather like the crown of one of the kings. I felt that I was duty bound to have a go at making it, so this morning, shortly after 6am I got cracking, like a good baker. It is a kind of enriched dough, rather like a brioche, and needs up to 3 hours proving in two stages. I nearly gave up at the first hurdle, when I realised that the 25gm of yeast must refer to fresh yeast, which I didn’t have, and the method described might not suit the small packets of instant yeast which most of us use these days. However, I did have a tin of granular yeast (bought during the lockdown when nothing else was available) and I decided to try that. And I’m happy to say that it worked! I’d already stocked up with some candied fruit, the best I could find locally. But because it’s baked on the outside of the loaf rather than in the dough, it gets very hard, and in future I’d only use the softest types, like glace cherries.

At 10am I wondered if I could finish it in time before a Zoom call with friends at 11. But I wasn’t going to stint on the decorating – I placed 12 cherries for the 12 months of the year, and added various artistic touches with glace citron peel. (Yes I know, I’m not a potential Bake-Off winner.) It was out of the over before 11, and when it had cooled a little, I brought it upstairs to show my friends triumphantly. Robert and I tried it at lunch – it’s quite like brioche as I mentioned, or an old-fashioned sweet bun, with a delicate flavour of orange and lemon rind (grated into the dough) and a touch of brandy. I ate my slice with a little quince jelly. Then a couple of hours later, I wrapped several chunks in silver foil and took them to friends in the town, so that they could share in what I hope is Twelfth Night good luck for the year ahead. Here’s the cake, from its dough ring stage to the finished ‘crown’. By the time you read this, I will have also added a few notes to the recipe that I posted earlier.

My Fellow Bloggers

Last, but most definitely not least, I’d like to point you to some of the fascinating blogs by other members of our Spitalfields Life blogging course. Please take a look! The diversity of what we write is fascinating.

From left to right: Carolyn Skelton, Jo Rogers (in earlier years!), Bertie the Bear, and Shula Rich

Carolyn Skelton: ‘A London Family is the story of my quest to find out more about the elusive paternal side of my family. It starts with my job as an ‘heir hunter’ in London in the 1980s and describes how an old photograph found in a wallet years later sent me on a search which encompasses two hundred years of social history…’ https://alondonfamily.com

Bob Ball:  Mindfully Bertie – These are tales told from the viewpoint of a bear – well, not just any bear, but Bertie! ‘My blog Mindfully Bertie has, over four years, carried me through bereavement to being told in Spitalfields that I am “ a proper writer”.’
www.mindfullybertie.org.uk

Amanda Root: The Coastal Pilgrim – ‘This is a blog about one woman, surrounded by an interested and helpful community, starting a seaweed farm, which may or may not morph into a social enterprise and which is hopefully going to get us all eating more seaweed!’ https://thecoastalpilgrim.com/

Jo Rogers: – ‘Huguenot Jo is a blog exploring the effect of Huguenot ancestry on Jo’s family, with a lineage going back to the 1680s. It looks at the historical context of Huguenot persecution, and the contribution of these French refugees to the societies which took them in. ‘www.huguenotjo.co.uk

Shula Rich: Natural Beauty Brains – ‘I wanted my blog to reflect that I’m many things and egged on by the tuts of ‘you can’t do that’ put everything I do together. Lease advice – natural beauty brains – waking beauty.’ https://www.naturalbeautybrains.org/

Linda : Letters from Linda – Letters of life, snippets and snapshots, a history. Linda says: ‘So far I’ve started to write about my family and some of the mementos I’ve collected in my flat that give me happy memories.’ http://lettersfromlinda.com/

Images from ‘The Coastal Pilgrim’ (left) and ‘Letters from Linda’ (right)

Contacting Cherry

If you’d like to get in touch, on the ‘About’ page you will find a ‘Contact’ link which you can click on to bring up a Contact Form. A message from there will reach me by email. Or else visit http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk and select the Contact tab there.

The view from our kitchen window, in Topsham

The Fool and his Feast

A foray into ‘The Festival of Fools’ and the Fool in the Tarot

Laughing Jester: unknown early Dutch artist, circa 1500

The Fool and the Twelve Days of Christmas

In this post I take the opportunity to continue with my exploration of the Tarot cards, by setting the Fool in the context of the Twelve Days of Christmas (see my previous post). These Twelve Days are also known as The Feast or Festival of Fools, and have been celebrated as such for hundreds of years. Although the Tarot image and the Feast are not identical, their meaning and imagery interweave. Both emerge from a long tradition of honouring ‘the Wise Fool’ and the customs and merriment which surround him. Even though we have lost much of the original tradition of the Feast of Fools, we still enjoy pantomimes, charades and jokes at this season. And there is still time to plan for a festive Twelfth Night, the celebration of the Fool himself!

So as well as the religious and domestic celebrations of the Christmas period, primarily associated with the birth of the baby Jesus and the coming of the Three Kings, this is also the domain of the Lord of Misrule. In customs found all over Europe, during the period when the sun ‘stands still’ and seems to halt in its cycle, at the period of greatest darkness, the usual hierarchy could be turned upside down. This was ‘time out’ – time out of the calendar, time out of work, and time out of the normal rules and regulations. Society could throw off its shackles and reverse the general order. Thus a servant could play master or mistress for a night; a Knave could become a King at the Twelfth Night Feast. Games normally forbidden, such as ball games in Tudor England, could now be played. Priests played practical jokes, and got tipsy, while mock sermons were preached by ‘boy bishops’ or perhaps anyone not too drunk to stand up and spout a few words.

The Boy Bishop: a custom still carried out today in some Cathedrals, as here at Hereford, though slightly earlier on the Feast of St Nichloas on December 6th. He still has to preach a sermon on his installation.

One religious justification for this overturning of the usual order lies in the parable from St Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus suggests that it’s best to take a lowly seat at a feast: ‘For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Though the Festival of Fools has other affiliations than Christianity, and is also strongly influenced by the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which too took place at midwinter: ‘Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them. Instead of working, Romans spent Saturnalia gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socializing and giving each other gifts. Wax taper candles called cerei were common gifts during Saturnalia, to signify light returning after the solstice.
So, whereas there might be a pious Christian reason for reversing the normal rules, the custom as practised did in fact give licence for throwing off the shackles and having fun. In other words, it could keep everyone happy. Let the world be turned topsy turvy!

For Fools a mirror shall it be/ Where each his counterfeit may see./ The Glass of fools the truth may show.’ (Das Narrenschiff (The Ship of Fools), Sebastian Brant, 1494).

‘The Ship of Fools’ by Sebastian Brant

And to play the fool was not merely to be ‘foolish’, for maybe insight or wisdom can be gained from cultivating the absurd. It was a time to be outspoken, without fear of reprisal. Poorer folk could give voice to their complaints, because they couldn’t be punished for doing so at this time. And, year round, official Fools who were employed to entertain their masters at a higher level of society, could express what no one else dared to say. At court, the fool or jester often played an important part in taking the edge off a monarch’s temper or impetuousness, and sometimes, under the guise of folly, would reveal the real meaning of a situation. Fools were therefore more than mere entertainers, and in the medieval and Renaissance periods, were sometimes important figures in diplomatic negotiations. They could warm up the temperature in frigid encounters, keep the two parties talking by throwing in a few jokes, and even stage mock fights to represent the opposing causes championed by their masters. (For more on their diplomatic role see Fools are Everywhere, Beatrice K. Otto, p63)

Various kinds of ‘mumming’ and ‘guising’ were a part of the Fool’s tradition at this period of winter. The image below comes from the 14th century manuscript, The Romance of Alexander (Bodleian Library, Oxford)

The cult of the Fool was prominent at the time Tarot cards emerged, and perhaps has a connection with ‘sotties’ or fools’ plays which were very popular in France in the late 15th century. ‘The sotties developed from the celebrations of the societies joyeuses that sprang up in Paris and in many of the larger provincial towns, associations of citizens or wealthy farmers that would elect a prince of fools to preside over them while members would dress up as fools either for carnivalesque processions or dramatic performances.’ (Otto p212-3)

A Festival of Fools

The Tarot Fool emerges in his particular form from this widespread and ancient cult of folly. The first known Tarot cards date from the mid 15th century. He is also related to the modern Joker in the playing card pack, and akin to the Court Jester and perhaps to the wandering players known of an earlier period, known as Jongleurs.

One of the earliest Tarot images of the Fool, from the richly-illustrated Italian mid-15th c. Visconti-Sforza sets of cards, looks a little more like a wild man, but is still identifiable as the more common Fool image in later popular packs, as seen below in the French Marseille Tarot.

The history of the Fool follows a complex trail, branching out in many directions and countries, but still recognisably with this core of ‘wise folly’. The Fool could get away with almost anything; he was respected by the mighty, and was not bound by normal laws. (Below: late medieval carvings of jesters or fools from Beverley Minster, Yorkshire © Cherry Gilchrist)

This is an excerpt of medieval music as was played and sung for ‘La Fete de l’Ane’, the the French equivalent of the Feast of Fools. You can read about the music and the feast here.

I invite you now to read the section on the Fool from my book Tarot Triumphs:

THE FOOL
In the Tarot image, the Fool is both jester, and beggar. His cap and bells are those of the court fool, but his ragged breeches, travelling staff and tiny bundle of worldly goods are more in keeping with those of a hand-to-mouth wanderer. The little dog is probably his companion, although some Tarot interpreters see it as a dog chasing him out of the neighbourhood that he passes through on his rambles. But they are more likely to be a pair; the Fool and his dog are often found together in medieval pictures. Historically, the Fool or jester was a very important character. His job was to deflate pomposity, to speak the truth when no one else dared, and lighten up tension with cheeky humour. At the time of the earliest known Tarot cards, in 15th century Italy, the employment of a Fool or jester was at its peak of popularity, so this image would have been well-known to early users of the Tarot.

From the French ‘Convers’ Tarot pack

The Fool has always remained without a number in the Marseilles Tarot pack, as far as I am aware, and has only been shown as zero in modern versions of Tarot such as the Waite pack. He therefore stands outside the 21 numbered cards, and can be seen both as beginning and end of the pack, or even as standing at the centre while the others process around him in a circle. In a way, the Fool is the key to the whole Tarot pack, and can butt in anywhere he pleases. He represents the human quest, and the eternal optimism of the seeker. He can be foolish but, like a child, he offers a fresh view of the truth, undermining that which is false. The Fool is the blind spot of our nature -we can see ahead, and behind, but can never quite make out where we are. He is the ‘human error’ factor that is never entirely ruled out, despite best efforts with technology. In relation to the other twenty-one cards, he is not one of them, but contains their potentialities within him.

The Fool is always travelling. He can be perfectly innocent, or perfectly ignorant, depending upon how you look at him, but he is there within all of us. As a ‘wild card’ he is best placed to represent the significator in a reading, and if he turns up in this position, it’s a sign that the querent is genuinely open to hearing what the Tarot has to say.

And of course, the Fool is allied to ‘The Fool’s Mirror’ in the context of this school of Tarot. Who is more innocent than the Fool, in holding up a mirror to the universe? But also, who is more ready to laugh with innocent merriment at the follies that appear there.

Preparing for Twelfth Night

So, are you ready for some folly on Twelfth Night? Play a game, a charade, hide a bean or a lucky charm in what you eat (be careful about people’s teeth!) so that someone can become Lord or Lady of Misrule for the evening. I do plan to make the Twelfth Night ‘King’s Bread’, for which I gave the recipe in my earlier blog on the Twelve Days of Christmas. I’ve even got the candied fruits in ready for it. Who knows how it will turn out? That, though, is the essence of the Feast of Fools!

