Twelve Days of Christmas: Eleven Pipers Piping – Brassed Off

By Dr Natalie Thomlinson

“More than owt else here that symbolises pride, it’s this bloody band!”

music-2556230_1920[Image credit: bpcraddock from Pixabay.]

To give you a flavour of the music from Brassed Off watch the William Tell Overture from the film here.

The 1996 film Brassed Off is the tale of the ‘Grimley’ – a very thinly disguised version of Grimethorpe – Colliery Band. The characters are fictional but the events that the film is based on are absolutely real: just three days before Grimethorpe Colliery Band won the National Brass Band championships in October 1992, the closure of the village’s pit was announced. The victory couldn’t have been more bittersweet: in the film, the famous (fictional) speech of Danny, the band’s conductor, sums it up – watch it here.[Image credit: Brierley Road, Grimethorpe, by Steve F, Geograph project collection. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

I grew up a dozen miles down the road from Grimethorpe in the 1990s, and to watch Brassed Off is to be instantly transported back to the South Yorkshire of that decade. ‘Cool Britannia’ it certainly wasn’t; whilst the rest of the country was allegedly riding high on the tide of Britpop and Blairism, the county was being pummelled by the relentless closure of the pits and the associated problems of unemployment, chronic ill health, and drug and alcohol addiction. Grimethorpe itself suffered terribly; an EU report identified it as the poorest village in the entire UK after the closure of the pit, at which nearly half the men in the village worked. The pitch black humour of the scene where the character of Andy who, after falling into horrific debt, attempts to hang himself whilst still dressed in the clothes of his side hussle as a clown, represents only too realistically the impact that pit closures could have on individuals. The changes that women in pit villages experienced is another thing that the film captures so well; the character of Rita, married to euphonium playing miner, Jim, is shown to be part of the group Women Against Pit Closures; and the women’s permanent protest outside the gates of ‘Grimley’ colliery is actually based on the true events of the seven women’s pit camps that were formed to protest the closures, Grimethorpe amongst them.

But despite all the darkness, Brassed Off retains the story of the band and the community it represented at its core. Brass bands – and in the Scottish coalfields, bagpipe bands – were at the beating heart of the rich associational life of coalfield communities across Britain. Grimethorpe’s band was formed in 1917, and most other brass bands also date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a leisure activity for miners and a respite from their hard, hard lives down the pit. It is difficult to really capture what brass bands mean to (now former) mining communities; but anyone who has been to Durham Miners’ Gala, and seen bands from all across the country slowly play and process their way across the town, before marching in to the field where the gala is held, banners held aloft, can have no doubt about their continued significance. They are a symbol of working-class community and culture; of pride; of all that has been lost since the closure of the pits, but also of that which still remains. The collieries may have long since shut; but the bands play on.

Find out more about the Natalie’s research into mining communities here.

Posted in British History, Christmas 2019: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Special, News

Twelve Days of Christmas: Ten Lords a-Leaping

By Dr Elizabeth Matthew

On a summer’s day in 1189 a group of men rode swiftly to the quayside at Dieppe after a long journey from the Loire valley, two hundred and forty miles to the south. Keen to cross from Normandy to England with the least possible delay, they charged onto a boat waiting to transport them. Overloaded, the deck suddenly collapsed, pitching a tangle of splintering wood and falling bodies down into the hull. With quick reactions honed by over twenty years’ experience in tournament and battle, one man leapt forward to grasp a still intact deck strut. Catching firm hold at the cost of a wound to his leg, he hung by his hands above the heap of wreckage and broken limbs below.

