An Easter celebration - 15th-century style - by Alex Marchant

As I’m writing this, it’s Easter weekend in the UK. A strange one, it must be said, owing to the unusual times we’re living in, but rather than dwell on the world of today, I thought I would delve back into past blog posts and past centuries. (That latter is something I’m finding increasingly soothing at the moment…) The following is an adapted post from a couple of years ago – with a link to a reading by myself of a snippet of my novel describing the Easter celebrations mentioned. (One of the things I have been doing in lockdown is trying to post readings of my work – though I’ve been let down by one IT device after another, until this slightly wobbly early attempt is the best I could manage before the relevant season disappeared into the past!)

1200px-Bg-easter-eggs wiki
(Image from Wikipedia)

Good Friday followed by Easter Sunday marks the end of Lent, the most solemn ‘festival’ in the Christian calendar, the 40 days leading up to when Jesus died on the cross and then is believed to have come back to life. In different places (Orthodox countries, for example), Easter is celebrated at different times, and many other places of course don't celebrate it at all. And where it is marked, different traditions are followed. The traditions I know are those I grew up with (in a largely non-religious family, but surrounded nonetheless by Christianity-infused, though mostly pagan-based, spring rituals). And my research for my first novel, The Order of the White Boar, taught me a little more about those traditions as they existed (or evolved) during the medieval period, under the watchful eye of the Catholic church.

Below (and here) you will find a short excerpt describing the Easter celebrations at Middleham Castle in 1483 - shortly before the lives of Matthew and Duke Richard of Gloucester (my leading characters) are rocked by the earthquake event that is about to come. But as I was eating my breakfast on Friday morning (hot cross buns, of course), my eye was caught by a sentence in the foodie magazine I was flicking through ( and I thought I'd share it with you too.

The spiced bake: Meera Sodha’s Jamaican Easter buns.
(Photograph: Rob White for the Guardian)

According to the writer, Meera Sodha, 'In 1592, Queen Elizabeth forbade bakeries in England to make any spiced buns except for burials, Easter Friday or at Christmas.'

Hot cross buns, one type of those spiced buns mentioned, are a British tradition. Eaten on Good Friday as a celebratory symbol of the end of the Lenten fast, they use several of those lovely ingredients (eggs, flour, butter, spice, dried fruit) that are forbidden to anyone devoutly following the rules (for the 40 days after the annual pancake feast on Shrove Tuesday that uses up the previous stock of some of them). And delicious they are too - so delicious that a German exchange student who once visited us at Easter-time couldn't get enough of them, and went home with several packs in her suitcase. (This year, 2020, she even posted an Instagram picture of a batch she had made following the recipe I emailed her later!)

Felicity Cloake’s hot cross buns with butter.
(Photograph: Dan Matthews/Dan Matthews (commissioned))

But that snippet of information about Queen Elizabeth I was news to me.

As a historical writer I should perhaps check its truth, but I'm pretty busy at the moment and - you know what? - as a supporter of King Richard III, I'm expected by many to always believe the worst of anyone in the Tudor dynasty, so I'm going to accept it without searching for the source. Because it fits with 'my view' of the Tudors perhaps? The view that they were less fun that the kings who went before, that they passed a lot of laws that penalized ordinary people, that they banned and proscribed things that people enjoyed, and ordered people around more than the previous Plantagenet dynasty? Well, not really. More to do with the fact that I really can’t be bothered, and that the snippet prompted this topical blog post.

Anyway, apparently the law may have been because such spiced buns were too special to be eaten all year round (and, like Felicity Cloake in the same issue of Feast, I agree and also used to 'rail, Canute-like, against the ever-earlier appearance of the hot cross bun each spring': However, in Jamaica no such law was passed - hence the first-mentioned recipe above, which can be eaten all year it seems.

And so to that other Easter delicacy: eggs. Most often they’re of chocolate nowadays - made from cocoa brought from the New World only in the sixteenth century. In Matthew's England, and many places still today, they were real eggs, and 'egg-rolling' and egg painting were Easter pastimes. Painting the eggs even developed into the fabulous jewelled Fabergé eggs of the early twentieth century.

faberge HistoricCreationsHomepage
(Image courtesy

Eggs are of course an ancient symbol of rebirth in spring, from long before the Catholic church itself was born. And they make an appearance in The Order of the White Boar in the spring of 1483, when both Matthew's and Duke Richard's lives changed for ever….

To see a reading of 'Easter 1483' on Facebook, please follow this link.

The excerpt is from Chapter 20 of The Order of the White Boar  and is also included in the anthology of short fiction sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK), Grant Me the Carving of My Name.

Easter 1483

The leaf buds were fattening on the trees and the first lambs appearing before the Duke returned from Pontefract.
He brought with him special sweetmeats from the local bakers to help us break our Lenten fast, after weeks of eating little more than fish from the river and castle ponds. Then, after the solemn Good Friday unveiling of the Cross and the Easter vigil, we pages begged eggs from the kitchens’ stockpiles, stored since Ash Wednesday. We boiled them hard in onion-skin dyes to roll them down the slopes in the Duchess’s pleasure gardens.

The squires looked on, with good humour or disdain, too old now for such childish pastimes. But, to my surprise, and to the laughter of the ladies who gathered to watch us, not only Masters Lovell, Ratcliffe and Kendall, and various other gentlemen, but Duke Richard himself joined us.
Each of the gentlemen had brought his own egg, except it seemed the Duke.
For a moment, there was disappointment on his face. Sir Francis declared, ‘Then this year I have a chance of winning.’
But the Duke called Alys forward from where she was waiting with the other ladies.
Her dimples showing, she stepped up to him, bringing from behind her back a small casket. As she lifted the lid, there, nestled in black velvet, was the largest egg I had ever seen. It was intricately painted with swirls of red, blue, green, gold, putting our home-dyed hens’ eggs to shame.
‘The swans of Pontefract obliged me,’ said the Duke, picking it up with a flourish.
He beckoned to his son, who had been fidgeting next to me as the scene played out and now leapt forward with sparkling eyes.
‘Come, Ed – help me. It is such a fine egg – we shall roll it together.’
So the Duke and his son swept all before them, not only racing the smaller eggs to the bottom of the slope, but surviving without so much as a hair’s crack.

Alex Marchant is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name and Right Trusty and Well Beloved…, two anthologies of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). 

Alex’s books can be found on Amazon at:
Instagram: AlexMarchantAuthor


Griselda Heppel said…
I love discovering odds and ends in history, and that snippet of information about Queen Elizabeth ! is intriguing. Perhaps at that point spices were extremely expensive? They certainly were later in history, when the British swapped a single tiny spice island for a marshy bit of the New World called New Amsterdam, and the Dutch seemed perfectly happy with the deal.
Queen Bess's rigour re hot cross buns brought me straight back to Bromyard, a lovely market town in Herefordshire, where my husband and I spent Easter 30 years ago. Even then, hot cross buns were sold in supermarkets all the year round, which is why we were stunned and disappointed (not to say ravenously hungry) to discover that the high street bakery had no intention of baking a single bun until Good Friday, when it opened specially just for that. Queen Elizabeth would have approved.
Lots of fun Easter facts here - thank you!

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