Sources on the history of the Fool, Twelfth Night, and the Festival of Fools:
Fools are Everywhere: The Court Jester around the World, Beatrice K. Otto, (University of Chicago Press, 2001)
The English Year, Steve Roud, Penguin 2006

You may also be interested in:

The Twelve Days of Christmas

May Day in Padstow

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

Pangur Ban and the Old Irish Cats

As those of us in the Northern Hemisphere progress through the darkest days of the year, we may perhaps find ourselves more affected by the power of poetry. Words resonate when we’re not so distracted by bright light and busy lives outside. And there’s long been a tradition for writers, scholars and mystics to seek inspiration in the middle of the night. The medieval mystical Kabbalistic texts compiled in the book known as the Zohar emphasise that at midnight, God enters the Garden of Eden, and at this point the trees sing, and the angels can be heard. Those seeking ‘a whisper from the school of knowledge’ should arise from their beds at midnight, to pray and study. (We have to assume that they went to bed a lot earlier than we tend to do nowadays!)

An ancient Irish poem is set in just this context, that of a monk writing and studying in the depths of night. It comes from the 9th century, and although the monk was Irish, he was at that time located in a monastery named Reichnau, in what is present-day Austria. At this period, the Irish, especially the monks and scholars, were great travellers, and also often had to move abroad to escape Viking raids in theire homeland.

As the fame of Irish scholarship grew, Irish teachers and thinkers were also invited to join centres of learning at schools established in royal and aristocratic courts and large monasteries, so that by the ninth century, the German monk and scholar, Walafrid Strabo remarked:The Irish nation, with whom the custom of travelling into foreign parts has now become almost second nature’ Book of Kells ‘Future Learn’ course, Trinity College, Dublin

This monk’s notebook shows that he was working on a variety of classical and theological texts, but the poem itself is about his relationship with his cat, Pangur Ban. Both have particular tasks to perform at night; both find their ‘bliss’ in these, whether writing or catching mice. ‘Ban’ means ‘white, and ‘Pangur’ means ‘fuller’, in the sense of part of the process of making and cleaning cloth. So the best guess is that he had a cat with soft white fur. And indeed, a good number of the medieval illustrations of cats show ones which are white in colour.

There were also ginger cats, preferred by the Vikings, often taken on board ship; their descendants are still found around the Mediterranean, and DNA proves their Scandinavian origin. Spotted cats, tabbies, grey and black ones were also prevalent.

Pangur Ban is a touching, intimate poem that astonished me when I came across it a few years ago, and this small miracle still tugs at my heart strings. I’m guessing the anonymous monk would be astonished too, to see how much his verses are valued over a thousand years later. W. H. Auden and Seamus Heaney have both produced striking translations from the Irish, and Samuel Barber has set it to music (see link below). But I prefer this simple, poignant version by Robin Flower.

The scholar and his cat, Pangur Bán

 I and Pangur Ban my cat, 
 'Tis a like task we are at: 
 Hunting mice is his delight, 
 Hunting words I sit all night. 
 
Better far than praise of men 
 'Tis to sit with book and pen; 
 Pangur bears me no ill-will, 
 He too plies his simple skill. 

'Tis a merry task to see 
 At our tasks how glad are we, 
 When at home we sit and find 
 Entertainment to our mind. 
 
Oftentimes a mouse will stray 
 In the hero Pangur's way; 
 Oftentimes my keen thought set 
 Takes a meaning in its net. 

 'Gainst the wall he sets his eye 
 Full and fierce and sharp and sly; 
 'Gainst the wall of knowledge I 
 All my little wisdom try. 

 When a mouse darts from its den, 
 O how glad is Pangur then! 
 O what gladness do I prove 
 When I solve the doubts I love! 
 
So in peace our task we ply, 
 Pangur Ban, my cat, and I; 
 In our arts we find our bliss, 
 I have mine and he has his. 
 
Practice every day has made 
 Pangur perfect in his trade; 
 I get wisdom day and night 
 Turning darkness into light. 
You can hear the first verse spoken in the ancient Irish in this recording.

And the Samuel Barber song, titled ‘The Monk and his Cat’, is performed beautifully here by Barbara Bonney.

Cats in ancient Ireland
I first met Pangur Ban and became hooked on Old Irish Cats in a ‘Future Learn’ course on the Book of Kells, which is kept at Trinity College, Dublin. (You can read the relevant section and it’s free to join the rolling course.) . Here I learned that cats were valued in early medieval Ireland, not just as treasured companions, but as useful members of the household. They were accorded legal status:
Domestic cats were a high-status possession, owned principally by the elite. Such was their value, that there was an entire set of laws, the Catslechtae (‘cat-sections’) outlining the fines attached to the stealing, injuring or killing a person’s cat. Penalties differed according to the talents of the cat in question. For example, a cat was worth three cows if able to purr and keep its owner’s house, grain store and kiln free of mice, but only half that if was just good at purring.’

Cats are frequently depicted pursuing rats and mice in medieval illustrations, probably partly because it allows for a lively portrayal, but also indicating their chief function in society

This is a description of some of the categories of cat enshrined in old Irish law:
Ameone is ‘a mighty cat that mews’.
Aicrúipnei is also a ‘mighty cat’. but ‘by virtue of its paw’. Ie, a good swiper of rodents. It is ‘a cat of barn and mill and drying-kiln, which is guarding all three’.
Breonei is a female cat who purrs and protects – or may utter ‘an inarticulate cry’, and her value is greater if her purring is loud.
Meone is ‘a pantry cat’, catching mice and rats which might steal the food. Her value seems high at two cows, if she’s good at her job. Otherwise, one cow.
Abaircne is said to be ‘a cat for women’, ‘a strong one brought from the ship of Bresal Brecc in which are white-breasted black cats.’
Folum ‘is a cat who herds, who is kept with the cows in the enclosure.’
Last but not least, we have Rincne, ‘a children’s cat’, thus described because ‘it torments the small children, or the children torment it.’

Cats aim to please with a choice kill, even when their owner is distracted – in this case by music. But some cats may even be musicians themselves!

Medieval Cats
Cats were also appreciated in mainland Britain, and it’s known that a number of monks and ‘anchoresses’ (a type of female hermit) were sometimes permitted to have a cat as a companion. There were also stern warnings that they should not get too attached to the animal! (I am sure that this was ignored, even if an appearance of indifference was kept up.) Although there were some very cruel customs in earlier society involving cats, which I won’t go into here, it’s clear that in general, cats were not only useful members of the household in catching rats and mice, but provided companionship and solace to their human keepers.

A cat plays with her mistress’s spindle; monks and nuns were sometimes allowed to keep cats for company and, most probably, for play.

Just occasionally, cats were paid a salary! In Exeter Cathedral today, one of the most popular features for visitors to spy is the medieval cat hole, as you can see below. This is in the door leading to the works of the famous astronomical clock; its ropes would have been greased, and the grease would have attracted vermin. Hence it was important that the Cathedral Cat should be able to hunt them down inside the clock chamber. Cathedral records show that from 1305 – 1467 the cat and its keeper received payment of around a penny a week, chiefly to provide good food for the cat.

Returning to the poem, and my theme of darkness in current posts, it’s definitely one for our midwinter nights. And it reveals that the writer and the hunter are not so far apart:
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

So, Pangur Ban – and in my case Zaq and Cassie – we each have our tasks to perform, and I will try to accept the next live mouse that you deposit at my feet. As you can see, my cats take a lively interest in my work.

Illustrations
All the medieval illustrations in this post are taken from Cats in Medieval Manuscripts by Kathleen Walker-Meikle (British Library, 2011)
(Fair use claim: I purchased a new copy of this delightful book, and use the images with the intention of encouraging others to acquire it.)
Photographs of Exeter Cathedral © Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested in reading about the cats of Topsham in Hidden Topsham Part Three

December 28th – A note to everyone: There’s been a marvellous response to this post – thank you all so much for reading this! Comments have been coming in, and are welcome, but please bear in mind that I have to read and ‘approve’ these first, if you are new to this site, so it can take a few hours.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Now winter nights enlarge 
 The number of their hours; 
 And clouds their storms discharge 
 Upon the airy towers. 
 Let now the chimneys blaze 
 And cups o’erflow with wine, 
 Let well-turned words amaze 
 With harmony divine. 
 Now yellow waxen lights 
 Shall wait on honey love 
 While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights 
 Sleep’s leaden spells remove. 
 
This time doth well dispense 
 With lovers’ long discourse; 
 Much speech hath some defense, 
 Though beauty no remorse. 
 All do not all things well; 
 Some measures comely tread, 
 Some knotted riddles tell, 
 Some poems smoothly read. 
 The summer hath his joys, 
 And winter his delights; 
 Though love and all his pleasures are but toys, 
 They shorten tedious nights.
An excellent version of this song, performed by Passamezzo

This lovely poem by Thomas Campion, which I’ve frequently sung to the lute with my friend Steve Graham, paints a richly-coloured picture of how people, perhaps in a large household or stately home in the early seventeenth century, would occupy themselves during the dark hours at the turn of the year. And although the celebrations indicated here might be a little more elaborate than in the average household, merry-making, playing games, acting and drinking wine were an honoured part of the general Twelve Days tradition. We’re about to enter these days, which are generally said to start on Christmas Day itself, and perhaps we might extend our own revels right the way through to Twelfth Night itself. More of that later!

A Twelfth Night Cake

One key element of these Twelve Days, is that even though they start after the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year, the mornings will continue to get darker until about January 6th. So the finish of the Twelve Days heralds a general return of the light at both ends of the day, rather than just in the evenings which follow the Solstice. This seems to be a little-known fact in today’s society, when our habits are governed by artificial lighting. You can find a readable astronomical explanation of this here.

In many traditional cultures, these twelve days have been considered as time set apart, because of this phenomenon. The ancient gods of the Indian Rigveda were said to rest for twelve days, and the Romans placed the days outside the calendar itself. In Germany, all spinning was prohibited at that time, so as not to offend Frau Perchta, the winter goddess. And in England, as in various other European countries, social order was overturned with the reign of the Lord of Misrule, and games where finding a bean or a silver sixpence in your slice of pudding could elevate you to being King or Queen for a day. It was a time of mystery too; the Irish said that ‘on the twelve days of Christmas the gates of heaven are open.’ But they also added an ominous twist: On Twelfth Night, ‘the souls of the dead are thicker than the sand on the sea shore.’

Fortune-telling during the Twelve Days – Indeed, the Twelve Days are a magical time, when the veil between our world and the invisible realm of spirits is said to be very thin. The season has many associated traditions of fortune-telling, mostly to do with predicting events or even the weather for the year ahead. Farming communities were, not unnaturally, obsessed with trying to forecast weather in the days before modern meteorology. Weather lore and keen observation obviously counted for much, but by magical means, they hoped to glimpse further ahead. One divination practice assigns the weather on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas to a corresponding month of the year, so rain on Day One stands for a wet January, frost on Day Two for an icy February, and so on. I dare say you would have to make some adjustments though: if it snowed on Day Seven (July), for instance …

Fortune-telling with candles floating in a bowl, Russian-style

For personal fortune-telling, divination rituals could be performed using whatever you had to hand in the home and for the celebrations: candles, nuts and even the family Bible, could help to determine what will happen in the year ahead. If the flame guttered, or the nut cracked on the fire, for instance, this might have a particular meaning and could be interpreted as signs of things to come. One popular custom was to open the family Bible, blindfold, then place your finger seemingly at random on a verse; this is said to give you relevant guidance for the next twelve months More macabre practices involved predicting who would die in the year to come, perhaps by sitting in the churchyard at midnight to see the spirits of the not-yet-dead appear there. Even if we have forgotten most of these Christmas rituals today, trysts with fortune such as pulling crackers and playing board games are still echoes of these customs.

