The Kissing Bough

Kissing boughby Mary Jo

If you've read many Christmas Regency romances, I'm sure you've encountered the kissing bough.  Christmas trees didn't become common in Britain until the Victorian age, and were brought into fashion by the Royal Family's German connections. 

But the kissing bough has deep roots in British history and is part of the tradition of bringing evergreens into the house at the holiday season.  It's essentially a globe of greens with a bunch of mistletoe fastened to the bottom. Traditionally one white mistletoe berry was removed each time there was a kiss.  I presume that festive householders would refresh the berries as necessary!  The image at the right is from the North Pole site, with instructions on how to make your own kissing bough.  

Over time, kissing boughs became more elaborate, with ribbons and candles and fruit.  I thought it would be fun to go to YouTube and find a couple of videos of people making kissing boughs.  This first is from English Heritage and goes behind the scenes of Kenilworth Castle to see how a Tudor kissing bough is made.  (It helps if you can wander into your knot garden and cut off some rose hips. <G>)

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The Return of the Skirret

Old fruitNicola here, and today I am talking about food, and in particular historic vegetables. If you look at old menus from hundreds of years ago – for a banquet at Hampton Court Palace for King Henry VIII, for example – there are plenty of dishes that might cause us to shudder. “Meat tile” anyone? It consists of chicken first simmered and then sautéed, served with a spicy sauce of crayfish tails, almonds and… toast.   Then there are pies with songbirds in them, lampreys in sauce… It’s all a matter of taste. One thing I had not realised, however, was that our ancestors ate vegetables that have completely disappeared from the menu today. I assumed that vegetables had evolved in that we eat the same things although they may look and taste different as a result of being grown commercially. However, I have never met anyone who has eaten a skirret.

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Petticoats and Plantagenets

Petticoat american 1955 met

All-American petticoat 1955

Doubtless you’ve occasionally stopped in your daily round and wondered, “Why do we call a kind of frilly slip a petticoat? Doesn’t that mean ‘Little Coat’ or something like that? You know, French petite meaning small and coat meaning . . . well . . . coat.”

Gambeson 2

A he-man's petty coat

When I think petticoat I think of the Fifties and something frilly and stiff, maybe worn under a poodle skirt.


Poodle skirts. Those were the days.

But petticoats were not always so.

I blame the Plantagenets. Also the Tudors. 

Originally the ‘little coat’ was indeed a little coat. Worn by men. In fact, worn by men in battle under their armor.

The petty coat or gambeson was a short padded jacket worn to keep all that warlike fitted metal from chafing those manly muscles. This is not the sort of thing I ponder upon every day, but it occurs to me the simple act of wearing metal was probably fairly uncomfortable all by itself, without any battles going on, not to mention chilly in winter.

Thus the original petty coat. It also likely helped stop edged weaponry that had gotten past the metal layer. Your men-at-arms and peasantry on the march wore a slightly longer, multilayered and quilted version of this as their only protection.

Lucas de Heere c. 1570 with red petticoat

Bright red petticoat underneath her dress. 1570. Also a bird in  hand.
400px-Don_Carlos_Spanien wearing a doublet

You cannot actually see the petty coat here. It's under the doublet.

By the end of the Fifteenth Century the petty coat was also a men’s undergarment of the same general form as the military wear. In the  Boke of Curtasye, the chainberlain is told to get ready for his lord a clene shirt and breeches, a pettycote, a doublette, a long cote, and a stomacher. The petty coat was worn between the shirt and the doublet

Perhaps it was these civilian versions of the under-armor petty coat that created confusion. By the last half of the Sixteenth Century, a petty coat was also a garment worn by women. It might be a skirt or a skirt with an attached bodice and even sleeves. It could be worn as underclothes or be an outer garment. They were often a startlingly bright red. 

The petticoat had jumped the gender barrier and become woman’s clothing. It never looked back.

1740 to 60 petticoat silk cotton met

Here we see just the petticoat itself
image from

And here the petticoat and gown. This is a robe à la française

A hundred years or so later genteel woman’s dress evolved into a combination of gown and petticoat. The skirt of the gown was drawn back to show the petticoat below. The petticoat itself was a gathered skirt, often with a bodice. It had become a highly decorated garment, made of beautiful fabric.

Chemis third quarter 18 c Met

Regency shift or chemise. Well hidden underwear.

This makes sense of the lines in the song Mary Hamilton,

“Cast off, cast off my gown, she cried,
but let my petticoat be
and tie a napkin round my face,
the gallows I would not see.

Anyway, from all this you will see there is an old and venerable tradition of underwear/outer wear confusion and no real grounds for objection if folks choose to run about in camisoles, I suppose.

As we approach the Regency the rules change. A new style with slim lines, diaphanous  fabrics, and a high waist comes in. Exit the petticoat. For a few decades the undergarment of choice is the plain linen or cotton shift.


Petticoatearly1805 to 1815
A clothing expert points out that petticoats never really disappeared in the Regency era. The garments worn under a dress might be reduced to a single layer, but it was not always a simple shift or chemise. Sometimes the elaborate design tells us these were meant to be seen.



I am rather wedded to trousers, myself, and out of touch with dresses,
but it might be fun to swish about in petticoats.

Does anyone miss petticoats?

Karen Harper Talks about Mistress of Mourning

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

I'm delighted to once again welcome Karen Harper as a Word Wenches guest.  Karen is a New York Times bestselling author of romantic suspense novels from Mira Books. She won the Mary Higgins Clark Award in 2006 for her novel Dark Angel ANGEL, and her novels make the "Heatseekers" bestsellers lists in the UK.  She is looking forward to attending ThrillerFest in NYC in July and the Historical Novel Society Conference in London in September.

