Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Wimbledon, Hampton Court, Henry VIII and strawberries - anyone for tennis?

Silver server of strawberries, fit for Tudor formal dining or served alongside a Real Tennis court!

Wimbledon fortnight is upon us and the world’s attention is centred on that court, the aptly named Centre Court. And yet Wimbledon’s illustrious All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, to give it its current full title, owes its existence to a much earlier adopter of the sport of tennis in England. That game changer was no less than the 6ft 4inches, athletic, young King Henry VIII.

So not a million miles away from SW1, in fact less than ten miles distant, it is another other tennis court that fascinates. Henry was an enthusiastic proponent of the game of “real tennis”, a worthwhile pursuit among the noble class that was designed to  “...chase idleness , virtue’s mortal enemy…”. After playing on the indoor court at Hampton Court Palace- for it was an indoor game - how would Henry have refreshed himself after vanquishing all the finest players in his noble entourage?

One inch dolls house fruit, handmade strawberries for Medieval, Tudor, Regency luxury dining

Why, with some strawberries of course! MedievalMorsels has modelled the very same and arranged the trophy fruit on an ornate plate resembling the Ladies allcomers challenge trophy. Strawberries were a tricky plant from which to grow fruits in any quantity or size. Probably Tudor strawberries were no bigger than today’s wild Alpine strawberries. But other delicious garden summer fruits would make a thirst quenching and natural sugar laden post-set snack. Henry would have uppermost on his mind the exotic varieties of cherries, peaches, plums and apricots - all carefully tended by his gardeners, grown from new varieties imported from the Low Countries (Belgium and Flanders) and Italy in particular. And MedievalMorsels takes pleasure in modelling these too.

Dollshouse miniature food, summer cherries at 1:12 scale from MedievalMorsels

Twelfth scale peaches for a period dolls house, miniature dollhouse fruit by MedievalMorsels
One inch scale dollhouse fruit, plums of all types for a Medieval, Tudor or modern rustic dining scene

It was Cardinal Wolsey who actually built Hampton Court Palace with its real tennis court. But he had not long been in possession of it than he was rapidly falling out of royal favour. He had still failed to secure a Papal anulment for Henry’s 26 year marriage to his brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon. With no male heir Henry planned, of course, to marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey made Henry a present of Hampton Court, which he had built between 1526 -1529.

Fast forward just a few years and it is said, on Hampton Court Palace’s website no less, that Henry’s second wife - Anne Boleyn - was gambling on a game of (real) tennis when she was arrested to be taken to the Tower of London. She even complained that she couldn’t collect her winnings! Whether we are really to believe this I cannot say...

Although it looks like a strange combination of tennis and squash, according to The Royal Tennis Club “the techniques, strategies and rules are more complex than for the modern derivatives”. Each ball contains a core wrapped around with some thirteen yards of webbing in half inch widths, and in fact many balls in use today started their life over a century ago but have been re-covered! The tennis racquets are usually made from hickory or ash with sheep gut still commonly used for the strings. The curious shape of the head of the racquet is designed to help the player to cut the ball by having a large area of strings across which a ball can sweep diagonally. By contrast today’s lawn tennis players employ top-spin.

Real tennis is the original indoor racquet sport from which the modern game of tennis is descended. It only acquired its ‘real’ tag at the end of the 19th century to distinguish it from the new-fangled ‘lawn’ tennis. The number of real courts has actually risen in the last thirty years. There are now 27 in Britain, 10 in the USA, 3 in France and 6 in Australia. Despite there being no more than a few thousand real tennis players in the world, they make up in keeness for any lack in numbers, organising professional and amateur tournaments practically all year round.

“The Club”  that has given rise to the current Wimbledon tournament however was founded some three centuries later in 23 July 1868 but at the height of a croquet craze! The then-infant sport of Lawn Tennis was introduced in 1875, when one lawn was set aside. The first tennis Gentlemen's Championship in Singles was held in July 1877. Wimbledon’s present Centre Court, built in 1922 upon the move of the Club, was not actually in the centre at the time it was built, but it is so now. British viewers will be eager to follow Andy Murray’s progress especially as he has just won a grass warm-up tournament at Queens for a record fourth time, but lets hope all the ‘great’ players, newcomers, ‘wild cards’ and  underdogs alike have a splendid Wimbledon this year. Some of my favourite players have been Arthur Ashe, Ilie Nastase, John McEnroe and Miloslav Mečíř - players of touch before the advent of the power game, double handed backhands and power racquets (do I mean rackets?).  

With its retractable roof and flood lighting, modern Centre Court is equipped to deal with rain and the failing light of late running matches - remember there is no tie-break in a final set at Wimbledon! Rain never posed a problem for real tennis players, the grilled window in one wall, through which light, but not rain poured, was a featured “hazard” attracting penalties if you hit it. Now if anyone can explain real tennis in simple terms, I’d be surprised. Cambridge University Real Tennis club describes it thus “...subtlety and thought are more prized than power and fitness. It is played in an asymmetrical court which contains many unusual features, sloping roofs, openings (galleries) in the walls and a main wall which has a kink in it (tambour) so the ball on hitting the sloping face moves across the court instead of continuing down the line of the main wall. It has the classic elements of warfare where a failed attack is punished by a counter-attack.”