If you are eager to get into the mood of the Twelve Days early, then you can join in with a pre-emptive Russian custom. That’s if you are still an unmarried girl:
Dec 13th – The Day of St Andrew the First-Called. Although it was still a long way till Christmas, girls were already trying to read their fortunes. Some knew how to foretell it from tracks in the snow. To do this, they had to get up early in the morning and look for the tracks leading from their porch. Who was it that left them, a man or a bird?…They should not be in any hurry, otherwise they might remove the tracks of someone they were eagerly waiting for. A Russian Folk Calendar – Polina Rozhnova

The Calendar Change

I’ve mentioned that the commonest way to count the Twelve Days of Christmas is to start on Christmas Day itself as number one. But other variations are possible. We have a complex history when it comes to counting dates. In 1752, British folk calendar customs were thrown into disarray for years to come, when the calendar was changed. Those who went to sleep on Wed 2nd September 1752 were forced to accept the next morning that they had progressed overnight to Thurs 14th September. There was an uproar – and it’s said that mobs stormed the streets, shouting, ‘Give us back our eleven days!’ No one is quite sure if this is true, but the general public did not take the loss quietly.

The calendar had finally been changed because it had become significantly out of alignment with the astronomical calendar. Christmas had drifted from its original position, closely following the winter solstice, to a date which is now the equivalent of January 6th. The reason for this is that a year, (a complete orbit of the earth around the sun) is not exactly 365 days long. It is in fact 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds. So the calendar needed re-setting, and a new method had to be implemented for interspersing extra days, which we now know as the leap year system.

A Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

However, even after the calendar was changed, some people clung on to their habit of celebrating Christmas on what is now January 6th. In fact, those especially keen on merry-making could celebrate right through from new-style Christmas Eve on December 25th, to Old Twelfth Night on January 17th – 18th. This is not unknown in Russia today, where the Orthodox Church uses the old calendar, and secular society the modern one. There are reputed to be some seriously partying Russians who begin merry-making on December 24th and only let up around Jan 18th.

Masquerading is part of the fun as Russians celebrate the New Year season in the village of Kohlui. This picture was taken on my visit there, and the one below shows a camp fire we enjoyed with local friends, also as part of their midwinter tradition. (I’m the one on the left.)

And which date is which?

There is still scope for confusion, though. A calendar sounds a nice simple affair, designed to make life easier for all of us. But scrape the surface, and you will find a chasm of uncertainty beneath. Is today’s Twelfth Night the evening before January 6th, i.e. the night of Jan 5th, or is it on Jan 6th itself? A calendar expert speaks: ‘In earlier times, ‘Twelfth Night’ meant 5 January, i.e. the Eve of the Twelfth Day, in the same way as Christmas Eve precedes Christmas Day. But nowadays most people regard ‘Twelfth Night’ as meaning the evening of Twelfth Day (6 January).’ (The English Year – Steve Roud).

A goose was once the most popular bird to eat over the Christmas period; here’s my husband’s offering from a few years ago

Then you seemingly have the complication of New Year, interrupting the Twelve Days, and declaring a new beginning before we’ve even finished celebrating these twelve. In previous centuries, New Year’s Eve and Jan 1st weren’t given such prominence, but included in the general range of customs and festivities celebrated over the Twelve Days. New Year on January 1st was a bureaucratic Roman invention, and wasn’t considered very important until Queen Victoria’s reign. In my view, that’s where things have gone wrong! I prefer the natural progression of the twelve days and the return of the light to mark out the time, rather than an artificially chosen date for a forced celebration. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I don’t like staying up late? Perhaps, too, in an industrial world more pressure is now applied to get back to work after January 1st; in rural societies, this was a rare opportunity for people to celebrate and rest for twelve days because they couldn’t usefully work on the land at that time.

The Marshfield Mummers, aka ‘The Old Time Paper Boys’ usually perform every Boxing Day in the village of Marshfield just north of Bath. Sadly, it’s cancelled for 2021 because of the coronavirus – ‘for the first time since 1944’. I enjoyed this performance some years back, and these are some of the photos I took at the time.

Themes of killing and rebirth are often woven comically into Mumming plays

‘A partridge in a pear tree’
A post about the Twelve Days wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the famous song, with unusual gifts given on each successive day. Just as a reminder, the standard version (there are indeed variants) goes:
A partridge in a pear tree – Two turtle doves – Three French hens – Four calling birds – Five gold rings – Six geese a-laying – Seven swans a-swimming – Eight ladies milking – Nine ladies dancing – Ten lords a-leaping – Eleven pipers piping – Twelve drummers drumming.

Much effort has been made to delve into the symbolic meanings of these gifts. There are pagan versions, Christian versions, conspiracy theory versions, folkloric versions – you may take your pick. I have my own take on the ‘nine ladies dancing’, as I’ve written a whole book about the significance of ‘nine ladies’, as emblems and archetypes of women’s lives. And the concept of ‘the company of nine women’ goes back to prehistoric times. (The Circle of Nine). Take a look at this blog on January 17th, when I’m devoting a whole post to this theme!

Others have turned the words of the song into comedy, as did John Julius Norwich. The correspondence between a young lady and her over-zealous lover, who delivers these gifts, may not be so amusing once you’ve heard it performed at several Christmas concerts in a row! However, I’ve warmed to this unusual version from Ireland, although is there an element of cross-dressing here too?

If it’s novelty you’re after with the Twelve Days song, you can also find Covid versions, a Boris Johnson version and other subversive attempts to spice up an old favourite. (I’ll let you discover those yourselves on YouTube).

Twelfth Night, marking the final day, used to be a major celebration in the British Isles with parties and games. The Twelfth Night cake was the centrepiece of the occasion. This was baked with little charms or tokens in it, such as a bean, a clove or a coin, for guests to discover in their slices. As mentioned earlier, sometimes they were required to act out the role their charm signified for the rest of the evening, according to a pre-determined list ranked from Knave to King and Queen. It was finale to Christmas of merry-making, which included pageants and plays for those in the higher ranks of society. Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night’ is thought to have been written for that purpose, and it contains the kind of uproarious comedy, topsy-turvy accidents of chance, and switches of identity which were in keeping with Twelfth Night games. There’s an excellent account of the Tudor Christmas, which put all the emphasis on those twelve days, and their associated customs, saints’ days, and food offerings, recorded by Lucy Worsley for the BBC. In the UK, you can catch it on iplayer for a couple of weeks longer, or find it on You Tube. (NB The link I put up when this post was launched has now been removed from You Tube, but perhaps it will be posted again.)

An illustration by Robert Seymour of a Twelfth Night house party, in centuries gone by

The Cake!

I’d like to spread the net wider than just the UK, so let’s have a look at a Spanish custom of making a special Twelfth Night ‘King’ bread. Within the complexities of the Twelve Days is, of course, the Christian Epiphany on Jan 6th, celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts at the stable where Jesus was born.

This description comes from The Spruce Eats . I discovered that the recipe given on this website is almost identical to the one in my book Bread: A complete guide by Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter, which I’ve had as a staple cookery book for years. I’ve streamlined the two versions here, which luckily agree almost entirely on quantities and method. However – COOK’S ALERT WARNING! – I haven’t actually made this recipe yet. I hope to do so this year, but please join me in the experiment, rather than take it as Cherry’s-Cache-tested. BUT – now I have made it! Please see ‘Checking in for the New Year’, posted on Jan 10th. I’m adding a few tips below, in italics.

Twelfth Night Bread, from The Spruce Eats
Roscon de Reyes is a traditional dessert, served the night before or the morning of Reyes or Epiphany on Jan. 6. Dia de Reyes or simply Reyes is the day when children in Spain receive gifts from the Reyes Magos–Wise Men or Magi—the three kings who brought baby Jesus gifts. Instead of gifts from Santa Claus, the children receive them from the Reyes Magos.
It is traditional to put several surprises inside the roscon. A porcelain figure of a baby wrapped in foil and a dry bean are hidden in the dough. Whoever finds the baby will have good luck and be the king of the party, but if you find the bean, you pay for the cake. In the last half of the 20th century, filling the roscon with whipped cream or a thick custard became popular. Today about a third of the roscones sold in Spain are filled. If you want to fill yours, use a bread knife to slice the bread in half horizontally and carefully remove the top. Next, squeeze in the whipped cream or filling you’ve chosen and carefully replace the top. Keep refrigerated until serving if filled with cream or custard.

Ingredients
450gm/1lb/4 cups unbleached flour
½ teaspoon salt
25gm/ 1 oz active dry yeast I don’t think this is correct – 25gm would be for fresh yeast. The proportion of fresh to dried is 3:1, so I used 8 gm granular yeast, which rose perfectly well, but probably a 7gm packet of instant yeast would be fine
140 ml/ scant 2/3 cup mixed lukewarm milk & water
75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp butter
75gm/3oz/ 6 tbsp caster sugar
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon (alternative quantity 2tsp)
Finely grated rind of 1 orange (alternative quantity 2tsp)
2 large eggs
1 tbsp brandy
1 tbsp water (orange water also recommended – or I used 1tbsp fresh orange juice)
1 egg white (lightly beaten) for glazing
2 cups candied and glace fruit (eg assorted figs, oranges, lemons, mangos or cherries, chopped or left in large pieces. You’ll need the soft sugared kind as in glace cherries or mixed candied peel) As it bakes on the outside of the loaf, choose the softest kind. It might also be possible to mix in some chopped candied peel into the dough, the kind sold for cake-making.
Flaked almonds for sprinkling on top

How to Make It

  1. Sift flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Make a hole in the centre of the flour.
  2. In a small mixing bowl, stir and dissolve the dry yeast in the lukewarm milk mixed with the lukewarm water. NB if using instant packet yeast, you won’t need to do this
  3. Once dissolved, pour the dissolved yeast into the centre of the flour. Stir in just enough flour from around the sides of the bowl to make a thick batter.
  4. With your hand, grab about a teaspoon of the flour from the side of the bowl and sprinkle it over the top of the batter.
  5. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave in a warm place, away from any draft. Allow batter to turn spongy, about 15 minutes.
  6. In a medium-size mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. The mixture should be smooth and creamy. Set aside.
  7. Add grated orange and lemon rinds, eggs, brandy and water to the flour mixture. Mix well with a wooden spoon to make a sticky dough.
  8. Beat or hand mix the flour mixture until it is elastic and smooth. Gradually beat in the reserved butter-sugar mixture and mix until the dough is smooth. Form the dough into a ball, then cover the bowl oiled cling-film or damp tea towel.
  9. Leave in a warm place and allow to rise until doubled in size. This will take approximately 1 1/2 hours.
  10. While you are waiting for the dough to rise, grease a large baking sheet and set aside.
  11. Once the dough has doubled, remove the plastic wrap and knock down the dough. Lightly flour a clean counter or cutting board and place dough on it.
  12. Knead for 2 to 3 minutes. You can incorporate any Twelfth Night charms, figures, beans etc at this point. (Consider the impact on people’s teeth, though!)
  13. Using a rolling pin, roll dough into a long rectangle, about 66cm/ 26” long and 26 cm/5”wide.
  14. Roll up the dough from the long side, as if making a Swiss roll, into a long sausage shape.
  15. Carefully place the dough seam down onto the prepared baking sheet and connect the ends together, forming a ring. (You can also hide a bean or a small foil-wrapped, ceramic figurine at this stage, too). Cover again. Leave in a warm place until doublde in size. This will take about 1 to 1 ½ hours
  16. Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 F/ 180 C. Brush the top of the dough ring with lightly beaten egg white, and Decorate the ring with the candied fruit pieces. Push them into the dough slightly so that they do not fall off. Sprinkle with almond flakes.
  17. Place in oven and bake for about 30 -35 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool on a rack before serving.
The same recipe in my own cookery book. The photo gives a better idea of how luxurious the candied fruit might look, and also adds flaked almonds

Midwinter Darkness
And so to close this account, I’ll just slip in a reminder that my current series of posts are about different forms of celebrating the time of year, not just with dazzling lights and feasts, but also about relishing the darkness of the days and the long nights. These allow us to rest, to ponder, to warm ourselves with memories. Put another log on the fire, dim the lights, and sink into the dark womb of the year!