This is just one of many vivid pictures recorded in the only surviving manuscript of what is now known as The History of William Marshal. Composed in the mid-1220s, this medieval precursor of the modern biopic covers the long career of its eponymous hero, famously described as ‘the best knight in the world’ (Le meillor chevalier del monde), in as much detail as possible in 19,214 lines of French verse.[1] Starting in the 1150s, when, as a younger son of a not particularly wealthy west Berkshire nobleman, the young William Marshal apparently charmed King Stephen with his fearless innocence as a child hostage, it is a career of special interest this year, the 800th anniversary of its conclusion, at Caversham, as regent of England (1216-19) for the young Henry III.[2]

William_Marshal[Image credit: William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, 1786, from Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain, Vol 1, by Richard Gough. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

The History’s description of William Marshal’s leap for the deck strut in 1189 deftly highlights the crucial metaphorical leap forward he was achieving at precisely this point. A few weeks earlier, in the service of Henry III’s grandfather, Henry II, the Marshal had had the opportunity, temerity—and skill—to unhorse the king’s heir, Richard, the future Lionheart, then in rebellion against his dying father. Succeeding to the English throne shortly after this incident, Richard, instead of avenging his humiliation, had rewarded the Marshal’s loyalty to the old king with the late twelfth-century equivalent of the jackpot in a lottery rollover—the hand of one of the wealthiest heiresses of the day. A key object of William’s journey to Dieppe was to secure his prize by marrying her forthwith—as he then did, in London, notwithstanding the disgruntlement of her guardian, Henry II’s justiciar, Ranulf de Glanville (d. 1190), famed for his association with the twelfth-century law treatise, Glanvill.

Through his marriage to the heiress, Isabel de Clare, only surviving child of Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare, aka Strongbow (d. 1176), earl of Pembroke and lord of Leinster, the Marshal leapt into lordship—and wealth—on an infinitely grander scale than he had achieved through the few grants he had hitherto acquired in royal service. His new lands straddled Wales and Ireland as well as England and Normandy. He did not forget Isabel’s role in making this metaphorical leap possible. The History relates that two decades later he reminded his men in the Irish lordship of Leinster that she was their ‘lady by birth’ (dame naturalment), adding ‘I have no claim to anything here save through her’ (Ge n’i ai rien si par lui rien).[3] Later she is named among his most trusted advisers (Cels en qui il plus se fiot) as he considered, on his deathbed, who should succeed him as Henry III’s protector and regent of England.[4]

William Marshal’s leaps in 1189, and the power they brought him, enabled the next generation to leap into alliances with royalty—all noted, directly or indirectly, in the annals of Reading Abbey.[5] The eldest of his and Isabel’s five sons (another William) married Henry III’s sister, Eleanor (later the wife of Simon de Montfort); one of their five daughters, Isabella, married the king’s brother, Richard earl of Cornwall; third son Gilbert married Margaret, sister of Alexander II, king of Scots.

Other leapers in English medieval history readily spring to mind: for instance, Edward II’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, leaping from his Gascon knightly family into the earldom of Cornwall, marriage to the king’s niece, and temporary regency of England in 1307; Michael de la Pole leaping from a mercantile background into the earldom of Suffolk in 1385 via service to Richard II; his grandson, William, leaping from the earldom to a marquessate, then a dukedom, at the court of Henry VI in the 1440s. Leaping from a much lower level in the post-Black Death era, yet another William, Clement Paston’s son, rose from the peasantry to reach the equivalent of baronial rank as justice of common pleas in 1429, marrying a knight’s heiress en route. The many parallels in the Church of course include merchant’s son, Thomas Becket, as chancellor, then archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II, and the surprisingly high proportion of English bishops (60%) who sprang from non-noble families in the fifteenth century.

The careers of those achieving dramatic upward social mobility did not always end well. The fates of Gaveston, Duke William of Suffolk and Becket (his canonisation notwithstanding) are all cases in point. But if not ten a penny, the leaping lords of medieval England were not rare birds, but many.


