Welcome back! Today is the second installment of Jonathan Posners The Witchfinders Well. If you haven’t read the first part, read it HERE.
The Queen was dispensing her wisdom to the courtiers on either side, who were hanging on her every word and laughing sycophantically, even though Justine didn’t think the Queen was actually trying to be funny.
Justine sighed deeply. For all that she liked to pretend to herself that events such as this were real, in truth this was just a modern-day re-enactment of a Tudor banquet. The setting was real enough – the magnificent Grangedean Manor genuinely dated back to the late 1400s – but now it was a National Trust property, purposefully restored to its Tudor period as a ‘living museum’.
The costumes were all hired from the special fancy dress store in the old stables, and were held together with Velcro and poppers, not laced and tied as they should have been. They were a modern-day approximation of the Tudor costume; made for ease of putting on, not authenticity.
The dishes that had been served for the meal were cooked in a modern-day kitchen set up to standards demanded by the environmental health officer, and while the dishes were close enough to the Tudor recipes, the reality was that they were only interpretations for 21st century tastes. Even the peacock had really been a pheasant in disguise.
The ‘courtiers’ were the CEO and Board of an American corporate with offices in the UK, while the other guests were members of their teams. They had signed up for the Genuine Tudor Banquet Experience at Grangedean Manor – Complete with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I and as the events manager, Justine had been determined to give them their money’s worth.
Looking down at the glow of the candles on the bright, happy faces, she thought she’d done OK.
She had wanted to welcome them on arrival with a full tour of the magnificent 15th century manor house and grounds, so a week before she had sought out Mrs Warburton, National Trust volunteer tour guide and retired schoolteacher, whose knowledge of Grangedean Manor was encyclopaedic and whose no-nonsense disciplined approach meant she could be relied upon to keep control of such a large party.
Justine had found Mrs. Warburton in the Master Bedroom; she was a tall, ramrod-straight woman with iron-grey hair wearing a tweed twinset that looked like it was straight out of the 1950s. She was in the middle of explaining to a family how Tudor people managed their clothing.
“Clothes were kept in wooden chests like these,” she was saying, “rather than hanging in wardrobes like we do now.”
“They couldn’t have got much in there,” said the mother, looking dubiously at the metal-bound oak chest at the end of the bed. It was about five feet long by three feet high and three feet wide.
“There may have been more than one chest in a bedroom, particularly for the nobility like Sir William de Beauvais, who owned the manor in the 1560s,” explained Mrs. Warburton. “But the truth is they didn’t have anywhere near as many clothes as we do now, and only really changed their underclothes to keep clean. Sometimes all they did was unlace the sleeves on their outfit and lace on new ones.”
“Ugh!” exclaimed the daughter, who looked about fourteen. “Didn’t they smell rank?”
“Very possibly,” said Mrs. Warburton matter-of-factly, “but that would have been the same for most. Certainly the poorer people.”
“So didn’t they, like, have baths and stuff?” asked the girl incredulously.
“Occasionally, but only the nobility. A copper or wooden tub would be brought into the bedroom and filled with water heated on the fire. Herbs would be sprinkled on the water to make it smell good, and soap for the rich would be made with olive oil. The poor – they would wash in a stream or with a bucket of water and soap made of animal fat.”
“Eww, gross,” said the girl.
Justine couldn’t let this go unchallenged. “No, no, no!” she interjected, her eyes shining brightly. “The Tudors were absolutely wonderful people!”
The family and Mrs. Warburton all turned to look at her in surprise.
“Sorry to butt in, Mrs. Warburton,” she went on, “but I wouldn’t want this young lady to think the Tudors were ghastly at all. Imagine you were in Tudor times,” she said brightly. “There would be lots of dancing, great banquets that lasted for hours, riding in the park and handsome young men just itching to go out with you! It would be such fun!”
“Suppose,” said the girl, not looking convinced.
“And beautiful gowns to wear and jewellery and dainty shoes…”
Just then the girl’s father intervened. Casting concerned glances at Justine, he said, “Come, Shaz, time to go, I think.”
The girl Shaz said, “But didn’t they, like…?” then caught the expression on her father’s face, and shut her mouth. The family shuffled quickly out, leaving Justine alone with Mrs. Warburton.
“You are very enthusiastic, my dear,” observed the older lady drily. “Maybe just a little too much, perhaps? Although I am not sure that the girl, Shaz, wasn’t starting to become just a tiny bit more interested in the Tudors.”
Justine laughed. “Maybe. Maybe not. But Grangedean Manor can have that effect, can’t it?”
Mrs. Warburton thought about this a moment, her hands clasped together and her lips pursed. “Yes, it can. It can certainly make you feel like the Tudors are alive, and may come through a door at any moment. But only if you’re that kind of person. I am not sure that Shaz was really that kind of person.” She smiled. “Anyway. Did you want me, Miss Parker?”
“Oh yes,” said Justine, “Yes, yes, I did. In fact, you’re absolutely the very person I wanted. I have a large party of Americans coming next Thursday for a banquet, and I would really love it if you could very kindly show them round before we get them changed into their Tudor outfits?” Justine smiled warmly. “I am sure you’ll be absolutely brilliant at keeping them together and giving them a really wonderful tour. There’s no one who knows more about Grangedean Manor than you.”
“I suspect you actually know at least as much as I do, Miss Parker,” observed Mrs. Warburton with just a hint of amusement in her voice. “But no matter. Of course I’ll show them round.”
“That’s great! Great! Thanks!” said Justine happily. “I’m putting the schedule together and I’ll email it to you later.”
“I don’t really look at emails,” said Mrs. Warburton. “Can you not print it out for me?”
“Yes, of course,” said Justine. Then she added, “But you really should use emails – they’re so easy.” She held up her phone. “I get them on my PC and on this phone, so I have them wherever I go.”
“I am sure that works well for you, but I prefer the old fashioned methods of communication,” observed Mrs. Warburton, “such as writing,” she shook her head, “and talking.”
“Ahh, but this talks as well,” said Justine opening up the battered cover protecting her phone.
“It is a phone, so I suppose it does. Although it is actually the other person that does the talking, is it not?”
“No, no, it’s the phone,” Justine insisted. She tapped to open an app and held up the screen for Mrs. Warburton to peer at vaguely. “It actually talks if you want it to! It’s brilliant! You can type text into this special app, then tap on a button here and it says what you’ve written. You can choose what voice you want it to talk in, as well. Look…” She quickly typed and tapped the screen. The phone said, “Hello, Missus Warburton.” It was slightly robotic, but reasonably clear. Justine looked at the older lady in triumph, challenging her not to be impressed.
“What will they think of next?” said Mrs. Warburton politely.
Justine closed her phone cover and dropped it back in her pocket. “Anyway, I must be getting on. Thanks, Mrs. Warburton. I’ll send you the schedule for next week.” She turned to leave.
“Miss Parker,” Mrs Warburton stopped her. “These Americans. Is there anything particular” – she emphasised the ‘tic’ in the middle – “that they want to see?”
Justine considered. “No – the standard tour should be fine. The CEO told me in one of his emails, that he wants to ‘absorb all your English history’.”
“He sounds fascinating. I very
much look forward to meeting him.”
“Me too,” said Justine, brightly. “Me too!”