She wasn’t sure when it started, the furtive stares of the village elders when they thought she didn’t see (but oh, she saw them); the whispered mutterings of the more timid children as they carefully crossed the cobbles to avoid her, even stepping into the rubbish and shit strewn runnel in their haste. Then there were the brushed aside skirts of the other women at the markets, their haughty turned-up noses, as if she had an odour to her, which unlike their unwashed bodies, she in truth did not. But it had begun again, there was no doubt. Someone, somehow, had found out her secret, which meant only one thing.
It was time, once again, to up sticks and move, before it became a case of ‘did she fall, or was she pushed?’ when the Summoner was called to investigate her death.
Before gathering her few possessions together, she decided to call one last time at the apothecary to replenish her stores, and to say farewell. In her months in the village they had developed a close friendship based on a shared love of herbalism, a distaste for the bleedings and unhygienic methods of the local barber-surgeon and physickers, and a fondness for fine food and wine. She knew him too for a kind man; as an ex-soldier, and she suspected perhaps of noble birth, but content to make his way out of the world, not one to make judgements, or prone to pay attention to the tattle of the more ignorant and unintelligent villagers.
She opened the door, stepping onto the floorboards, scrubbed almost to whiteness, so clean they were, and smelled the wonders of familiarity.
This… this was home.
“Ah – Mistress Holly. It is good to see you”, a voice rang out cheerfully, and she turned, putting a jar of ginger carefully back down onto the counter, and attempting to smile back at Master Guy, and return his greeting in the same tone.
“Master Guy. I thank you. It is equally good to see your friendly face, on this cold January day.”
He looked at her carefully. He was well aware of the rumours regarding her reputation, and paid them no credence, yet from her strained, taut expression, even though she tried hard to hide her fears from him, as good manners dictated, it was evident the fear campaign was telling on her.
“May I assume you are here to invite me to another of your delicious dinners? Or perhaps to consult with me about someone who is in need of your herbal knowledge and care?”
She attempted a smile, but her brow clouded, and her eyes filled.
“Alas, no… I am here to restock my herbs, my spices, before I leave. I must – I must make a visit to my distant relations. They are in sore need of assistance, as their young boy has the sweating sickness.”
He knew she was telling an untruth, perhaps the only one she had ever uttered, and yet he did not press her. Gallantly, he simply said “well, then, I have no doubt your presence shall revive him as no other simple or remedy could. Perhaps, your wondrous gingerbread could be pressed into service – I know that it is enough to make me feel a new man, almost of an instant, it seems at times!”
She stared at him, and suddenly, without warning or a word, went white, and fainted dead away onto the white-scrubbed floorboards, the jar of ginger clutched in her hand, which smashed as she fell, leaving a halo of glassine blood around her long, long, unbound red hair.
When Holly came to, she was in an unfamiliar room, tucked up between cool, heavy linen sheets. Her head ached, but the bed was warmly comfortable, she could hear the crackle of logs burning, and smell the sweetness of applewood. She turned on the pillow, and saw, sitting next to the bed, drowsing, head on hand, the figure of Guy.
“Master Guy…” she tried to say, but the words were blurry, somehow.
“Mistress Holly – I apologise for my unseemliness in being alone in your chamber – or rather my chamber – but I thought it best to not move you further than necessary, as you had injured your scalp, and I was unsure as to whether you had perchance also injured your wits in the faint. We know so little about the workings of the mind, that I feared for you. You were” – and here he hesitated – “speaking of many strange things.”
She knew what he was referring to, and closed her eyes, just for a moment.
Then she opened them again, to find him offering her some water. She took a sip, gratefully, and then tried to speak again.
This time, the words came more easily. When he attempted to stop her, for her own ease, she put up a hand, in an imperious, almost queenly gesture which reminded him suddenly of someone (who was it?) and began to talk, rapidly and clearly.
“It was the mention of the gingerbread, I expect. You see, that is why I am leaving. Oh, I have no doubt you have heard the rumours by now; I have no doubt the hunt is beginning, that the men and dogs are almost at my door, pitchforks and torches in hand, ready to take me on their rail to be tried as a witch. So in bringing me to your chamber, you could not possibly wreck any reputation save your own.
“Mine is already past redemption.”
He offered her more water, his eyes never leaving her thin white face; her mesmerising, not quite beautiful, oddly arresting face, with its cat’s green eyes and that long, auburn red hair.
“I was brought up – well, it doesn’t matter where. Suffice to say in a noble household; but never acknowledged as of truly noble birth, for good and rational reasons, to be sure. This did not bother me, for I was happiest by far in the garden, and hunting, and hawking, and learning my Latin and astronomy; all things that women are not to be interested in.
“I could not sew to save my own life. Samplers bore me to sleeping. My saving grace in the womanly arts is an interest in cooking, as you are well aware.
“It also proved my downfall.”
She drew a deep breath.
“I was particularly skilled with the ginger spice. My – my father, when he visited me, which was not often, was very fond of sweetmeats, and he particularly enjoyed my gingerbread. So, thinking to please his gra– his gracious self, I bethought it would suit him to make a house of the gingerbread, and put within it the figures of his children – his younger daughter, and his son, with whom he was well pleased.”
And Guy suddenly realised exactly who Holly looked like, and who her father was, and he began to understand just why she lived in so much fear.
She hesitated for a moment.
“My father did indeed love the gingerbread creation. He shouted, and laughed, and called me his most beloved poppet. But he was not” – and she hesitated again – “by this stage of his life, the most moderate of men, and thus ate perhaps a little too greedily, though I should not say that, for he had been hunting all day, and of course had worked up a most prodigious appetite. But… but he did eat with eagerness, and he – he began to choke on the figure of his son, and it seemed he would die of an apoplexy, until I thought to hit him hard, on his back, and the figure flew from his mouth with a great whooshing, and landed on the table.