You may also be interested in:

Summer is a-Coming Today! May Day in Padstow

The Red Corner and the Symbolism of the Russian Home

Topsham Celebrates

A Glimpse of the Tarot – Part Four

A Journey through the Winter Darkness

As we travel through the darkest weeks of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, my next few posts aim to celebrate the different aspects of darkness and of night. I begin with another trio of Tarot cards, where two of the three images are associated with nighttime. Then I’ll follow with ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, traditionally both a resting and a feasting time during the longest nights. After that comes the story of an Irish monk writing a poem at night while watching his cat hunt for mice. Finally, we’ll emerge via the The Feast of Fools, a look both at this custom and at the Fool card in the Tarot. Darkness has its own rewards, as I hope to show. It can be a time to reach deep within the soul. It can also be a fruitful time for creative activity, for dreaming up new ideas and writing more freely. At the end of this very strange year, 2020, my wish is for us all to find both rest and inspiration during these weeks.

Today’s cards are: The Hermit, The Emperor, and The Moon

Before starting this series of Tarot posts, I shuffled the cards, then drew them in trios, sight unseen. I enjoy the freshness of seeing them in new, unplanned combinations. Considering them in trios stimulates insights, as each brings something forth from the others. A triad of cards is in itself can describe a situation or a relationship, and as such can form the basis for a very simple Tarot reading, as I explained in Tarot Triumphs.

Images above by Robert Lee-Wade as line drawings for Tarot Triumphs

The Hermit
At this time of winter, and in a year of pandemic when many of us may be in some form of lockdown, the Hermit shows us a way to go with his lantern. He takes us on an inward journey, shedding a light which aids us even when the darkness of midwinter surrounds us for many hours of the day. A Hermit was traditionally set apart from society, and certainly gave up any claim on wealth or status. But in fact he was not entirely solitary, as he was often considered to be a sage, someone to go to for good advice. He could be trusted because he didn’t have any worldly interests. (There were female hermits and anchoresses too, though as the card is male and space is short here, I’ll use the masculine pronoun.) His hermitage may have been remote, but those in search of counsel would often beat a path to its entrance. Or sometimes it was deliberately set up at a spot where travellers could readily consult him on their journeys, for instance at a crossroads, or by a ford.

The Hermit from the Madenie Tarot
Hermit in a painting by Jan Breughel, c. 1600

The Hermit’s lantern represents an inner truth, and in a Tarot reading the card might suggest a wise teacher or counsellor who guides you through dark places. It can also represent the seeker in our own soul, that spark of truth which we all carry within us. The light of the lantern can be hard to discern sometimes, and we may have to go deep into our inner world, retreating from the distractions of daylight, to find it again. Thus for many of us – myself included – the time around the Winter Solstice can be a rewarding opportunity to do this. Although the glitter and dazzle of the Christmas may prevail, there’s still the possibility to drop into quiet solitude, perhaps during the darkness of the long nights. Here, we can ponder, dream, rest, and reconcile the conflicting forces of life. We can shine our Hermit’s lantern into chambers and passageways which we haven’t explored for a while, and they may reveal more in that flickering light than they would under the glare of the sun. All in all, the Hermit can signify wise counsel, point to a personal retreat, or recommend a return to a simple truth.

From the so-called ‘Swiss’ Tarot, a later 19th c. pack which does not entirely follow the traditional set of images, but here remains faithful to that for the Hermit

The Emperor
At first glance, the Hermit and the Emperor seem a long way apart in their meaning. The Emperor represents great power in the world, and the Hermit has renounced the world. Yet they both signify authority, and they both support each other. The Hermit has inner authority, but in order for him to dwell peacefully at the crossroads, for instance, and give advice to travellers, those roads have to be kept safe, and this ideally comes through a well-regulated state. That’s the job of the Emperor, and his realm is that of justice, law and order, and a fairness in dealing with his subjects. A saying of Jesus in the Bible is relevant here: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’. We live in a world, which needs order and structure at a mundane level. If that order is kept, then there is the freedom to seek higher things.

The Emperor, from the ‘Charles VI’ Tarot, now thought to be of Italian origin

In the Tarot, of course, all the cards can represent both inner and external forces. A reading in which the Emperor is prominent might be a call to get your life in order, and take charge of it. At a period of rest in midwinter, or at least a time when the normal daily round is suspended for a while, it could be a good moment to check out your routines, and perhaps the infrastructure of your life. Maybe something could be dismantled and re-constructed? Or, in an external sense, the Emperor could be a significant authority figure, perhaps a father figure, who may be either supporting or, on the other hand, confronting you. Does that need attention, perhaps? I’ll say a little more about his place in the trio further on.

A more traditional image of the Emperor, from the Marseilles pack
The Moon in its typical depiction of two dogs baying at the Moon, with two towers framing the background, and a crayfish (possibly derived from a scorpion) in the water below. (Madenie pack)

The Moon is for many of us one of the most fascinating cards of the Tarot Triumphs. It offers dreams, and stirs the imagination, but it can also be the gateway to illusion, awkward moods, and disturbing psychic experiences. The Moon is of course honoured as a symbol, and portrayed mythically in cultures worldwide, as I’ve shown in my post about the Chinese goddess Kuan Yin and her Moon meditation. Its representation in the Tarot is unusual, however. Even though there are various possible links to emblems from Babylonian culture, Greek myth, and the mysteries of Mithraism and the Kabbalah, as I’ve explained in my book, it has a unique depiction and an enigmatic presence, which cannot be attributed to a single source. The water and the two towers always remind me of the Arsenale in Venice, and when I visit Venice, I always feel compelled to go there for this very reason. When it comes into view, for a few moments I feel as though I am in the Tarot Moon scene itself.

The Arsenale in Venice, reminiscent of the Tarot Moon image. (From ‘Photohound’)

The Moon is linked with our inner tides of emotion, reverie, dreams and nightmares. It pulls up images from the deep, and can bring confusion as well as a sense of joy at its subtle evocations. It erases the borders between us as individuals, or at least shows how illusory and shifting they are, thus leading us into the realm of psychic experiences. In some contexts, this is ideal: a shared visualisation in a trusted group, for instance, can be so much more powerful and resonant than one done alone. On the other hand, that delicate bond between individuals in a group can easily be damaged by a reckless or even malicious participant, causing pain to its members. Trust can be given, but also undermined here.

The Tarot of Bologna

The Trio – So all in all, the Emperor is needed both for the Hermit and the Moon, to provide a safe framework for their energies. We need order in our lives, and reliable structures. It would be dangerous to swim too long in the moonlit waters, or to rely solely on the light of a single lantern. But where would we be, without that force of imagination? Humans need, quite literally, to dream. And the Emperor may help us to distinguish between the light of the Hermit’s lantern, our own spark of inner truth, and the reveries of the Moon, which wax and wane. Keeping the dynamic of this trio is a tall order, but it can be done.

‘Reading the Cards’, by Robert Lee-Wade RUA

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested in:

Glimpses of the Tarot 1

Glimpses of the Tarot 2

Glimpses of the Tarot 3

Topsham Celebrates

Topsham knows how to celebrate! Even though our feasts and festivals couldn’t be the same this year, due to the pandemic, the customs of dressing up the town and dressing up ourselves are firmly embedded in the calendar. We’ll do it again next year, if we can.

This post is based on the Topsham celebrations that I’ve witnessed over the last few years, with a few historical occasions thrown in for good measure. It’s not a comprehensive Topsham Calendar, and it will be more picture-dense and text-light than usual. But I’m including a link to a full account of the illicit Tar Barrel rolling event!

Let’s enjoy some celebrations here virtually, and despite all the restrictions, I’m sure that we’ll still have a festive spirit and display in the town. As I write this, in early November, the town is making itself ready for Christmas as cheerfully as possible. And as I come to make the final tweaks on December 5th, everything is up and twinkling! More photos further on.

Getting the street lights up, and a test switch-on
From a previous Christmas in Topsham

Charter Day
Since 2016, Topsham Charter Day has been held each August, to celebrate the day when King Edward I granted the charter which turned Topsham into a town, back in 1300. (Woe betide anyone who dares refer to it now as ‘a village’!)

On the first of our modern Charter Day celebrations, Charles Courtenay, the current Earl of Devon, arrived by boat from Powderham Castle to receive the charter from ‘the King’. According to the schedule for the festivities:

1.45pm: The king and his entourage and townsfolk will process along Fore Street, lined with “medieval” market stalls, to St Margaret’s Church green. Here, he will present a replica town charter to the present Earl of Devon, Charles Courtenay.

In case of any confusion, the Earl was real, while the king was ably acted by one of our townspeople. You can read the complete order of ceremony here:

The Earl of Devon waiting to receive the charter from ‘the King’, accompanied by junior knights and pirates who sailed with him from Powderham Castle
Jousting in the churchyard
Mustn’t be late for the Charter handover!

The Town Criers’ competition has staunchly remained a popular feature of Charter Day. They arrive from all over the country, to process down the main street in splendid array, then make a speech from the balcony at the Globe Inn, in the old coaching yard. It’s the speech that decides who will be crowned the best Crier in the land.

Charter Day Procession, with the Town Criers marching too

Christmas
Well, Christmas in Topsham wouldn’t be the same without the Carols at the Bridge Inn, which always takes place just before lunchtime on Christmas Day, to the rousing accompaniment of our local celebrated folk group Show of Hands. I hope we can still manage it in some form in 2020.

Carols at the Bridge, the oldest public house in Topsham – squeeze room only! Steve Knightley, Phil Beer, Miranda Sykes and Chris Hoban are regular stars of the band.
Here’s Show of Hands performing inside at the Bridge Inn, as part of their ‘Tour of Topsham’ in 2011

Topsham shop windows are beautifully decorated, house doors likewise.

This was my personal favourite in Topsham, though alas the accountancy firm has left the premises, and it’s now just a fond memory. Skaters that skated, carousel horses that went up and down….
Buying some Christmas cheer on a bicycle made for two

Nello’s Longest Table
Once every two years, in June or July, over two thousand people gather for lunch together in Topsham. The line of tables stretches down Fore St, winds around to the Quayside, then snakes back again alongside the river to Ferry Road. Over 350 tables are laid out, so that families, friends and visitors can feast together, and create one ‘Longest Table’.

