Thursday 9 December 2021

#HistoricalFiction author, Vivienne Brereton, is taking a look at Christmas in the time of the #Tudors. She is also sharing a recipe for a Stirling Castle Twelfth Night Cake #HolidaySeason @VivienneBreret1


A very Tudor Christmas
By Vivienne Brereton

Green growth The Holly

(Words and music by Henry VIII)

Christmas has always been my favourite time of year. ‘White Christmas’, my favourite Christmas movie. So when it came to writing a novel set in Tudor times, perhaps it’s not surprising that the final part (of ‘A Phoenix Rising, Book One of ‘The House of the Red Duke) is called ‘The Christmas Castles’. My inner elf (and inner foodie) came out to play and had endless hours of pleasure researching how the Tudors celebrated the yuletide season. In fact, my elf was granted three extra wishes because the novel is set in Scotland, England and France so that meant all three Christmases came at once.

As there is so much mention of the Christmas period in the novel, I thought it would be fun to let the words of my characters speak for themselves, rather than just write about a sixteenth century Christmas in general terms.

To set a wintry scene, here is the first excerpt. It is Christmas Day in Zennor Castle at the furthest tip of Cornwall and Cecily Tredavoe (who just happens to like Christmas as much as me! Hmm) is excited about having the four Bullen (Boleyn) children to stay….


 “I pray you, my masters, be merry,
Quod estes in convivio (As many as are at the feast)
Caput apri defero (The boar’s head I offer)
Reddens laudes Domino.’ {Giving praise to the Lord}.

The great hall was filled to the rafters with the familiar strains of my favourite carol, ‘The Boar’s Head’. Heartily joining in the chorus with my family, friends and all our guests, at the far end, I could see four Castle servants entering, bearing aloft a glazed, roasted boar’s head on a platter. It was set in a circle of red and yellow jelly, and decorated with gilded bay leaves, lemons and oranges. The music from the minstrels’ gallery above, accompanied this impressive procession across the floor.

It was gratifying to see the rapt expressions on the faces of the two Bullen boys, watching the progress of the boar around the hall. Although it was a Tredavoe family tradition and the centrepiece of the Christmas festivities, the entrance of the boar’s head never lost its appeal. Thanks to a double-wicked wax candle that had been wrapped in cotton and soaked in aqua vitae, before being placed in the roasted boar’s mouth, our cook was able to produce a particularly fearsome, fire-breathing effect.

Christmas was my best-loved time of the year; without exception, the Castle would be transformed into a riot of colour. Yesterday, on our return from the chapel, nursing our great secret, we’d excitedly helped the servants hang the usual decorations. Green garlands with their bright red berries were strewn everywhere, including the famous Kissing Bough made of willow and covered in greenery, with its effigy of the child Jesus in the centre.

There were oranges, dried fruit, and candles in every nook and cranny, and the famed Lord of Misrule (in this case, Hugh, our family steward) had replaced Father for a day of mischief and merriment. Beyond the diamond-paned windows, the December sea was grey and stormy, but inside there was a roaring fire, good cheer and much laughter.

With so many friends, neighbours, relations, as well as a large part of the local gentry, gathered this year, no expense had been spared. As well as the boar, lavish helpings of swan and goose were being served to make up for the lack of meat, cheese, or eggs, yesterday. Hogsheads of ale, Gascon claret and white wine had been rolled out of the cellar for our guests, although of course I was only allowed to consume the weak ale intended for the sick and the young.

‘I don’t think I can eat another thing!’ protested Nan Bullen in a loud voice, clutching her stomach and winning her a glare from her nearby father for showing such bad manners in company.

I smiled to myself, knowing full well that all the food we’d just eaten was shortly to be followed by the famous Zennor Castle mince pies. They were in the shape of a crib and made from thirteen ingredients to represent Jesus and his Apostles, including my favourites of fresh chopped coriander and saffron. This last had been bought in October from a travelling peddler who told me he was from a strange-sounding place in Essex called Chipping Walden.

‘Don’t worry, Nan, you’ll find room for mince pies and warden pie,’ I assured her, first checking that Thomas Bullen was no longer listening.

