Nov 252018

Today is the birthday (1638) of Catherine of Braganza, queen consort of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1662 to 1685, as the wife of Charles II. She was the daughter of John IV, who became the first king of Portugal from the House of Braganza in 1640 after overthrowing the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs in Portugal.

Negotiations for the marriage of Catherine and Charles began during the reign of Charles I, were suspended during the Commonwealth, and then renewed immediately after the Restoration. On 23rd June 1661, in spite of Spanish opposition, the marriage contract was signed. In the contract, England secured Tangier (in North Africa) and the Seven Islands of Bombay (in India), trading privileges in Brazil and the East Indies, religious and commercial freedom in Portugal, and two million Portuguese crowns (about £300,000). In return Portugal got assurance of British military and naval support in its fight against Spain and liberty of worship for Catherine. She arrived at Portsmouth on the night of 13–14th May 1662, but was not visited there by Charles until 20th May. The following day they were married in Portsmouth at two ceremonies – a Catholic one conducted in secret, followed by a public Anglican service.

On 30th September 1662 Charles and Catharine entered London as part of a large procession, which included the Portuguese delegation and many members of the court. There were also minstrels and musicians, among them ten playing shawms and twelve playing Portuguese bagpipes, Catharine’s favorite instruments. The procession continued over a large bridge, especially designed and built for the occasion, which led into the palace where Henrietta Maria, the queen mother waited, along with the British court and nobility. This was followed by feasting and firework displays.

Catherine had been brought up in a convent, secluded from the world, and was scarcely a wife Charles would have chosen for himself. The queen mother wrote that she is “The best creature in the world, from whom I have so much affection, I have the joy to see the King love her extremely. She is a Saint!” In reality, Catherine’s personal charms could not draw Charles away from the society of his mistresses, and in a few weeks after her arrival she became aware of her position as the wife of a licentious king.

Little is known of Catherine’s own thoughts on the match. While her mother plotted to secure an alliance with England and thus support in Portugal’s fight for independence, and her future husband celebrated his restoration with his mistresses, Catherine’s time had been spent in the seclusion of her convent home, with little opportunity for fun or frivolity. Even outside the convent her actions were governed by the strict etiquette of the royal court of Portugal. By all accounts Catherine grew into a quiet, even-tempered young woman.

At the time of her marriage she was already 23 and had long since resigned herself to the necessity of making a match abroad to help her family and country. Catherine’s response on being told of her impending nuptials was to request permission to make a pilgrimage to a favorite shrine of hers in Lisbon. Catherine became pregnant and miscarried at least three times, and during a severe illness in 1663, she imagined, for a time, that she had given birth. Charles comforted her by telling her she had indeed given birth to two sons and a daughter. Her position was a difficult one, and though Charles continued to have children by his many mistresses, he insisted she be treated with respect, and sided with her against his mistresses when he felt she was not receiving the respect she was due. After her three miscarriages, it seemed to be more and more unlikely that the queen would bear an heir. Royal advisors urged Charles to seek a divorce, hoping that the new wife would be Protestant and fertile – but Charles refused. This eventually led to her being made a target by courtiers. Throughout his reign, Charles firmly dismissed the idea of divorcing Catherine, and she remained faithful to Charles throughout their marriage.

Catherine was not a particularly popular choice of queen since she was Roman Catholic. Her religion prevented her from being crowned, as Catholics were forbidden to take part in Anglican services. She initially faced hardships due to the language barrier, the king’s infidelities and the political conflicts between Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Over time, her quiet decorum, loyalty and genuine affection for Charles changed the public’s perception of her.

Although her difficulties with the English language persisted, as time went on, the once rigidly formal Portuguese Infanta mellowed and began to enjoy some of the more innocent pleasures of the court. She loved to play cards and shocked devout Protestants by playing on Sundays. She enjoyed dancing and took great delight in organising masques. She had a great love for the countryside and picnics; fishing and archery were also favourite pastimes. In a far cry from her convent-days the newly liberated Catherine displayed a fondness for the recent trend of court ladies wearing men’s clothing, which we are told, “showed off her pretty, neat legs and ankles”; and she was even reported to have considered leading the way in wearing shorter dresses, which would show off her feet. In 1670, on a trip to Audley End with her ladies-in-waiting, the once chronically shy Catherine attended a country fair disguised as a village maiden, but was soon discovered and, due to the large crowds, forced to make a hasty retreat. And when in 1664 her favorite painter, Jacob Huysmans, a Flemish Catholic, painted her as St Catherine, it promptly set a trend among court ladies.

She did not involve herself in English politics, instead she kept up an active interest in her native country. Anxious to re-establish good relations with the Pope and perhaps gain recognition for Portuguese independence, she sent Richard Bellings, later her principal secretary, to Rome with letters for the pope and several cardinals. In 1669 she involved herself in the last-ditch effort to relieve Candia in Crete, which was under siege by the Turks and whose cause Rome was promoting, although she failed to persuade Charles to take any action. In 1670, as a sign of her rising favor with the pope she requested, and was granted, devotional objects. In 1670 Charles II ordered the building of a Royal yacht HMY Saudadoes for her, used for pleasure trips on the Thames and to maintain communications with the Queen’s homeland of Portugal, making the journey twice.