  • [1] History of William Marshal, ed. A.J. Holden, S. Gregory and D. Crouch, Anglo-Norman Text Society, 3 vols (London, 2002-6), l. 19072.
  • [2] See David Crouch, William Marshal (3rd edn, Abingdon, 2016); Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight (London, 2015). To mark the anniversary, the Caversham and District Residents Association recently installed an information panel summarising the Marshal’s career on the east side of Caversham Bridge:
  • [3] HWM, ll. 13535, 13544.
  • [4] HWM, l. 18036.
  • [5] Reading Abbey Records: a new miscellany, ed. Brian Kemp, Berkshire Record Society, 25 (Reading, 2018), 34–7.
Posted in British History, Christmas 2019: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Special, News

Twelve Days of Christmas: Nine Ladies Dancing

By Professor Emily West

The festive season provides a time and space for dancing (badly or otherwise), along with socializing, eating, drinking and celebrating. As befits a Christian celebration it also grants time for religious worship and quiet reflection. One might not immediately associate Christmas with the regime of slavery in the antebellum (c.1815-1861) US South. However, this was a strongly Christian society (ironically one in which slaveholders used Biblical references to enslavement to defend their ownership of others) based upon a largely rural and agricultural plantation system, where the seasonal religious and agricultural rhythms of the year defined people’s lives whether free or enslaved.

download.png[Image credit: Winter holidays in the southern states. Plantation frolic on Christmas Eve. DIGITAL FILE FROM B&W FILM COPY NEG. 1857]

Christmas generated much excitement, especially for white women of the slaveholding class. Their exploitation of enslaved women in domestic roles as childminders, cooks, waiting maids, cleaners, laundresses, and wet nurses enabled privileged white women to lead lives of genteel pleasures, in which socializing with their peers played an important role in cultivating female friendships, as well as for meeting potential suitors to court, and perhaps eventually marry. In her seminal work, The Plantation Mistress, historian Catherine Clinton describes how white slaveholding women and their daughters remained busy throughout December hosting and attending various dances and tea-parties. Such events provided opportunities to dress up, socialize and have fun, all of which came as a welcome relief for white plantation women who often lived in relative isolation from their peers.

Dancing was also important to enslaved people, with some, though not all, slaveholders permitting Christmas ‘frolics’ where they could dance, sing, and feast. Enslaved people enjoyed these festivities because, in a similar way to their religious beliefs, they served an important function in providing hope, dignity, and self-respect for people living under bondage. Enslaved people dressed up in their finest clothes, styled their hair, and enjoyed a temporary respite from the arduousness and monotony of their everyday lives.

However, as pointed out by authors including Robert E. May, Michael Mclean and Michael Twitty, festive frolics served the interests of enslavers, fostering their sense of their own alleged benevolence. They believed they treated enslaved people well through permitting festive ‘treats’ such as frolics, additional food, alcohol, visits to loved ones, and sometimes even small presents. But they did not indulge all their enslaved people this way, notes Robert May. Slaveholders’ belief in their own paternalism was more important than the reality. Moreover, white enslavers that nostalgic and self-serving Christmas memories later formed an important part of postbellum white reminiscences about the era of slavery, as pointed out by historian David J Anderson. He argues that authors writing during the era of the ‘lost cause’ (in which former enslavers lamented the loss of their regime) commonly (mis)remembered Christmas as a time enjoyed by both white slaveholders and their ‘grateful’ and ‘ faithful’ enslaved people.

Moreover, because Christmas frolics enabled enslaved people to meet, court, and ultimately marry members of the opposite sex, they also facilitated the eventual reproduction of the enslaved labour force. Enslaved people entered wedlock according to societal mores and expectations and often at Christmas time, even though US law denied them citizenship. Importantly, slaveholders were well aware that marriage (and reproduction within marriage) provided the easiest route to increasing their supply of property through the birth of valuable infants. So enabling dancing brought real long-term economic benefits for enslavers.

Christmas also quelled potential discontent. The former slave Frederick Douglass recalled in his 1845 narrative various Christmas festivities on his plantation including dancing, playing music, partaking in sports, and drinking whiskey. But he also believed that the festive season served as a ‘safety valve’ for slaveholders seeking to curb any potential rebellious spirit among their enslaved people. Chillingly, too, another key date in the annual cycle of slavery occurred at New Year, when enslavers often hired out or sold enslaved people, so separating families and shattering bonds of affection they exploited for their own pecuniary advantage. Essentially, Christmas conveys in microcosm the complexities of the slave regime and the multiple forms of exploitation and manipulation by enslavers. It also provided advocates of the ‘lost cause’ mythology with dangerous ammunition with which to foster their racist, benevolent tropes about the history of enslavement.

