Newsletter 29

Welcome to the Christmas (December) issue of our occasional newsletter for 2012.


“The holly and the ivy
Now are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.”

This verse is the start of the Christmas carol ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, published by Joshua Sylvester in 1861 in his book A Garland of Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. It is a traditional carol, probably centuries earlier in date, and Sylvester himself said that it came from ‘An old broadside [song sheet], printed a century and a half since’.

Battle of the sexes

Seasonal greenery like holly and ivy were popular motifs in Christmas carols, and Sylvester’s book devotes several pages to ‘Carols in praise of the holly and ivy’, some of which have no obvious connection with the Christian religion or Christmas at all. One of these, ‘Nay, Ivy, Nay’, comes from an old manuscript dating to the reign of Henry VI (mid-15th century) and has the lines:

‘Holly and his merry men, they dance now and they sing;
Ivy and her maidens, they weep, and their hands wring.’

Holly is identified as male and ivy as female, and this song appears to be a comparison or a contest between the two evergreens, and by extension a battle between the sexes, with the refrain favouring the holly over the ivy. Yet it is a curious and ambiguous set of verses which could hide all kinds of symbolism.

Begging and giving

Holly was sometimes involved with wassailing – taking a wassail bowl around, wishing people good health and effectively begging for money. One occasion when this was done was St Thomas’s Day, on 21st December. Coinciding in the northern hemisphere with the shortest day of winter and just a few days before Christmas, this was a traditional time for begging by the poor and for the better-off to give charity. Some parts of the country had quite elaborate customs. In a few places a wassail bowl was carried from house to house to collect money by wassailers who performed songs such as ‘Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green’. Occasionally, wassailers gave the householder a sprig of holly in return for a gift (usually of money). More commonly, the wassail bowl held a festive drink such as spiced ale that was offered to those living in the house while the wassailers wished them good health, and often the bowl itself was decorated with greenery.

In the late eighteenth century it was customary for local clergymen to give sixpence or a shilling to the poor on St Thomas’s Day. James Woodforde, rector of Weston Longville in Norfolk, always gave gifts to the poor on this day, and his diary shows how prevalent the custom was in his locality. On 22nd December 1788, for example, he wrote: ‘Yesterday being St. Thomas [Day], the poor people came to my house for their Xmas gifts this morning. To 56 poor people of my parish at 6d. [sixpence] each gave £1.8.0.’ The reason for the poor people collecting their money a day late was that in 1788 St Thomas’s Day fell on a Sunday, and begging on a Sunday would have been frowned upon, particularly by clergymen. Woodforde does not tell us if his parishioners sang in return for their money, but since he does record such things on other traditional begging days, they probably just gave him their thanks and good wishes.

History of customs

Such customs are of great antiquity, and evidence for them is dispersed through a huge variety of manuscripts and publications. One early compilation of folklore and superstitions is Observations on Popular Antiquities, which was first published in 1777 by John Brand and was enlarged and revised several times. Brand died in 1806, and the edition revised by Henry Ellis and published in 1813 has an interesting sidelight on how some of the material was gathered. In a footnote to the entry on St Thomas’s Day, it was stated that ‘My servant B. Jelkes, who is from Warwickshire, informs me that there is a custom in that county for the poor, on St. Thomas’s Day, to go with a bag to beg corn of the farmers, which they call going a corning.’

Using evergreens as decorations for winter solstice festivals also has a long history, originating in pagan, probably pre-Christian, rituals, and by the sixteenth century churchwardens’ accounts recorded payments for holly and ivy to decorate churches. This seems to have occurred only in towns and cities, because presumably in the countryside such evergreens were freely available, with no need to buy them.

Banning Christmas

Many people who feel under pressure today with the commercialisation of the festive season in such difficult economic times would be relieved to see Christmas banned. That is precisely what Puritan extremists managed to achieve in the 1640s, during the Civil War and afterwards, when Oliver Cromwell and Parliament ruled without a monarch. They regarded the merrymaking during the twelve days of Christmas as a wicked festival, and not only were decorations in churches suppressed, but also Christmas itself. Even so, it is likely that many people kept their own small celebrations at home, and with the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, festivals such as Christmas were revived, along with many old customs. Certainly by the end of the eighteenth century, Christmas celebrations and decorations were widespread, though Christmas was not generally held to be as important as New Year.

Decorating with evergreens

Until only a few decades ago, it was traditional to decorate the house on Christmas Eve, and in his diary for 24th December 1788 James Woodforde in Norfolk recorded: ‘This being Christmas Eve I had my Parlour Windows dressed off as usual with hulver-boughs [holly boughs] well seeded with red-berries, and likewise in kitchen.’ Woodforde does not record whether his church was decorated at the same time, although one Yorkshire churchgoer related in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1811 that on Christmas Day, ‘The windows and pews of the Church (and also the windows of houses) are adorned with branches of holly, which remain till Good Friday.’ Evergreens like holly and ivy were (and in some places still are) easily and freely obtained in the British countryside. It is therefore not surprising that their use as mid-winter decorations should persist to the present day, though nowadays holly berries ripen several weeks earlier than in Woodforde’s time – the birds stripped the berries from the holly in our garden in early November.

Austerity Christmas

After the Second World War, when Britain was in the fierce grip of austerity, such simple evergreen decorations were the only ones available to most people. On 19th December 1946, the Daily Graphic and Daily Sketch newspaper was filled with news of austerity, though its front page also featured the lavish-looking wedding of John Henniker-Major (who died in 2004), along with advertisements that make us smile today – ‘Have a Capstan’ and ‘Keep workaday hands romantic with Hinds Honey & Almond cream’. The newspaper attempted to lift the misery of austerity with a light-hearted piece called ‘Bringing Christmas Home’, written by a ‘Noel Chanter’. It began:

‘In the busy days before Christmas I am sometimes tempted to say: I’m not going to bother with decorations this year. They make too much work. But in my heart I know that Christmas without greenery wouldn’t seem right at all. So at the last moment I find myself slipping off to the little greengrocer’s round the corner to buy a bunch of mistletoe and an armful of prickles – ruinously expensive. Presently other bits of evergreen seem to stray into the house; laurel, ivy and yew and branches of spicy fir, gifts from the garden and woods.’

The hint to go foraging for free greenery could not be clearer, although the ‘little greengrocer’s round the corner’ is now a rarity, and modern health and safety fanatics would disapprove of the next passage:

‘Then come hours of balancing precariously on chairs, and hammering your fingers, and chasing runaway berries with a dustpan and brush. All very exhausting, but well worth while. For when at last you have finished – Christmas has come into the house.’


Front page of the Daily Graphic, 19th December 1946
Front page of the Daily Graphic, 19th December 1946


The cheerful tone of the article was rounded off by a nostalgic reference to Christmas carols and evergreen decorations:

‘It’s an odd thing, but I never think you can capture the spirit of Christmas without evergreen. It wasn’t for nothing that the old carols sang their praises – “The Holly and the Ivy” and that very old favourite, “ Now we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green.”’


Part of the devastation throughout the Caribbean and the eastern part of USA caused by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 was the tragic loss of HMS (or HMAV) Bounty just before the full force of the storm hit the American coast. We took part in the filming of a family history programme on board the Bounty in June 2011 (see Newsletters 23 and 25 on our website) when the ship was in the Cornish port of Falmouth, so we were greatly saddened by the sinking of the ship and particularly by the loss of the captain and a member of the crew.


Introduction to the Romans Cover in French

Our books are translated into sixteen languages so far, though only one book is as yet translated into French – our Introduction to the Romans. We have not seen an actual copy, but we have at last found a copy of the jacket online! (which shares the same design as the German version of the book).


Pick up almost any map or atlas and even if there is no compass rose or arrow pointing north, the maps will be orientated with north at the top and south at the bottom. This is a useful convention in many ways, but it tends to influence our thinking, so that we talk of going ‘up north’ or ‘down south’ as if we were actually moving up or down the map rather than travelling overland. This rigid view of maps has even influenced modern speech, so that business people sometimes talk of a sum of money being ‘north’ or ‘south’ of a particular figure, such as ‘north of a million’ when they mean ‘upwards of a million’.

Map of France published in the early nineteenth century, drawn with north at the top
Map of France published in the early nineteenth century, drawn with north at the top

Centres of the universe

The idea of going up and down to places is sometimes distorted by other factors. Oxford students talk of going down from Oxford and up to Oxford, irrespective of where they are travelling to or from, and people living, say, to the west of London speak of ‘going up to London’. The implication is that Oxford and London are very important places, almost ‘centres of the universe’, and exactly this type of orientation was used on the earliest maps. What little is known about ancient Greek maps indicates that Greece was placed at the centre, as the most important place, and other countries were shown surrounding Greece. We have slightly more information about Roman maps, which seem to have been orientated around the city of Rome, with distances to places on the map measured in miles from Rome, while early Christian maps often had Jerusalem as their focus.

Road itineraries

From the sixteenth century increased exploration by Europeans led to improved mapmaking, but in Britain maps did not start to become common before the eighteenth century. By that time the convention of north at the top was effectively established, though there were exceptions, most notably the road itineraries or road maps, sold as books, that were popular from the seventeenth century.

Map of the road from South Molton to Hatherleigh in Devon
Map of the road from South Molton to Hatherleigh in Devon,

from an eighteenth-century itinerary based on a map published by John Ogilby in 1675.

As can be seen from the picture above, the distinguishing feature of maps in such road books is that the route is presented as a continuous ribbon, with towns, villages, side-turnings, rivers and other landmarks. This particular map is divided into four columns or strips and shows the route from ‘Bormer Comon’ (which lies to the east of the town of South Molton) as far as the town of Hatherleigh (spelled here as Hatherly). Bormer Comon has been identified as Bommertown Cross on page 67 of Paul White’s book The South-West Highway Atlas for 167 (Tamar Books) about John Ogilby’s original maps. This map reads upwards from the bottom to the top on the left-hand strip, then again from the bottom to the top on the next strip, and so on. It was impossible to position each strip so that north was at the top, but instead the compass rose might be included to indicate the direction of north. There are four compass roses on this map – the first two strips have north to the right, while the last two strips have north towards the bottom.

Such road maps attempted to give a diagram of the road as it might appear to the traveller, and this approach was far from new. The technique had been in use at least from Roman times, but it became especially popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and reprints of earlier maps, such as the one above, continued into the nineteenth century.


When researching our latest (forthcoming) book we found a record showing that Jane Austen posted a letter at Andover in 1799 when she was on her way to Bath. As far as we know, there are no commemorative plaques saying ‘Jane Austen Posted A Letter Here’, though fortunately Andover, a town on the River Anton in the county of Hampshire, does have many more claims to fame. It was important for the wool trade during the Middle Ages, but subsequently its status was as a market town located on the main road across Salisbury Plain that connected London to the West Country.

A French funeral

On Monday 15th November 1813, on the back page of the grandiosely titled newspaper The Hampshire Chronicle Or, South and West of England Pilot, the following report appeared about the funeral of a French prisoner-of-war:

‘On Saturday the 6th instant, died at Andover, where he was a prisoner of war on parole, Michael Marie Coie, a French Marine Officer. The second battalion of the 5th regiment of Foot happening to be on their march through the town on the 9th, on their route to Chelmsford, their commanding officer, Captain Boyle, most handsomely volunteered to attend his funeral. The procession commenced with a select body of the military, accompanied by their very superior band, playing the Dead March in Saul, preceding the Corpse, which was followed by the whole of the French Officers on parole, as chief mourners, attended by the remaining part of the battalion, closing with their Officers. The funeral service was read in the most impressive manner by the Rev. William Pedder, and concluded with three volleys over the grave. The attention paid to the remains of this gentleman, by those very heroes who so lately contributed to his capture, appeared to be most gratefully felt by the French Officers, and excited the most lively enthusiasm in the breasts of the inhabitants for their gallant defenders.’

Life in a parole town

The death of this French officer in captivity is especially poignant, because less than a year later he would have been released when the wars with France came to an end and Napoleon went into exile on the island of Elba. In 1813, though, the war with Napoleonic France still continued, and Andover was one of many ‘parole towns’ scattered across England and into Scotland. These were places where officers who had been taken prisoner-of-war could live relatively normal lives if they signed a declaration that they gave their word of honour (their parole d’honneur in French) not to travel beyond the boundaries of the town. In short, they could live in the town if they promised not to escape. Because of this, towns like Andover could have officers of all kinds of nationalities living there, such as French, Danish and Dutch. A similar system prevailed for captured British officers held in France. Despite the revolution in France, class distinction still operated, so that on both sides of the channel ordinary soldiers and sailors were not considered sufficiently honourable to keep their word, but were instead locked in prisons. (We deal with parole towns and prisons of this period in a little more detail in our book The War for All the Oceans.)

Andover’s part in the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

Decades earlier, Andover was also a parole town during the Seven Years’ War with France from 1756 to 1763. On 5th January 1762 the marriage between a French prisoner-of-war, Jean Drouett, about thirty years of age, and a local woman, Elizabeth Atkins, about twenty-one years old,was recorded in the parish register. Jean Drouett signed the register, and Elizabeth Atkins made her mark (undoubtedly being illiterate), and this was witnessed by Mary and John Godden.

Such marriages between prisoners-of-war and local women were not unusual, but in this case there is a legend that the couple returned to France and that Drouett became the postmaster in Sainte-Menehould in north-eastern France near the border with Belgium. If the legend is true, then Jean and Elizabeth were the parents of a son who was born on 8th January 1763. He was called Jean-Baptiste Drouett (or Drouet), and he too became the postmaster of Sainte-Menehould. In 1791, when King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette stopped there while attempting to escape over the French border to Flanders, it was Jean-Baptiste Drouett who recognised them. He took steps to ensure the arrest of the royal family when they reached Varennes, and they were taken back to Paris and executed in 1793.

Centre of routes

Andover has always been an important stop on one of the main east–west routes across southern England, which is why a battalion of the 5th Regiment of Foot was marching through in 1813, and Jane Austen often travelled via Andover on her way to Bath and the West Country from her home in north Hampshire. Later on, with the coming of the railways, Andover was an important meeting point, with stations on lines running both north–south and east–west. Towns with the same name are found in North America – there is one in New Brunswick in Canada, while the USA has towns called Andover in New Jersey, New York, Ohio, South Dakota and, appropriately, New Hampshire.


As for our forthcoming book, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, it is now with the publishers. We expect to receive the copy-edited manuscript for checking any day now, and early in the new year it is scheduled to go into production. It will be published in June 2013 (August 2013 in the US).

The jacket for the American edition, called simply Jane Austen’s England, has just been released. It has been designed to look like a sampler, one that conveys a flavour of the content of the book, using images that go beyond our traditional, romantic vision of the world of Jane Austen.

Jane Austen’s England Cover


Our first book was published in 1982 as a hardback with the title The Thesaurus of British Archaeology. When it was published in paperback the following year, the title was sensibly changed to the less stuffy The Handbook of British Archaeology and it has remained so ever since. We were very young and naive when we wrote this book and had no idea of just how much hard work it would entail. Inevitably, we missed the publisher’s deadline – by exactly a year. We have been a little more punctual with subsequent books!

The Handbook of British Archaeology Cover

Archaeology has changed dramatically since this book was written, including the development of remote sensing using various geophysical techniques and the use of computers in almost every branch of the subject. When the time came to update the original book, we knew there was so much to add that we could not do it ourselves and so the publisher arranged for another archaeologist, Victoria Leitch, to marshal a team of specialists to do the job. This resulted in greatly expanded chapters throughout the book and new, additional chapters on the Post-Medieval Period and on Archaeological Specialisms, Organisations and Legislation. The revised edition was published by Constable in 2008.

The book has now been in print for thirty years. To celebrate this anniversary we are giving away two copies of the book as prizes in our Christmas Competition below.


When The Handbook of British Archaeology was revised and updated, many new things were added, and on page 41 ‘Cranborne Chase’ is mentioned. To enter our competition, please tell us what Cranborne Chase is.

Is it:

  • A. A board game for four players
  • B. A festive drink
  • C. A place in southern England
  • D. An ancient horse race

Finally, we would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Our garden under seasonal snow
Our garden under seasonal snow