Our #FamilyTreeLive Adventures

It has been some days since the good folk of Swords and Spindles ventured to the bright lights of the big city to entertain all comers at Family Tree Live. Truth be told it has taken us some time to walk home, not having the aid of horseless carriages as modern folk do.

We had a wonderous time sharing details of our lives. We recruited an army for the king, equipping volunteers with armour and sword. There were many shameless women sporting the britches of a man but we were swift to advise them on modest dress, not that the goodwives amongst our company know aught of modesty.

Mistress May whiled away the time with toys and other frivolities.

Master Christopher cured a few ailments and none returned for a second ‘cure’. He claims that this is because of the efficacy of his treatments but in truth methinks it may be more to do with the invasive nature of his interventions.

Sir William and Sir Francis deigned to associate with the peasantry. Mayhap they had their eyes out for the witches amongst us. Passers-by were challenged to solve the puzzle of the horseshoes and a few glasses of ale were earned by the gentlemen, as visitors failed to rise to the challenge.

We were grateful to the disreputable Goody Begum, who helped us whilst Mistress Agnes had to travel to the twenty-first century.

There were many enquiries for our services so mayhap you will encounter us out and about afore long.

Swords and Spindles and friends


If you go Down to #FamilyTreeLive on 26 & 27 April ………. Part 4: Sir Francis Holyoake

witchfinderSir Francis is a casualty of the Battle of Naseby and great friend of Samuel Pepys. We hear tell he was in London Town during times of plague and fire. He wields a sword with relish and will demonstrate the niceties of sword etiquette to all-comers. It is Sir Francis’ role to deal with miscreants with aplomb. If you need anyone hanged, drawn and quartered, Sir Francis is your man. Gossips will be ducked and scolds bridled. If there are witches amongst you, Sir Francs will seek them out.

In his 21st century life Sir Francis spends time, storytelling, acting and helping to run a North Devon Arts Centre. In another role, he will soon be spending 15 hours watching paint dry, whilst invigilating A level art exams.

If you go Down to #FamilyTreeLive on 26 & 27 April ………. Part 1: Mistress Agnes

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Photograph by Jo Rutherford

Just who might good folk encounter should they dare to venture to stand 167 at Family Tree Live? So that you might be suitably forewarned, we will be preparing you for all eventualities over the next few weeks. Should you need advice on suitable attire, then Mistress Agnes will be on hand. Goodwives and young folk may have the chance of what you folk from our future might call ‘the make over’. Under the guidance of Mistress Agnes, this will include advice on attracting stray soldiers, as well as adopting appropriate styles of bodice lacing.

Should you wish to heed the words of Bartholomew Dowe (Dairy Book for Housewives 1588), then Mistress Agnes will assist you to ‘Arise early, serve God devoutly, then to thy work busily. To thy meat joyfully, to thy bed merrily, and though thou fare poorly and thy lodging homely, yet thank God devoutly.’ To follow the instructions of Gervase Markham (The English Housewife 1615) might be somewhat more challenging: ‘Our English housewife must be of chaste thought, stout courage, patient, untired, watchful, diligent, witty, pleasant, constant in friendship. Full of good neighbourhood, wise in discourse, but not frequent therein, sharp and quick of speech, but not bitter or talkative, secret in her affairs, comfortable in her counsel, and generally skilfull in all the worthy knowledges which do belong to her vocation.’ Be not daunted. Mistress Agnes will be on hand to ensure that you are well drilled in all matters of housewifery.

CCCC front coverIn real life, Mistress Agnes (aka Janet Few) is an historian and author; indeed it is she who has penned the account of our seventeenth century lives Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs: the lives of our seventeenth century ancestors. This worthy tome will be available to you, in exchange for good coin of the realm, on stand 167, along with Mistress Agnes’ other works, including her recent historical novel Barefoot on the Cobbles. As her twenty-first century self, Mistress Agnes will also be presenting a session Early Twentieth Century Family History: some sources for tracing English families and leading a workshop on deciphering Victorian handwriting.

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Swords and Spindles offer a wide range of presentations and living history experiences, based on life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

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

Shooting Children and a Chance to Save Groats

Wadebridge 2017Well the Swords and Spindles folk managed to escape from Cornwall, though their route home was a somewhat tortuous one. Given the title of this post, mayhap we should point out that no children were harmed in the course of our visit. ’Tis possible they even felt better as a result of one of Master Christopher’s ‘cures’.

The good folk of Devon Rural Archive treated us right royally as usual, even though they be of a Parliamentary persuasion down that way.

Now we be gearing up for the busiest time of year. For some reason many good masters and mistresses seem to want us to entertain their pupils in the summer term. Loins girded, packhorses saddled and armour polished; we are ready for almost anything, including the delights of engaging with teenagers.

Hard though it is to believe, it is five years this week since Mistress Agnes’ tome Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs: the lives of our seventeenth century ancestors first reached the booksellers. It is the May choice as ‘book of the month’ by the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies and can therefore be purchased for fewer groats than normal. Even the carrier pigeon to deliver it to your UK home is free. A wonderous opportunity not to be missed.

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.

From the Bookshelf of Mistress Agnes

CCCC front coverBookshelf? I hear you cry. Surely Mistress Agnes hath insufficient groats for such a thing? To say nothing of the fact that she cannot read. Well ’tis true, books are not for the likes of her but she knows that folk like to learn of her time, so she has made a list of just a few that might enlighten those who wish to study the written word. So good folk, travel up the Amazon (is that not a River in the New World?), consult thy Kindle (nowt to do with kindling we’re told) or visit the independent bookseller of your choice and avail yourself of these wonderous treasures. Of course if you wish to peruse the tome that Mistress Agnes herself advised upon then do get in touch. That way you will receive a copy inscribed with her mark.