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Magna Carta, Bad King John and Lampreys

A dish of lampreys fit for a King or Queen, 12th scale period dollhouse food by MedievalMorsels
June 15 th 2015 is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta! That is to say the anniversary of King John agreeing to attach his Royal Seal to the historic document. To be honest, the term Magna Carta (great charter) may be more significant to your average American than your average Brit. But I suspect there will be plenty of media attention in the UK and perhaps we will trawl up memories of mostly forgotten history lessons….What’s the fuss, was King John really so bad and why might our American cousins be more enamoured of this anniversary than we can truthfully  admit? And what on earth do lampreys have to do with it?
King John and his second wife Queen Isabella by Angeliqueminiatures, about to set upon their lamprey feast!

A lattice pie by MedievalMorsels filled with John's favourite food, lampreys! Medieval dollshouse one . food
King John was not a good man, not at least according to A A Milne (he of Winnie-the-Pooh fame) in his poem written in 1927. In this enchanting verse we grow to feel sorry for King John as he anticipates no presents again in his stocking at Christmas! Whilst all the time he  really does want a big, red,  India rubber ball. Charming and anachronistic, I had a copy of Milne’s poetry anthology “Now We are Six” on a suitable birthday! Why did people revile him?
England's crown passed to "bad" King John (1167-1216) on the death of his brother, Richard so-called Lionheart. John had  earlier tried to “usurp” the crown while Richard was away doing what he liked best, fighting battles overseas. So he wasn’t trustworthy then. The mighty Barons of England’s shires saw that John abused his power as monarch. Through his outrageous behaviour John had managed simultaneously to alienate all three orders of Medieval society in his realm. First, the powerful nobility - the barons and lesser nobles. Second, the Church - for six years of his rule the Pope ordered churches to be closed and finally he excommunicated John. And last, the remaining 90% of the population, John’s unfair rulings had alienated the peasants. Exasperated the Barons took London and invited Prince Louis, heir apparent to the King of France, to rule England. John was at Windsor Castle and both factions met at Runnymeade on the River Thames to negotiate terms. Such was their mistrust,  the Barons were not going to let him leave without signing. On 19 June 1215, with the Seal presumably affixed by court officials, the Barons then finally swore their allegiance to John.

 Louise Goldsborough Bird creates historically accurate 12th scale dolls, MedievalMorsels can supply their favourite foods!
Magna Carta was without precedent, drawn up to protect all “free” men by calling on the law, and fair judgement by equals (a jury as we would now say). And no longer to be subject to the whim of the power crazed, autocratic and selfish King John. Clause 39 states that “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”  The "villeins" or unfree tenants were excluded, technically they fell within the jurisdiction of their lords.
In essence most of Magna Carta’s 63 clauses granted by King John, under duress he would later argue, dealt with specific grievances relating to his rule. The Barons sought to make the despotic King John subject to the law of the land, but within three months of attaching his seal John petitioned the Pope for its anulment. After John’s premature death however the Baron’s swiftly resurrected an updated Magna Carta. Although nearly a third of the text was deleted or substantially rewritten within ten years, and almost all the clauses have been repealed in modern times, Magna Carta remains a cornerstone of the British constitution. Some of Magna Carta’s core principles, Clause 39 in particular, are echoed in the United States Bill of Rights (1791) and in many other constitutional documents around the world, as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950).  

The same King John loved to eat lampreys, eel like fish which happened to be a favourite dish of earlier  English Royal courts. Some centuries before, King Henry I (1068-1135) was also known for his lust of eating them, reportedly dying from a "surfeit of lampreys" as one chronicler elegantly put it. This befell that particular monarch on a hunting trip to France and since, like most early  English monarchs, Henry was really more French than English perhaps a gastronomic death in France was fitting! Most historians believe that he died from food poisoning, but quite possibly it was the lampreys "wot did it ".

Well, the same fate befell quite plausibly befell King John. Soon after learning his baggage “train” and its treasure including his crown jewels were lost in the Fenland marshes he too sucumbed to food or some other more sinister poisoning, dying at Newark Castle. Whether his last meal included the exceptionally fatty and highly indigestible lamprey Medieval chroniclers do not say, but I imagine they were easy to trap in the marshes and we know that he often called ahead for such a dish of lampreys to be prepared and even brought out to meet him as he approached a town on his "Royal Progress".
So great was the demand for lampreys during his reign, that John issued a mandate to the sheriffs of Gloucester, where the best were to be found, forbidding the first lampreys of the season to be sold for any more than two shillings a piece. This sounds very expensive indeed! According to the Royal Cookbook, King John also levied a fine of 40 marks (a mark was about two third of a pound) on the city of Gloucester for failing to "pay him sufficient respect in the matter of his lampern." Perhaps they had forgotten him at Christmas?! Or to send a lamprey pie to meet him at the city gate. Embarrassing because his first wife, before acceding to the throne, was Isabella of Gloucester. Perhaps the bad temper levelled at Gloucester really arose because he wanted to divorce her for a younger bride now he was to be King Notably the very beautiful and much younger Isabella Countess of Angouleme, France.
Queen Isabella, Countess of Angouleme, may not have shared her husband's enthusiasm for lampreys

Unlike other fish, the lamprey has no scales, jaws, gill covers or bony skeleton. Fossil evidence has shown lampreys date from before dinosaurs, evolving some 250 million years ago and belonging to a near-extinct family of jawless fishes. So now for some unpalatable natural history about the ancient sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus). A lamprey's downward slanting mouth consists of a large, tooth-lined sucking disc. Once it has latched onto the side of another fish, the lamprey opens a hole in its host by wiping its raspy tongue across the skin. The parasite (because that is what a lamprey is!) then secretes an anticoagulant that keeps this wound open so that the lamprey can feed on the prey's blood and tissue.