“Sing we joyous, all together,
carolled Joey Bettany and Mollie Maynard in harmony, as they placed the last sprig of holly over the mantelpiece of the great Tudor fireplace in the drawing room.
“Lovely,” Mrs Maynard said appreciatively from her armchair. “The whole house looks so cheerful. We try to keep up some of the old Christmas traditions but I have to say that it’s been years since we observed quite so many. That’s why it’s so nice to have you and the Robin here, Joey. Christmas is so much about the young people.”
“Are you saying I’m old, now, Mother?” Mollie asked with a laugh.
“No, dear, but there are things which you’ve insisted on this year which we’ve not done since you were tiny. Snapdragon and not bringing the greenery in until tonight.”
“I wanted it to be really magical for the Robin. This is her first proper English Christmas, after all.”
Joey giggled. “Did you see her face when we tucked her up for the night? She is trying to be so trusting of our assertion that Father Christmas will fill her stocking if she’s been good but she is still worried that she should have put her shoes out instead.”
“She needn’t worry,” Mollie smiled. “I have it on good authority that Father Christmas may take pity on her and fill both her stocking and her shoes. Now, are we done with the decorating? We still have another hour or so before we need to think about heading off for the Midnight Mass.”
“Come and sit down, the pair of you,” Mr Maynard ordered. “Joey at least needs to rest if she is going to stay up so late and you’ve both worked so hard.”
Mollie went and perched on the arm of her father’s chair and Joey pulled up a cushioned stool, parking herself at her hostess’s feet.
“I’ve never spent Christmas anywhere quite as old as Pretty Maids,” Joey said. “It’s wonderful to think of all the Christmases that have been celebrated here every year for so long.”
“Ah, but there was one year when Christmas not only very nearly wasn’t celebrated here at all but also nearly brought disaster on the Maynard family,” Mr Maynard said.
His daughter looked at him in surprise. “When was that, Father?”
“Have I never told you the story?” he asked.
“Even if you have, Stephen, Joey will not have heard it and it would be a good way to pass the time to hear it now,” Mrs Maynard said.
“Please?” begged Joey.
Mr Maynard laughed. “Very well. Joey, have you ever read The Children of the New Forest ?”
“Yes, but it was a few years ago.”
“That doesn’t matter. It just means that I don’t need to explain too much about the effect of the English Civil War in this part of the world. The Maynards are an old family, as you know and, more specifically, an old Catholic family. In days gone by, when there was no freedom of worship and Roman Catholics were persecuted, the family led a very quiet life, as unobtrusive as possible, attending the Protestant services in the parish church but also worshiping according to their own faith as best as they could behind locked doors. Some might say that they chose a coward’s path but in these days of greater tolerance, we can only guess at their motives and say that there must have been reasons why they preferred to be seen to conform. Nevertheless, they took great risks for the sake of their faith and were able to shelter priests here from time to time.”
“You showed me the Priest’s Hole on the first day we were here,” Joey reminded him.
“Yes, and that plays a part in my story. At the time the Civil War broke out, the head of the family was Christopher Maynard, known as Kit. As a Catholic, it is not perhaps surprising that his sympathies lay with the King and he was well-known at Court. He had a younger brother, John, who was rather quieter and more staid of character and who chose to stay at Pretty Maids and manage the estate for his brother. Kit was not married, although it was said that he had an eye for the Queen’s ladies, but Charles had taken a wife a few years before the Civil War started and at the time of this story, had three small children living: young John, Edward and Dorothea. After Charles I was captured, Kit fled to France but John stayed here, continuing his quiet life of farming and keeping out of the politics raging around him. However, he could not escape entirely from the situation. About six or seven miles from here there is another large house, much of an age with Pretty Maids, called Berrington Court. Colonel Berrington had fought for the Parliamentarians and had been wounded early on in the Civil War so had retired home and in due course had been appointed by the Commonwealth Government as a local commissioner. He was very much of the puritan persuasion and was determined to ensure that no-one under his jurisdiction contravened any of the new laws which had been passed. Those new laws included one which banned the keeping of any religious festival, Christmas included. Shops had to stay open on Christmas Day, churches could hold only their normal services, and there was to be no frivolity or feasting. Of course, there were too many people flouting the laws for him to be able to catch all of them, but he was determined to make an example of someone. He had his suspicions about the Maynard household. His spies reported that John Maynard seemed to pay lip service only to the local church service and then on a somewhat erratic basis, citing the demands of the farm and the distance to the church in bad weather as the reasons. And Berrington knew, of course, that Kit Maynard had fought for the King, even if his brother had appeared to take neither side.
“On Christmas Eve that year, John and his family were gathered around the fire, perhaps even at this fireplace here when one of the servants came to say that there was a man at the kitchen door, muffled up against a long walk through the snow, asking to be allowed in to see the Master. Warily John went down to the kitchens and found a disreputable figure warming his hands by the ovens. When the man threw back his hood, however, he immediately recognised his own brother, Kit and hugged him fiercely before bringing him through the house to the rest of the family. Kit explained that he had come over from France in a fearsome snowstorm, to bring letters to a number of local loyal supporters as it was hoped at the time that it might be possible to arrange for the King to escape from his imprisonment in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Kit had been in Lymington and it seemed too good an opportunity to waste not to come and see his kin here so he had walked all the way through the heavy snow.
“So Kit spent the night at Pretty Maids and on Christmas Day you can imagine what a joyous time they had planned. John had already intended to ignore the restrictions on festivities and the cook, who had known Sir Kit since he was a baby was determined to prepare a feast to end all feasts. In those days, goose was seen as a poor man’s food and wild boar were growing scarce, even here in the New Forest. So the proper main dish for the day was a huge rib of beef. But the cook did not want to stop there. To go alongside it, she prepared a giant mincemeat tart – not sweet mincemeat, you understand, but a delicacy of those days with minced meat, raisins and spices in a big pie rather than dainty little ones.
“The Maynards had just sat down to all of this wonderful fare with their servants in the Great Hall when the gatekeeper’s little boy, who had been left on watch came running in to say that he could see a group of black cloaked riders making their way across the fields towards Pretty Maids. There was great consternation as John immediately guessed that this would be Colonel Berrington and his men, either come to check up on them or, worse still, hunting for Kit. And of course, here they were all sat with a table groaning under the weight of the feast and Sir Kit as the Lord of Misrule amongst them. There was little time to hide anything, but the cook hit on a brilliant plan. She had set a cauldron of water to boil in the Hall fireplace so that she could keep an eye on it whilst she sat down to enjoy the fruits of her labour. Now she instructed everyone to clear the food off the table by throwing it into the cauldron – in went the rib of beef, in went the vegetables – everything except the mincemeat tart which Kit snatched up and took with him into hiding in the Priest’s Hole.
“When Colonel Berrington arrived, the household was sat at the table soberly drinking nothing more than broth. The Colonel sniffed the air and remarked on the beautiful savoury smells lingering in the Hall but the cook coolly rose from her seat and went and ladled out for him a bowl of liquid from the cauldron where the ingredients of the feast had started to infuse the water with pleasant tastes. The Roundheads searched Pretty Maids from top to bottom but by this time the kitchen staff had been able to clear most of the other traces of the feast from the kitchens and the secret of the Priest’s Hole remained unfound so Berrington left disappointed and empty-handed.
“Once he had gone, John opened the Priest’s Hole and there was Kit hunched up and with nearly half the mincemeat tart gone. As he said, if he was going to be found, it would have been a shame not to have one good Christmas dish inside him! So that was how Christmas Day nearly turned into a disaster for the family. After the Restoration, Sir Kit continued at Court but although he eventually married, he died without children so it was his brother, John, and his family who inherited Pretty Maids and from whom we are descended. I’ll show you the portraits in the Long Gallery tomorrow, if you like.”
“What a wonderful story!” Joey exclaimed. “And all the more so because it really happened. Do you still make mincemeat tart in memory of what happened?”
“With meat in it? I think that might be one old tradition too many!” Mrs Maynard laughed. “But perhaps we shall have some warm sweet mincemeat tarts when we get back from the service.”