If you’re interested in some more historic details regarding plaster of Paris, albeit a little later in history than the Tudors, then you should take a look at this blog post on plaster of Paris which is part of the ever excellent Recipes Project.
Enjoy that and I’ll furnish you with the next part of our confectionery capers early next week.
Just to let you know that some degree of concern has been assuaged today as I’ve heard from Adrian that the wooden former he was supposed to be making does indeed exist….hooray!
Unfortunately the wording of his text message read thus:
She’s looking more like ‘Davros’
Don’t be surprised to find that we may gravitate towards making the potentially more lucrative sugar Davros figures rather than the sugar woman…I’ll just have to square things with the boss and we’ll be good to go! ;o)
When I last looked at the subject of firewood I said that one of the next things to do was look at the fireplaces around the Palace and see how big they were….well I had some time this past week to do that as well as some other log related work.
First on the agenda was simulated logs! I wanted some life sized stand ins for no.1 size talshides (based on the details in the Arnolds Chronicle descriptions, so 4ft long and 20 inches in circumference). Why simulated logs rather than just getting some real logs you may ask…and you wouldn’t be alone in asking. Well there are a number of reasons why…ease of availability, weight, cost and not running the risk of introducing pests such as woodworm or other insect life into the Palace; but I must say that the weight was the principle reason. The simulated logs are intended to enable discussions regarding the size and transportation of the logs within the building, not their weight, and having lightweight simulations will allow children to safely handle them, something that would be much less the case if they were actual four foot long billets of timber!
So how did I make them? Simple…we had a very large roll of large cell bubble packing material (Fun* fact…BubbleWrap, as we ALL call this
stuff is actually a trademarked brand…and most of the wrap we all use isn’t actually BubbleWrap at all, it’s another plastic cell wrapping material that isn’t allowed to be called BubbleWrap…yet we still do! *not really fun, but hey, I used to work for a packging company, got to use that experience now and again 😉 ) and a roll of 2″ brown parcel tape. Roll the wrap into a cylinder that was 20 inches in circumference, then cut to 4 foot long and wrap with tape…lots of tape, the result…
Eventually I think I’d like to make a few more so that there are enough to
allow the laying of a “fire” so that people can get a better idea of the size it seems likely that the fires would have been, but for now two will suffice. I’m not sure what it is, but when you talk to people about talshides being four foot long, they nod sagely with that look of acknowledgement that says “I hear what you’re saying but that size really doesn’t mean much to me in this abstract form”…hand them a four foot roll and say, that’s how big we’re talking about and things take on quite a dramatic change and the response changes to “wow! That big?!?”; so for now, they’re proving very useful.
Mock logs aside, I’ve spent a fair time looking through the architectural plans and the brick typology of the building to pinpoint any and all of the surviving Tudor fireplaces dotted around the Palace (not including the roasting fireplaces in the Kitchen). Currently I’ve looked at all (I think) of those in areas that are easily accessible which leaves around 6 or 7 to find in various offices and stores at some time in the future. I’m interested to see if they would have been able to accommodate a standard length talshide (4 foot) or not…if so, then the firewood listed under Bouche of Court in the ordinances could have been standard, assize sized logs.
So it looks like 60 inches, or very close to it, is the commonest size for the domestic fireplaces used to heat rooms within the Palace (and over half of the ones I’ve yet to see in the flesh are around that size too according to the architectural plans), meaning they could all utilise an assize length talshide with inches (or feet in some cases) to spare…the first image of the fireplace within the Kitchen Office includes one of the aforementioned talshide simulators (and before you ask, no I did not carry them through the Palace to test fit them in all the fireplaces, I used a tape measure) to give you an idea of the scale and to show how easily they would fit.
Did they use the standard assize length for firewood is the next question to try to find an answer for. Why might they not use the standard assize length talshides? Well it’s possible that the 3 foot talshides the Northumberland Household used were related to the available timber, that dividing the trees into 3 foot not 4 foot lengths was more efficient for the trees at hand and the same might have been true for the Court. Likewise it could be a cost related reason, that shorter lengths cost less because they could get more from any given tree, or it could be a rudimentary anti-theft mechanism; with pilfered logs being unable to be sold on the open market as they would clearly be too short to be legal under the general assize and would stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. For now all I can say is that the officers of the Woodland were expected to see “the full measures of Coales and the Assize of Wood”
whether or not that was the national assize or a specific Court one will have to form the next steps in this investigation.