“But he was sore embarrassed, and humiliated.”
She looked squarely at him.
“And nobody must embarrass a man of great stature, must they, Master Guy? Especially not an ungrateful bastard child. It was also seen as an omen, that he – he had choked on the poppet of his only son, his heir. I heard them start to speak of me as a witch.
“And so I ran”, she ended simply. “I started running, and I have not yet finished, and by your good graces, once my head has mended a little, I shall run again.”
Guy understood, and yet his heart would not let her go. For as she spoke, he knew he wanted more than anything to protect this woman, for it was not of her doing that the fat, vindictive buffoon who sat on the throne, who had nearly ruined England with his wars and his taxes, who had left a trail of illegitimate children across the country, had almost died from stuffing his gob with gingerbread.
“Your only fault, as I see it, lady, is in being too good a cook for a man to resist eating at a moderate pace. Now, I suggest you gain some rest, and on the morrow, we shall have the banns called, for surely we are both beyond anything other than to become man and wife with your residence in my chamber. As the fifth and most decidedly the least son of the Seymours, I doubt greatly that I may be able to offer you more than my herbal stores in worldly endowments, but I can most definitively offer you the protection of my name.
“Oh”, he said off-handedly, sweeping her a court bow as he walked from the room, doffing an imaginary cap, and grinning, as he straightened, “there is also the fact I love you. You, and your gingerbread.
As she lay there, red-cheeked from her blushing, there echoed along the cobbles outside a great galloping of horses, and then an enormous bashing at the door of Guy’s house.
Her heart leapt in her throat. They had found her. They had found her, and she was going to the Tower… oh sweet Lord, please, no…
She heard raised voices, and then a pounding up the stairs. Frantically, she tried to hide, but there was nowhere. Suddenly, from nowhere, the bells of the village church began to ring.
No – not ring; toll.
And Guy returned to the room, looking both grim and elated at the same time.
“It seems, Mistress Holly, our plans to wed shall have to wait until we reach Whitehall. For the king –”
– and she felt her heart drop, drop as her head would drop, drop to the crowd’s hungry hands –
“has requested your presence. King Edward, your half-brother, that is. For your father, the greedy ham, is dead. Edward, our beloved sovereign, and your half-sister the Lady Elizabeth, have great need of your company. And, it seems, my own disguise has been removed. I am once more required to report to my duties as Gentleman of the Privy Chamber with his new Grace.”
He looked at her, and grinned.
“Don’t forget to make some gingerbread for our journey, will you, Holly, my love?”
A Tudor gingerbread recipe:
“Gyngerbrede. — Take a quart of hony, & sethe it, & skeme it clene; take Safroun, pouder Pepir, & throw ther-on; take grayted Bred, & make it so chargeaunt that it wol be y-lechyd; then take pouder Canelle, & straw ther-on y-now; then make yt square, lyke as thou wolt leche yt; take when thou lechyst hyt, an caste Box leves a-bouyn, y-stykyd ther-on, on clowys. And if thou wolt haue it Red, coloure it with Saunderys y-now.”
One pound of honey (approximately 450 grams). Something made with a flavoured flower blossom is more authentic, but feel free to use your favourite. Just remember the final gingerbread is affected by the flavour of the honey you choose.
Bread Crumbs: up to a pound, (approximately 450 grams) maybe more, maybe less. These must be unseasoned bread crumbs, though either white or wheat, or a combination, is fine.
Be sure they are finely ground and not soft in any way.
Ginger (optional – yes, really): up to one tablespoon.
Cinnamon: up to one tablespoon.
Ground white pepper: up to half a teaspoon.
A pinch of saffron, if desired, but not essential
A few drops of red food colouring, also optional.
Bring the honey to the boil and skim off any scum. Keeping the pan over a very low heat, add the spices, adjusting the quantities to suit your taste. Add the food colouring “if you will have it red.”
Then begin to slowly beat in the bread crumbs. Add just enough bread to achieve a thick, stiff, well-blended mass.
Remove from the heat, and turn the mixture onto a lightly greased (cooking spray works fine) square or rectangular baking sheet or shallow pan, half to an inch (2.5cm) thick.
Take a rolling pin and spread the gingerbread evenly out into the pan. Allow to cool.
Turn the pan over onto wax paper or baking paper, and tap gently until the gingerbread falls from the pan.
Turn the gingerbread over once again, then cut into small squares or diamonds to serve. Decorate with small leaves (real or candy) attached to each piece with a clove.
With thanks to James L Materer for the recipe. It comes from a fifteenth century manuscript.
Kato’s Handy Historical Notes for Nerds:
Henry VIII was known for both his gluttony, his terrible temper and unpredictability, and his siring of several illegitimate children. Two of these, although never officially acknowledged as such, were Mary Boleyn’s children – yes, Anne’s sister – Catherine and Henry Carey. Mary was his mistress prior to Anne becoming his wife. Henry later became first Baron Hunsdon, amongst a string of other titles, a member of Elizabeth the First’s Privy Council, and his sister Catherine, one of Anne of Cleves’ ladies-in-waiting, became a lady of the Privy Chamber to the self-same regent; their cousin and probable half-sister Elizabeth.
They were both generally known to be favourites with their royal relative.
Ginger was a familiar ingredient in Tudor kitchens. It was used to treat sickness, as a preservative, and as a flavouring, for curries were already a favourite of the British palate.
Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547. He was 55. It is thought he died of chronic heart failure. By that stage of his life, he was morbidly obese, most probably suffering from Type 2 Diabetes, and often wheeled around the corridors of Whitehall in a little cart, and lifted between the floors of the palace inside the walls in a sort of dumb waiter by four of his gentlemen of the Privy Chamber.