477px-Sketch_of_Douglass,_1845-crop[Image credit: Cropped version of A sketch of Douglass, from the 1845 edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

Further Reading:

Posted in British History, Christmas 2019: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Special, News

Twelve Days of Christmas: Eight Maids-a-Milking

Tales of Turning Milk into Wine and Festive Phlegm!
By Amie Bolissian McRae

main-image[Image credit: The Milkmaid, Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, Leiden, ca. 1493-1533 Leiden), 1510. Image from]

What would 17th century festivities have been without milk, cream, cheese, and butter? Milk and milk products were essential ingredients in English cooking during the early modern period, especially for sweets and desserts. Maids-a-milking, of any number, were vitally important to supply the kitchens of rich and poor alike. But during a time before we knew about calcium and bone-density, how healthy was milk thought to be? Particularly for those a little longer in the tooth? This blogpost will festively (not guaranteed) explore the relationships between milk and the health of ‘old folk’ in early modern England. It will feature not just cow’s milk, but also ‘women’s milk’, a common medicinal ingredient, and white wine – which was categorised by almost all medical authors as like ‘a wholesome milke’ for the aged.1

s3_V0020000_V0020363 (002)[Image credit: Old beggar woman with a gourd. Etching by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1629. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY]

My doctoral research, here at the University of Reading, looks at beliefs about the health of ageing people, and their experiences as patients, in the 16th to 18th centuries. I have recently been considering what sort of diet ‘old folke’ were encouraged to follow by the flourishing printed health literature of the time. Human bodies were believed to change substantially after the age of 45-50. They were thought to be colder, drier, with poor digestion, and clogged up with unhealthy liquid ‘humours’. Writers explained that these humours, such as ‘corrupted’ phlegm and black bile (melancholy) were why old people had wet rheumy eyes, and ‘doe nothing but cough and spet’.2  And okay, you may be wondering right about now where the ‘festiveness’ lies in all this, but for those of us who almost always come down with a cold ,the minute the winter holiday begins, there is nothing more reminiscent of Christmas than the production of phlegm.

Milk seller[Image credit: A female milk seller is offering two children milk from the metal pails she has unyoked and rested on the ground. Process print after L. Schiavonetti after F. Wheatley. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY]

What of the fresh, creamy milk that our korfball team (look it up) of milkmaids can provide for us? There is a popular and enduring myth in modern Western societies that milk produces mucus.3 If this idea stretched back to the early modern period, then surely old people, who were already on the phlegmy side, must have been encouraged to avoid milk? Well, as it happens, they largely were, and for that very reason. Most English health texts on this subject agreed that, while milk was wholesome for younger folk,  phlegmatic old people should stay away from it. One 17th century health text declared unequivocally that milk was ‘good for young and cholerick men, but bad for old’.4 John Floyer, writer of arguably the first English work on geriatric health, explained that ‘Milk breeds much Phlegm’.5 Milk was also cited as particularly bad for ‘cold stomachs’, which old people were thought prone to, and cold digestion meant foods like milk simply failed to ‘concoct’ properly, leaving undigested putrescent humours (Happy Christmas!).

s3_L0064000_L0064809[Image credit: ‘Tire-lait’ or breast reliever, Europe, 1701-1800. Credit: Science Museum, LondonCC BY]