Catherine fainted when Charles’s official mistress, Barbara Palmer was presented to her. Charles insisted on making Palmer Catherine’s Lady of the Bedchamber. After this incident, Catherine withdrew from spending time with the king, declaring she would return to Portugal rather than openly accept the arrangement with Palmer. Clarendon failed to convince her to change her mind. Charles then dismissed nearly all the members of Catherine’s Portuguese retinue, after which she stopped actively resisting, which pleased the king, however she participated very little in court life and activities.

In 1675 the stress of a possible revival of the divorce project indirectly led to another illness, which Catherine’s physicians claimed was “due as much to mental as physical causes”. In the same year, all Irish and English Catholic priests were ordered to leave the country, which left Catherine dependent upon foreign priests. As increasingly harsher measures were put in place against Catholics, Catherine appointed her close friend and adviser, the devoutly Catholic Francisco de Mello, former Portuguese Ambassador to England, as her Lord Chamberlain. It was an unusual and controversial move but wishing to please Catherine and perhaps demonstrate the futility of moves for divorce, the King granted his permission. De Mello was dismissed the following year for ordering the printing of a Catholic book, leaving Catherine even more isolated at court. One consolation was that Louise de Kérouaille, duchess of Portsmouth, who replaced Barbara Palmer as reigning mistress, always treated Catharine with proper deference. Catharine in return showed her gratitude by using her own influence to protect Louise during the Popish Plot.

The Test Act of 1673 had driven all Catholics out of public office, and anti-Catholic feelings intensified the following years. Although she was not active in religious politics, in 1675 Catherine was criticized for supposedly supporting the idea of appointing a bishop to England who, it was hoped, would resolve the internal disputes of Catholics. Critics also noted the fact that, despite orders to the contrary, English Catholics attended her private chapel. As the highest-ranking Catholic in the country, Catherine was an obvious target for Protestant extremists, and it was hardly surprising that the Popish Plot of 1678 would directly threaten her position. The Popish Plot was a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates that gripped England and Scotland in anti-Catholic hysteria between 1678 and 1681. Oates alleged that there was an extensive Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II, accusations that led to the executions of at least 22 men and precipitated the Exclusion Bill Crisis. Eventually Oates’s intricate web of accusations fell apart, leading to his arrest and conviction for perjury.

Fortunately, Catherine was completely secure in her husband’s favor (“she could never do anything wicked, and it would be a horrible thing to abandon her” he told Gilbert Burnet), and the House of Lords, most of whom knew her and liked her, refused by an overwhelming majority to impeach her. Relations between the royal couple became notably warmer: Catherine wrote of Charles’ “wonderful kindness” to her. and it was noted that his visits to her apartments became longer and more frequent.

At Charles’ final illness in 1685, Catharine showed expectations for his reconciliation with Catholic faith, and she exhibited great grief at his death. When he lay dying in 1685, he asked for Catherine, but she sent a message asking that her presence be excused and “to beg his pardon if she had offended him all his life.” He answered, “Alas poor woman! she asks for my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart; take her back that answer.” Later in the same year, she unsuccessfully interceded with James II for the life of James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, Charles’s illegitimate son and leader of the Monmouth Rebellion – even though Monmouth in rebellion had called upon the support represented by the staunch Protestants opposed to the Catholic Church.

Catherine remained in England, living at Somerset House, through the reign of James and his deposition in the Glorious Revolution by William and Mary. She remained in England partly because of a protracted lawsuit against her former Lord Chamberlain, Henry Hyde, 2nd Earl of Clarendon, over money that she claimed as part of her allowance and that he claimed was part of the perquisite of his office. Catherine’s fondness for money is one of the more unexpected features of her character: her brother-in-law James, who was himself notably avaricious, remarked that she always drove a hard bargain.

Initially on good terms with William and Mary, her position deteriorated as the practice of her religion led to misunderstandings and increasing isolation. A bill was introduced to Parliament to limit the number of Catherine’s Catholic servants, and she was warned not to agitate against the government. She finally returned to Portugal in March 1692, where she took care of and mentored her nephew, prince John. His mother, Maria Sofia of Neuburg, had recently died, and the prince had fallen into a depression. Catherine was instrumental in lifting the young prince’s spirits, and soon became a key part in his life, as his tutor and main female figure in his life. Her death would, in fact, cause John to experience another depression.

In 1703, she supported the Treaty of Methuen between Portugal and England. She acted as regent for her brother, Peter II, in 1701 and 1704–05. She died at the Bemposta Palace in Lisbon on 31st December 1705 and was buried at the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora Lisbon.

Here is a Stuart era recipe from The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or a Guide to the Female Sex, (1696). It is described as a way to prepare lamb so that it tastes like venison. The “coffin” mentioned in the recipe means pastry, so it appears to be a kind of lamb roulade en croute.