This lunch was set up in memory of Nello Ghezzo, a local restaurateur who dreamed of a feast which the whole town could take part in. Nello died in 1999 and in 2008 the first such meal took place, named in his honour. The event is also a fabulous fundraiser. In 2018 the organisers posted on Facebook: We are absolutely delighted to hand over the proceeds from this year’s Nello’s Longest Table and Topsham Food Festival: £2500 to Force Cancer Charity, £2500 to the Brain Tumour Charity (in memory of Geoff), and £1500 to Estuary League of Friends for the new and fabulous Nancy Potter House. We furthermore were able to fund the new Love Topsham web site as well as give a donation to Love Topsham for admin for new Topsham traders initiatives.

Louis Ravenscroft, the former Town Crier, announcing the start of Nello’s Longest Table, 2016

There’s always a rush to secure tables in favourite spots when the booking opens, and the food is generally more banquet than picnic, with delicious creations and exotic specialities.

A pavlova for our family table, produced by my daughter Jess

Dressing up may be either to a theme or on the whim of the individual groups. The second Longest Table in 2010 reported: Tables were decorated beautifully with colourful cloths, china, table decorations, flowers and even chandeliers. Others had based themselves on a theme – there was a Mexican table complete with sombreros and giant moustaches, a Sicilian men (and women) in black table, a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a gardening table, walkers’ table, and more.

An American themed year, which also featured some fierce looking American Indians

As the day goes on, groups mingle, children play games (racing each other around the churchyard is a favourite) and wine flows freely. We missed it happening this year, in 2020! Here’s hoping we can go ahead in 2021.

And what celebrations happened in days of old? The Museum archives tell a tale or two.

VE Day party, Topsham 1945
Coronation street party, Monmouth Avenue 1953
Topsham traders dress Victorian in 1984, occasion unknown – unless you can tell us?

(With thanks to Catriona Batty and the Topsham Museum for supplying these images.)

Other festivals pop up throughout the summer, like various Music Festivals, Beer and Bacon, ‘Secret Gardens’ (which I’ve written about here…). Plus ‘Jazz in the Garden’, a Dog Show, and a Flower and Produce Competition. I’m sure I’ve missed some out! Ah, yes, the Food Festival at the Quayside, which produced an excellent talk on salmon fishing from Ed Williams-Hawkes, and a demonstration of making the acclaimed ‘Smokie’ dish which used to be the top favourite at the Globe Inn. Here’s how a member of the Hodges family who ran the Globe explains it:

The Topsham Smokie
Basically it’s smoked haddock poached in milk with bay leaves. Make some lovely white sauce – you can put some cheese in there & use some of the milk that has poached the fish. Mix up the fish, white sauce and stir in some mashed potato. Put in a pot, top with tasty grated cheddar cheese and bake xxx simples !!!

From Liz Hodges of Route Two Bikes – formerly landlady of the Globe

Demonstrated by a chef from the Globe Inn, who hasn’t forgotten how to make this scrumptious dish.

Guy Fawkes Night
But what about November 5th? There may be a mega-display at the Rugby Club most years, but individual fireworks are a matter of past glory, according to long-term resident Roy Wheeler. Recording his memories back in 1988, he remembered how, decades earlier, the local lads would pitch a firework battle on Chapel Platt, just outside the Methodist Church.

One thing I remember vividly was fifth of November, firework time. A chap used to keep what is Meg’s Restaurant now was a man called Gilders – we used to call Putty Gilders – and he used to sell everything. And we used to buy our fireworks there and then it was a case of ‘Top Town’ versus ‘Bottom of the Town’. The bottom of the town boys used to come up to there and we used to come down to this side and we used to throw fireworks at each other. It was a battle-royal. That was always something to look forward to! Ha ha ha ha! But yes, this was always a very busy spot and it wasn’t so long ago that the City Council in their wisdom, or otherwise, planted a tree there. Thought it would enhance the beauty but it didn’t last very long. The Topsham people weren’t going to have that. They weren’t going to have their Platt desecrated. Hee hee! So, the tree was knocked over. (Account supplied by Topsham Museum)

Still earlier, in the 19th century, there was a rip-roaring tradition of celebrating Bonfire Night in Topsham and Exeter, with processions, battles and exotic guys. This account reveals that a recreation of the Armada provided plenty of entertainment for Topsham folk:

Western Times – Saturday 08 November 1890
Had the weather been favourable no doubt the carnival held on Thursday by Young Topsham” would have surpassed any previous attempt. But unfortunately rain fell heavily and a strong wind blew continually during the night. The procession did not start until close upon eight o’clock. The order was follows:—The local band, banner, Topsham guys, Young Exeter, the local fire brigade, Captain on horse, back, Committee, Topsham Cyclist Guys, tar barrel brigade, and a representation of the Armada fleet, under the command of Ally Sloper.” The latter was the most striking feature of the carnival. After the procession had broken up, the two model ships, representing the British and Spanish fleets, were formed for action the ” battlefield” in Fore-street, and after a warm encounter the Spanish vessel was ” bombarded “by Roman candles. A large number of excellent rockets were let off, and the celebration, which was witnessed by a large number of persons, including many from Exeter, continued up to a late hour.

Bonfire nights were an excuse for lynching unpopular members of society in earlier centuries in Exeter, as described in this article , and as Todd Gray also records in his book ‘Not One of Us

Indeed, it wasn’t all fun and happy outcomes:

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Saturday 13 November 1847
Accidents. —Since Friday last, upwards of 27 individuals, who have received serious injury from accidents, have been taken into the Devon and Exeter Hospital. Of these accidents 18 or 19 were occasioned by the unexpected explosion of rockets and other fireworks in the hands, or near the persons, of the sufferers; one of whom, a lad, was brought from Topsham, so injured the lower part of his person, that life is despaired of. Another young person had his skull fractured by a kick, or a blow from a bludgeon, as he was engaged with others in the fun of rolling tar-barrel.”

All photos of Ottery Tar Barrels here are supplied by kind permission of folkorist Doc Rowe, who has attended the occasion and numerous other folk customs for many years

Did someone say Tar Barrel?
What’s that about? – surely the only Tar Barrel Rolling round here is in Ottery St Mary? But no – Topsham used to have its own tradition of Tar Barrels, until it was made illegal in the town, probably in the early 19th century. As a sport it can be thrilling, but the dangers are obvious, and especially so in narrow streets with old timber-framed cottages.

And in 1847, the Rev. Frederick Isop Cocke,, assistant curate of Topsham, was convicted of Unlawfully Rolling a Tar Barrel. The Rev. Cocke appealed – he had only been doing his duty, he said, and trying to keep the barrel away from the crowd. In January 1848 he was acquitted. ‘Decision of the Bench was received with loud cheering outside the court.’ Western Times – Saturday 08 January 1848 – you can read the whole story here:

But be warned, if you decide to persue this account, that the ‘he said’, ‘she said’, ‘No I didn’t’, ‘Yes you did,’ runs to over 3000 words . Nevertheless, it’s a mine of information about local people and the streets of Topsham at the time. The story proved immensely popular around the country, and appeared in briefer versions in various provincial newspapers. After all, a parson with a flaming tar barrel, who ends up in court, makes a good story!

Finally, I’ll end with a custom which has only recently been introduced, but which is based on a very old tradition which certainly took place in the area, if not in the town itself. This is the now annual Wassail. Wassails are usually held in January, an old farming custom intended to drive evil spirits out of the orchards and produce a healthy crop of apples. (Very important in cider making districts!)

Topsham’s Wassail is now going strong, with songs especially written by Adrian Wynn, and a merry band of folk club followers, children and townspeople. We gather at Matthews Hall, serenade the apple tree there……, then move onto Victoria Road and a noble old apple tree in a garden there, thought to be a survivor of a former cider orchard. Further stops occur at other venerable apple trees, including the Old Vicarage, and the procession eventually celebrates the final tree at the Allotments . To make the magic work, a robin must be placed in the branches, and a piece of bread dipped in cider then stuck in the tree itself. Possibly a few cups of cider and slices of apple cake may also be consumed en route. And perhaps I should mention that we’re usually accompanied by a farmer with his shotgun; traditional Wassails aren’t complete without a loud blasts fired through the branches, to send the devils packing! You can see him lurking with gun at the ready in the picture on the right.

Topsham Wassail
In the orchard dark we muster,
North wind whistles through the North wood Tree;
Prosper Greasy, Soldier prosper,
In our orchard and soils of old,
Gather Topsham, sing and rattle,
We’ll bring cider back to thee!
Gather round and old Tom Putt
Will flow and fill our wassail bowl.

Adrian Wynn

Hanging the robin in the tree and placing some bread soaked in cider in the branches is of course essential for a proper Wassail. Children are usually keen to help.

Christmas 2020 – So here we are, in the run-up to Christmas, with shop windows beautifully decorated, lights twinkling and everything as normal and cheerful as it can be in this extraordinary and difficult year. As a small town with a busy High Street (actually called Fore Street!) it has a particular sense of community and the feeling that everyone is doing their best to create the spirit of Christmas here. I’m thankful to be living in Topsham!

You may also be interested in:

The Tidal Town of Topsham

Hidden Topsham Part One

Hidden Topsham Part Two

Hidden Topsham Part Three

Hidden Topsham Part Four

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Doc Rowe, for his stunning photographs of the Ottery Tar Barrels

Catriona Batty and the Topsham Museum, for photos of historic Topsham celebrations and the memories of Roy Wheeler

All other photographs by Cherry Gilchrist, with thanks to Love Topsham for help both in the town with masterminding various projects, such as the Christmas lights and other festivities, and for supporting this blog.

The Abduction of Mary Max

A runaway bride at the age of 13

Gaile House, co. Tipperary today, where Mary Max was born

I first posted a version of this story on my author’s blog at in Dec 2019. Various other Phillips descendants got in touch as a result, so I’m delighted to have expanded the current family network! In autumn 2019, my husband and I had planned to visit Gaile House (the first time for me), staying in the house where Mary Max was born, and visiting the graveyard nearby where she is buried. We would have been joined too by one of my ‘new’ cousins who I’ve discovered through sharing her story. Sadly, the owners of Gaile House cancelled our booking due to a bereavement in their own family, so we’ve had to postpone our trip. At present, in late 2020, it’s impossible to say when we may be able to travel to Ireland again, but I hope that 2021 will bring better opportunities to use my new Irish passport, and that I can see for myself both where Mary Max lived, and where my own grandfather was born. My father who was a regular visitor there during his life, while his elderly cousin was still in residence, always had a dream of buying back Gaile and living there in his retirement, but as is so often the case, life got in the way. It was sold, and is now beautifully renovated and operating as a working stud and horse training centre, so it has certainly come into good hands.

Note to other Phillips descendants: if you are connected to this line, and would like to be put in touch with others researching the Phillips family, please contact me either via this website or my author’s site at http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk. (use the Contact Form)

My great grandfather, Richard Augustus Phillips (1825-1894), standing on the steps at Gaile House with his son Samuel, my future great uncle.

Mary Max

This is the story of my 4 x Irish great grandmother, Mary Max, who was abducted and forced into marriage in1777, at the age of thirteen. She lived in the Max family home at Gaile House, County Tipperary, and was an heiress to a £40,000 estate, which was worth over £6,000,000 in today’s terms. Her father and brothers had all died in quick succession, so in 1777, as a young teenager, Mary was set to inherit the family fortune when she turned eighteen. Her only close relative was her mother and guardian, Joan Max.

At the time, abduction was rife in the heartlands of Ireland, and Mary was a tempting candidate. Bride-snatching had become almost acceptable as a way of securing a bride, and although it was a capital offence, the risk of conviction was low. The target was usually a girl who the prospective bridegroom thought would better his position, preferably with money or property, and of good social standing. He would then gather a band of supporters, often including friends and family members, and they would plot to seize her by force. Plans were audacious, with ambushes and even armed hold-ups. One episode on record involved locking the priest and the congregation in church while the raiding party singled out their chosen target from the worshippers!

Mary Max was abducted by Samuel Phillips of Kilkenny in August 1777. He was her first cousin-once-removed, who lived about forty miles away in the Phillips home of Foyle. The Phillips family had arrived in Ireland before 1600, possibly as Welsh immigrants, and as merchants they then rose through the ranks to produce a couple of Mayors of Kilkenny, marrying into moneyed or landed families such as the Despards along the way.

By the 18th century, the family had some land and money of their own, but not enough to satisfy them, it seems. And so a secret plan was made to grab the family fortune of the Maxes, their kinsmen, to add to their own. A raiding party was put together: Samuel Phillip, groom was then 21, and his supporters included his father Richard Phillips, who was a Magistrate and Justice of the Peace, his sister Frances, and, surprisingly, Dennis Meagher who was Mary’s uncle on her mother’s side.

Mary was snatched late one evening, as she was returning home from a ball. Samuel’s sister acted as the decoy, pretending to offer Mary a safe lift in her carriage back to her mother’s home. Instead, the coach sped away to Waterford, where the conspirators and prospective bridegroom were waiting. It sounds the stuff of a period drama movie, and it certainly caught the public attention at the time. Reports spread through the press like wildfire as the story unfolded.

The lands of Gaile, at the time when the estate still had hundreds of acres

One newspaper gossip column reported:

Letter from Dublin, dated Sept. 20: As I make no doubt but you will be curious to know in what manner Miss Max was carried off, I have collected such particulars as I could, and have sent them for your entertainment. Miss Max was at a ball, at which also was Mr. Philips, with whom she danced the evening. —The husband intended by her guardian was also one of the company; after the ball, Mr. Phillips’s sister walked with Miss Max towards the carriages, and prevailed her to accept of the use of theirs to set her down. All things having been previously concerted, Miss Max stepped into the post-chaise, and was drove directly to Waterford, where Philips, the young Lady, and assistants, embarked, and arrived safely in England, from whence they crossed over to France. Miss Max not being missed for above two hours, full time was given for eluding a search, which was afterwards made to no purpose. She is first cousin to her adventurous lover.

The current driveway to Gaile House, through what look like very old trees from the days of its estate

Newspapers around Britain went crazy for the story, and this particular ‘letter’ was republished in local papers from Kent to Newcastle.

From Waterford, the ‘wedding party’ went by boat to Wales, and then by road to Scotland. (All land transport was, of course, by horse and carriage in this era). A hue and cry was raised, and a magistrate’s militia was sent off in hot pursuit. At this point, the Phillips family’s first aim was to get Mary married off to Samuel, before the pursuers could intervene. Many such forced marriages were conducted in all sorts of shady ways, with little regard for the legitimacy of the priest. In Edinburgh, as we’re told by subsequent legal documents, Samuel procured a so-called clergyman, ‘a man of very indifferent character’. (In later years, he came to regret not finding a priest with better credentials, but only because he was worried that it might otherwise undermine his claim on Mary’s fortune!)

Mr and Mrs Phillips then hastened to travel south with their ‘wedding party’. But by then, there was a price on their heads: Mary’s mother offered a handsome reward for Mary’s safe return, and a bounty price to anyone who could hand over Samuel Phillips or his father to the law. Knowing little of the geography, Samuel’s troupe made a strenuous journey by side roads down to Brighton, at the time a small fishing village known as Brighthelmstone. En route, they stopped at Kingston, and asked if the sea was nearby! When they finally made it to Brighton, they then set sail for France. All but one of the party – Mary’s uncle- escaped across the Channel. He however was arrested and clapped in jail in Dublin. It was a close-run thing: according to one newspaper report the abduction party was chased right to the edge of the water.

Before the packet in which they sailed was lost out of sight, two of Sir John Fielding’s men arrived at Brighthelmstone, in pursuit of them, and offered any of the fishermen a large reward, that would give chase to the packet, and prevail on the Captain to steer back; but not one of them would attempt it.
(Hampshire Chronicle, 15 Sep 1777)

Print of Brighthelmstone in 1785, around the same time that Mary and Samuel sailed from here to France

It was reported that they made a successful landing at Dieppe and then headed for Paris. It was time to draw breath, perhaps. Within the space of a month, a thirteen-year-old girl had gone from living quietly with her widowed mother in rural Ireland, to being forcibly married to a cousin, and chased across four countries. But even in France they were not entirely out of reach of British law. As the Freeman’s Journal reported on Sep 25th 1777: ‘Application has been made by the English Ambassador at Paris to have the Phillipses who ran away with Miss Max delivered up if they could be found in the French dominions, and liberty given to have them transmitted to this kingdom to be tried for the felony.’

But before the law could finally catch up with them, Mary’s mother Joan made them an offer. She was desperate to get her daughter back, having lost her husband and both sons in quick succession. According to later legal reports, they stayed in Paris for some time, until the new year of 1778, when Samuel finally decided to bring his ‘bride’ home. On Dec 31st, 1777, Joan Max had formally withdrawn her offer of rewards for capturing the kidnappers. She withdrew her threat of prosecution too, and allowed Samuel to bring his under-age bride back to Gaile House, the Max family home.

Gaile House in 1913, which became the home of the Phillips family after Samuel married heiress Mary Max in 1777

Samuel Phillips now became head of the household in a dwelling that was most definitely superior to his father’s home at Foyle, Kilkenny, and he lost no time in using Mary’s money to make it even grander. He still however had to stand trial at Kilkenny Assizes for a hanging offence of abducting a minor, but as Joan Max refused to offer any evidence, he walked free. Though Samuel didn’t win hands down. Mary’s money and property was put in trust for her heirs, so he never had complete control of it. He did however secure Gaile house, which then became the Phillips’ family home for over 150 years after this. My grandfather, Richard Phillips, was born there, before emigrating to England, where my father was born. (Thanks to having an Irish-born grandparent, though, I have recently been able to obtain Irish citizenship and an Irish passport!)

The photos below, from my father’s colleciton, show the glory days of Gaile in the late 19th and early twentieth century – the hunt meeting, garden parties and bicycle races!

The hunt meeting at Gaile, 1885
Tea parties and what looks like a ‘doubles’ bicycle race on the lawn
My great grandfather, Richard Augustus Phillips, and his eldest son Samuel, standing on the steps at Gaile. Pets were popular, as we can see from this long lost Pet Cemetery in the grounds of the house.

Samuel Phillips and Mary Max, now Phillips, had three children: Richard, Joanna and Frances. (Richard and Samuel were names which were chosen in almost every Phillips generation). Then Mary died, aged only 26. Who knows what a toll the early marriage and childbirth had taken from her? She had her first child, Richard, when she was only sixteen years old.

The graveyard with view towards Gaile House, taken by my cousin Rebecca Ditchburn. Photo below from my late cousin Robin Phillips, who also appears in the photo below on his ancestor-hunting journey in 2004, before the house was restored

But despite family papers and newspaper reports, we still don’t have the whole story. Was it a forced abduction, that ripped a young girl away from her mother, her only protector, and laid claim to Mary’s fortune? Or could it be that Mary and Samuel were indeed in love? Or, again, perhaps she was a headstrong young teenager with a thirst for an exciting adventure. The idea of running away might have seemed very romantic. They were not strangers; the families lived only forty miles apart and already knew each other well. At that period in history, thirteen was considered nearly ripe for marriage. But even for those times, she was still very young: although most Irish abductees were under the age of 21, very few indeed were as young as that. And it seems that Sam and Mary started sexual activity straightaway. One newspaper reports: ‘It appeared that when they left Ireland they sailed for and landed in Wales, that they crossed all England and made the best of their route to Scotland, where it is supposed young Phillips and Miss Max were married, as it also appeared they slept together at Kingston, and at Brighthelmstone.

As her direct descendant, I’d like to think that Mary and Samuel married for love. Or at least, that there was some romance, or sense of adventure on her side. Perhaps she was a catch in more ways than one – a couple of newspapers described Mary as ‘exceedingly beautiful’, though we have no surviving pictures of her to check this. One gossip column of the day suggested that the couple already had an ‘understanding’ and that when Mary’s relatives began to arrange a marriage for her to ‘a young Gentleman of a distinguished Family in Dublin’, Mary and Sam decided to secure their own marriage first. Nevertheless, would a thirteen-year old girl really understand what was in store for her?

More Phillips descendants visiting Gaile House, before it was renovated. Family lore has it that the Phillipses are tall and lean, that they love horses and are very untidy! My father always said that this fitted me very well.

My father was a keen genealogist, and he uncovered this story and pieced it together. I’ve added to it with the advantage of excellent internet tools now, and a rich trove of old newspaper reports available for searching online. And thus a tantalising, dramatic, but still mysterious story has unfolded, to which we will probably never have all the answers. One question is why Mary’s mother Joan dropped the prosecution, and accepted that her young daughter’s marriage? For that, there is a historical answer: studies from the period reveal that a girl was often regarded as ‘damaged goods’ once she had even been alone with a young man, let alone travelled abroad with him, and that she would henceforth be rejected as marriage material. Once a daughter had been abducted and married off, it was a fait accompli, and parents usually decided that a forced marriage was better than no marriage. And later reports do indicate that Mary and Sam did settle together quite happily, for the thirteen year period of their marriage.

The family lore which was passed down through the generations, doesn’t seem to include a strong sense of outrage or pity for Mary. My father, Ormonde Phillips, often talked to his ‘kinsman’ Jack Max, who still held some of the Max family papers about the legal side of the abduction, and he didn’t glean any indication from Jack that it was a blot on the family landscape. This isn’t conclusive, but does at least give a window of hope that Mary was not completely devastated by the event. The Max family, rather than the Phillipses, would surely be the ones to hold onto a grievance.

This Facebook video is a delightful sequence of a Connemara pony being put through its paces at Gaile today, which is now an equestrian centre for training and supplying sportshorses.

I’d like to honour my 4 x great grandmother by telling her story, and keeping its memory alive. Researching it has led me into a fascinating area of history, when the law in central Ireland was largely disregarded, and old clan ways still prevailed. I cannot help be somewhat uncomfortable, however, about the way my Phillips ancestors acquired their ‘forever’ home of Gaile House, Tipperary. Eventually, there was no one in the family suitable to take it on any more, and so it was sold. But from falling nearly derelict, it’s now under new ownership, and beautifully restored as an equestrian centre. The wheel of Fortune turns again.

Gaile House today

To the memories of Mary Max 17763-1789 and Samuel Phillips 1756-1816. I wish you could see how the family has grown today, and how splendid Gaile House looks once again!

Related Reading

The Pursuit of the Heiress: Aristocratic Marriage in Ireland 1740-1840 – A. P. W. Malcomson (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2006)

Forcibly without Her Consent: Abductions in Ireland, 1700-1850 – Thomas P. Power (Universe, no date). My father contributed his Mary Max research to this book, which also contains a very good Bibliography

You may also be interested in other family history posts on Cherry’s Cache:

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

A Tale of Two Samplers

Relevant books by Cherry Gilchrist

Following the Female Line

The three women in my immediate female line: my mother Kathleen Phillips (centre), grandmother Hannah Brown (right), and great grandmother Sarah Lee (left).