The Cow’s milk from our second magic number (look it up) of milkmaids, was clearly not recommended for the elderly, but there was another source of milk that was thought very healthy for ‘the aged’. Breastmilk was believed to be particularly good for restoring the weakness or bad digestion of old people probably because of how successfully it nourished new-born babies. When it came to treatment advice, medical authors often drew parallels between infants and old people. It wasn’t just Shakespeare’s ‘Melancholy Jacques’ who believed that in the final stages of life, men and women reached a state of ‘second childishness’.6 Medical theory associated weakening older bodies with vulnerable infancy. ‘Woman’s milk’ was recommended both as a drink, and in remedies. It was also, incidentally, thought very good for wiping sore and infected eyes. If you didn’t have any ‘bloud of a dove’ handy, of course.7

s3_V0019000_V0019507[Image credit: An old man sits content with a glass in one hand and a tankard in the other. Engraving by F.A. David, 1774, after A. van Ostade. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY.]

If breast milk is not topping your list of festive ingredients for this holiday season, then the most commonly recommended ‘milk’ for old folks, might be more to your taste – and that is white wine. Yes, wine was thought so beneficial to ageing bodies that the Latin phrase ‘lac senum’, to mean as milk to old men, was widely used to describe wine. Until tea, coffee, and water became regular safe substitutions for fermented or distilled beverages, wine and beer were commonly drunk at all times of the day in this period.8 Wine was considered very nutritious. Diplomat and scholar Thomas Elyot, in his hugely popular sixteenth century work, The Castell of Helth, wrote of wine that “God did ordaine it for mankind, as a remedie against the incommodities of age, that thereby they should seeme to returne unto youth and forget heavinesse.”9

Why, exactly, did early modern medicine believe that wine was so beneficial for the elderly? Primarily, it was thought to warm the system. The medical books also describe how wine is ‘very agreeable’, for old people, as it promotes healthy sleep, ‘expells sadness and induces mirth’.10 Writers specifically recommended ‘yellow’ wine such as sack and canary as they were perceived as diuretic and capable of drying up all the elderly’s excess putrid phlegm (Merry Yuletide!). This special type of ‘milk’, therefore, was classified as incredibly healthy for older people, not just because it was warming, soporific and cheering, but also, according to the undoubtedly popular medical authors, mucus-busting.

Exploring how ageing bodies were historically perceived by medicine, in this way, is important for many reasons. It helps us understand how attitudes to old people and their place in society may have been affected by assumptions about physiological weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Medical writings that infantilized the elderly were at odds with philosophical texts that praised their sober wisdom. This contradiction was illustrative of what I am increasingly finding to be the profoundly paradoxical nature of the experience of ageing in early modern England. On top of this, we also now know that health writers would not have recommended that our Carbon allotropes-worth (seriously, not many things come in eights) of milkmaids share their dairy wares with the village elders.

However, if they had any connections in the wine trade they would have been more than welcome.

1. Hart, James, Klinike, or the Diet of the Diseased, (London: 1633), 123
2. Laurens, Andre Du, A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight: of Melancholike Diseases; of Rheumes, and of Old Age., (London: 1599), 174.
4. Durante, Castore, A Treasure of Health, (London: 1686), 173.
5. Floyer, John, The preternatural state of animal humours, (London, 1696), 49.
6. Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II Scene VII, 64.
7. Boorde, Andrew, The brevarie of health, 1587, f.86.r
8. See: A. Lynn Martin, ‘Old people, alcohol, and identity in Europe, 1300-1700’, in P. Scholliers (ed.), Food, Drink and Identity: Cooking, Eating and Drinking in Europe Since the Middle Ages (Oxford, 2001), 119-37, 120-122.
9. Elyot, Thomas, The Castell of Helth, corrected, (London: 1595), 51.
10. Riviére, Lazare, The Universal Body of Physick in Five Books (London, 1657), 235.
Posted in British History, Christmas 2019: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Special, News

Twelve Days of Christmas: Seven Swans a Swimming

By Professor Kate Williams

Seven swans a swimming – well, with giving this, our ‘true love’ was really buying us something rather expensive. Swans have always been luxury goods, a medieval Gucci handbag, if you will. In the medieval period, swans were status symbols, exchanged between noblemen as the centuries wore on, they became increasingly exclusive to royalty. Any top feast worth its salt had to have a swan as a centrepiece, especially at Christmas feasts. Ideally, you’d roast a few swans in their feathers and put a burning piece of incense in its beak. In 1251, Henry III ordered 125 swans for the Christmas feast for his court. Dining with the King in winter meant eating swan.

swan-4411514_1920[Image credit: Barbara Baldocchi from Pixabay.]