One of the questions we get asked a lot is “so what wood are you burning?” and the usual answer is something on the lines of “tree wood!” Yes it sound facetious, but it’s often the most accurate answer as the timber that we burn in the kitchens today is a hotch potch mix of whatever is in stock with our supplier at the time. We’ve had all sorts over the years from oak, beech and ash all the way to yew, some stunning box that was appropriated from the flames to make knife handles and a bowling ball…yes it was that thick!…and some eucalyptus that refused to be chopped into smaller pieces and simply wouldn’t burn it was that green…we were convinced that it you could have wrung it like a sponge it would have dripped everywhere. But the one thing almost all of it has in common is that it comes in short lengths, a bit like you see for sale all over the place for people with a fashionable log burner to buy, but perhaps a little chunkier.
So we know what we burn, but how much do we burn is a little more interesting. Until we embarked on five months of daily roasting last year, the State Apartment Warders that set and tend the fire each day would use up around 4m3 of wood each week; the fire is after all burning every day, whether we’re using it to roast or not. With the daily roasting that increased slightly to 6m3 a week, so over the five months around 130m3of timber was burned…give or take! Now that might sound like a lot, especially as we were only cooking one 6Kg joint of beef a day, but can we put that in any form of context and compare it to how much wood was used by the Tudors? Possibly…with a LOT of caveats and approximation.
So first off, what does 130m3 of wood look like? Well according to the Forestry Commission timber calculator, if you can imagine a tree 2ft in diameter that’s 50ft tall….and then imagine 25 more of them…that’s what it looks like (though presumably that’s the main trunk only and not the smaller branches). Now how does that compare to the amounts that the Tudor court burned?
First stop has to be the Eltham Ordinances of which the version published in A collection of ordinances and regulations for the government of the royal household, made in divers reigns : from King Edward III to King William and Queen Mary, also receipts in ancient cookery, by the Society of Antiquaries in 1790 is most convenient to work with (even though it is prone to errors and is a mash-up of numerous sources). The ordinances defined the operating procedures for the court and give us many clues as to the operation of the household departments; though remember, the instructions given were for the court wherever it was located and not just at Hampton Court. We must not let the fact that Hampton Court survives for us to work in, cloud and confuse the textual information that we have simply because the building as we see it doesn’t always fit with the Ordinances as written. Unfortunately, the evidence that the Eltham Ordinances present us is vague to say the least! Apart from the Bouche of Court references which includes among the daily ration of bread, beer/wine and lighting, the allowance of fuel various court members were to receive as part of their membership at Court, the only useful references which may also include the fuel burned within the kitchen departments are found within the estimation of the expenses of the various departments within the household over and above those costs listed within the diets. These include the costs for Wood for Furnage of Bread and the costs for the Woodyard at £40 and £440 over and above the cost for Bouche of Court. I’ll ignore the bakery fuel for the moment as that’s clearly just for baking bread and not related to the other fires within the court, and instead concentrate on the woodyard expenses.
The question is, how much firewood would £440 get you and for that we need to look elsewhere to find useable figures. So far I have only come across 4 sets of figures where a specific quantity of wood for a specific cost is given, it’s much more common to find expenses simply for “firewood” with no quantity; and of these 4 figures, one is slightly anomalous as the cost per unit works out to be nearly 10 times greater than the other examples…I’ve still got more work to do to see if there’s a reason for that so for now am happier to stick with the lower cost per unit rather than include this much higher figure….I did say it was going to get sketchy 😎
So what are those figures? For the meeting at Guisnes wood was purchased at a cost of 178l. 9s. 5¾d for 691,400 tallwood and billet. In the same accounts, the Bishop of Durham paid 6l. 8s. 4d for 27,000 billets and finally 17s. 8d was paid for 2,500 billets for wheel wrights to make tug-pins from in 1515, a figure which usefully points out to us that these talwood and billets may not have just been for fuel. If we take these costs and divide them by the amount of wood then a figure of 0.06d per unit is arrived at meaning that the £440 spent by the woodyard would have been able to buy around 1,760,000 talshide and billet for use by the court!
But what were talshides and billets?
The sale of fuel wood was controlled by the Assize of Fuel which set the size that certain types of fuel was to be sold at. An assize set in the 34th year of Henry VIII’s reign, and according to the details in the Edward VI assize was the same as issued under Edward IV, is known to have existed but it seems that no copy survives for us to study today. The next version that does exist was set under Edward VI and then reinforced and clarified by Elizabeth. There is also a surviving Assize for the City of London which can be found in The Customs of London, otherwis known as Arnold’s Chronicle which presumably dates from the end of the fifteenth century given that the chronicle was originally published in 1503.
