The original domestic goddess

A handwritten 17th-century book of recipes, household tips and medicinal potions gave historian Lucy Moore a fascinating insight into the life of the woman behind it.

A portrait of Ann, Lady Fanshawe by Dutch artist Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen
A portrait of Ann, Lady Fanshawe by Dutch artist Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen

 If you had to leave your home with no more than a few hours’ notice, forced out by war or the risk of fire, what would you take with you? Nowadays, we can carry addresses, family photos, love letters (or texts) and favourite music and books with us anywhere on our smartphones, but in the 17th century – and up until only a decade ago – people escaping impending disaster would have had to choose: a wedding picture, their aunt’s cake recipe, a scrapbook or book of poems; those precious reminders of our lives and the secret selves that make up who we are.

When Ann Harrison (later Fanshawe) was 17, in early 1643, her father sent for her and her younger sister Margaret to join him at Charles I’s court-in-exile at Oxford. The king had fled London the previous year, declaring war against his unruly Parliament, and the first inconclusive battle of what would become the English Civil War was fought at Edgehill, in rural Warwickshire, that October. Ann’s elder brother Simon was already with the king’s army, and her father had managed to evade arrest at his London house, slipping away from the Parliamentarians by promising to fetch them important papers they wanted pertaining to the royal finances.

Ann and Margaret had remained at Balls Park, the beautiful house their father had recently built outside Hertford, paid for with the fortune he’d amassed during more than 20 years as a customs officer in the king’s service. There, their father hoped, the sisters would be safe.

But times were changing; bands of men opposed to the king began roaming the countryside, searching houses for weapons and money they could confiscate in Parliament’s name. Two young girls were too vulnerable to be left alone. So Ann and Margaret rode 70 miles on horseback through a chill February into the unknown. Accompanying them were two male servants who carried their few possessions in cloak bags.

Their lodgings at the makeshift royal capital of Oxford were nothing like the comforts of Balls Park. ‘From as good a house as any gentleman of England had, we came to lie in a very bad bed in a garret, to one dish of meat, and that not the best ordered, no money,’ wrote Ann, years later, ‘for we were as poor as Job, [and had] no clothes.’

Balls Park in Hertford, built by Ann's father Sir John Harrison, was completed in 1640
Balls Park in Hertford, built by Ann’s father Sir John Harrison, was completed in 1640

For Ann, though, this unaccustomed hardship was the beginning of the adventure of a lifetime. In war-torn Oxford she would meet her true love, Richard Fanshawe, a Royalist poet and diplomat, marry him and embark on a thrilling and sometimes tragic life as they waited through the travails of the civil wars and Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth for their king to reclaim his crown.

We know what Ann thought of her shabby rooms in Oxford because, after Charles II was restored to the English throne in 1660 and her husband died in 1666, she wrote an account of her life during those tumultuous years so that her young children would know what their parents had endured. That memoir formed the structure of my book about her, Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book: the Life and Times of a Civil War Heroine. But it was the other source that survives, her receipt – or recipe – book, that gave a glimpse of her heart.

Receipt books were 17th-century household manuals – early manuscript versions of the kind of housekeeping bible that would become, 200 years later, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. They contained recipes for food as well as housekeeping tips – methods for cleaning ‘partie-coloured stockings’ or making the best candles – and medicinal remedies, preventatives and cures for everything from worms to the plague.

Ann would have copied most of these from her mother’s receipt book as a childhood handwriting exercise and to form the foundation of her own future book. As a married woman, she copied them again, on to pages bound in rich brown leather tooled with gold. A little bigger than a modern hardback, this book has holes on the cover where a clasp would have been, so that it could be locked like a treasure chest, and the pages are dense with recipes written in fading brown ink. The book remained in the family, overlooked and outdated but, thankfully, never thrown away.

The culinary recipes are wonderfully evocative of 17th-century England: syllabubs, ‘makeroons’ (macaroons), roast meats, ‘sallets’ (salads), plus myriad methods of preserving fruit and vegetables so they could be enjoyed all year round. The book contains 11 cherry recipes – preserved, dried, pickled, put into jelly and made into wine.

The handwritten pages of Lady Fanshawe's 'receipt' book
The handwritten pages of Lady Fanshawe’s ‘receipt’ book

Foreign recipes, including French bread and beef à la mode, Spanish eggs, bacon and limonado, and an Italian dish of hogs’ heads, reveal her cosmopolitan lifestyle as Ann and her family travelled through Europe in self-imposed exile after Charles I’s death, reluctant to live in an English Republic under Oliver Cromwell. She was at the cutting edge of culinary fashion: her book contains the first recipe in English for ‘icy cream’ – though it doesn’t work, according to various experts in 17th-century food technology – and the first in English for hot chocolate.

For me, however, most interesting are the medicinal recipes. Women of status, like Ann, provided healthcare for their families and households. They attended each other in childbirth and nursed even the mortally sick in their homes. In a world where doctors were few and far between and hospitals as we know them didn’t exist, whatever medical knowledge women gleaned from mothers, friends or doctors over the years might mean the difference between life and death.

When Ann’s husband Richard was released from prison late in 1651 (having returned from Europe to Scotland to serve as secretary to the future Charles II, he’d been arrested after the battle of Worcester in September that year) he was suffering from scurvy and close to death. The scurvy remedies in Ann’s book are messily, hastily written and, unusually, she didn’t bother to record who had given them to her: it is clear even at a distance of more than three centuries that her need for them was urgent.

With the help of her vitamin C-rich drinks of orange juice distilled with wild scurvy grass (similar to watercress) and grated horseradish, Richard survived – and Ann marked those remedies that had helped him with the firm X in the margin that showed a remedy had worked.

The one remedy she included for smallpox, a herbal water given to her by a Lady Allen, tells a more heart-rending story. Four of Ann’s children suffered from the disease, for which no cure was known, and two died, despite Lady Allen’s water. ‘We both wished to have gone into the grave with her,’ Ann wrote when her eldest daughter died aged eight, after five days’ terrible suffering. Of the 14 babies born to them over 22 years of marriage, she and Richard would lose nine before they reached the age of 12.

Another poignant remedy is ‘the red powder good for miscarrying’, beside which Ann noted, ‘I have found good experamentally of this medicin’. It is not clear whether the powder prevented miscarriage or alleviated its symptoms when it happened. Her memoirs reveal that she miscarried several times, the last of which was in 1660 when, aged 35, she lost triplet boys at about 20 weeks.

The powder was composed of expensive, hard-to-find ingredients: scented ambergris, iron-rich red coral and dragon’s blood – actually the crimson resin of the dragon tree found in the Canary Islands – which would have lowered Ann’s fever and acted as a coagulant and an antiviral. And surely she would have needed one of her several remedies for melancholy, too.

The scurvy remedies are hastily written: it is clear that her need for them was urgent

Many of the remedies and recipes in Ann’s book are marked from ‘my mother’. Margaret Harrison had died in 1640, when Ann was 15; Ann remembered her as being not just beautiful and wise but a loving wife and tender mother, a pious matriarch who ‘dressed many wounds of miserable people’. In her memoirs she wrote that it had been her mother’s death that made her turn away from childish behaviour, taking over the running of her father’s household to honour her memory.

One of the most important skills Margaret Harrison would have taught her daughter was the preparation of remedies. I like to imagine the young Ann standing at her mother’s side as she mixed up the green salve called the King of France’s Balsom (good for scrapes and sores) or heated a rich, creamy posset with fortified wine and egg yolks – a nutritious drink for new mothers.

I can see her, aged 17, hurriedly leaving her childhood home, packing up those pages copied from her mother’s household book to take with her. She must have hoped that they would advise and protect her in years to come, as a practical guide to the challenges she would face and as a reminder of her mother when she needed her most. She could never have imagined that they would survive to be read and marvelled at nearly 400 years after her death.

Lady Fanshawe’s Receipt Book: The Life and Times of a Civil War Heroine by Lucy Moore is published by Atlantic Books, price £18.99. To order a copy for £15.19 (a 20 per cent discount) until 24 November, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15