Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Approaching the Minstrels' Court

It's not long until this year's Minstrels' Court event, which will be held on Saturday 27th June.  As always it takes place in St John's Church, Chester, next to the amphitheatre ruins.  It is one of only a couple of re-enactment or living history events that takes place in its original and authentic location.

For those who haven't come across the event before, it's the recreation of the annual gathering of all minstrels in Cheshire, which had taken place in the city each midsummer from 1204 to 1756. Entertainers would obtain their licence to perform, without which they risked arrest.  The tradition began when the minstrels helped to save the Earl of Chester from the castle where he was besieged by the Welsh.  You can read more about it elsewhere on this blog.

We're so pleased to have the ongoing support of dozens of musicians, who kindly give up their time to be part of this event.  There will be some of the country's top historical musicians performing through the day in the church, with more informal music sessions in the large porch and outside too.

Around the church there will be fascinating living history displays, recreating some of the bustling scenes which were always part of life in St John's in medieval times.  Far from a place of quiet prayer, the church had business dealings and legal contracts made within its walls.  So if you're visiting the Minstrels' Court, expect to meet scribes, weavers, pilgrims, traders and even soldiers.

In the chancel of the church there will be performances of medieval and Renaissance music, along with legends and folk tales from storytellers, a medieval puppet show and even the demonstration of the arming of a knight.

At 1pm the gathered minstrels leave the church to process through the city's busy streets, causing quite a stir with playing and dancing.  At around 1.30pm they arrive back at St John's to gain their licences in a recreation of the original ceremony.  This is one of the most atmospheric moments of the day.  And then it's back to more music and living history.

The daytime event runs from 10.30am-5pm, everyone is welcome and it's free.

In the evening there is a special concert in the church, starting at 7.30pm and featuring Piva, one of world's best Renaissance bands.  Tickets are just £5 on the door.  Well worth catching their fantastic music in this amazing setting.

Hopefully we'll see some of you at the Minstrels' Court for the usual mayhem and merriment!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Exploring in Exeter

Back at the start of May we were down in Devon and took a chance to explore Exeter Cathedral, a place we'd wanted to see for quite some time.  It was a fascinating place, with much more variety of curiosities and hidden details to discover than in most of Britain's cathedrals.
For this post, we'll go sparingly with the words and allow the pictures to tell the tale.
The 'Minstrels Gallery' second from left is a bagpiper.  The cathedral didn't know what the sixth from left is playing but my guess, (from far beneath), is that it's a jew's harp.
One of very many canopied tombs with effigies.
Some roof bosses in the chapel of St John the Baptist.  St John is in the centre, in long hair and rags.
St Laurence being roasted on the grid iron.
There just had to be a green man...
15th century painted panels with the Annunciation.
Another bagpiper, this time on a canopied tomb.
Memorial Brass
The tomb of Bishop Edmund Lacey, this was the closest Exeter got to a shrine for pilgrims.   The cathedral was damaged in an air raid in 1942.  When the damage was cleared up, several votive wax offerings from pilgrims were found.  These are the only examples known in Britain.
20th century replicas of medieval tiles.
And some relaid medieval tiles.
Misericord of an elephant, one of the most realistic medieval depictions I've seen.
And another elephant, this one a Victorian bench end in the quire.
Medieval misericord with pipe and tabor player.
Curious detail of a cherub blowing bubbles above a tomb.
St Apollonia, patron saint of dentists, with her tooth pulling pliers.
Medieval wall painting of the Blessed Virgin alongside the entrance to the Lady Chapel.
The stone allows crisp, deep detailing.  You wouldn't get this with Cheshire sandstone!
An anonymous cadaver.
A striking word at eye-level on a memorial plaque.
Shepherds at the nativity, one with a recorder.
The original clock movement for the cathedral.
Door to a tower with hole for cathedral cat.  The cat was paid a penny a week for his duties in catching mice.

There was even more to see, so you'll have to make a trip to discover the rest for yourself.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Gerard’s Herbal at TobyFest, Powderham Castle