‘As I watched a tallow candle burn in a seashell, I tried to sense the ancient life of the cavern and its early inhabitants. And something strange happened; a connection opened between the caves and my own deep layers of memory. Their shadowy depths seemed to generate wisps of recall, floating streams of impressions that came from a realm beyond my conscious grasp. The Great Mother had stored the memories of her former children here and, even though I could not capture them distinctly, I received fleeting glimpses of the manifold life she had contained in her rocky womb, of the times when both beasts and humans lived within her shelter. The memories of the lives she nourished are still alive there.’

I was visiting Kents Cavern, an extraordinary set of caves entered through a clifftop, near Torquay in Devon. Passing through the unassuming door in the visitor centre, I stepped from the everyday world back into ancient times, entering the darkness of Stone Age, where humans and wild beasts lived in uneasy proximity. I was writing my book The Circle of Nine, about feminine archetypes, and what could have been more symbolic for my chapter on the Great Mother? The opening quote of this blog is taken from this. And, in a more general sense, the experience also linked into my long-term quest to explore my mother’s line of ancestors.

A rock formation in Kents Cavern, which looks rather like the head of a woman. And visiting the caves at a later date with my granddaughters Martha and Eva.

Discovering your female line
For women, and very possibly for men too, reconnecting with the female line can be an empowering experience. We emerge from our mother’s body, as she emerged from her mother, and so on, back to our earliest female direct-line ancestor. We can find ways to sense this lineage with only a few facts at our disposal, but through the excellent family history research tools available now, we may be able to get acquainted in more detail with individual grandmothers back through the generations, whose existence we knew nothing of before.

My research into the female line was triggered by my mother’s death, in the year 2000. She was 87, and although I knew that she couldn’t last much longer, I hadn’t take the chances that those last few years offered. Suddenly, I had no living link to my mother’s line of ancestors, and I longed to know more. Following family history research up the mother’s line, sometimes called rather condescendingly ‘the distaff side’, is a quest with a particular challenge. Most modern societies are patrilineal, which means that it’s the father’s surname which is usually passed down through the family, and thus women often change their surname in every generation. Once the oral history link is broken, the female line can all too easily slip into the shadows.

My mother Kathleen as a little girl (centre) with her parents Hannah and Bernard, sister Maisie and brother Neville

Maria and the Army
But nevertheless, approaching family history through historical records can reveal things that our mothers and other close relatives may never have known. My first great thrill, when I took up the research, came when I discovered that my 3 x gt grandmother, Maria Owens, had travelled with the army. It’s on record that she accompanied her soldier husband Edward to Sicily in the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, and gave birth to a daughter there in 1812. Possibly she was with him earlier, in 1809, at the battle of Corunna too. I was inspired to read up about ‘camp followers’, a disparaging term for the wives who were often desperate to stay with their army husbands, and might indeed become destitute if they didn’t. There was a cruel system on some campaigns, where the wives had to travel to the ports of embarkation to take part in a lottery, in order to become official followers. Although I don’t think my grandmother had to do this, just as an example in her case this would have meant travelling from mid-Wales to Plymouth, a huge distance on difficult roads. Those who failed to win a place had to make their way home, sometimes hundreds of miles, with no travel or living expenses awarded to them. Some women jumped into the sea, rather than face this.

But Maria made it one way or another – many women ‘followed’ unofficially, and often had a hard, if adventurous time, unless they were officers’ wives. Maria was married to a foot soldier, so no luxury would have come her way. Female camp followers struggled to find food to eat, and worked as unpaid cooks and laundresses. It must have tested her courage to the full.

Female camp followers of the period, travelling with children in tow.

The Travelling Urge – I visited the ruins of the little stone cottage in mid-Wales, to which they returned when soldiering days were done, and imagined her leaving this remote, rural environment for the army life in faraway foreign lands. Did this influence the family line ever after? Her grandson, David Owen, my mother’s grandfather, definitely had a roaming urge. His calling as a Baptist minister took him from Wales to Devon to the USA and back to the English Midlands. It’s said in the family that he sought a more open mindset than he could find in rural backwaters. One of his daughters, my Auntie Blanche, wrote to me that she had an adventurous turn of spirit which she attributed to growing up in America. And I’ll confess to a restlessness in my own moves around the country, and to a strong urge to visit many far-flung places abroad, such as the Silk Road, Siberia, and Easter Island. Perhaps if Maria had never decided to go with Edward, that spirit would not have been embedded in the family, on my mother’s side.

The remote hillside where Maria and Edward Owens lived after their return from the army, in Bwlch-y-Sarnau, in mid-Wales. This is the site where their cottage once stood.

Seeking a better life
A very different 3 x great grandmother of mine, who is the earliest known grandmother in my direct female line (ie mother’s mother’s mother etc), is another Maria but in this case a Maria Adie, born into a different kind of life at the end of the 18th century. She came from a family, who were silk weavers and miners in the Midlands town of Bedworth. They were poor, as all such workers were, and lived in the humblest terraced cottages in the town. Her daughter Jane, my 2 x great grandmother, started work as a ribbon weaver when she was a child, though she was at least able to learn how to read and write. The Bedworth trade of weaving decorative silk ribbons for ladies’ gowns and bonnets sounded glamorous, but the weavers themselves and their families worked long hours for a pittance. The Adies, and the Lee and Brown families which succeeded them, must have struggled desperately to stay afloat when the bottom fell out of the silk trade around 1840. (This was due to ill-advised import duty changes by the government.) Their town became known as ‘Black Bedworth’, rife with famine and violence. Many families were offered charity places on boats travelling to the USA and Canada, and emigrated from the area.

The images show patterns for the ribbons that were woven from silk, and how they might be used on ladies’ attire

But Jane’s own daughter Sarah (my great-grandmother) found a means of escape with her miner husband Henry. He made a shrewd sideways step, and took a job on the railways. This was a passport to moving elsewhere, something very difficult to do for working people at the time. In their case, it took them to a more secure way of life in Northamptonshire. Here Henry became first a porter and then a signalman at Althorp station, the train halt for Althorp Park, later the home of Princess Diana. Not all the traumas of their previous life were left behind, however, as two of their children died of a diphtheria outbreak due to a polluted water supply.

Below you can see my gt grandmother Sarah Lee, standing with her daughter Sophie who kept the Post Office at Great Brington, near Althorp in Northamptonshire. And here am I, sitting in exactly the same place about 100 years later!

Following down the female line, from Althorp my own grandmother went into service in ‘the big house’ as a lady’s maid. She told her children tales of her time there which, sadly, have never come down to me. I know that she worked at either Althorp itself or Holden House, but the rest is a mystery. My mother, eventually, did what her grandmothers could never dream of, by training at Homerton College, Cambridge, to become a teacher. Here she met my father, as an undergraduate.

My parents on my father’s graduation day in Cambridge (early 1930s)

Connecting with the grandmothers
So much for family history, and the pictures that it can paint of your grandmothers. But what about those grandmothers who you cannot trace this way? In my book The Circle of Nine, I’ve suggested some exercises, as other ways of re-connecting with the grandmothers of your line. An imaginative approach can be rewarding, as we discovered at a women’s camping weekend on the theme of ‘Generations’.

The outdoor site was on a gentle slope. We took a rope roughly sixty feet long and tied it securely to a tree trunk at the top of the slope, leaving the bottom end loose. The rope, representing the matrilineal line, was knotted at six points. The first knot, at the bottom of the slope, represented the maternal grandmother. Moving up the rope, the second represented the great-grandmother, and so on up to the knot representing the five-times great-grandmother closest to the tree. One by one, each woman was blindfolded and handed the free end of the rope. From there, she worked her way up the slope, hand over hand on the rope with a helper each side to support her. As each woman pulled her way up the rope, she paused at each knot and greeted the grandmother of that generation. By the close of the exercise, she had travelled roughly 200 years back in time, “meet¬ing” maternal ancestors, most of whom she had previously known nothing about. When we shared our impressions, however, most of us felt that we had had real communication with these unknown grandmothers.

If you don’t have the facilities to try this exercise – and it does indeed take some setting up! – you could create a much simpler version. Simply substitute a length of cord that will stretch across the room, with enough to spare for knot-tying as above, and a loose end for holding. Secure one end of the cord to an anchor point such as a door handle. Ensure that you have a clear passage across the room, and with your eyes closed, hold the end of the cord and make your way from one knot or ‘grandmother’ to another, as just described. Keep the action gentle, without too much physical force. This could be done alone or with other women in turn.

And you can even do a completely internalised version: imagine yourself holding that knotted rope, and feeling your way along it to pay tribute to each grandmother. Find a way that works best for you, for instance by just invoking a tactile sense of the rope, rather than seeing it as an image. Or you can picture the rope as it was in our outdoor exercise, stretching up a grassy hill to an old, ancient tree beyond, to which it is safely tethered. Feel free to experiment and see which is the most evocative way for you to connect with the grandmothers.

Washing clothes in the 18th century: Remembering the everyday activities which both we and our great grandmothers carried out can also be a way to connect to their line – even if methods have changed!

There are simple everyday activities which can also connect a woman to her female ancestry. Just bring your grandmothers to mind as you do the same simple things that they would have done – picking blackberries, washing clothes, stirring a pot on the stove. Our lives have expanded greatly now in terms of professions and occupations, but there are core tasks that we still do, which haven’t changed so very much. Pick up ordinary objects, such as baskets, combs, saucepans, spoons, and spades – let your mind run back up that female line, and enjoy the moment of sharing activities passed down from mother to daughter.

Picking blackberries – something that never goes out of fashion! Painting by Myles Birket Foster

The grandmothers who surprise us
Returning to family history research, you may stumble across female ancestors whose lives were just that bit different. As well as my globe-trotting grandmother Maria, I’ve also discovered a 4 x grandmother in Ireland who was abducted by her cousin at the age of 13. She was carried off by an ‘raiding party’ from Waterford to Wales, from Wales to Scotland where they got married, then from Scotland to Brighton and thence to Paris, with the magistrate’s men hot on their heels. I’ll be telling her story in my blog next week, so catch the next episode here!

So at last my mind could now run up and down the storylines, feeling both compassion and admiration for my grandmothers who struggled to provide a better future for their granddaughters-to-be. I relish knowing that some of my grandmothers had adventures, probably facing more challenges than I have ever had to, in our much-expanded way of life today. I’m thankful that they persisted, sometimes against the odds, and kept their line going.

My own family group – myself as a baby with my brother Richard and parents Kathleen and Ormonde, taken in about 1950

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist

You may also be interested in:

A Tale of Two Samplers

Seduction, Sin and Sidmouth: An Ancestor’s Scandal

The Moon Meditation of Kuan Yin

Keeping it Simple with Princess Diana

The third in my ‘Writer’s Life’ series

We were passing through the gates of Prague Castle when I heard the news. ‘Have you heard?’ said an American from our group. ‘Princess Diana’s been killed in a car accident!’

I was visiting the castle with a bunch of delegates from a conference on alchemy, where I was giving a lecture. Prague itself has a rich history of. alchemy, astrology and Rosicrucianism, so it was a magical venue. But now the city had acquired another layer of meaning for me, with the news of Diana’s death, on August 31st 1997.

