In honor of Valentines Day, I thought I’d share a heartwarming story of love and devotion that I stumbled upon when Ashdown House was in the news last fall (and share a diabolically simple dessert to compliment their story and the holiday).
Legend has it that the Dutch-style manor, Ashdown House, was built for William, Lord Craven to serve as an exquisite bower for his beloved Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I and Queen of Bohemia for one short winter in 1619 before she and her husband, Frederick V were expelled and forced into exile (Bohemia was the old name for the Czech Republic).
Frederick V died in 1632 after fathering 13 children with his much loved queen. It was a tragic ending to a marriage that had begun with enormous promise (to bind a faction of the Protestant world together) and pomp (Shakespeare and his players performed a special Tempest just for them to celebrate their betrothal in late 1612) -- their English wedding was one of the grandest ever seen. Frances Yates in her brilliant book The Rosecrucian Enlightenment wrote: “ … all the treasures of the English Renaissance were outpoured, and London went wild with joy at what seemed a continuation of the Elizabethan age in this alliance of a new young Elizabeth with the leader of the German Protestants…The court bankrupted itself through the vast expenditures in clothes, jewelry, entertainments and feasting for their marriage."
It is from this brief monarchy that the title “Winter Queen” was born. Also called “England’s Pearl” and “The Queen of Hearts”, Elizabeth was a contemporary romantic heroine, renowned for her beauty, grace and wit yet buffeted by tragic circumstances in a turbulent age (she was only 9 when she was made an unwitting pawn of the infamous “Gunpowder Plot” to unseat her father, King James I).
Elizabeth and her family barely escaped Prague with their lives, leaving most of their possessions behind and forced to live in penury while exiled in The Hague. She lost most of her jewelry to pawnbrokers just to be able to live, yet pride would never let her part with the priceless Medici pearls that were her trademark. She would pawn them then retrieve them when she could. She and her daughters can be seen wearing them in most portraits.All the while she worked tirelessly though a prodigious letter writing campaign to enlist the great and powerful in her cause (you can read about that HERE) as the 30 Years War (1618-48) raged on (a war precipitated by her husband’s crowning as King of Bohemia).
Fascinating as this may be, where is the love story, you may ask? This is a Valentine’s post! Here you go, gentle readers...
There was another part of Elizabeth’s life, a theme that played quietly throughout. Amid these crashing waves of history there was a precious, touching love story of unrequited love and devotion.
You see, William, the first Earl of Craven was in love with Elizabeth Stuart for most of his life. As far as anyone can tell, this love was never consummated. He fell for her as a lad of 16 (she was 28) and worked tirelessly to help her for the rest of her life behind the scenes, even though she referred to him as “the Little Man” or “Little Craven” because of his small stature. This was possible because although he was nouveau riche… there was a whole lot of riche. His father had moved stratospherically upward in society from poverty to great success in the rag trade and used his position and his wits to amass an enormous fortune, eventually becoming Lord Mayor of London and moneylender to the crown.
William, Lord Craven had a good ‘back-story’ of his own. At novelist and historian Nicola Cornick's fine blog Ashdown House, I found a biography of this forgotten cavalier. Today he is most famous for his enduring, unrequited love for Elizabeth, but there is so much more to him. The Earl of Craven was one of the 9 richest men in Stuart England. He served bravely in the army of Maurice of Orange while still in his teens and remained on the continent during the Commonwealth (much of the time hovering around Elizabeth).
Craven put large chunks of his wealth at the disposal of Elizabeth, her ill-fated brother Charles I and her nephew Charles II when he could -- to the tune of £50,000 (perhaps 100 million today!!!) even with most of his money tied up and most of his lands confiscated.
When Charles II was restored to the throne (April 23, 1661), Craven came back to England … with a 65 year old Elizabeth. Craven’s generosity increased with his fortune that was to become even larger than before when he was richly rewarded by the crown for his loyalty.
Her former residence in The Hague was a renowned gathering-place for the great minds and talents of the age and she wielded a remarkably powerful influence on the arts. It was a testament to her charms as the place was run-down, full of tattered upholstery, her beloved ‘viol-brown’ silk draperies hung in shreds and all of her best plate had been pawned for bills. She sometimes wanted for enough food for the household and could not entertain lavishly-- still they came.