Lamb to make like Venison.

Bone it, and take the side or quarter, and dip it in its Blood, sprinkle it over with Salt, Cinamon and Pepper, rowl it up, and parboyl it, adding some Vinegar to the Water you boyl it in, a sprig or two of Hysop and Thyme, let it stand six hours in the water when it is off the Fire, put it into a coffin, and pour to it when half Baked, Claret and Melted Butter, with some Cloves Mace and dryed Rosemary, finely beaten.

Aug 082015


Today is the birthday (1646) of Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1st Baronet (born Gottfried Kniller), the leading portrait painter in England during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and court painter to English and British monarchs from Charles II to George I. I don’t care for Kneller’s portraits much (nor formal portraiture in general), but I think of him as iconic of the Restoration and early Georgian period. When I think of Newton, I think of Kneller’s portraits.

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Kneller was born Gottfried Kniller in the Free City of Lübeck, the son of Zacharias Kniller, a portrait painter. Kneller studied in Leiden, but became a pupil of Ferdinand Bol and Rembrandt in Amsterdam. He then traveled with his brother John Zacharias Kneller, who was an ornamental painter, to Rome and Venice in the early 1670s, painting historical subjects and portraits in the studio of Carlo Maratti, and then later moved to Hamburg. They went to England in 1676, and won the patronage of the Duke of Monmouth. Subsequently, he was introduced to, and painted a portrait of, Charles II. In England, Kneller concentrated almost entirely on portraiture. He founded a studio which churned out portraits on an almost industrial scale, relying on a brief sketch of the face with details added to a formulaic model, aided by the fashion for gentlemen to wear full wigs. His assistants may have done much of the painting of fabrics and clothing leaving Kneller to paint the daces. His portrait style set a pattern that was followed down to William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds.

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When Sir Peter Lely died in 1680, Kneller was appointed Principal Painter to the Crown by Charles II. In the 1690s, Kneller painted the “Hampton Court Beauties” depicting the supposedly most glamorous ladies-in-waiting of the Royal Court for which he received his knighthood from William III. He produced a series of “Kit-Cat” portraits of 48 leading politicians and men of letters, members of the Kit-Cat Club. Created a baronet by King George I on 24 May 1715, he was also head of the Kneller Academy of Painting and Drawing 1711-1716 in Great Queen Street, London, which counted such artists as Thomas Gibson amongst its founding directors. His paintings were praised by Whig luminaries such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Alexander Pope.

He married a widow, Susanna Grave, on 23 January 1704 at St Bride’s Church, London. She was the daughter of the Reverend John Cawley, Archdeacon of Lincoln and Rector of Henley-on-Thames, and the granddaughter of regicide William Cawley (he signed the death warrant for Charles I).

Memorial to Sir Godfrey Kneller, Westminster Abbey

Kneller died of fever in 1723 at Great Queen Street and his remains were interred at Twickenham. He had been a churchwarden at St Mary’s, Twickenham when the 14th-century nave collapsed in 1713 and was active in the plans for the church’s reconstruction by John James. A memorial was erected to him in Westminster Abbey.

Samuel Johnson related this tale:

As to thinking better or worse of mankind from experience, some cunning people will not be satisfied unless they have put men to the test, as they think. There is a very good story told of Sir Godfrey Kneller, in his character of a Justice of the peace. A gentleman brought his servant before him, upon an accusation of having stolen some money from him; but it having come out that he had laid it purposely in the servant’s way, in order to try his honesty, Sir Godfrey sent the master to prison.


Kneller’s home town of Lübeck is famous for its marzipan industry. According to local legend, marzipan was first made in Lübeck, in response either to a military siege of the city or a famine year. The story, certainly apocryphal, is that the town ran out of all food except stored almonds and sugar, which were used to make loaves of marzipan “bread.” It is generally believed that marzipan was actually invented in Persia a few hundred years before Lübeck claims to have invented it although there are conflicting claims as to its origin and spread in Europe. Nonetheless, Lübeck marzipan is of a very high quality and rightly famous.

My wife and I always made marzipan at Christmas for marzipan fruits and for our Christmas cake. You can buy good marzipan fairly easily, but it is cheaper to make it yourself. All it takes is some egg whites, blanched almonds and confectioners’ sugar.



3 egg whites
8 oz blanched almonds
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp almond extract (optional)


Put the almonds in a food processor and pulse until you have a grainy powder, but not so long that the oil separates.

In a bowl beat the egg whites lightly and then add the egg whites and sugar. Knead, either by hand or with a dough hook in a mixer until the marzipan is very smooth.

Wrap in plastic wrap and foil. It will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely. Warm to room temperature before using.

Yield: about 1 lb.

Marzipan can be used in a host of ways including making all manner of imitation fruits, flowers, and animals, as well as covering or filling cakes. Here’s a little gallery of ideas.

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. . . and one spooky marzipan baby . . .


