Christmas. What’s not to like? The decorations, pudding, cake, fir tree decked with lights, Santa Claus and his little elves.
Now imagine a Christmas without any of these things. Then you’re getting closer to Yuletide at the time of the Knights Templar!
So – key points for celebrating Christmas medieval style:
Advent is not about calendars popping open a day at a time with a chocolate sweet behind each little door. No – Advent is about fasting before Christmas. Oh yes – no goodies and plenty of hunger pangs. You’re preparing yourself for Christ’s arrival on earth so no binge eating and lots of prayer.
Christmas in pagan Roman times was the festival of Saturnalia where slaves and masters swapped roles for a day. This tradition mutated under Christianity into a curious practice where boys were made bishops for a day. The boy-bishops would deliver silly sermons – in one recorded instance saying that all school teachers should be hanged!
Deck your cottage or halls with holly and ivy but you won’t find a single Christmas tree in medieval Europe. And certainly not one covered in lights with a fairy on top.
No turkey on the table because these birds only arrived in Europe after Christopher Columbus discovered America. So, you had goose, beef, lamb and….the king might have enjoyed a peacock (Richard II of England certainly did). An aristocratic feast would most likely have featured a boar’s head as the centrepiece.
Thanks to the crusades, spices from the Middle East began to appear on medieval tables. We’re used to cinnamon flavouring but this was a newcomer. Ditto marzipan – another import from the exotic lands where the Knights Templar were doing battle.
Mince pies were made with mince – and flavoured with the aforementioned spices from the East.
Spices also featured in a drink called Wassail – drunk from a huge wassailing bowl. The bowl might be taken door to door for villagers to have a glug. Wassail was a very spicy form of cider that would have appeared like stewed apple. Should you wish to make some – HERE is a recipe. The word Wassail comes from the Saxon/Old English for “good health” – in case you were wondering.
Christmas was first recorded as a word around 1038 and meant a religious mass to celebrate the birth of Christ. That meant going to church. It was obligatory. But singing carols was regarded as a bit of a nuisance by the church authorities – too much rowdiness it seems.
Carols were sung by singers standing in a circle. And they’re quite different to the jolly tunes we’re familiar with. Here’s a group re-enacting what they probably sounded like.
Back in April 2017, I filmed for a new TV series called Private Lives of the Monarchs investigating the salacious royal secrets of various kings and queens.
The first episode airs in the UK on 20 November 2017 and will look at Queen Victoria featuring a private life that will surprise you.
In Australia, where the series has already started to air on SBS, I believe they have kicked off with a very raunchy look at Charles II, known for good reason as The Merry Monarch.
The series is presented by Tracy Borman – a highly respected author, historian and curator of the Royal Palaces. It’s an enjoyable watch – I think – and your feedback on my on screen performances would be hugely appreciated.
This week I found myself at the Gore Hotel in London filming for series five of Forbidden History presented by Jamie Theakston and to be broadcast on UKTV/Yesterday in the Spring of 2018.
There are six episodes and I’ll be in all of them talking about a wide range of topics from who was the real historical Jesus, the man behind James Bond and the treasure looted and stolen by the Nazis. Looks like it’s going to be a great series!
On 20 November 2017, I’ll be appearing in Private Live of the Monarchs, also on UKTV/Yesterday talking about Queen Victoria. I’ll be in every episode of that series as well, presented by Tracy Borman.
Here I am filming at the Gore Hotel for Forbidden History.
Edward I – the king who defeated Braveheart – could never be regarded as a particularly sentimental man but when it came to his wife, he was a clearly a very devoted husband. Eleanor of Castile was the great great granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the feisty queen of Henry II. She was also the great grandaughter of Eleanor of England, a daughter of that same king. Medieval England certainly spawned a surfeit of Eleanors!
Castile was an emerging European power as it pushed back the Islamic realm of southern Spain and originally, Eleanor was intended to be married in to the royal family of the neighbouring Christian kingdom of Navarre. However, Edward I’s father – King Henry III – was troubled by the claims Castile was making to the duchy of Aquitaine, then still under English control, and decided the best way to deal with that problem was to marry his son to the Castilian princess.
Eleanor was no shrinking violet and in the wars that her husband, as king, would have to fight against the English barons and external foes – she proved to be a very strong support for him. However, her life would be cut short – though not at a remarkably young age by the standards of the time. Journeying with Edward towards Lincoln, she caught a fever and died at the age of 49.
This clearly devastated the king who erected twelve ‘Eleanor Crosses‘ at the staging points on her slow procession back to London. This included crosses – initially in wood and later in stone – at Lincoln, Northamption, St Albans, Waltham and Westcheap and then finally at Charing. The last cross was in a small hamlet near the city of Westminster, the centre of royal power.
The cross was in place there from the 1290s to the Cromwellian period in the mid-17th century but was then demolished as part of another wave of anti-idolatrous as well as anti-monarchist sentiment. It stood more or less where the statue of king Charles I now stands at the end of Trafalgar Square, by Admiralty Arch. The cross you can now see outside Charing Cross station is a Victorian confection.
Inside Charing Cross underground station, there are murals depicting the construction of the original cross which I’ve taken a few photos of: