|Laid Table by Nicholas Gillis, 1611|
Old cookbooks and women’s household books or receipt books from times past are fascinating to me. So much “real people” information is to be found there: what they ate and when they ate it, how they celebrated, how they treated sickness or injury and which of those concerned them most, and other personal details of daily life can be found in these books. Women were responsible for the health, welfare and feeding of their families, which at the wealthier end of the spectrum, included employees and visitors (uninvited as well as invited). Recipes were collected from friends and relatives, and added to personal collections. The mistress of the household had to know what ingredients should be used and how dishes should be prepared (even if she did not do the cooking), make sure that medicinals and home remedies were properly prepared and available for use when needed, and that the supplies needed were available and techniques for completing tasks were known for household chores like laundry. Initially these books were compiled by and for wealthy women (education being limited), but can still provide a view of their times that can illuminate the lives of people in general. One of the earliest of these books is the receipt book of Lady Elinor Fettiplace, of 1604.
Borne Elinor Poole c1570-1574, probably in Gloucestershire, to Sir Henry Poole of Gloucestershire and his wife Anne Wroughton (daughter of Sir William Wroughton of Wiltshire), Elinor was born into a family of “new men” making their fortune in the Tudor era by judicious marriages, holding positions with benefits and making themselves agreeable to important people. (The wool trade also helped.) Her paternal grandmother was a descendent of Sir Richard Whittington, a wealthy merchant who was Lord Mayor of London four times (and the inspiration for the story about Dick Whittington and his cat). Her paternal grandfather Sir Giles Poole was one of Henry VIII’s gentleman pensioners, and prospered under all three of Henry’s children. (There was a family connection with the Earl of Leicester.) Her mother’s family prospered in similar fashion. Other marriage connections included the Thynne family as well as Sir Walter Raleigh.
The Fettiplace family was an ancient line, which supposedly served William the Conqueror. Fettiplaces held various positions at court in the 13th, 14th and 15th century. They too made advantageous marriages, and acquired large land holdings (at one point rumoured to hold 13 counties). At the time Elinor Poole married Richard Fettiplace in 1589, the Fettiplace name and land holdings were still impressive, but the famly fortune was more uncertain. In February of 1589, her grandfather Sir Giles Poole died and left her a marriage portion of 400 pounds. It appears that, in their part of the marriage agreements, the Fettiplaces had to settle debts, which involved selling a certain amount of property. However, after the wedding of Elinor to Richard (later in 1589 after her grandfather’s death), influence by both sides got Richard invited to an important wedding at which Queen Elizabeth I was present in June of 1600. He was knighted during the celebrations. In 1604, Elinor wrote her name in her book of receipts with that year. The basic recording of the recipes themselves was apparently the work of a scribe, but she made notes herself. It’s important to realize that literacy among women was not particularly prized during this time; her ability to read and write (including knowledge of Latin) argues a more extensive education than was common even among upper class women of this time.
The couple lived at Appleton Manor, near Oxford, where she would eventually have been responsible for the normal duties of the mistress of the house and prepared to manage the rest of the estate in her husband’s absence. The family in residence appears to have included Richard’s father Sir Bessell Fettiplace and mother (called Elinor or Helen) and his younger brothers and sisters. Elinor and Richard had 2 sons, John (the heir) born about 1589 and a younger son Henry born in 1602 about whom nothing else is known, as well as a daughter Anne born about 1594 who died in 1609. In between there were 2 other daughters who did not survive infancy. It seems likely that Henry died in infancy or as a very small child, but his fate is not known. In 1603, Richard attended the coronation of King James, which indicated his holding a position of some influence. Son John was married in 1606 to his cousin Margaret Fettiplace. The young couple also lived at Appleton and had a son the next year.
Sir Bessells died in 1609 at which point Sir Richard came into his own, making Elinor the mistress of the household. (It appears that Richard’s mother retired on her jointure, making way for Elinor.) At this point, there was a multi-generational family living together (whether at Appleton Manor or at another family property) plus servants. Normally this would include a steward, a butler, a cook, a gardener, personal servants, and assistants to the others; similar households numbered as many as 100 or more persons. In addition to that, such households were responsible for providing hospitality to travellers and others, and assistance to local poor. Being an age of conspicuous consumption, Sir Richard and Lady Elinor Fettiplace would have been expected to “keep up with the Joneses” and maintain a similar standard of hospitality as that of their relatives and peers, many of whom were in high places indeed. Plague and other illnesses would also have to be dealt with. Elinor’s receipts included a plague remedy going back to Henry VIII and a herbal poultice from Dr. Thomas Muffet, scientist (whose daughter was the inspiration of Little Miss Muffet), as well as receipts for elegant cuisine (including a sweet potato dish attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh), and instructions for proper laundering of silk, whitening clothes and to prepare leather to be perfumed (perfumed gloves being a popular gift during the Elizabethan era).