May 292014


Today is Oak Apple Day or Royal Oak Day, which was once a formal public holiday celebrated in England on 29 May to commemorate the restoration of the English monarchy, in May 1660. In 1660, Parliament declared 29 May a public holiday:

Parliament has ordered the 29 of May, the King’s birthday, to be for ever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny and the King’s return to his Government, he entering London that day.

This statute should also remind us, therefore, that today we celebrate the birthday of Charles II whose restoration as monarch gives rise to the era of the Restoration – noted for the re-opening of the theaters with their bawdy and rakish comedies; literature that includes such masterpieces as Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim’s Progress; the founding of the Royal Society ushering in a great age of science in England (whose masters such as Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle have pages in this blog); magnificent architecture, with Christopher Wren as the great exemplar; and a style in the decorative arts noted for incredible skill and opulence, Grinling Gibbons being the undisputed master in carving.


Traditional celebrations to commemorate the event often entailed the wearing of oak apples (a type of plant gall), or sprigs of oak leaves, in reference to the occasion after the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, when the future Charles II of England escaped the Roundhead army by hiding in an oak tree near Boscobel House. It is reported that anyone who failed to wear a sprig of oak risked being pelted with birds’ eggs or thrashed with nettles.


Because of the famous event, the term Royal Oak was adopted, and still used, by a host of companies and institutions. The Royal Oak is one of the most common pub names throughout England. The Royal Oak in Oxford was a favorite haunt for my pals in my undergraduate days, and remains so for those who still live there. Royal Oak lunches were classics of traditional English pub food (more later).


The public holiday, Oak Apple Day, was formally abolished in 1859, but the date retains some significance in local or institutional customs. It is kept as Founder’s Day in the Royal Hospital Chelsea, founded by Charles II in 1681 as a pension home for old soldiers (a service it still retains). Here you see them on formal parade wearing oak sprigs in memory of Charles.


In other parts of the country the day is still celebrated in some way or another, but modern celebrations are not usually associated with original Oak Apple Day customs, they just happen to fall on the same day. In Castleton in Derbyshire, for example, the Garland King rides through the streets on Oak Apple Day at the head of a procession, completely disguised in a garland of flowers, which is later affixed to a pinnacle on the parish church tower. There is no reference to Charles or oak sprigs, however.


On this day in Great Wishford in Wiltshire villagers claim their ancient rights to collect wood from Grovely Wood. This tradition is said to date back to 1603, when the charter of rights to collect wood in the Royal Forest of Groveley was confirmed by the Forest Court. The rights themselves date back several centuries before 1603. The events of a modern Oak Apple Day include a “band” waking the villagers in the early hours of the morning, gathering oak branches from the woods at dawn, a village breakfast in the local pub (Royal Oak), then on to Salisbury, where there is dancing outside the Cathedral followed by claiming rights inside the cathedral by shouting “Grovely, Grovely, Grovely, and all Grovely.” Although the charter requires just three ‘Grovely’s,’ tradition demands four – “three for the charter and one for us,” as it’s usually expressed. In the afternoon there is a formal meal, and other events for villagers in Oak Apple Field. Folklorists, myself included, strongly believe that this whole affair is a late-19th century invention based on an old charter that predates the Restoration, with symbolic inventions to link the charter with Oak Apple Day.


Oak Apple Day is also celebrated in the Cornish village of St Neot annually. The Vicar leads a procession through the village, he is followed by the Tower Captain holding the Oak bough. A large number of the villagers follow walking to the Church. A story of the history of the event is told and then the Vicar blesses the branch. The Tower Captain throws the old branch down from the top of the Tower and a new one is hauled to the top. Everyone is then invited to the Vicarage gardens for refreshments and a barbecue. Up to 12 noon villagers wear a sprig of “red” (new) oak and in the afternoon wear a sprig of “Boys Love” Artemisia abrotanum; tradition dictates that the punishment for not doing this results in being stung by nettles. This too, I believe, is a relatively modern invention.

Now, back to pub lunches. Modern pub food has little to do with traditional pub food as it is thought of by people my age. Nowadays a great many pubs are little more than conventional restaurants situated in old pubs which provide an attractive setting for fancy dining rooms where people once sat and drank (and talked a lot of course). The food these days can be just about anything, and is served for lunch and dinner.

The changeover began in the 1970’s as pubs began dramatically losing business for a host of reasons including rapidly escalating prices of beer and the costs of maintaining older buildings. However, it was common in the 1950’s and 60’s to have a very small menu at lunchtime, in some cases just one item made by the landlady, (and nothing in the evening). I have already waxed lyrical on steak and kidney pies lovingly made in my two favorite pubs. Common fare would be bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, steak and kidney pudding, and the ubiquitous ploughman’s lunch. For a quickie you could get a Scotch egg or a pork pie. Here I will focus on the ploughman’s lunch.

