Mistress Agnes goes Spinning – Distaff Day

Spinning WheelWhat? I hear you exclaim. Hath the good mistress taken up some form of extreme gymnastic activity? Those who do know Mistress Agnes well, will realise that strenuous pursuits are not normally associated with this dear lady. No, despite the attempts of the rascally Puritans to put a damper on Yuletide proceedings, Mistress Agnes did receive a most thrilling gift. This wonderous spinning wheel now graces her cottage and the good lady is awaiting instruction in the use of the same. Really she should have been hard at work last Sunday, which is designated Distaff Day, the day when all good spinsters resume their duties after Twelfth Night. ’Tis also known as Rock Day, as those with the less glamorous drop spindles were said to be spinning on the rock.

Folklore states that young masters might set fire to the flax and tow of the maidens, who would then retaliate by throwing a pail of water. The good masters, by custom, returned to work on Plough Monday, after the blessing of the plough the previous day. This year Plough Monday was on 8 January, so the goodfellows only had one extra day of leisure.

A little ditty from Robert Herrick

Partly work and partly play
Ye must, on St. Distaff’s day;
From the plough soon free your team,
Then come home and fodder them;
If the maids a spinning go,
Burn the flax and fire the tow.
Bring in pails of water then,
Let the maids bewash the men.
Give St. Distaff all the right,
Then bid Christmas sport good night,
And next morrow every one
To his own vocation


Mistress Agnes in the News

You really can’t leave Mistress Agnes alone for five minutes. First she was spied banging her drum in a most unseemly fashion as she traipsed across Bideford Bridge in company with the mayor and corporation. This was in honour of the commemorations that have been taking place across the county to mark the historical associations between Devon and Newfoundland. Truth be told, Mistress A did once have her eye on a Newfoundland fisherman. Set off to sea for the cod banks and decided to stay there he did. Not that that’s any reflection on Mistress A – or probably not. Someone even stole her soul and put her image on the internet. She is listed as Medieval. Well I know she is a little old fashioned but really! Still, she hopes it means no one will realise it is her.


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Photograph by Jo Rutherford

Next we know, her name is in a news sheet known as the Tavistock Times. Not long since, she ventured south  to tell the good folk of that town of her role as a housewife and behold and low ’tis there for all to see in a news sheet. She will have to take a rest soon as the Swords and Spindles team are embarking on their busiest school term of the year, with visits to young folk in four counties, as well as addressing those of more mature years.


Mistress Agnes and her colleagues are available to participate in heritage days and give presentations to groups of all ages. They are currently taking bookings for the 2017-18 school year and beyond.

Stand by London, Mistress Agnes Cometh

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Jo Rutherford Photography

Mistress Agnes will soon be wending her way towards the capital in order to instruct folk in the matters of her time. There will advice on attire, recipes and all manner of handy hints on personal grooming and how to run your seventeenth century household. ’Tis ideal for those who do be tracing their family tree and wish to know more about the lives and times of their ancestors. If you wish to part with groats in order to be so delightfully informed then you do need to click here.

Swords and Spindles run short sessions, workshops and day courses about their life and times, suitable for history groups, heritage sites and schools.

In Celebration of #Woolweek

drying-fleece-2Someone has told Mistress Agnes that it is ‘wool week’ this week. Who knew there was such a thing, certainly not Mistress Agnes? ’Tis not really the season for her to card and spin, though as the autumn chills permeate her cottage she may be persuaded to knit the odd Monmouth cap or two. Of course Master Christopher has the first job, to shear the sheep. Then it is into the cauldron with the fleece and boil it up with some soapwort to remove all the pesky sheep’s droppings. After several days drying in hot sun, then carding begins. If she has been east to the Somerset levels, Mistress A will have picked up fullers’ teasels for this task, otherwise it is the common teasel from her garden. Carding done, rolags at the ready and ’tis time to spin. It truth be told, Mistress A isn’t awfully good at spinning, be it using a drop-spindle or the traditional spindle of Sleeping Beauty fame. Once spun, she might weave the wool to make cloth, knit or even lucette cords. Master Christopher is after new breeches but he will be lucky. He’s only had his current pair for seven years. There’s got to be a good few more years life in them yet.

Mistress Agnes will shortly be writing a column for The In-depth Genealogist. Well, not actually Mistress Agnes of course, she can’t write but she will be advising someone close to her. Her first column will be about making clothes, so there is a chance to learn more.

If you live not far from Darkest Devon you can try some of these skills for yourself at our family day on 24 October. Register your interest here.

Mistress Agnes Stirs her Cauldron

CauldronMistress Agnes’ latest acquisition is a very fine cauldron. She is all set to stir her pottage, so called because she doth cook it in a pot! She will be flinging in whatever is in season and adding anything the good master can poach acquire. Plenty of pease pottage (hot and cold) as dried peas do store so well. ’Twill also come in handy when Sir Francis demonstrates cooking methods in the time of Great Fire and Plague, not that he does any cooking himself you understand, though he doth consume much rich food and fortified wine. Never fear, Mistress Mary has a cure for gout. It does involve a poultice of cuckoo-pint and hot ox dung (that be the dung that be hot not the ox you understand) but I am sure we will cope with the aroma.

Swords and Spindles offer presentations on cooking and the herbals cures of their time. Sir Francis’ attempts to put out the Great Fire of London are not to be missed.

Mistress Agnes does the Cleaning and other Matters

You may wonder why it has seemed a little quiet on the Swords and Spindles front lately. Some of our folk have been abroad in Weston Super Mare. In fact, when spied beside the seaside, Mistress Agnes appeared to have let her hair down and removed her coif – quite scandalous for lady of her mature years. I think she was hoping to encounter some soldiers, who might have been deluded into thinking she was a catch – only if they’d consumed a quantity of ale methinks. Having failed to snare her man in Somerset, she then repaired to Barnstaple, without the guiding hand, or sword, of Master Christopher to protect her from passing Parliamentarians. There she regaled the ladies of the Soroptimists with tales of her life and times.


Now returned home to her cottage she is busy scrubbing and cleaning before the arrival of some younger folk who reside in the Swords and Spindles world occasionally. When we have painted their portraits we will tell you more. She has hauled holly bushes down her chimney, put fresh rushes on the floor and strewed herbs to take away the odour of her chickens. She has buffed up her pewter (which looks remarkably like that which Sir Francis mislaid) with pewterwort and is now off to pluck a goose to renew the feathers in her duster. After that it will be a reviving mug of lemon balm tea as Swords and Spindles are gearing up for a busy time entertaining school folk once the exam season is finished.