Hilda Leyel, founder of the Herb Society
You may recently have read our post about John Gerard’s Herbal.  We were really fortunate to have an original copy in our care to display at the Toby Buckland Garden Festival in early May.  Dating from 1636, it belongs to the Herb Society  and is shortly to be loaned to the Garden Museum in London for their new displays.  It came to the Society through the library of Hilda Leyel, its founder. 
Toby Buckland, President of the Herb Society
Toby Buckland is the new president of the Herb Society and he was keen to show the Herbal and to talk about some of the fascinating facts Gerard records.  Gerard not only spoke about the herbs native to this country, but also plants collected abroad.  He refers to the aubergine as about the size of a goose egg, in fact the original aubergines were smaller than today’s and white.  This is said to be where we get the alternative name of ‘eggplant’ from.  Gerard stated that tomatoes were eaten in Spain and Italy, but that they were in fact bad for you and ‘rank and stinking’.  This may be because they were originally linked to the mandrake from the nightshade family and therefore thought to be poisonous.
Gerard's Herbal
We had the Herbal open on the page about pennyroyal, where we also had both the dried and fresh plant.  Pennyroyal is from the mint family and would have been put between the pages of a book to stop insects from eating the ink.  The fresh herb today can be used for rubbing around areas where you have an ant problem to deter the little blighters from entering.  On a more sinister note, pennyroyal, also known as pudding grass, was long known as an herb which would bring about abortions.
The Herb Society stand interpreted the different uses of herbs as described in Gerard; for medicine, strewing, cooking and for dyes.  There were also a range of Tudor medical instruments to illustrate Gerard’s role as Master of the Barber Surgeons.  There was a display and stand about the Herb Society as we were encouraging people to find out more and join up.  Our stand was in the setting of the library of Powderham Castle which Tom loved as there were a couple of secret doors, just like in Scooby-Doo!  I also got to chat about this fantastic Herbal with Lord Courtenay, the son of the 18th Earl of Devon, surrounded by his family's library! 

The next event we are working on for the Herb Society is our stand at the Tatton Flower Show 22-26 July 2015 on the theme of ‘Thyme for Tea’ focused on herbal infusions.  Hope to see you there!!

Sunday, 19 April 2015

By the Rood of Chester

St John's Church, just outside the city walls of Chester, the oldest surviving church building in Cheshire and location of the annual gathering of minstrels, was home to a renowned relic known as The Holy Rood of Chester.
This was a silver gilt crucifix containing a fragment of wood from the True Cross upon which Christ had been crucified, rood being a medieval word for cross. It was present in St John's church from the mid-13th century and was the city's most revered relic.
How it came to be in Chester is unclear.  According to legend it had arrived in Chester after travelling from Ireland on the tide and several 15th century poems allude to this.  The mid-13th century date for the earliest mention and its location in St John's church might suggest another possible origin.  Earl Ranulf de Blundeville, (who was famously saved by the Minstrels of Chester), had been on crusade to the Holy Land, setting out in 1218.  It is just possible that he acquired a piece of the True Cross in Jerusalem and returned with it to his treasured church of St John.  Geoffrey Dutton, a Cheshire knight and member of the family of benefactors of Norton Priory, accompanied Earl Ranulf on this crusade.  The only named relic at Norton Priory was a Holy Cross of Norton, mentioned as performing two miracles in 1287.  Coincidence perhaps, or did the two warriors both bring back pieces of the True Cross for the churches they were so attached to?
The Holy Rood of Chester was sworn upon in oaths.  Business contracts were agreed in St John's, in the presence of the Rood and in the 14th century "Vision of Piers Plowman" there is the following vow;
"I promise to repay - if I have pounds enough - All the wealth I have gained since I first walked, even though this may give me too little to live on.  Each must have his own, ere I join the hereafter; and if any remains, with the rest, by the Rood of Chester, I shall turn pilgrim towards Truth, rather than seek Rome."
The Holy Rood of Chester was known across England, also in Gascony, and was particularly revered in Wales.  No less than eight medieval Welsh poets wrote about the relic, for example Guto'r Glyn made an appeal to the Rood to heal his patron.  Maredudd ap Rhys wrote his poem to the Cross in the 15th century, you can hear a translation being read in this clip, filmed in St John's Church.
In 1492 a Chester plumber was asked to make moulds for two pilgrim signs for St John's Church, one being an image of St John the Baptist, it is tempting to think of the other being an image of the Holy Rood. 

An early 16th century commonplace book with woodcut prints pasted in bears the owner's personal notes of saints and relics that were particularly dear to them.  The "image of ye rode of Chestre" appears at the top left of the page. 
What happened to the Holy Rood of Chester at the Reformation is unknown, but it's great to see the heritage of St John's still being celebrated today and bringing visitors from across the world.

