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Welcome to Living History Today. On this site I aim to share my fascination with everyday life in the past from the perspective of a practical multi period re enactor. It is slowly growing to span a wide range of centuries, skills and ideas.
It started because anyone can pick up a history book and find the clearly documented lives of the famous, but discovering how ordinary people lived is not as easy.  When I was teaching, it was never the important ‘facts’ that fascinated classes, but the details; what people ate, what their homes might have been like, and how they viewed the world. These are the sorts of issues that I hope to cover.
There won’t be that much on the fashions of the various periods for two reasons: there are already plenty of excellent resources available and several informative blogs, and also because for ordinary people fashion was not really an issue – the fact that ‘second best’ clothes are mentioned and passed on in wills indicates that until relatively recently in the nineteenth century clothes were worn until they wore out, not changed because they were no longer in fashion. What people wore in the country could lag decades behind the garments currently popular amongst fashionable londoners.
I do hope you enjoy cruising around the articles and would encourage you to explore different periods.

Cookham on Thames: the ‘lost’ monastery of Queen Cynethryth

Let me begin at the beginning. This is not my story, nor was I doing any of the digging. The discovery and the moment belong to Dr Gabor Thomas and his team of students from nearby Reading University’s archaeology department, ably assisted by members of the Marlow Archaeology Group.

For as long as I’ve lived near Cookham there have been local stories about lost buildings. These stories have ranged from a Roman temple, built to give thanks for a safe crossing of the relatively shallow and marshy river, to a grand Saxon royal hall and a monastery. There have been disappointing excavations around the immediate area, one of which around 2005 appeared to produce evidence that there had once been an inlet with, perhaps, a wharf* beside Cookham Holy Trinity Church.

Holy Trinity Church itself is interesting. Apart from being attractive in its own right as a later Medieval church it was the epicentre of Stanley Spencer’s creative artwork during the 20th century. If you walk around the outside there are what look very like a few Roman tiles well down in the courses. The stone is an attractive patchwork of local flint, clunch (shaped chalk blocks) and hand made brick. There is a ‘blind’ door in the North side, near a Norman tomb which has been (inaccurately) assumed to mark the final resting place of an anchorite who was walled in to pray for others for 11 years from 1170 until her death.

This year’s discoveries started on a wet and miserable day in Spring. The rain was relentless and the wet grass in the paddock by the church was still knee high but Dr Thomas’ enthusiasm was infectious. He knew what he was looking for as he checked ditches and bumps in the ground.

Fast forward to the Summer. It is extremely fortunate that the site, beside the church, has been an orchard and grazing in the past and hasn’t been under the plough. The magnetometry indicated areas of interest and some sizeable trenches were opened by the team.

I was lucky enough to be able to join one of the tours before the site was closed and the area returned to turf. If you try to visit today there is absolutely nothing to see and Queen Cynethryth’s monastery has been hidden again although there are hopes for further work next year.

The holes indicate post holes where vertical timbers were positioned

We were told that the initial conclusions drawn from the excavations is that there was a series of areas around the monastery – not divided as we tend to think with cloisters, infirmary and so on in the later medieval pattern – but with a central dwelling and then defined service areas, for food preparation, industrial use and living quarters. The areas were defined by ditches, some of which were found during the excavation. It will be fascinating to follow Dr Thomas’ conclusions as his team work to understand exactly what happened on the site as in the long term it is likely that our sketchy understanding of Anglo Saxon monasticism will be hugely enhanced by his discoveries.

The deeper trenches indicate a ditch running E-W

One of the trenches uncovered an area of burnt soil where it had also become reddened through activity which suggests that imported iron ore was worked and smelted there, perhaps to make items for the monastery. During the excavation, very near the final day, evidence was beginning to emerge of a surfaced pathway. This was further evidence of buildings that had been high status if such care had been taken to create a dry and levelled walkway.

There is always excitement in archaeology when a midden is discovered. This is the correct word for a rubbish heap, but what was once rubbish can today yield all sorts of answers about life in the past. In Cookham’s case it appears that the asceticism we associate with monastic life was not apparent in the Saxon period.