Swans were so important to aristocratic and royal status that they had to be marked, usually on the soft skin of the beak. Notches would usually be cut in, but there could also be initials or even heraldic devices. These ‘swan marks’ became the property of the government; they had to be bought at great expense and, following the law that only wealthy landowners could own swans, their use was restricted. Essentially, from the late fifteenth century, only the Crown, the very rich and some wealthy institutions such as guilds, universities and cathedrals were lucky enough to have their own flock of swans. Any spare swans wandering around were automatically seen as the Crown’s – and picked up by Swan Collectors. Swanmoots were special courts to discuss ownership of swans. As you see, Swans were terribly sought after and often stolen.

In Horace Walpole’s astonishing collection of books at Strawberry Hill, were two books of ‘Swan Marks’, on vellum, probably dating from the sixteenth century. Still, now, we have the annual Swan Upping ceremony on the Thames in early July, when the ‘Swan Uppers’ of the Queen and two guilds, Vintners and Dyers, travel the Thames to count the swans.

Swans looked fabulous and denoted wealth and power, particularly on private estates. Whether the swan was worth eating was another question. One rather disgruntled commentator in 1738 complained that goose was much better – swan was ‘blacker, harder, and tougher’ and was hard on the digestion as well as having ‘melancholic juice’…but ‘for its Rarity serves as a Dish to adorn great Men’s tables at Feasts and Entertainments, being else no desirable Dainty’.[1] Indeed, full grown Swan was deemed so unappealing that baby cygnets were taken and bred separately in a fenced pen, fed on barley, purely so they’d be tastier to eat. When Christmas was restored after Charles II came to the throne, people’s minds turned to Christmas and the earliest Christmas menu – a huge feast of meat – lists a ‘swan pie’ along with ‘powdered goose’ and ‘six eels, three larded’.

cygnet-4187515_1920.jpg[Image credit: Mabel Amber from Pixabay.]

The Empress Josephine created a grand garden at her estate at Napoleon, a tribute to him, a claim of the glories of Napoleon, who was vaunted as taking anything from anywhere. She had a menagerie of foreign animals, including emus, kangaroos and an orangutan who ate carrots at the table with her guests. But her prize was her black swans, brought over from an expedition to map the coast of Australia from 1800-1803 – a prelude to empire. Over 200,00 specimens of plants were taken to the Museum of Natural History and Josephine got the animals, packed up in pairs and fed on water and bits of fruit on the way, including her beloved pair of black swans. Some of the animals died, but the swans settled in their pond on the outskirts of Paris. Josephine adored the swans and saw them as her symbol even on chairs!

Armchair_Josephine,_by_Jacob,_Musée_de_Malmaison.png[Image credit: Armchair Josephine, by Jacob, Musée de Malmaison. Artist François-Honoré-Georges Jacob-Desmalter, Photograph by Jebulon. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]

The ‘Swan Song’ phrase comes from the notion, dating back to Aristotle and Socrates, that the swan sings better when it is nearing death. The Victorians were still eating swan, but it gradually fell out of fashion and now, of course, swans are protected. Until as late as 1998, killing a swan (that was not marked as your own) was still an act of treason. Now, it is simply illegal because they are protected. So, unfortunately, when your true love gives you seven swans, you probably should give them back. Along with everything else – the milkmaids, the dancing ladies and all of rest of it, as humans as gifts doesn’t really cut it anymore. But I think you can keep the geese.

[1] See Janet Kear, Man and Wildfowl (London, 1990)

Posted in British History, Christmas 2019: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas Special, News