Sir Richard Fettiplace died in 1615, leaving Elinor a widow. It appears she left Appleton Manor, retiring to her dower property (apparently near her family), leaving Appleton to her son and his wife and 4 children. She also spent considerable time at her father’s seat, Sapperton House. Her father Sir Henry Poole died in 1616, and left Elinor another 500 pounds and his coach. Sadly, Elinor’s son John died in 1619. At some point, Elinor married Edward Rogers, apparently a commoner known only as a citizen of Gloucestershire. This marriage appeared to be of fairly short duration. He died in 1623 and was buried at Sapperton church, leaving his entire estate to Elinor except for some bequests. After his death, Elinor lived on as a widow until her own death in 1647, which also appeared to have occurred in Sapperton. At her death, Lady Fettiplace left her book to her niece Anne, daughter of Sir Henry Poole the younger (her brother). The book was written in by other hands as it was passed on through the family and back to Fettiplace descendants until that branch of the family became extinct in the 18th century. It came into the hands of Hilary Spurling (author and theatre critic), as it was in the possession of one of her husband’s great-aunts. Ms. Spurling was fascinated by the book as a historical document. She put together a wonderful volume containing family information, historical context and the recipes themselves, as they were recorded (with Elinor’s notes where made) and then explains how to make these dishes today. This book gives an eye-opening view of Tudor and Elizabethan cuisine.
The original book itself (which I have not seen, unfortunately) is bound in leather and written on fine paper, with the Poole coat of arms stamped in gold on the cover. I do have Ms. Spurling’s book. The recipes are by month in her work, which illustrates the seasonality of food in that time. The recipes included some that appear to have been accumulated from times past (it was not unusual for a mother’s book to be copied and given to her daughter or daughter’s at the time of her marriage, then added to) as well as contemporary recipes. Spices were used differently than in medieval tradition, with a lighter hand. Citrus fruits were used, and lemon juice appeared. More vegetables were used, including imports such as the sweet potato. (I always envisioned lots of bread and meat, but not so many vegetables.) The recipes also indicated a level of knowledge of techniques that surprised me. Lady Fettiplace’s recipe “To Make White Bisket Bread” involves sugar, a small amount of flour, beaten whites of eggs and some crushed aniseed, combined together, formed into “coffins” (crusts) and baked; this is a recipe for meringues, which were not supposed to have been known (at least in England) in 1604. Clearly Elizabethan cuisine was more sophisticated than many people believed. Ms. Spurling included suggestions for modern cooks and tried many of them successfully, as have others. Some of the more exotic ingredients such as rose water and ambergris are available (although not necessarily at the grocery store) and make it possible at least have an idea of what these foods might have tasted like. I plan to have a go myself. (The sweet potatoes sound especially nice, especially for Thanksgiving!)
Spurling, Hilary. ELINOR FETTIPLACES’S RECEIPT BOOK English Country House Cooking. 1987: Penguin Books, Middlesex.
Dickson Wright, Clarissa. A HISTORY OF ENGLISH FOOD. 2011: Random House, London.
David Nash Ford’s Royal Berkshire History. “Elinor Poole, Lady Fettiplace.” 2008. HERE
Epicurean Piranha. “The Magic of Meringue!” Posted September 10, 2012. HERE
Lost Past Remembered. “Elinor Fettiplace, Walter Raleigh’s Rose Sweet Potatoes, and an Excellent Negus,” posted by Deana Sidney on November 24, 2010. HERE
Image: Wikimedia Commons. "Laid Table" by Nicholas Gillis, 1611 (Public Domain). HERE
Image: Cover of ELINOR FETTIPLACE'S RECEIPT BOOK by Hilary Spurling-picture taken by Lauren Gilbert of her copy of the book.
Lauren Gilbert, author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, lives in Florida and loves old cookbooks. She is working on A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, due out soon.
Visit her website at http://www.lauren-gilbert.com for more information about her.