‘Golden Lane’, the street of the alchemists in Prague

When I called my husband before the flight home a couple of days later, he said, ‘Oh, there’s a fax for you from the publishers. They want you to write a book on Princess Diana.’ I was taken aback. The poor woman hadn’t even been buried yet. However, the journey home gave me time to adjust my sensitivities, and I realised that if I didn’t take up the offer, someone else would.

What they were requesting was not a scholarly biography – which I’d be ill-qualified to write – but a short ‘reader’, a brief life story of Diana for students of English Language Teaching (ELT). I’d been writing these readers for Penguin for a few years now, encouraged by an author friend who’d been doing rather well out of them. Most of the titles that I tackled were adaptations of existing books, but Princess Diana was to be an ‘original’, my own creation.

I got into ELT writing to start with because this friend had put my name forward to the editor, who was short of a few writers for a series of adaptations which needed a quick turnaround. The editor, hearing that I was a ‘writer’ rather than a teacher of ELT, demurred. ‘Oh we don’t want real writers,’ he said. ‘They don’t follow the rules, and they only write what they want to write.’ Somehow, my friend persuaded him that I was not a ‘real writer’ in that sense. Hmm. But it’s true that the ELT work is specialised, and very strict in its discipline and syllabus, as I’ll explain.

From the film ‘Out of Africa’, with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford; the image was also used on the cover of my book

In and Out of Africa – My first title for adaptation was for Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, and I took it very seriously. The book itself is full length, but had to be boiled down to a short re-telling of 70 pages, with limited vocabulary and grammar. Every adaptation means reading the book several times, jotting down the plot line, and deciding how to reconstruct the narrative for a very much simplified version. Where there was a related film I watched that too, as in this case, since it could be a good guide to selecting strong plot lines.

Turning the Screw – As well as sticking to the linguistic guidelines for these projects, I felt that it was important try and replicate the author’s voice even to a small degree. Mostly that meant using the right tone, but still within severe constraints of language. Imagine having to do that for Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, or The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James! I tackled both of those, and whereas Jane and I got on fairly well, I think, The Turn of the Screw was the only book I adapted which really annoyed me. The storyline is ambiguous, and an ELT grammar and word syllabus doesn’t allow for ambiguity. Things either have to happen, or they don’t happen. Who did what to who in this tale? I had to try and decide:

‘Mrs Grose and I talked a lot about Quint’s ghost.

I have never seen anything,’ she said. But she knew my story was true. ‘Who was he looking for?’ she asked me.

‘He was looking for little Miles,’ I said, because I suddenly knew that it was true. Mrs Grose looked frightened. ‘The child?’ she asked.

‘His ghost wants to find the children.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I know, I know! And you know too, don’t you?’ She did not answer…

Yes, well, that’s about as good as it got in my homage to H. J. But I adored re-writing Jane Austen, sacrilege though that might seem to some, and had great fun with Saki short stories. For Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, I had to study American court and jury set-ups in order to keep veracity – very complicated, and no online resources in the mid-90s, so I went off to the Britsol university library to dig out a relevant tome. The only book which truly saddened and depressed me as I worked on it, was The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. A casual first read of the diary itself is sobering but if you live with that book day and night for several weeks, including extra background reading, it begins to haunt you. But I hope I did it well.

The entrance to the secret annexe, where Anne Frank and her family hid during the war

Grading the Readers – The ELT readers ranged from Grade 1-Beginner to Grade 6-Advanced, from the simplest level of English to a more sophisticated grasp of the language. The choice of titles and allocation of a grade was decided in house. The majority I worked on were in the middle grades. The Diary of a Young Girl and Boys from Brazil were 4s, but Presumed Innocent was a 6, and The Turn of the Screw was surprisingly and frustratingly -, only a 3. The simplest was Saki, as a Level 1. I quote from my text:

‘One day, Dora sold Jane a very exciting hen. Jane gave Dora a lot of money for the hen…But Jane’s best hen did not give her any eggs. Not one egg! Now Jane writes angry letters to Dora, and Dora writes angrily back to Jane.’

You get the idea. There was a list of authorised vocabulary for each grade, (1200 words for Diana, 300 for Saki). A few extra words were also allowed for each title, at the adaptor’s discretion, to cover the specific needs of the story. Sometimes I tripped myself up. With The Turn of the Screw, for instance, I was delighted to find the word ‘entrance’, in the sense of ‘enchant’, was included in the vocabulary list. What a good idea, I thought – it fits the storyline so well. I used it with gusto, although I did think it unusually advanced for a Grade 3. When my editor rang me up to go through the corrections, he asked, ‘Cherry, what is this word ‘entrance’ that you’ve used?’ ‘Well, it’s there, in the list.’ ‘The word is entrance, Cherry. As in a door.’ ‘Ah….’

The grammar list increased in complexity of permitted constructions up through the grades, which also implied a development of meaning too. This limits expression: for instance, if you can’t say something is like something else, then your power of description is limited. My love cannot be like a red, red rose. She either has to be a rose, or I must say that she’s ‘lovely’, or whatever other simple adjectives of praise are available to me. I would then have to tackle the whole story with that in mind. Or, if according to restricted verb forms, you can’t say ‘we might go’ or ‘you could see,’ let alone ‘could have seen’, then speculation is out of the window. This was one of the issues with The Turn of the Screw. However, I was very proud of being able to get round one whole section of metaphor and conditional tenses in a story about Krishna, re-told in The Waters of Life, in the ‘young reader’ level.

Kaliya’s snake wife wanted to save him. She swam to Krishna, and said, ‘Please don’t kill Kaliya! He’s a snake! All snakes make the waters bad!’

Krishna thought about this.

It was true. A cow is a cow, a snake is a snake. Snakes have to live in the world too.

’Well,’ said Krishna. ‘I won’t kill you, Kaliya. But go away from here. We must have clean, sweet water for our cows and fishes!’

Making subtle writing un-subtle requires a level of skill too…

But there was also a great sense of achievement in turning existing writing into simple English. Most of the time, I found the task very rewarding and indeed, well-paid. (Unlike the measly financial returns for the books I’ve poured my heart into!)

Writing Originals – So, back to Princess Diana. My work leading up to that point had satisfied my editor, by and large, and I’d already written a reasonably successful original called The Streets of London about a homeless young woman who was saved by her artistic talent. I’d now been chosen to write Diana’s story at Level 3, in about 36 pages which amounted to about 8000 words. I read the major biographies about her, studied news reports, and tried to get to know Diana better before I committed her life to paper. I owed her that much, at least.

Her life story was a minefield, of course, and opinions ranged wildly between those who thought her a beautiful heroine or wronged saint, and those who saw her as an unbalanced, manipulative woman. I tried not to judge, but to give the facts and a fair indication of differences of opinion. Again, this wasn’t easy with the restrictions of language, but in a way it was a relief, as I am not an expert in the field and didn’t want to pretend that I was.

I’d forgotten how I ended the book, so I had a look while writing this post:

Diana’s life is over, but her story is not. The way that she lived and died will change many things. Her life showed a new road for the Royal Family to take. She showed them a way to be nearer to the British people and to help with real problems in the modern world. When she died, we all remembered that life can be very short. Every one of us has to do our best with the time that we have.

‘It’s important to show love,’ said Diana.
We need to remember this too.

And then the Royal Family
Princess Diana was doing well, and so a request came in from the publishers to write a similar kind of title about the Royal Family, who were now having something of a resurgence in interest following Diana’s death. I applied myself to untangling the complicated royal genealogy and getting my Edwards and Georges sorted out. The result was an acceptable but dull book, which has long since fallen by the wayside, although it did bring in some requests from radio presenters and newspapers who were looking for ‘a monarchist’ to interview. I had to explain that although I have nothing against the Royal Family, I am not exactly a spokeswoman for them either.

Diana continued to sell. Judy Parfitt who plays Shula on the Archers radio series read the audiobook version, and the book itself took off in the Far East, as Diana became an icon for young girls in Japan and Malaysia in particular, in the years after her death. This was financially rewarding as well, since while writers were paid a one-off fee for adaptations, originals at that time were commissioned on a royalty basis. I have never become rich as a writer, but I have done better from Diana – God rest her soul – than from any other book I’ve written, either for ELT or in my own subject range. Even now, 22 years on, there’s still an occasional dribble of royalties coming my way.

An Unexpected Windfall – However, the greatest financial surprise came from my EFL adaptation of the film script for Four Weddings and a Funeral, which I had turned into a short narrative story. As the film was such a favourite with the public, I was nervous about my responsibility. I lived with the script for weeks, and the more I worked with it, the more impressed I became with the skill and conciseness of the original dialogue. Apparently Richard Curtis re-wrote it seventeen times! I now have huge respect for the script-writing profession.

My ELT version of Four Weddings and a Funeral was published in 1998, and some fifteen years or so after that, I got a statement from ALCS, the body that collects royalties from photo-copying and the like for authors who’ve registered with them. Usually I earn a hundred pounds or so each year, which is always very welcome, but nothing special. This time, they sent a statement informing me that I was due a substantial four figure payment for the copying rights on Four Weddings and a Funeral. No, I thought, better not get too excited here, since I didn’t write the original script. It must be a mistake. But when I dug into the ALCS rules, I discovered that an adaptor is entitled to 50% of these royalties! They had all been earned in Denmark, and I can only think that the head of education there ordered every secondary school in Denmark to make copies of the book.

The Millennium is coming! – Writing for the ELT list, I relished the rigour of being conscious of every word and every grammatical construction. The editor would double check for any breaches of the syllabus, which was reassuring. There were a few pitfalls, however, one of which I managed to spot before the editor got there. I was writing another original, entitled Millennium – The Year 2000. (Oh yes – that’s going to have a long shelf life – not,’ I thought when asked to tackle it.) It was to be magazine style in content, with facts, horoscopes, quizzes, and a short story or two. First of all, the editor and I had to learn to spell Millennium, which we both stumbled over. Then, when I’d submitted the text, he told me that the characters in the main picture story, set in London on New Year’s Eve, 1999, needed to be more international. ‘Ben’ for one of my main protagonists was too English. We settled on ‘Alex’, which is widely used across different cultures, and I decided to make the changes through the ‘Find and replace’ command. All well and good – except that at the final read-through, I discovered that the text now read, ‘And then Big Alex struck midnight…’

Big Ben – or should I say Big Alex? – at a New Year’s Eve celebrations (BBC image)

Moving on – I thoroughly enjoyed my run with ELT books. But, as is often the way with publishing, things changed eventually. My editor left (I’m told he didn’t need to work any more, after the success of his own ELT titles and textbooks), and then the imprint was sold to another publisher, with their own stable of writers who worked with a different approach. This was the beginning of the end. After about ten years, I’d written or or contributed to about 19 titles. More would have felt tedious, and put a brake on my own natural style of writing.

It was a great learning process, and for any writer prepared to take on the discipline and exercise tight control, it can be beneficial to work in this intensely observant way, scrutinising every word, phrase and sentence. I’m sure it’s improved my editing skills and my ability to make my own writing more concise. It also updated my grammar skills, too, although as grammar rules seem to change frequently, that was only a temporary triumph.

Thanks, Princess Di, I aimed to honour you – apologies Jane Austen – and I’ll shake my fist at you one more time, Henry James! But I’ve loved working with you all – even if you don’t know it.

You may also be interested in my other ‘Writer’s Life’ posts:

‘Writing for Jackie Magazine’

The Perils of Publishing