She playfully puffed out her cheeks and I made a face back, knowing no one could resist the delicious, piping hot pie, using Tredavoe pears and the peddler’s saffron.


Being such a Christmassy person, my novel began with Twelfth Night and ended with it too. Traditionally, New Year’s Day was when people gave gifts. Christmas Eve was not quite as jolly as it perhaps is today because, as the last day of Advent, it was a day of fasting. Having said that, I quickly learned from browsing through all my medieval cookbooks that a cook had to make days of fasting as good as all the others…because there were an awful lot of them.

As Maître Jacques, the French cook in my novel says:

This is when almonds become a cook’s saviourgiving us butter, cheese and milk.’

With Twelfth Night recurring throughout the novel as a day of importance, I incorporated it into the story and even used it for a plot twist or two. The Prologue opens with a pair of young lovers meeting illicitly in a bedchamber above while below the Twelfth Night festivities continue apace….

They fell silent for a few moments, the air between them thick with unspoken words; from the great hall below, came the faint sound of drums and the strains of a hurdy gurdy, interspersed with gales of laughter from the revellers.

The boy nodded towards the door, a thick swathe of dark chestnut hair falling across his face. ‘“Le branle des chevaux” {‘the horses’ brawl’}. Your brother seems to be leading everyone a merry dance in his role of Lord of Misrule. What luck he managed to find the bean in the Twelfth Night cake.’

His companion gave a mischievous giggle. ‘I confess luck has very little to do with it. Will and I long ago decided that finding the bean should be a matter of family honour.’

Baking a cake with a bean concealed inside was a tradition followed in several countries around Europe, including France. Here, little Valentine de Fleury is complaining to an old man she’s just met in the manor kitchens that there won’t be a Twelfth Night Cake this year, much to her disappointment….

We’re not allowed to have a King and Queen of the Bean today because the real ones are coming to dine. Papa said it would be disrespectful.’

Across the North Sea, James of Scotland explains to his Tudor wife, Queen Margaret, how the French celebrate Twelfth Night differently to their own version of Uphaliday….

It’s called the Feast of Epiphany or “La fête des Rois” and, just as we do, they choose a King and Queen of the Bean to reign over it.’

‘Do they hide a bean in a cake too?’

‘Aye. The man who finds the bean in his slice is made king.’

‘Then he chooses his Queen?’

‘Ah, they do that a little differently. All the names of the bonniest young lasses at court are put in a hat. Then the newly created King of the Bean pulls out the name of his queen to cries of: “La reine est faite!” The pair are then set to make as much mischief as they like.’


In Ardres Castle, near Calais, on Twelfth Night, 1513 (towards the end of the novel), the traditional cake becomes an object of controversy when two young men, Nicolas de La Barre, and Tristan d’Ardres, are vying for the attentions of a beautiful young girl, married to a man twice her age. Whoever finds the bean will hold the heart of his Queen….

Nicolas hoped to discover a bean amongst the dried fruit and be chosen as King of the Bean. That would provide him with extra opportunity to carry out his mission. To his annoyance, Tristan had been the one to find the bean…although the circumstances were somewhat suspicious. Nicolas could have sworn he saw a knowing look pass between Tristan and the Castle pastry cook.

Of course, Twelfth Night wouldn’t be Twelfth Night without Henry VIII having to get in on the act. For the same celebrations of 1513, he orders a feast at the Palace of Placentia, Greenwich, worthy of an Emperor from ancient Rome, as well as a masque in the Italian style….

I want this to be the biggest and best Twelfth Night ever! Louis of France will discover I’m not some pinch-spotted, twenty-one-year-old, not long finished playing with his wooden soldiers. I want him to know who I am. And leave him in no doubt that there’ll be a war this year.’

With all this talk of Twelfth Night and the cake containing the bean, it seems only fitting to finish off with a recipe for it. It appears as a Stirling Castle recipe in the novel, but why not? It’s quite possible their Castle cook produced something similar. This one was very kindly given to me by Sophie Jackson from her wonderful book ‘The Medieval Christmas’ {Sutton Publishing}. I tried out the recipe myself, (complete with bean), and was very pleasantly surprised by how delicious it was. I can thoroughly recommend it.

