The Elizabethan Christmas and the Tale of Oranges

The Elizabethan Christmas
The Elizabethan Christmas

To continue with my Christmas Foods And Traditions Series we will look today at the Elizabethan period of England.

As a queen, Elizabeth had access to some of the most luxurious foods that were on offer now from many parts of the world. Her food reflected the wealth and power of England and was an important status symbol.

Oranges were originally brought from China, but by the 16th century they were grown in Spain and southern France. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, sweet oranges were given frequently as Christmas gifts because they were expensive, delicious and sure to note how wealthy the giver was.

Now to tell the Great Citrus Fruit Escape……………

Father John Gerard, a Jesuit priest, continued to practice Catholicism and move freely among the gentry in Elizabethan Protestant times, and that landed him eventually in the Tower of London.

A  well-to-do prisoner in the Tower was allowed to furnish their cell to their tastes and bring in their own food to make life there more tolerable. Father Gerard was gifted some oranges and he would share them with the guard and warden to bribe them. He persuaded the warden to allow him to send crosses made from the left-over orange peel to his friends.

Father Gerard's Orange Peel Crosses
Father Gerard’s Orange Peel Crosses

Along with the crosses he sent a prayer written in charcoal, which the warden would read first.

Father Gerard Prayer Written in Charcoal
Father Gerard Prayer Written in Charcoal

However, when the warden was not looking, Gerard used the orange juice that he had saved, to write a second message between the lines of the prayer. Once the orange juice was dried it became invisible, only to be seen when re-heated by lamplight fire. Father Gerard wrapped all the orange peel crosses in the paper prayer-messages and sent them with the guard to be delivered.

The Orange Juice Message Written Between the Lines
The Orange Juice Message Written Between the Lines

Also during this time, Father Gerard met fellow Catholic prisoner, John Arden, who was being kept in another part of the prison, near the garden and the moat.

While in the Tower Father Gerard was tortured, often being suspended for days by his wrists in the hope he would confess to treason and could be put to death. His fingers were barely able to move after this.

Gerard and Arden were given permission to spend some time in each other’s company. The coded messages had been deciphered by Father Gerard’s supporters and a desperate escape plan was put in place.  On the appointed evening, the men met in Arden’s cell and loosened the stone around the bolt of the door that lead to the roof. They reached the roof at midnight, in time to see a rowing boat containing three men approach the walls. As they were about to make contact, a man came from a house below and assuming the men were fishing, began to engage them in conversation.

Gerard waited patiently for the man to leave, but by the time he departed it was too late for an escape that night.

Thinking that the escape was doomed, Gerard was surprised to hear next day that the rescuers were going to try again. Waiting until they had been locked in the Tower together, Gerard and Arden again climbed onto the roof. Throwing down a weighted cord they raised up a rope that had been tied to it by the rescuers below. The plan had been to slide down the rope, but the angle it made meant that instead the escapers had to pull themselves hand over hand along its length. It is worth remembering that Gerard had recently been tortured by being suspended in manacles, which made a hazardous descent even more difficult.

After his companion managed to climb down, Gerard realized that the rope which had been straight was now sagging – making the climb even more difficult. Holding the rope between his legs, Gerard pulled himself out from the high roof. Half way across he became exhausted and at one point was left hanging in the darkness, strength failing. In the end Gerard and Arden managed to escape, all in thanks to his oranges!  Can you imagine? Is this where the saying “read between the lines“ comes from? I should think so!

More to come in the Christmas Foods And Traditions Series! Enjoy!

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