The ploughman’s lunch is so named because it was what farm laborers took into the fields each day for their midday meal – a big hunk of bread and cheese. This would have been a satisfying meal because the bread was home baked and the cheese was locally produced as well. Furthermore they took large hunks of both. The idea was picked up by pubs wanting to offer something quick and without using a kitchen. But the pub version was usually a pallid offering in comparison with what ploughmen were used to. You’d probably get a slice or two of factory bread, a lump of indifferent supermarket cheese, and a knob of butter, which you could probably supplement with a pickled onion (at extra cost). Not much of a lunch, but in many pubs it was that or nothing.

But then in the late 60’s and early 70’s there was a revolution. It was a revolution that occurred steadily over all England as people developed an interest in regional farm products, especially cheeses, that had virtually disappeared under the ravages of two world wars and an economic depression. Cheeses, such as Dorset Blue Vinney, Swaledale, and White Stilton, which were once found in history books only or were very rare, started appearing in stores countrywide.


Furthermore, the nasty mass produced cheeses of old, especially Cheddar, could now be found in their upgraded farm-made forms of long ago. The British Cheese Board states that “there are over 700 named British cheeses produced in the UK.” 700 !!!! Take that France. For a list go here:

This revolution hit the pub ploughman’s lunch, of course. I often used to go to the Royal Oak in Oxford for my lunch of bread and cheese because they had a large chalk board with easily 30 cheeses on offer for the day. What is more, you got freshly baked bread with it (and good butter). So here is my version of a decent ploughman’s lunch.


This is an easy one for everyone to do. You don’t even have to be a cook. My one hope is that you try some “new” English cheeses on your platter. If you live outside of the U.K. you can get them mail ordered. Some of my especial favorites are Beenleigh Blue, Shropshire Blue, Parlick Fell, and Little Derby – not to mention classics of old, Stilton, Caerphilly, and Weynsleydale. In case regular readers had not noticed, this is one more volley in my battle against those who think there is nothing to English cuisine.

Sep 022013


The Great Fire of London started on this date in 1666. It burnt until 5 September, gutting the medieval City of London inside the old Roman City Wall. It threatened, but did not reach, the aristocratic district of Westminster, Charles II’s Palace of Whitehall, and most of the suburban slums. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City authorities. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants. The death toll is unknown but traditionally thought to have been small, as only six verified deaths were recorded. This reasoning has recently been challenged on the grounds that the deaths of poor and middle-class people were not recorded, while the heat of the fire may have cremated many victims leaving no recognizable remains.

After two rainy summers in 1664 and 1665, London had lain under an exceptional drought since November 1665, and the wooden buildings were tinder-dry after the long hot summer of 1666. Construction using wood and thatch had been banned in the city for centuries, but the laws had not been enforced. The London of early September 1666 was therefore nothing more than a rabbit warren of kindling waiting for a match.


A fire broke out at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane a little after midnight on Sunday 2 September. The family was trapped upstairs, but managed to climb from an upstairs window to the house next door, except for a maidservant who was too frightened to try, and became the first victim. The neighbors tried to help douse the fire; after an hour the parish constables arrived and judged that the adjoining houses had better be demolished to prevent further spread. The householders protested, and the Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth, who alone had the authority to override their wishes, was summoned.

When Bloodworth arrived, the flames were consuming the adjoining houses and creeping towards the paper warehouses and flammable stores on the river front. The more experienced firemen were clamoring for demolition, but Bloodworth refused, on the argument that most premises were rented and the owners could not be found. Bloodworth is generally thought to have been appointed to the office of Lord Mayor as a stooge of the rich, rather than because he had any qualifications for the job. He panicked when faced with a sudden emergency. Pressed, he made the often-quoted remark “Pish! A woman could piss it out,” and left. After the City had been destroyed, Samuel Pepys, looking back on the events, wrote in his diary on 7 September 1666: “People do all the world over cry out of the simplicity [the stupidity] of my Lord Mayor in general; and more particularly in this business of the fire, laying it all upon him.” It is quite likely that his inaction stemmed from his belief that he would be held personally liable for the properties that were pulled down. Fortunately for him, other scapegoats were found.

On Sunday morning, 2 September, Pepys, who was a senior official in the Navy Office, ascended the Tower of London to view the fire from a turret, and recorded in his diary that the eastern gale had turned it into a roaring conflagration. It had burned down several churches and, he estimated, 300 houses, and had reached the river front. The houses on London Bridge were also burning. Taking a boat to inspect the destruction around Pudding Lane at close range, Pepys describes a “lamentable” fire, “everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another.” Pepys continued westward on the river to the court at Whitehall, “where people come about me, and I did give them an account [that] dismayed them all, and word was carried in to the King. So I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of Yorke what I saw, and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way.” Charles’ brother James, Duke of York, offered the use of the Royal Life Guards to help fight the fire.


The fire spread quickly in the high wind. By mid-morning on Sunday, people abandoned attempts at extinguishing the fire and fled; the moving human mass and their bundles and carts made the lanes impassable for firemen and carriages. Pepys took a coach back into the city from Whitehall, but only reached St Paul’s Cathedral before he had to get out and walk. Handcarts with goods and pedestrians were still on the move, away from the fire, heavily weighed down. The parish churches not directly threatened were filling up with furniture and valuables, which would soon have to be moved farther afield. Pepys found Bloodworth trying to coordinate the firefighting efforts and near to collapse, “like a fainting woman,” crying out plaintively in response to the King’s message that he was pulling down houses. “But the fire overtakes us faster then [sic] we can do it.” He refused James’s offer of soldiers and then went home to bed. King Charles II sailed down from Whitehall in the Royal barge to inspect the scene. He found that houses were still not being pulled down, in spite of Bloodworth’s assurances to Pepys, and overrode the authority of Bloodworth to order wholesale demolitions west of the fire zone. The delay rendered these measures largely futile, as the fire was already out of control.

The fire pushed north on Monday into the heart of the City. Order in the streets broke down as rumors arose of suspicious foreigners setting fires. Such rumors came about because sparks and burning materials were borne to new areas by the wind where they ignited new fires, which the people around falsely believed were being deliberately set. The fears of the homeless focused on the French and Dutch, England’s enemies in the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War. Immigrant groups became victims of lynchings and street violence. On Tuesday, the fire spread over most of the City, destroying St. Paul’s Cathedral and leaping the River Fleet to threaten Charles II’s court at Whitehall, while coordinated firefighting efforts were simultaneously mobilizing.

Tuesday was the day of greatest destruction. The Duke of York’s command post at Temple Bar, where Strand meets Fleet Street, was supposed to stop the fire’s westward advance towards the Palace of Whitehall. Making a stand with his firemen from the Fleet Bridge and down to the Thames, James hoped that the River Fleet would form a natural firebreak. However, early on Tuesday morning, the flames jumped over the Fleet, driven by the unabated easterly gale, and outflanked them, forcing them to run for it. There was consternation at the palace as the fire continued implacably westward.


Working to a plan at last, James’s firefighters had also created a large firebreak to the north of the conflagration. It contained the fire until late afternoon, when the flames leapt across it and began to destroy the wide, affluent luxury shopping street of Cheapside. Everybody had thought St. Paul’s Cathedral would be a safe refuge, with its thick stone walls and natural firebreak in the form of a wide, empty surrounding plaza. It had been crammed full of rescued goods and its crypt filled with the tightly packed stocks of the printers and booksellers in adjoining Paternoster Row. However an enormous stroke of bad luck meant that the building was covered in wooden scaffolding as part of a general restoration by a then relatively unknown Christopher Wren. The scaffolding caught fire on Tuesday night. The flames crept round the cathedral and the burning scaffolding ignited the timbered roof beams. Within half an hour, the lead roof was melting, and the books and papers in the crypt caught with a roar. “The stones of Paul’s flew like grenados, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them,” reported John Evelyn in his diary. The cathedral was quickly a ruin.

During the day, the flames began to move eastward from the neighborhood of Pudding Lane, straight against the prevailing east wind towards Pepys’s home on Seething Lane, and the Tower of London with its gunpowder stores. After waiting all day for requested help from James’s official firemen, who were busy in the west, the garrison at the Tower took matters into their own hands and created firebreaks by blowing up houses in the vicinity on a large scale, halting the advance of the fire.

The wind dropped on Tuesday evening, and the firebreaks created by the garrison finally began to take effect on Wednesday. Pepys walked all over the smoldering city, getting his feet hot, and climbed the steeple of Barking Church, from which he viewed the destroyed City, “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw.” There were many separate fires still burning themselves out, but the Great Fire was over. Pepys visited Moorfields, a large public park immediately north of the City, and saw a great encampment of homeless refugees, “poor wretches carrying their goods there, and every body keeping his goods together by themselves.” He noted that the price of bread in the environs of the park had doubled. Evelyn also went out to Moorfields, which was turning into the main point of assembly for the homeless, and was horrified at the numbers of distressed people filling it, some under tents, others in makeshift shacks: “Many [were] without a rag or any necessary utensils, bed or board… reduced to extremest misery and poverty.” Evelyn was impressed by the pride of these distressed Londoners, “tho’ ready to perish for hunger and destitution, yet not asking one pennie for relief.”

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Encouraged by king Charles, radical rebuilding schemes for the gutted City poured in. If it had been rebuilt under some of these plans, London would have rivaled Paris in Baroque magnificence (see Wren’s and Evelyn’s plans below — click them to enlarge). The Crown and the City authorities attempted to establish “to whom all the houses and ground did in truth belong” to negotiate with their owners about compensation for the large-scale remodeling that these plans entailed, but that unrealistic idea had to be abandoned. Exhortations to bring in workers to measure the plots on which the houses had stood were mostly ignored by people worried about day-to-day survival, as well as by those who had left the capital. It proved impossible to secure workers for the purpose either in the city or farther afield.

fire7  fire8

With the complexities of ownership unresolved, none of the grand Baroque schemes for a City of piazzas and avenues could be realized; there was nobody to negotiate with, and no means of calculating how much compensation should be paid. Instead, much of the old street plan was recreated in the new City, with improvements in hygiene and fire safety, wider streets, open and accessible wharves along the length of the Thames with no houses obstructing access to the river, and, most importantly, buildings constructed of brick and stone, not wood. New public buildings were created on their predecessors’ sites. Perhaps the most famous is Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and its smaller cousins, known as “Christopher Wren’s 50 new churches.” Although Wren’s city plans were not put into effect, the rebuilt London bore his stamp, and does to this day.

