It has been a week of Elf work – a teambuilding exercise Highclere style as we all turn into Sally’s Christmas elves for 10 days, although thankfully not wearing green tights. Little Christmas trees, big ones and all sizes in between have all been brought in, floral decorations, half made garlands, wreaths for the front door and mantelshelf works of art… and, just like in any fairy story it was off to work we went.
Sally and I sit down over coffee in January to plan the next two years ahead for our Christmas bright ideas. The idea emerge from Christmas traditions and Highclere history. This year we have taken inspiration from the medieval heritage of Highclere and the predominant colour theme is a rich deep purple.
The Highclere Estate belonged to the Bishopric of Winchester for over 800 years. In fact Highclere’s first written records date from 749 and the estate gradually grew in importance from a monastic farm until it was transformed in the 13th and 14th centuries into a Bishop’s palace.
Medieval bishops had the same social stature and wealth as the nobility and lived in the same luxury. They were great landowners; princes of the church and Bishop William of Wykeham (1324-1404) was the Chancellor of England and architect to King Edward III as well as the Bishop of Winchester.
As a Bishop and politician, William was constantly on the move. Highclere Palace would have had cavalcades of horsemen, packhorses and carts arriving throughout the year although levels of activity would vary depending who was in residence. There would have been a large household staff – accountants, stewards, bailiffs and reeves all coming and going from various manors and tenants on the estate.
The palace developed during the 13th century but one hundred years later it was one my heroes William of Wykeham who saw it reach an extraordinary pre eminence. With inner and an outer courtyard, gatehouse, a chapel and a range of ancillary buildings including guest accommodation, a brewery, buttery, kitchen and bakery, hen house and goat house, stables, ox sheds and cart houses in addition to vast cathedral like barns to store the grain.
Like any great feudal estate, Highclere Palace would have aimed at a fair degree of self-sufficiency.
There was a deer park, oaks forests, pasturage, orchards, vegetable and herb gardens and five fishponds at Milford Lake. There was a large and profitable sheep industry alongside arable farming including wheat, barley and oats. Dairy goods are frequently referenced in the estate records, particularly cheese and butter. Several forms of fresh meat were available including rabbit, pork, mutton, beef and venison.
One of the Anglo-Saxon boundary tracks on the estate, now the modern A343, was called Hunig Weg (literally Honey Street) most likely because that was where many of the hives were found. Honey was essential for health, as a sweetener and for beeswax.
Deer parks around the main residence bounded by ditches and banks. At their peak at the turn of the 14th century, deer parks may have covered 2% of the land area of England.
Although beer may have been invented by the ancient Babylonians, it was perfected by medieval monasteries that gave us brewing as we know it today. Medieval Highclere had its own brewery using barley from the estate. Today Highclere’s beer is made locally and sold only at the castle.
Equally impressive is the religious contribution to distilled spirits. Without doubt mead was brewed at Highclere and perhaps other spirits as well. Today the castle is famous for its award-winning Gin, wrapped in its purple bottle like the bishops of old and made using botanicals from the estate. Thus spirit in all shades of purple, tied in to the land and landscape will welcome and entertain all of our guests this year.