All of these versions of the assize define the size in both length and circumference that certain units of timber should be sold at; these units are talshides, defined from a no.1 to no.5, and billets, which come in three differing sizes. The assize also covers faggots but these were probably only used within the bakehouse at Hampton Court and thus form part of a completely different subject to the one at hand! The 7 Edw.VI cVII assize defines the five sizes of Talshides as follows:
Circumference at middle in inches
All are four foot long, not including the carf (cut) at the end of the log, and should be of the statute diameter within a foot of the middle of the log. The assize of 43 Eliz. cXIV added half and quarter cut versions for the talshides, but in a move to protect consumers stated that should a log fall between two sizes it should be considered to be the smaller of the two so that the customer effectively got the difference in size free.
Circumference at middle in inches – full
Circumference at middle in inches – half
Circumference at middle in inches – quarter
Compare these to the figures found in Arnold’s Chronicle here:
Circumference at middle
and we can see that there was a marked reduction in the size of talshides destined for sale. According to the opening statement of the Edward VI assize, this was due to a scarcity of firewood through the previous sixty years and the “Greatness” of the previous assizes…a “Greatness” of approximate 1/3 of a cubit foot (0.009m3) difference between the previous version and the Edward VI assize (presuming the assize detailed in Arnold’s Chronicle is the same as set under Edward IV); which if one considers the 1,760,000 talshides previously mentioned, would equate to 15,840m3. So the Edward VI assize would have intended quite a saving in fuel use, over 3100 of those trees I mentioned earlier in this example, though to what extent changing the unit of fuel would have impacted actual fuel use is another matter.
After talshides, billets were categorized as either single, billets called cast or billets called two cast. All were three foot four inches in length, but unlike the talshide, the carf (cut) was to be included in the length…no free fuel here, unlike the talshides. The Edward VI sizes are given as:
Circumference in inches
whereas the Elizabethan ones, which were again separated into full round, half round and quarter round, were :
Full round in inches
Half round in inches
Quarter Round in inches
though single billets were only sold as fully round. The Arnold’s Chronicle figures are..complicated and are something I currently am not quite sure about. Billets are specified as :
and I am yet to get my head around how large “of resonable proporcio[n] and gretnes after the nombre of shyde that it be tolde fore” actually was.
Now I can only suggest that you get a tape measure out to get a sense of how large some of those logs were…until I did that they were just numbers on the page and you get a better understanding when you see what they actually looked like. To help with that, I did a quick recce through the woodpile in the Kitchens at work to see how close some of the logs we have waiting to be burnt actually are to the assize sizes. None come close to the length required, with the biggest ones we have coming in at around the 2ft 6 inch mark, but I was surprised at how many were pretty close to assize in circumference. To put that measurement in context I took some photos of three logs I pulled out at random that matched the circumferences from each of the different assizes above….I’ve used the internationally recognised standard measurement unit of the post-it note (not having a football field, London taxi or Olympic swimming pool to hand!) to give the scale as the ruler I had wasn’t particularly clear in the images. FYI the post-it note is 76mm x 76mm. (click on the images to enlarge them)
Once you start to be able to picture these sizes of timber, all of the surviving mediaeval images of firewood start to make sense…regular sizes, cut to regular lengths, and even if the images aren’t English and aren’t showing firewood of English assize dimensions, this uniformity of fuel makes perfect sense. In an age where timber forms a key part of so many facets of life, proper preparation, even in the growing, makes perfect sense. Why cut and split large trees down to size when you can just harvest them when they’re at the correct size? Yes we see images of wood being split down, but it’s not large trunk logs as we’d expect to be the case today, it’s much thinner, assize sized ones.
Now all this information regarding assize sized timber is all well and good, but it is also entirely possible that the talsides used within Henry VIII’s court were of a completely different size and specification set just for the Court, as was the case for the Household of the Duke of Northumberland :
Here, shides are specified as being split down to three foot in length by a span (around 8-9 inches) thick, which would correspond to a statute #2 or #3 talshide. But what is important is to understand that the fuel used by the court was of regular, standardised dimensions and not the random assortment of timenr we have to burn today.
So where next? Well one task is to look at all the surviving sixteenth century fireplaces in Hampton Court and see if they’re big enough for a 4ft
long log to fit into…so far, the first two I’ve looked at are certainly wide enough for a 4ft talshide to be burned lengthwise across the fireplace without needing to be cut into shorter lengths; only time and further measuring will tell with the rest. As for the kitchen fireplaces, well they’re easily large enough for statute talshides to be placed in a multitude of orientations so we aim to look at different arrangements of setting the fire through the year to see if we can learn anything from practical experimentation…though obviously the first requirements for this will be to talk to our firewood supplier to see if it’s possible to get wood supplied to statute sizes at all, and if not then we’ll have to progress purely on paper.
Header image: The Pierpoint Morgan Library, MS M.452 fol. 3r, http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/3/76930