On the king’s initiative, a Monument to the Great Fire of London, designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke (click here), was erected near Pudding Lane and known simply as “The Monument.”  It stands at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill, 202 ft (62 m) tall and 202 ft (62 m) from the place where the Great Fire started – so if you were to lay the column flat towards Pudding Lane its top would mark the exact spot where the fire started.  Constructed between 1671 and 1677, it is the tallest isolated stone column in the world and was built on the site of St. Margaret’s, Fish Street, the first church to be burnt down by the Great Fire. There is a spiral staircase inside allowing visitors access to the top. I climbed the 311 narrow steps as a boy, but I am not sure I am up for it again even though the vista of London from the top is magnificent. Wren and Hooke built the monument to double-up as a scientific instrument. It has a central shaft meant for use as a zenith telescope and for use in gravity and pendulum experiments. Vibrations from heavy traffic on Fish Hill, however, made it unsuitable for such experiments. The steps in the shaft of the tower are all exactly six inches high, allowing them to be used for barometric pressure studies.

fire6  fire11

Another monument, the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, marks the point near Smithfield where the fire stopped.


It was sometimes claimed that the fire was started while the baker, Thomas Farriner, was baking “small cakes.”  The claim is flatly contradicted by Farriner who testified that when the fire broke out he and his family were asleep, convinced that the oven fires had been correctly extinguished.  Nonetheless, the story gives me the opportunity to present a recipe for small cakes from Sir Kenelme Digby’s, The Closet of Sir Kenelme Digby Opened (1669). The original recipe (for a large household) is as follows:


“Take three pound of very fine flower well dryed by the fire, and put to it a pound and half of loaf Sugar sifted in a very fine sieve and dryed; Three pounds of Currants well washed and dryed in a cloth and set by the fire; When your flower is well mixed with the Sugar and Currants, you must put in it a pound and half of unmelted butter, ten spoonfuls of Cream, with the yolks of three new-laid Eggs beat with it, one Nutmeg; and if you please, three spoonfuls of Sack. When you have wrought your paste well, you must put it in a cloth, and set it in a dish before the fire, till it be through warm. Then make them up in little Cakes, and prick them full of holes; you must bake them in a quick oven unclosed. Afterwards Ice them over with Sugar. The Cakes should be about the bigness of a hand-breadth and thin: of the cise of the Sugar Cakes sold at Barnet.”

There is no leavening in this recipe which looks to me very much like Scottish shortbread with a few additions.  Modern conversions I have seen of this recipe all use self raising flour, which I think is wrong and will produce more of a soft cookie than a dense, rich cake.  For some reason they also use melted butter which is not what the recipe requires. I have tried to stick reasonably close to the original in my interpretation. I have cut the amounts by one-third, but you could halve my ingredients again. On advice from my sister, who was an excellent professional baker for many years, I have seriously reduced the quantity of raisins. I have not tried this recipe out so I’d be interested in feedback. I see no reason for it not to work. It should produce a slightly less crumbly, crisper version of shortbread.


© Sir Kenelme Digby’s Small Cakes


1 lb (500g) all purpose flour
1 lb (500g) sugar
½ lb (250g) butter
3 tbsps light cream
1 cup currants
1 egg yolk
1 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tbsp dry sack sherry (optional)
caster sugar for dusting


Cream the butter and sugar together in a stand mixer until light and fluffy.

Add the currants, cream, egg yolk, and sherry (if used).  Mix to blend.

Add the flour in thirds to the mixture, mixing thoroughly each time.  Scrape the dough out of the bowl with a spatula on to a floured surface and knead until completely mixed. Let rest for 30 minutes to an hour.

Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C.

Form the dough into balls and then flatten them into rounds about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter and ½ inch (1 cm) thick. Prick them with a fork all over and place them on parchment lined or greased cookie sheets.

Bake  12-15 minutes, or until the centers are set when lightly pressed with your finger, and the tops are light golden.

Cool on wire racks and dust with caster sugar.

Aug 102013


The Royal Observatory in Greenwich (now a borough of London), was commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II. The foundation stone was laid on 10 August. At that time the king also created the position of Astronomer Royal, to serve as the director of the observatory and to “apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation.” He appointed John Flamsteed as the first AR. The building was completed in the summer of 1676.

There had been significant buildings on this land since the reign of William I. Greenwich Palace, near the site of the present-day Maritime Museum, was the birthplace of Henry VIII, and was apparently a favorite place for the king to house his mistresses, so that he could easily travel from his palace in Whitehall to see them.


The establishment of a Royal Observatory was proposed in 1674 by Sir Jonas Moore who, in his role as Surveyor General at the Ordnance Office, persuaded King Charles II to create the observatory. The Ordnance Office was given responsibility for building the observatory, with Moore providing the key instruments and equipment at his own personal cost. Flamsteed House, the original part of the Observatory, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, probably with the assistance of Robert Hooke (post 18 July), and was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain. It was built at a cost of £520 (£20 over budget) out of largely recycled materials on the foundations of Duke Humphrey’s Tower, which resulted in the alignment being 13 degrees away from true North, somewhat to Flamsteed’s chagrin.

The original observatory at first housed the scientific instruments to be used by Flamsteed in his work on stellar tables, and over time also incorporated a number of additional responsibilities such marking the official time of day, and housing the Nautical Almanac Office. Moore donated two clocks, built by Thomas Tompion, which were installed in the 20 foot high Octagon Room, the principal room of the building. They were of unusual design, each with a pendulum 13 feet (3.96 metres) in length mounted above the clock face, giving a period of four seconds and an accuracy, then unparalleled, of ± 7 seconds per day.

Tompion Astrolabe Clock

Tompion Astrolabe Clock

Four separate meridians have been drawn through the building.  The Prime Meridian, basis of longitude, was established in 1851 and adopted at an international conference in 1884. It passes through the Airy transit circle of the observatory. It was long marked by a brass strip in the courtyard, now upgraded to stainless steel. How many people have had their photographs taken straddling the Prime Meridian over the years?


Since 16 December 1999 the Prime Meridian has been marked by a powerful green laser shining north across the London night sky.


Modern geodetic reference systems, such as the World Geodetic System and the International Terrestrial Reference Frame, use geographical coordinates based on the physical center of the earth and not the surface markers the older Greenwich systems used. The Prime Meridian of these modern reference systems is 102.5 metres east of the Greenwich astronomical meridian represented by the stainless steel strip. Thus the strip is now 5.31 arcseconds West.

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was until 1954 based on celestial observations made at Greenwich. Thereafter, GMT was calculated from observations made at other observatories. GMT is more properly called Universal Time at present, and is calculated from observations of extra-galactic radio sources. To help others synchronize their clocks to GMT, AR John Pond had a time ball installed atop the observatory in 1833. It still drops daily to mark the exact moment of 1 pm (13:00) year-round (GMT during winter and BST during summer)

The Ball Has Dropped

The Ball Has Dropped

The scientific equipment was gradually moved out of the observatory to other locations over the course of the 20th century, starting in 1924. Today the buildings include a museum of astronomical and navigational tools, which is part of the National Maritime Museum, notably including John Harrison’s prize-winning longitude marine chronometer, H4, and its three predecessors. Several additional horological artefacts are displayed, documenting the history of precision timekeeping for navigational and astronomical purposes, including the mid-20th-century Russian-made F.M. Fedchenko clock (the most accurate pendulum clock ever built in multiple copies). It also houses the 28-inch Grubb refracting telescope of 1893, the largest of its kind in the UK. The Shepherd Clock outside the observatory gate is an early example of an electric slave clock.

The Shepherd Clock

The Shepherd Clock

The Harrison Chronometer

The Harrison Chronometer


One of the most famous Greenwich watch makers was John Forrest (no relation), active from 1857 to 1911, and chronometer maker to the Admiralty for several years. My John Forrest pocket watch is a prized possession, although I have never been able to find a watchmaker to work on the delicate fusee movement (employing  a chain and conical pulley for greater accuracy than cog wheels).

John Forrest chronometer

John Forrest chronometer

The one time I visited Greenwich observatory I was impressed by a giant fig tree growing near the wall of the main building entwined in an external staircase. I don’t know if it ever fruited.  Nothing compares to biting into a freshly picked fig.  But they do well in desserts and preserves.  Fig preserve is a common pastry filling here in Argentina.  Here is a favorite dessert recipe of mine. The dark chocolate and mascarpone in the topping are essential.  The fruits and nuts can be varied or omitted according to taste. You can also add a little icing sugar to the mascarpone if you want a sweeter topping.


Caramelized Figs with Chocolate Mascarpone 


6 ripe figs

1 ½ cups (360g) mascarpone

2 oz (60g) dark chocolate, shaved

2 tbsps finely chopped dried fruit (apricots, apples, mango, or papaya)

2 tbsps coarsely chopped pistachio nuts

1 ½  tbsps honey, plus extra for plating


Preheat broiler grill on high.

Combine mascarpone, chocolate, dried fruit, and pistachio in a bowl.

Cut each fig in half and place, cut-side up, on a baking tray. Drizzle ½ teaspoon of honey over each fig half.

Broil the figs for 2-3 minutes or until slightly caramelized.

Divide the figs among 6 serving plates and top with the mascarpone mixture. Drizzle over a little extra honey.

Serves 6