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.


Jo Rutherford Photography_-6 2
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.

And Now We Are Two

That would be two years old, not two of us. It is now two years since a small band of experienced historical interpreters decided we weren’t quite ready to retire, despite our venerable ages and that we were willing to sword and spindle our way into our sunset years.

What have we achieved in just two short years? Numerous presentations at home, abroad and at sea; some for young people, others for more mature audiences. We have recruited and trained new team members; mad fools who are willing to join in our chaotic and somewhat random existence. We have acquired many artefacts and bizarre items of equipment from rats to medical syringes. The bowing ceilings of my upstairs rooms bear testament to the weight of armour, cauldrons and instruments of torture. Master Christopher has found room for pikes, swords and muskets and we have all continued to learn more about the period that we love. We’ve run workshops, written articles and shared our knowledge with enthusiasm. We have received some amazing feedback and have had many re-bookings, so we must be doing something right. We are not complacent and continue to add new sessions to our repertoire and to improve those that we perform regularly. With a full calendar, what will the next two years bring? There are some very exciting future bookings on the horizon, which we hope we can reveal later in the year.

It has been great fun. If you have experienced and enjoyed our particular brand of entertainment, do spread the word. If this is a pleasure (and I use the word advisedly) that is yet to come, I hope that we will be presenting at a venue near you in the future. So charge your tankard with a suitable beverage, mead mayhap and join us in celebrating our birthday.

Swords and Spindles Hither and Yon

Car magnet.JPGOver the next couple of weeks we will be round and about entertaining folk from various shires. Last week and this we are in Somerset, Dorset and all corners of Devon. Next week it will be Yorkshire, the great metropolis of London and back to Devon. Our audiences have been regaled with accounts of crime, of punishment, of witchcraft, of the culinary arts, as well as general tales of our time. In preparation for our travels, Master Christopher has been sharpening his knives and renewing his supply of leeches. Mistress Agnes is packing manchet bread, marchpanes and a flagon or two of best ale. Do our prospective audiences know what they be in for? We think not.

Swords and Spindles deliver interactive presentations about life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to any who will cross their palms with sufficient groats. Distance be no object, as long as we do have enough hay to feed the horses. We are already taking bookings for 2018, so do get in touch promptly to avoid disappointment.

Mistress Agnes Wields a Quill

CCCC front coverWhat’s this? I hear you cry, Mistress Agnes? She knows not how to write. Ah, so you might think but let me share with you a well kept secret. Mistress Agnes has another life! Who would have known it? There is even a rumour that she had a hand in that wonderous tome Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs: the lives of our seventeenth century ancestors.

This very week the other Mistress Agnes has been hobnobbing with those who do wield a quill, whilst the real Mistress Agnes learned of a local rival to Master Christopher. I give you the fascinating tale of Richard Vines, early seventeenth century physician of Biddeford Town; though in truth he was more likely to have been a barber surgeon. Master Christopher need not fear the competition, as Vines, we hear tell, is off to explore the New World and little chance he has of survival. Here be an extract from a fictional tale of Master Vines but we will not be saying which Mistress Agnes was responsible and the full story may never be told, so holding of the breath is not advised. Oh, unless you do become insensible as a result and need Master Christopher’s ministrations – he could do with the business.

Blood spurted across the sawdust-strewn floor of The Ship  tavern and a chilling groan emerged from the young seaman. He was lying on the scarred and sticky table, limbs firmly pinioned by four of his crew-mates, a leather strap held between his gritted teeth. Standing over the writhing man, Vines drew the back of his grimy hand across his sweaty brow and sniffed hard, so that the droplet of moisture did not descend from the end of his pock-marked nose. He urged his assistants to tighten their grip on the patient. One of the anxious onlookers took a black leather flask from his belt and swilled a slug of usquebaugh down the hapless victim’s throat, hoping to dull the pain as Vine’s rusty saw inexorably drew back and forth, with a rasping sound.

                “Not seen a barrel make that much mess o’ a foot since I left Glasgee, these two years gone, poor gille”. The speaker shook his head slowly and fingered his ginger beard. The surgeon’s discarded blade reflected the light from the guttering tallow candle on The Swan’s warped oak mantel-shelf. He working swiftly, knowing that he had no more than three minutes to sever his patient’s shattered foot before the boy bled to death. He’d heard tales of some new French ideas, where the blood vessels were tied individually after amputation but such fanciful notions were not for the pragmatic Vines. His cautery irons were glowing cherry red in the roaring fire and a small iron pot of hot tar stood on the hearth stone, ready to encase the stump.

Richard Vines, barber surgeon to the forthcoming Gorges expedition to Maine had not expected to spend his last evening ashore operating. He’d been sat comfortably on the curved, high-backed wooden settle in front of The Ship’s welcoming fire, woollen encased lags apart, supping his ale. Four men had rushed in, half-carrying, half dragging their young crew-mate, whose foot had been crushed as he worked to load dried goods onto the Pride of Albion. The vessel could be seen through the scratched window glass, rolling and bobbing on river in the stiffening breeze, wet ropes slapping against the mast in the wind, as it was being made ready for its voyage on the morrow. Young Glover had been in The Ship earlier, downing a mug of ale and boasting to all-comers, excited to be part of the expedition, oblivious to the fact that previous ventures had failed. This would have been his first time on the cod run. His dreams of adventure were now cruelly curtailed, his ambitions dust. If he was lucky enough to survive Vine’s ministrations he was now condemned to the life of a supplicant, dependent on parish relief.

Swords and Spindles offer interactive presentations about the medicine of the seventeenth century, suitable for audiences from the ages of 9 – 99.