Monday, 16 March 2015

The General Historie of Plants

It's getting to that time of year when our work with herbs starts up again, and some of our forthcoming work will be celebrating the work of a Cheshire-born herbalist whose writings haven't been out of print in over four centuries.
John Gerard was born in Nantwich, Cheshire in 1545. He went to school in nearby Willaston, and some of his exploits with his friends were later recalled when he was writing about superstitions regarding yews, one of which was that sleeping in the shadow would kill you; "when I was yong and went to school, divers of my school fellows and likewise myself did eat our fills of the berries of this tree and hath not only slept under the shadow thereof, but among the branches also, without hurt at all, and that not one time, but many times".  All parts of the yew are poisonous, excepting the flesh of the berries but including the seeds, so eating the berries is a particularly dangerous thing to do! 
Gerard was apprenticed to a barber surgeon aged 17 and at some point thereafter he seems to have spent time as a ship's surgeon travelling in the North Sea and Baltic.  He later settled in London, living in Holborn where he superintended gardens belonging to William Cecil, Lord Burghley in the Strand and also at Theobalds in Hertfordshire for 20 years.
In 1596 he published his first book; a work of 24 pages listing plants he had cultivated in his own garden. This was the first complete catalogue of any one garden ever published. In 1597 Gerard published, ‘The Herbal, or General Historie of Plants’. He had a good practical knowledge of plants, and due to his powerful connections at court and elsewhere, he was able to add many new and previously unseen plants to his gardens.  Gerard combined his botanical observations with folklore about the plants and comments on the best time to harvest and use them.  Woodcuts of the herbs were commissioned to assist gardeners and apothecaries. 
Queen Elizabeth I was presented with a copy of the Herbal. Gerard gave Elizabeth a tour of the kitchen garden at Theobalds where he dug up a ginger root for her to have at supper.
In 1606 James I visited Theobalds and persuaded Robert Cecil, William’s son to exchange it for Hatfield House. Gerard was appointed royal gardener and herbalist and the new Queen Anne of Denmark gave him an additional garden next to Somerset House where he grew plants for the palaces.
In 1608 Gerard was elected as Master of the Barber Surgeons’ Company. Gerard died in February 1611-12 and is buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn. Gerard's Herbal remained a standard reference work for apothecaries and medical students for a couple of centuries.  Gerard's work continues to inspire gardens today, including two projects in his native Cheshire.
At the start of May, we will be taking an early edition of Gerard's Herbal to a major garden festival at Powderham Castle in Devon.  We're representing the Herb Society, of which Sue is a committee member, and exploring the world of Tudor herbalism in a living history display.  Soon after, the copy of the Herbal will be taken to the Garden Museum in London to be put on show there.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Sea-born Beads

I haven't written a pilgrimage related post here for a little while, so here's one to get back to how we started all of this and, as is so often the case, pick up a bit of folklore along the way. 
Over the past few years we've been to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne several times and enjoyed the tranquillity there after the bustling crowds have gone, on one occasion even recreating a medieval pilgrimage across the sands
From the beach just below St Mary's church it's only a short hop across the rocks when the tide is out to Hobthrush a little islet sometimes known as St Cuthbert's Isle as it was to it's relative peace that he moved when he found the distractions of the communal monastery too much. 
Walking along the beach beside the little island you can find tiny fossils in the sand, known as St Cuthbert's beads by pilgrims through the centuries.  In the museum at Lindisfarne Priory they have a whole string of them, which certainly would have taken some time to gather.
We've spent several evenings walking up and down that stretch of sand to find some of them.  The process is quite suited to the pilgrim, you need to be totally focussed on the task, but at the same time it's relaxing and rewarding, particularly with the song of seals drifting across the water from the nearby sandbanks.  
According to legend, St Cuthbert would use the beads for a rosary, but whilst they would have been collected from the 14th century, there's no evidence that they would have been used in the saint's lifetime. 
The beads are in fact segments of the stems of fossilised marine animals called crinoids, here's a picture I spotted of a model of some crinoids within an ancient sea, re-imagined in Buxton Museum in Derbyshire.
St Cuthbert's Beads fit in with other fossil folklore like belemnites, sometimes known as St Peter's Fingers, or the ammonites of Whitby, which were supposedly snakes cast over the cliff by St Hild.
Sir Walter Scott mentioned these, as well as St Cuthbert's Beads in his poem, Marmion. 
"But fain Saint Hilda's nuns would learn
If, on a rock by Lindisfarne,
Saint Cuthbert sits, and toils to frame
The sea-born beads that bear his name:
Such tales had Whitby's fishers told
And said they might his shape behold,
And here his anvil sound:
A deadened clang - a huge dim form
Seen but and heard when gathering storm
And night were closing round.
But this, a tale of idle fame,
The nuns of Lindisfarne disclaim."
Sometimes these fossils are known as fairy money as they resemble tiny coins, but in all the stories I know, when the fairies give you money it will turn out to be dried leaves or broken crockery later.