Christmas is always a time when chocolates and sweets abound, but where did our penchant for spiced and sugary treats originate?
Here at Rushton Hall, we are proud of our rich and lengthy history. Since the building of Rushton Hall in 1438, the illustrious building has seen many a Christmas dinner. With the launch of our delicious Afternoon Tea with a Festive Twist, we thought we would do a little digging into what our predecessors would have munching on at Christmas. To help you build up a picture of the many sweet treats that have adorned the Christmas table here at Rushton before it became one of the finest boutique hotels Northampton has to offer, we’ve got a little history lesson for you…
When Sir John Tresham first arrived at Rushton in 1438, the order of the day might well have been boar’s head. Now, we well know that boar’s dead is not a sweet treat, but this is not boar’s head as you know it! As sugar was still very much the reserve of the wealthy in medieval Britain, at the tables of the rich and famous the boar’s head would often have been made of cake and surround by other such sugary treats as treats as gingerbread, plum pudding, mincemeat pie, and spiced wines.
Throughout the Tresham years (right up until 1614) sugar would have played a huge part in the Christmas feast. There would literally have been an entire sugar course, called the ‘banquet course’ brought out at the decadent feasts enjoyed by royalty and aristocracy. Marzipan (then called marchpane) took pride of place and was moulded into three-dimensional shapes and iced to resemble fruits and even slices of bacon. Marchpanes were even gilded with an edible gold leaf. Other sweet treats included ginger bread, quince marmalade, and candied or gilded fruits. Sugar-plate was also a popular sweetmeat and was a blend of egg, sugar and gelatine that could be moulded into any shape the chef desired. Sugar-plate walnuts and eggs were especially popular, as the Elizabethan’s loved the theatre of having their sweets look like other foods.
From 1614 to 1731, during the Cockayne’s residency at Rushton Christmas would undergo two radical changes: The Interregnum (1649-1660) and the Restoration of the monarchy (1660). During Oliver Cromwell’s rule of England, puritanism all but did away with Christmas. It was thought that Christmas was frivolous and idolatrous, so sweet and spicy treats were off the menu. When Charles II came to the throne in 1660 however, the festivities returned and by the 18th century; were truly in full swing again. It is thanks to the Georgians, in fact, that we have our modern day Christmas cake. The cake started life as Twelfth Cake (eaten on Twelfth Night) which was sliced and given to all members of the household and guests. It contained a dried bean in one half and a dried pea in the other. The person whose slice contained the bean was King for the night; the slice with the pea was the Queen. Over the years the cake became more elaborate; including icing, marzipan and sugar decorations.
The Clarke-Thornhill Family occupied Rushton from 1853-1934, during which time the Christmas tree rose to popularity in the UK. This gave rise to many popular German treats adorning the new festive import, such as gingerbread; dried fruits; sugar confectionary (hardboiled sweets such as humbugs) and even miniature cakes.
Though the Clarke-Thornhill family owned the hall until 1934, after the death of William Clarke-Thornhill, the Hall was let to an array of lodgers, including British officers who lived at Rushton during the Second World War and used the extensive cellars as bombing shelters. The soldiers that called Rushton home during the war would have had an (unsurprisingly) frugal Christmas on their wartime rations. Forget your traditional Christmas cake; sugar, butter, and eggs could only be acquired in small quantities, so substitutions, such as using grated carrots instead of sugar to sweeten cakes, were made.
In 1951 G H Pain became the owner of Rushton Hall after the Second World War, and in 1959 the house was sold to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and became a school for the blind. Now, though the pupils would certainly have been home for Christmas, once rationing ended, the 1950s were the era of Good Housekeeping. Suddenly cream and sugar and other such delights were back on the menu. A post-rationing Christmas would definitely have featured mince pies and a Christmas pudding with Birds custard, and maybe a moulded jelly if you were lucky!
Nowadays, Rushton’s Afternoon with a Festive Twist will provide you with all the sweetness you need. Forget bacon made of marzipan and cakes with hidden beans and boar’s heads made of cake and other such oddities; here at Rushton Hall, we’ve got our Northamptonshire Afternoon Tea down to an art.