Thursday, December 1, 2011

'Tis the Season

It's that time of year again! To celebrate, I've gathered all my articles about Regency Christmas. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I've enjoyed researching and writing them over the years.

A special thanks to all of you for your continued support and encouragement. I wish each of you a merry Christmas and all the best in the coming year.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Swan Upping on the Thames

For five days during the month of July, a census is conducted of the mute swans on the River Thames. The flotilla plies the river to count swans and tag cygnets. July is the chosen time for "swan upping" because adult swans are in molt and cygnets are too young to fly, making the birds easier to "drive up" or catch.

The Queen's swan warden oversees this operation. When the birds are spotted, the cry "All up!" is given and rowboats surround the birds. Gradually the swans are nudged toward the riverbank where boatmen jump out and catch them. Each bird is examined for signs of injury or sickness, weighed, measured and tagged, then released back to the river.

Mute swans are believed to have been brought to England in the 12th Century. The first written record of royal ownership is 1186 A.D. At that time, swans were a gastronomic delicacy. In 1251, Henry III's Christmas banquet required one hundred twenty five of them.

The first royal swan master was appointed in 1361 A.D. The Act of Swan in 1482 A.D. allowed certain landowners to own them as well, but required each owner pay five marks for the privilege. The landowner cut a unique mark in the bill of his swans. (Click on swan mark image for larger view.) At the height of swan popularity in the 16th Century, nine hundred people were granted "swan marks."

If convicted of illegal possession or killing of a swan, a person was sentenced to seven years hard labor, or transported.

Only three entities currently are allowed to own mute swans -- the Worshipful Company of Vintners, the Worshipful Company of Dyers, and Queen Elizabeth II. These Livery Companies were granted royal charters in the 15th Century. Vintners used to mark their swans with a nick on each side of the beak. The Dyers applied only one nick. Unmarked birds were the property of the Crown. Today, the birds' legs are tagged with identification bands -- the Vintners place a band on each leg, while the Dyers place a band on one leg. The Queen's birds are left untagged.

Livery Companies
There are currently one hundred eight Livery Companies registered in the City of London. Formed as guilds, each regulated wages and labor conditions of their particular trade, much as unions do now. Some continue to do so, but most have evolved into charitable organizations.

Like so much in Britain, there's an order of precedence among the Livery Companies. The two involved in swan upping are the Worshipful Company of Vintners (11th in order of precedence and wearing scarlet shirts during the upping) and the Worshipful Company of Dyers (13th in precedence and wearing navy blue shirts during the upping.) Both Livery Companies date from the 12th Century.

Bell-Ringing Swans
Built in the early 13th Century, the moat around Bishop's Palace in Wells, Somerset sports mute swans taught to pull a bell string for food. (Click here to see a YouTube video of the bell-ringing swans.)


The Official Website of the British Monarchy: Swan Upping
The Queen's Swan Marker: Royal Swan Upping 2011
The City Livery Companies

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Queen Charlotte's Birthday Ball

Once Easter was over, it was time for the ton to begin straggling back to London from their estates. But not until the royal family returned did the Season officially begin. And the highlight for any young lady was her presentation at court. After she made her curtsy to the king and queen, she was considered "out" in society.

George III is said to have inaugurated this custom in 1780 when he threw a ball to celebrate Queen Charlotte's birthday. In her book, Old Court Customs and Modern Rules, the Hon. Mrs. Armytage wrote:

"It was a point of etiquette that the ladies and gentlemen who meant to attend the court on a birth-day should be presented to their Majesties at a previous levee; a day was se
ttled in the week for that purpose, and several foreigners of distinction, besides young-persons of fashion of both sexes, were presented..."According to George III: His Court and His Family, presentation at court, "was then most particularly considered the sole introduction to high life..." The Queen "had a powerful weapon to wield; and she wielded it to good purpose, by once proscribing from her society all females of bankrupt or even of ambiguous character--demireps as they were called; never admitting to her public or private parties any lady, however high in rank, if she had on the slightest degree forfeited her claims to general respect."
The young lady being presented required a sponsor, a woman of rank who had already made her curtsy to the king and queen. Virginal white was the proscribed dress color, or pale tones on a white background. The gown itself could be of popular design, but no matter what style of dress, hoops and a feather in her headdress were de rigueur.
Typical was this description of the levee held before Queen Charlotte's birthday ball in 1818:

"Yesterday was the day appointed for the celebration of her Majesty's last birthday, and a drawing room was held accordingly...At one o'clock there was a salute of artillery in the Park and the Tower...An immense multitude of spectators were collected together in spite of the rain and cold. The court visitors were also very numerous; they began to arrive at one o'clock, and continued setting down till past three."
Queen Charlotte's Birthday Ball quickly became an annual event to benefit the Lying-In Hospital at Bayswater. The hospital served pregnant women regardless of marital status. (Until then, maternity hospitals catered only to married women.) As the mother of fifteen, this was a cause close to the queen's heart. The hospital came under her patronage around 1790-1810 and was renamed in her honor in 1813.

Until her death, Queen Charlotte's birthday ball was held in January or February. Eventually, it moved to May--her actual birthday month--but it's unclear when. Certainly by the early 20th Century. In 1958, Queen Elizabeth II ended the custom of debutantes making their curtsy to the queen because, as Princess Margret succinctly put it, "Every tart in London was getting in." That year, 1400 girls were presented over three days. (Factoid: the term debut was used to describe this event during George III's reign, but referring to the young lady being presented as a debutante didn't come into vogue until 1837.) Queen Charlotte's Ball was abandoned in 1976 because of drug use and "louchness" -- improper dress and a lack of personal hygiene among attendees. It was revived in 2009.

Memoirs of Her Late Majesty, Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland by W. C. Oulton; 1819
Notes on the Foundation of Queen Charlotte's Hospital
The London Season in 1841
Recalling the Lost Era of Debutantes
High Society: Whatever Happened to the Debs?
Come on Out, Girls

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Devil's Hoof Prints

Technically, this story falls outside the Regency period, but I found it too irresistible!)

On February 9, 1855, folks in villages throughout south Devon awoke to find strange hoof prints in the snow. The prints were said to resemble those of a donkey, and they wandered single-file through the countryside for about a hundred miles. This was no ordinary trail, however. The marks leaped walls, stopped dead on one side of a haystack only to resume on the other side (the hay was undisturbed). They crossed roofs, appeared to enter and exit a drain pipe, and disappeared abruptly through small holes in hedges. But what most frightened people from Topsham to Dawlish was evidence the prints approached the front doors of many homes.
In a Feb 16th article, The London Times claimed locals believed they were the hoof prints of Satan.
Villagers tried to follow the trail or trails, but after a few miles gave up. So the source or end never was identified. Tracings of the prints were sent to the naturalist, Richard Owen, who responded in a March 4, 1855 Illustrated London News (Vol 26, p. 214) article. He claimed they’d been created by a badger. (See "Document 11" of Mike Dash's The Devil's Hoofmarks.)

Over the following weeks and months, other creatures were blamed for the mysterious trail. Nevertheless, the conviction persisted that the Devil walked in Devon.

And it appears he returned one hundred fifty four years later, almost to the day.

On March 5, 2009, seventy-six year old Jill Wade found prints in her back garden in Woolsery, Devon. They seem to match the description of those discovered in 1855. Zoologists investigated, but other than postulating they’d been created by a hare hopping on its hind legs, nothing definitive has been determined.
And so the mystery persists.