After the poverty of her exile in The Hague, Craven set Elizabeth up in his own well-appointed house in Drury Lane, London. Now, for the first time in years, she wanted for nothing. Craven went so far as to fill the London house with items from Coombe Abbey, a childhood haunt of hers that he had acquired so that she would be feel at home. Craven, forever faithful, began to construct a country house for her when she complained about the noise and crowding in London... Ashdown House. Tragically, she died suddenly, barely a year after her return at age 66 before the house was finished.
After the death of his beloved, Craven showed enormous courage during the Great Plague of 1665 by remaining in London when the rest of the aristocracy fled, working to restore order -- even going so far as to give up some of his own land to use as burial grounds for the plague dead (15% of the population of London died in the summer of ’65).
In the end, Elizabeth acknowledged her faithful friend by willing him all of her papers and pictures. He lived to be nearly 90, surrounded by enumerable portraits of his love and her family. The painting “Allegory of Love” by Peter Lely was commissioned after her death but is reputedly an idealized Craven and his Elizabeth -- oil-painted avatars blissfully bound together on canvas as they could never be in life.
Cornelia, Countess of Craven gave Ashdown House to the National Trust in 1956. The National Trust then took to leasing out the much-aggrieved property (it had been badly abused during WWII). The most recent holders of the lease hunted down and returned to Ashdown House the paintings of Craven, Elizabeth and her family that had been scattered over the 300 odd years since the First Earl of Craven died. They took over a burnt-out shell of a place in 1984. Over 26 years they restored both the collection and the house to its former glory.
Yet after all that effort to bring the collection back to Ashdown, the contents were sold in fall 2010 in a grand sale (the notice of the sale was how I discovered the story) and the 41 year lease for the house was sold to The Who’s Pete Townsend for a song… a £4.5 million song. Townsend said that he based many of the songs in Tommy and Quadrophenia on the music of baroque master Henry Purcell so he must have a fondness for the period in which the house was built. One hopes he will be happy there.
It was a pity all the glorious portraits were dispersed, but the story lives on. Elizabeth lived a full life playing a dramatic and principal role during extraordinary times. Being a woman of quality and taste (if not always sufficient funds to support those tastes), she paid attention to her surroundings and her table in the best and the worst of times.
Marie Hay wrote The Winter Queen (that you can read HERE) in 1911. Although a romance, Hay did an enormous amount of research -- using period letters and documents (including snagging access to Lord Craven’s papers) -- even traveling to Prague and Heidelberg to get a better sense of her “well-beloved, sweet, undaunted lady”. Hay does paint a well-rounded, if extremely flowery portrait of her heroine and ably points out the changes in style that were occurring during these turbulent times in England and the continent.
At table, the simple Tudor pewter and pottery were replaced by more elaborate silver, pewter and glass during Elizabeth’s lifetime. Food historian Peter Brears wrote in his little book, Food & Cooking in 17th Century Britain, “In 1670, for example, Prince Rupert [Craven administered his estate as well as Elizabeth his mothers’] purchased five dozen silver plates from Alderman Blackwell, each plate weighing 17 ó ounces at 5s 8d per ounce, the whole set costing almost £300.” “Since solid silver was extremely expensive, many households used pewter as a substitute [pewter cost 1s to 1s 2d per pound]”.
The BYO knife and spoon (even aristocratic tables were not set with cutlery… you had to bring your own) gave way later in the 16th century to the host providing eating implements. The hand was no longer the preeminent dining tool. Hay’s book had a fine description of a banquet for Elizabeth and Frederick in Heidelberg in 1617, mentioning very specifically the unusual refinement of having individual knives, spoons and goblets and clean silver and gold platters (the custom had been to reuse them without washing between uses at table) in addition to some of the 160 glorious feast dishes:
This was radical behavior. During this same time period in the court of Louis XIII, they still had their goblets or tankards off the table at grand banquets. Goblets were passed to diners by servants when the diner was thirsty. I imagine glass became more popular when goblets were left on the table and not carried back and forth by servants as became common later on in the century. Neither were napkins set to each placesetting. It was an honor to hand napkins to royalty when needed since they didn’t hold them themselves (according to Katharine Alexandra Patmore in her 1909 book on Louis XIII).
This period also saw the beginnings of the more intimate dining room as opposed to the enormous banquet hall. Old houses were retro-fitted and new houses were built with them.
Late 17th Century Knife and fork/Netherlands—the knife no longer pointed since the fork could now spear the food!
Hay also wrote about less formal occasions and the way Elizabeth brought her English habits with her – especially the snowy white tablecloth (Hay said the Germans preferred Oak and fancy velvet coverings). Their morning meal with soups and roast chickens, pasties, game, possets cakes and sweetmeats sounds more like a huge dinner than a breakfast.
You can see below the type of table dressing that may have appeared at Elizabeth’s table. I don’t know about you but I am crazy about the damask. What gorgeous tables they must have had!
Ceramics masters like Thomas Toft operated in Burslem at Staffordshire potteries making slipware that was the popular ceramic form toward the end of the 16th century. Brears suggests that the pottery became more popular since pewter was so soft that it scarred dreadfully… the glazed slipware held up to the ravages of cutlery.
1560's Venetian Glass Plate and Detail
I wanted my dessert to have the taste and romance of this history for Valentines to honor Craven’s love and devotion. I went to Robert May whose cookbook, The Accomplisht Cook, was new when Elizabeth of Bohemia was alive. May’s rosewater and ambergris cream (or boiled cream as he called it) would be perfect, but what with it? Raspberries, yes voluptuous, red and sweet -- blood-red raspberries -- warm and yielding in ambergris-scented wine… yes, yes, yes and easy as could be to make.
People think of ice cream or whipped cream with fruit… but an old-fashioned creamy rose-scented sauce is really elegant and lovely with the berries. And the ambergris? I know I’ve said it before HERE and it is precious, but unlike, say, a truffle, you need so very little to do so very much and it has Olympic staying power… it stays fragrant for years! It is sublime stuff with a reputation as an aphrodisiac that goes back thousands of years. Perfect for Valentine’s Day, don’t you think?
Thanks to Aftelier (for their rose essence) and Ambergris NZ (for their ambergris) -- supplying special magic for Valentine’s Day…. May you all have a great one.
Raspberry Sauce with Port for 2
11/2 cups frozen raspberries
½ c port or banyuls
1/2 c water
2 T sugar
1 drop Aftelier rose essence or 1 t rosewater
grating of ambergris (optional)
1 cup cream
1 egg yolk
2 T sugar
pinch of mace
1 drop Aftelier rose essence or 1 t rosewater
1 drop Aftelier rose essence or 1 t rosewater
grating of ambergris or ¼ t vanilla
1 c fresh ripe raspberries
Cook the frozen raspberries with the port and sugar for ½ hour over low heat until liquid becomes thickened. Strain the sauce pressing hard on the solids. You should have about 1/3 - 1/2 c.
Heat the cream, sugar and mace with the egg yolk over a low heat until slightly thickened. Cool… it will have a sauce-like consistency… not custardy. Add the rose essence and grated ambergris now and cover and chill – it is best cool or warm, not cold.
Warm the fresh raspberries in the sauce. Add the rose essence (or rosewater) to the warm raspberries and grate the ambergris over it at this point or add the vanilla. Heat melts the ambergris and releases the perfume.
Place the raspberries in the center of the plate, spoon some sauce over the berries, spoon a thin layer of cream and then put dots of sauce in the cream. Drag a toothpick through the dots and you have hearts! It is very easy to do. I think they are more stable when the cream is cool and the sauce is warm…
Just for Valentine’s Day, I give you a lovely drink. It’s sweet, and full of amazing flavors with a color you will just love. Hard cider has lovely bubbles at a fraction of the cost of champagne! The jasmine leaves your mouth perfumed for kissing on Valentines Day!
Red Dusk for 2
½ c sparkling hard cider (I used Crispins)
2 T blueberry syrup*
1 t lemon juice (up to 1 T if you find the drink too sweet)
1 T Liqueur de Poete (this is a 23 year old pear brandy base that has had gorgeous botanicals added to the mix including sandalwood… a really special liqueur available online and at fine liquor stores)
-- pear brandy or cognac if you can’t get it in time.
1 drop of Aftelier jasmine essence
Combine all and stir. Pour into champagne glasses and serve;
2 cups blueberries
sugar to taste (2 T to ¼ c)
½ c water
Put all into saucepan and allow to simmer for ½ hour. Strain, pressing on solids
You have just enough time to get some of Aftelier's divine essences to add to your cooking, or her perfumes to pamper yourself or a loved one for Valentine's Day by pressing HERE