  Thank you to Mary Anne for letting me write about one of my favourite subjects. A Very Happy Christmas! And fun-filled Twelfth Night everyone. May you be the one to find the bean….

Stirling Castle Twelfth Night Cake…

170g (6 oz) butter
170g (6 oz) sugar
170g (6oz) flour
½ teaspoon each of:
Ground allspice, ground cinnamon, mace, ground ginger, ground coriander, ground nutmeg
2 grinds of pepper
3 tablespoons of brandy
3 eggs
340g (12 oz) currants
42g (11/2 ounces) flaked almonds
One orange and one lemon grated.
1 tablespoon of honey

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C. Grease and line a 15cm round cake tin. For the outside of the tin, prepare two strips of greaseproof paper and one long strip of silver foil. For the top, cut a sheet of greaseproof paper and one of silver foil. A piece of string will be needed to hold it all in place.

1)   Soften the butter in a mixing bowl. Add the sugar and cream together with the butter until the mixture appears light and fluffy.
2)   Add the eggs one at a time, beating well and also adding one tablespoon of flour to prevent curdling. Once all the eggs are mixed in, add the brandy, then the flour and spices, folding them in to keep air in the mixture.
3)   Finally stir in the currants, almonds, lemon and orange peel and honey.
4)   Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. At this point, you could also add a dried pea or a dried bean to the cake. Do not use a kidney bean.
5)   Cook for half an hour at 150 degrees C and then cover the top with a sheet of greaseproof paper beneath one of silver foil. Turn the oven down to 140 degrees C and bake for a further one hour fifteen minutes. For the last ten/fifteen minutes, remove the foil to brown the top more. When a warm rounded knife is placed inside, it should come out clean.

 A Phoenix Rising

(The House of the Red Duke, #1)
By Vivienne Brereton

“If I have anything to do with it, we Howards will live forever.”
Thomas Howard Charismatic head of one of the most powerful Houses in Tudor England. An indomitable old man approaching eighty: soldier, courtier, politician, a ‘phoenix’ rising from the ashes. After a calamitous period of disgrace, the Howards, renowned for their good looks and charm, are once more riding high at the court of Henry VIII.

Set against the backdrop of the extraordinary 1520 ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’, it is a tale of ambition, love, and intrigue, with Thomas at the centre of this intricate tapestry

Will Thomas’s bold vow be fulfilled? Danger stalks the corridors of the royal courts of Europe. Uneasy lies the head beneath a crown. Every other ruler - a fickle bedfellow…or sworn enemy.

The action takes place in England, Scotland, and France. On either side of the Narrow Sea, four young lives are interwoven, partly unaware of each other, and certainly oblivious to what Dame Fortune has in store for them.

“Nicolas de La Barre laid his lute to one side, hardly bothering to stifle a yawn of boredom. Nevertheless, he couldn’t escape the fact he’d agreed to take on a new wife….”

Explosive family secrets are concealed behind the ancient walls of castles in three lands. But…

“There are no secrets that time does not reveal.”

 Pick up your copy of

A Phoenix Rising

 Vivienne Brereton

I’ve always loved the Tudor period, from a very early age, have a degree in medieval history. I’ve lived in six different countries in my life and soaked up the history in each one. I now live in France which made writing about three different countries and cultures easier for me. I’ve always worked with words wherever I’ve lived: teaching, editing, writing.

I’m married with three sons so plenty of scope for Nicolas and Tristan! Anne Boleyn was the only character I found slightly elusive. All the others were so vivid, I had no problem getting into their heads. Of the kings, James was my favourite and after all my reading I hope I did him justice. All were brilliant men. Renaissance men, so cultured. What would they make of ours today? Harry could easily pass for Henry’s naughty little brother. Not sure Charles would make the grade.

Connect with Vivienne: WebsiteBlogGoodreads.

1 comment:

  1. I will be trying out the Stirling Castle Twelfth Night Cake. It sounds delicious. xxx


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx