Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Pip Wright back to the Parish Room to talk to us once again. As we had anticipated, the packed Parish Room was enthralled with his account of the life of Lady Alice, particularly the golden nuggets unearthed from her Household Book. This was a daily record maintained by her Steward, and amazingly one year of the book, from 1412 to 1413, survives to this day.
Alice de Bryene (pronounced de Breeon) was born around 1360 to Sir Robert de Bures, a wealthy Suffolk Knight, and his lady. Her father died in 1361, one year after her grandfather, and it is very possible both were victims of the second epidemic of the Black Death (Bubonic Plague). Two years later her mother remarried, to Sir Richard Waldegrave, another prominent knight from Northampton who had settled in East Anglia.
Around 1375 Alice married the eldest son of Lord Guy Bryan, a wealthy minor aristocrat and together they had two daughters. Sadly Alice was widowed in 1386, inheriting all her husband's property (some of which came from her dowry) and which amounted to some 6,000 acres, half of which were in East Anglia. As Pip observed, it was illuminating to see just how quickly a family could enhance its fortunes by marrying daughters carefully when they were very young, to much older and wealthy men. Seemingly this was a well-trod path in medieval times and in the space of three generations, a considerable family fortune could be amassed.
Over the following decade and still single, Alice moved from the West Country to the Suffolk estates that were her patrimony. By the early 1400s she had established her home in Acton where she lived until her death in 1435 and still on her own; as Pip noted, she must have been one formidable and determined lady.
We heard that the household book recorded every serving of every meal (i.e. breakfast, dinner and supper) - together some 16,500 over the period at an average of around 45 meals daily. This activity incurred much effort and expense, but the provision of hospitality to workers, friends, neighbours and strangers was it seems an essential part of medieval English social politics - dispensing patronage and reminding people of the social hierarchy.
Pip told us the medieval diet was rather limiting, in particular because there were so many ‘fast days'; apart from the month of Lent and the many Saints days, also every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. With no fridges or freezers, meat and other foods had to be salted, smoked, preserved in other ways or a very heavy use made of spices to disguise rancid flavours and smells. Meat or milk from four legged creatures, including butter and cheese, could not be eaten on fast days and would not have been provided by Lady Alice. Mealtimes must therefore have been extremely boring during Lent when fish and poultry became the main source of protein, again always heavily preserved. Pip then showed us some of the food purchase details - it was incredible just how much salt was consumed, at considerable expense and probably quite unhealthy.
Everyone had a most entertaining evening, learning much from a narrator who both knows his stuff and can put it across in such an entertaining manner - most appeared grateful to live in the 21st Century where food is both more plentiful, varied and (despite various scares) more healthy.
Sadly this talk concluded our very successful programme of events for 2013/14, but the good news is that we have already booked 8 (of the 10) events for 2014/15. These commence on 17th September, when Peter Rednall will entertain us with the story of when ‘The railway was king in Sudbury - a time when tracks for freight wagons radiated from the heart of the town'.
We look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room for what is sure to be a fascinating evenings entertainment and a great precursor of many more great talks to follow.
Andy Sheppard 12th June 2014