A wide range of animal bones collected throughout the site

There was a wide range of butchery evidence that suggests beef, venison, mutton, pork (or boar) and even goat were consumed. A few oyster shells were also discovered. Pottery shards may also yield further evidence in due course if it is possible to analyse the burnt remains.

So who was Queen Cynethryth? She may not be on everyone’s lips, but most folk have heard of her husband, King Offa who was responsible for the dyke that bears his name. The Mercian kingdom was based in the Midlands and over towards Herefordshire and at this point was powerful. The River Thames was a valuable asset as it allows goods to be transported with relative safety down to London. Wessex, also a powerful kingdom, abutted the Mercian lands and the Cookham area around the river was on the borderlands. Her origins seem rather vague: she figures as the villain in some local Herefordshire legends and there are all sorts of later stories about her dubious beginnings, but they are just that: stories. Whatever they were, she married Offa and produced an heir, Ecgfrith. At some point after this she became more important and started being named as the witness to his charters. The first dates to 770 C.E. 10 years later in 780 C.E. she is described as ‘Cynethryth, by the Grace of God, Queen of the Mercians’.

Alcuin of York (roughly 735-804 C.E.) who was described as ‘the most learned man anywhere to be found’, advised Ecgfrith, Cynethryth’s son, to follow the example his parents had set, especially the example of his mother’s piety. Alcuin was presumably knowledgeable about the Mercian court as he was entrusted as envoy to visit Rome and persuade the Pope to license York as an archbishopric. On his way home he visited and subsequently joined the court of King Charlemagne. On a different occasion Alcuin calls Cynethryth the ‘controller of the royal household’. What elevates her above other queens of this period is that she is the only one whose head appears on coinage. It is possible that Offa and Cynethryth had ambitions to marry their children into the family of Charlemagne which would have enhanced Mercian prestige but despite modelling themselves as a devout and noble Christian house they did not succeed in their ambition.

King Offa died in 796 C.E. His heir Ecgfrith died, equally of natural causes only a few months later. This ended the dynasty but left Cynethryth. She was already associated with founding monastic houses, being associated with one in Chertsey, down river from Cookham and Windsor. We know from the records that she retired to Cookham to take charge of the monastery there, and no doubt to control the river and its crossings in Mercian interests. She is mentioned in a synod of 798 C.E. when Athelhard the Archbishop of Canterbury settled a dispute over church lands but after that she, like her monastery, disappeared from record.

Quite why the monastery failed to flourish in succeeding centuries is still only a matter for conjecture. There was nothing in this excavation to suggest a dramatic ending even though we know that later on the Vikings went up the river past Cookham as far as Reading. Perhaps political interest simply shifted. Cookham remained a royal borough. The reason we know about Cookham Church’s anchorite is because she received one half pence per day for her upkeep from the royal purse though we know nothing else about her.

One of the metal veil pins uncovered at the site

Even though the monastery at Cookham enjoyed a brief spell of importance as the home of a queen the finds in the dry soil have been informative rather than valuable. There were a couple of metal veil pins, each a couple of inches long, an axe head, a halved and folded small silver coin from the reign of Edward the Confessor which suggests the place was still functioning in his reign. The tiny item that spoke most warmly to me was a tiny fragment of Saxon glass. One square centimetre of flat, greenish and unremarkable material – but exceptionally rare at this time and speaking volumes about the level of comfort and status that Queen Cynethryth must have enjoyed during her final years of retirement.

*The ‘wharf’ was uncovered again and proven to be a natural inlet from paleolithic times that had naturally dried and back filled centuries before the monastery was built. Queen Cynethryth and her contemporaries would have been unaware of it.

Pensthorpe Medieval Spectacular 2013: Hereward awakes

The end of August approaches. It’s been a busy year for events and this year things will not slow down with the approach of Autumn. The bank holiday long weekend sees the ninth multi period medieval event at Pensthorpe up in North Norfolk. This is a terrific event which has grown and developed year on year. This weekend the event is highlighting an English folk hero with roots in reality: Hereward the Wake. He lived in the mid 11th century, based somewhere around the then Isle of Ely, and led popular opposition to the Normans who had become the ruling class following the defeat of Harold and the Saxon army at the
Battle of Hastings in 1066.
When he was alive his nickname seems to have been ‘exile’ or ‘outlaw’, thought to have been imposed by the Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, for his unruly behaviour as a young man which forced him across the sea, perhaps to Flanders. In many ways his activities rival those of a later figure, Robin Hood, but whereas Robin has survived in popular myth and TV adaptation, Hereward has become a vague, mysterious character who receives little popular acknowledgement. The epithet ‘Wake’ was not recorded until much later, perhaps the 14th century and means watchful or wakeful – in other words that he was awake to the threat of change wrought by the Normans. At the time he lived the Fenland areas around Cambridgeshire and parts of Norfolk were sparsely populated, and the sudden mists and little known safe ways through the marshy area allowed him to operate a guerilla war against the Norman forces. According to legend he became violently opposed to the Normans after they murdered his brother and stuck his head on a spike, but since legend also entangles him with maidens, dragons and giants it is difficult now to know where fact ends and the embroidery of myth begins. Doubtless Pensthorpe will see both battles and myth from the storytellers this weekend.
As the event covers the whole of the Medieval period it is not only Hereward who will be celebrated. There will be Vikings and later medieval figures and the afternoons will host a formal joust which has become a popular finale to the day’s activities.

The Celts – Simplified

Obviously there are numerous and far more scholarly commentaries on the Celts than this will be, so for anyone looking for detailed information this will be a disappointment as it is intended for young school students. This is a simple introduction to a complex and still unfolding part of our history and I’ve set it out as the FAQs I get asked.
So who were the Celts? Read more…

Is This Lunch or Dinner?

I overheard this child’s innocent question when we were having lunch in a pub recently. The parent gave a vague answer, but little did they realise that this simple question opens a can of worms that involves History, Geography and that terrifying beast – social class in England. Until the early nineteenth century it would have been easier to answer. Read more…

Our Months and Days – the origins of their names


Although I tend not to subscribe to the view that the English have the Romans to thank for everything that smacks of early civilisation, they are the ones to thank for our way of working out the days of the year. Originally they calculated that a year should generally have 355 days in it, but that to average out occasional anomalies (things that didn’t fit) there should be an additional month of 22 or 23 days every two years. This system worked well for a time, Read more…

Mind your Manners – a look at late Medieval and Tudor mealtimes and The Banquet

Anyone who has ever seen an old film about the late Medieval/Tudor period can be forgiven for coming away with the idea that feasts were riotous chances to eat and drink far too much, as rowdily as possible. It would seem that everyone present tried to cram as much meat into their mouths as possible before hurling their bones at hungry dogs who prowled in the rushes on the floor. In fact, the only bit of this message that holds any truth at all are the rushes on the floor, and by Queen Elizabeth’s day rush matting which could be taken outside and shaken or swept was becoming far more fashionable. Read more…

Pensthorpe Medieval Spectacular 2012

This year has been a roller coaster for outdoor heritage events. The wettest drought in memory  led to many established events being cancelled as sites disappeared under water; spectacularly so at Kelmarsh when their Festival of History site flooded as particpants arrived to set up.

The main outdoor season, which tends to end with the Bank Holiday events, is poised to go out with a spectacular bang up in Norfolk. The well established Pensthorpe Medieval Spectacular promises to be the best ever.

Climax of the witch hunt at Pensthorpe 2012, with spectacular natural lighting for effect

An unforgettable moment in the 2012 Pensthorpe Medieval Spectacular. Photos: Black Knight Historical


Read more…

QAIMNS: Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service

Although QAIMNS (The Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service) was founded 110 years ago in 1902 its real origins lay further back in the nineteenth century and it owes a debt to Florence Nightingale. Read more…

2011; the year so far..

The start of May seems so far away now, but that was when this year’s events began for me. Read more…

Cutting a Quill: first catch your bird

The word pen comes from the Middle French for feather. A quill pen withstands a fair amoThe Lord's prayer in latin. Black ink and decorationrunt of pressure, so the best quills are those made from the flight feathers (primaries) of strong flying birds like geese or swans.  Once upon a time when these birds were eaten more regularly, the wings were a by product, so the feathers were readily available for use as dusters – many houses would have had a goose wing for dusting ledges – or to be used in the kitchen, or to be made into pens or brushes (the animal hair was bound and set into wax plugs and inserted into the hollow quill).