As you can see, Karen is as versatile as she is widely honored!  Today, she is going to tell us about her romantic historical mystery, Mistress of Mourning.  Welcome, Karen!  I turn the virtual floor over to you:

MistressofmourningKaren Harper: It’s great to be visiting Word Wenches again.  Although I am a Tudormaniac, I love to read the varied eras and settings of historical novels, and WW does a great job of spotlighting those books. 

Although I have written five other historical novels, Mistress of Mourning is my first historical mystery.  It was more challenging to write, but the main characters, the era and plot ran headlong into a murder mystery—three of them in fact, tragic royal murders, especially since two of the victims were young boys and the third murder was of a teenage Prince of Wales.  

Mistress of Mourning is set in England and Wales in 1501, a pivotal year in the early reign of the Tudors.  Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York, daughter of a Plantagenet king, are trying to solidify their new monarchy.  The War of the Roses has ended in a might-not-right victory for Henry.  (Trivia for the day:  The term “War of the Roses” was not coined until 1762 in David Hume’s History of England, so I have steered clear of it in the novel.)  And, Henry VIIof course, this first Tudor ruler can bolster his family’s future by leaving male heirs to reign and daughters to marry off to royalty in other countries.

 But, ah, there’s the rub.  Henry and his queen have lost two children, and their heir, Arthur, Prince of Wales, is sickly at times, although he has just wed the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon.  (Yes, later Henry VIII’s first wife, overthrown in his passion for Anne Boleyn, but Catherine is a young woman in this novel and very appealing.)  The only remaining male child (the Tudors have two daughters) is Henry, Duke of York, later Henry VIII.

Catherine of AragonBesides the losses of two of her own children, the queen is also haunted by the fact that her two young brothers were evidently murdered in the Tower of London years before.  Enter the chandler and carver of candles, Varina Westcott, a merchant-class widow who is allowed to run her own chandlery shop only because her husband died and left it to her.  (The powerful, male-only guilds of the day play a part too, but that’s for another day.)

At first Varina thinks she has been summoned to the palace to carve Her Majesty’s children’s faces on memorial candles, but Elizabeth of York wants full waxen images of her lost brothers and children to keep in secret.  Catastrophe befalls when the Tudor heir, Prince Arthur, dies in Wales under mysterious circumstances.  Because Varina’s shop also produces wax shrouds with which the noble dead used to be wrapped before burial and since chandlers of the day also acted as undertakers, the queen sends Varina to Wales to oversee the burial preparations—and to discovery whether Arthur was poisoned and by whom.

Coat of Arms, Wax Chandlers Guild

This is greatly a woman’s book as the two first-person leads are the queen and Varina, who bond over the sad fact that they have both lost sons.  But the novel also probes the passions and evils of men.  Can even King Henry VII be trusted?  Young Henry Tudor is only ten when the novel begins, but his wily personality is already in evidence. 

Varina’s love interest in the novel is Nicholas Sutton, an ambitious courtier above her rank, who is originally assigned to her as a guard.  Together, they navigate their relationships with the Tudors and go to wild Wales to discover whether Prince Arthur met with foul play. 

It was great fun to write about Wales of that day.  It was still a land of legends, superstitions, tribal chiefs and danger.  Bogs and fens, even witches presented a marvelous milieu.  The novel is somewhat Gothic in tone, but that’s what emerges when the Medieval Period begins to tiptoe into the English Renaissance.

Arthur. Prince of WalesBut back to the historical crimes which are the backbone of the story.  Who murdered the Princes in the Tower is still argued today.  Many blame King Richard III, but there is another possible royal villain too.  (Yes, that’s a teaser.)  Later, in the Reign of King Charles II, in July of 1674, during some rebuilding in the White Tower, the bones of two children were found in an elm chest that was covered by rubble at a depth of about ten feet.  This was under a staircase that led to the king’s lodging.  At King Charles’s request, the bones were interred in a white marble urn designed by Sir Christopher Wren and placed in the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey, close to the tomb of their sister. 

Ludlow CastleAs for Arthur Tudor’s demise, that is yet being investigated.  Ground-probing radar has been used to pinpoint his final resting place beneath the limestone floor of Worcester Cathedral.  Professor John Hunter of Birmingham University has worked on the investigation, although so far the current queen has not given her permission for the exhumation of Arthur’s body to perform toxicology tests.  Of course, if Arthur had not died, Henry VIII would never have been king.  If the Princes in the Tower had not died, perhaps the Tudors would never have come to the throne at all.

In Mistress of Mourning,  I have suggested possible solutions for these three murders of royal princes.  But part of the joy of writing the novel was immersing myself in its era, that period which saw the stormy dawn of the Tudors. 

 The novel will also be released by my British publisher, Random House UK, at the same time as the Penguin USA release, but with a different title and cover.  Mistress of Mourning will be The Queen's Confidante in the United Kingdom.  Perhaps in this year of the current queen’s jubilee, the title "queen" carries real cachet. 

MistressofmourningI'll be giving away two copies of MISTRESS OF MOURNING, so I hope the winners—and all you subjects of the realm—will enjoy the story and be surprised by the big reveal at the end. 

MJP: Karen, thanks so much for visiting!  The book sounds wonderful, and just from reading your blog, I've discovered things about candlemakers that I didn't know.  A feast for history lovers. Here's an excerpt.  And don't miss all the interesting info, including a clip of an interview with Karen, at her website.

The winners of the two copies of Mistress of Mourning will be chosen from among those who comment between now and midnight Saturday. So what do you think about the princes in the tower?  And did you learn as much about wax working as I did reading this?

Mary Jo, sure that Mistress of Mourning will be a cool read for a hot summer!