Realistically in the twenty first century the best option is to talk very nicely to a farmer at the local farmers’ market, especially before Christmas when they are likely to be preparing birds for sale and will often save a wing or two. If freshly killed, the wing joint is still quite rubbery and the feathers can be extracted cleanly using a sharp knife and brute force. This should not be undertaken by children.

I find it is then best to leave the feathers for a month or two as they will dry out and harden. They do run the risk of splitting when cut and shaped, but usually cut cleanly enough without snagging. Although pen knives were invented for exactly the purpose of cutting quill pens, I have found that with the right sharp scissors the job can be easier.

First find how the feather naturally fits to the hand: it should curl comfortably up and over the space between thumb and fingers. The outside of the feather’s curve is the upper side or point of the pen. Turn the feather so you have the underside towards you and with a safety board underneath, make one neat downward slice approximately 5mm long, ending at the feather’s tip. This will remove half the feather’s remaining natural point. Using a pointed edge, such as a kebab stick, scrape out the honeycomb of pith inside the feather and dispose of it.

Turn the feather over and make two opposing diagonal cuts, each starting about 5mm up from the tip and shaping the remaining feather nib in towards a point at the centre. If the cuts come to a point you will have a fine nib for delicate lettering and flourishes, but if you leave 1-2mm between the two cut edges you will have achieved a right handed italic nib for larger letters and broad strokes. Do note that lefthanders are penalised here. When a right handed person puts the nib to paper or parchment they automatically achieve an angle of 45 degrees which is perfect for writing. If a left handed person holds the nib in exactly the same way, only the edge of the nib will rest on the paper. For this group, an extra cut diagonally and obliquely away from the centre of the nib up and out to the left is needed to achieve the same angle of nib to paper.

Cut quills showing left and right handed nibs cut from feathers that curve comfortably over the hand

Cut quills showing left and right handed nibs cut from feathers that curve comfortably over the hand

We’re almost there. Only two things remain to do. The first is to harden the nib so that it doesn’t bend too easily and this is achieved most easily by holding a large old spoon full of sand over a candle so that it heats up and then plunging the nib into the sand. Alternatively, the old terracotta oil diffusers that have an indentation on the top for oil and take a night light are ideal. For anyone not considered an adult in law, please check first and get an adult to supervise as fires can easily be started by accident. Never try holding the newly cut nib over a naked candle for two reasons; firstly it doesn’t work – it just melts away all your effort and smells awful, secondly it can be dangerous.

Lastly, trim the feather off the spine to about half way up. Although you see quill pens with the feather intact, if you look closely at Medieval illustrations you will see that unnecessary feather was trimmed away. Not only does it tickle the hand otherwise, but if you do trim it properly you will end up with a beautifully balanced writing instrument that will balance effortlessly in the space between thumb and fingers.

There are those who maintain that the nib must be split in order to hold ink. By all means try this; it may work for you but doesn’t for me. Gall ink is fairly viscous, so the pen has to be dipped in it fairly frequently anyway. I find a split nib is simply more likely to sputter and drip. The important thing to remember when writing with a quill is that it isn’t something mass produced and inert, so you have to work with it. Downward pulling strokes are not only easier to do but allow the pen to work with you: upward strokes where the pen is pushed away are more likely to cause blots and the pen can protest. Also remember to lift and reposition the pen at the top of a stroke – something that is unnecessary with modern writing implements. The best advice, though, really is to go with the flow: students that have been really cautious and careful rarely make as good a job of writing as those who are relaxed and let the curves and shapes flow from the quill so simply relax and enjoy using the new pen.

When it starts to scratch and spit ink it will be time to recut and re harden the nib: just repeat the steps above. The quill will last for years if you are reasonably careful, although if you become a prolific writer then, like Charles Dickens you may need a devoted companion to sit beside you to constantly cut and sharpen your nibs.

Sample black letter alphabet showing broad down strokes. Flourishes are added last.

Sample black letter alphabet showing broad down strokes. Flourishes are added last.

This article is a companion to a previous item on making ink from oak galls and old iron nails: