The English cream tea: a question of preservation

This post has an odd genesis, principally owed to the sometime blogger the Naked Philologist, and though she has sadly shut up shop, nonetheless this is for her. When she was planning to be in the UK the summer before last, one of the plans she had of which I got to be part was an extensive sampling of the cream teas of England, and the reason for this was that Cornish clotted cream is now a protected designation of origin and because the stuff is so perishable it’s just not shipped outside the UK.1 This much I learnt, rapidly, from Wikipedia, but in doing so I came upon a few sentences that have an unexpected amount to do with the blog’s usual fodder. At the time of writing that text is still there, and it goes like this, stripped of citations because we’ll come to them in a minute:

It has long been disputed whether clotted cream originated in Devon or Cornwall, and which county makes it the best. There is evidence that the monks of Tavistock Abbey were making clotted cream in the early 1300s. After their abbey had been ransacked by Vikings in 997 AD, the monks rebuilt it with the help of Ordulf, Earl of Devon. Local workers were drafted in to help with the repairs, and the monks rewarded them with bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves.

The tenth-century bit of this immediately struck me as unlikely, you’re probably not surprised to hear. Initially I just thought the idea of strawberry preserves more or less ruled it out, but investigation (by which I mean asking people at seminars) has made this seem less definite. The estimable Magistra et Mater owns a copy of Ann Hagen’s Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink, from which she derives some of the expertise that let her write posts on the early medieval jam tart, and from it she kindly informs me:

On pp. 51-52, she says that some of the leechbooks mention strawberries (streawbergan) and Aelfric Bata translates “fragaria” as “streabariye”; they’re also mentioned by a tenth-century Irish source. There’s archaeological evidence for strawberries being cultivated in Wessex, and remains found from a C9 context in Gloucester (FJ Green, Archaeo-physika 8 (1979), 39). In terms of dried fruit, Hagen (p. 53) just mentions Bede’s will leaving dried prunes and raisins.2

This doesn’t really get us towards preserves as such. Without sugar, these couldn’t have been the kind of preserves we think of, i. e. jam, but I also spoke to Dr Caroline Goodson about late Roman practice and established that fruit was sometimes stored under honey, and I wonder if whether you filled a stoneware jar half with strawberries, perhaps pulped, and half with honey and stoppered it well, whether you wouldn’t have something that would last a few months that could be spread on bread. Anyway, it’s not quite possible to rule out this story on intrinsic grounds, I think. So, never mind the jam, what about the sauce, I mean source?

The still house of the old abbey of SS Mary & Rumon Tavistock

The still house of the old abbey of SS Mary & Rumon Tavistock, restored 1884. They distilled herbs here, supposedly, it’s as thematically close as I can get… Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Well, the Wikipedia article links, then and still for now, to a 2004 article on the BBC news website, entitled, “Ancient roots of cream tea discovered”. This is a masterpiece of poor attribution. The key phrases are these, with unnecessary paragraph breaks between every sentence removed:

Historians in Devon have unearthed evidence which they claim proves the traditional cream tea originated in the county some 1,000 years ago. Local historians have been studying ancient manuscripts as part of research leading up to next year’s 900th anniversary of the granting of Tavistock’s Royal Charter by King Henry I in 1105. After piecing together fragments of manuscripts, they have discovered that the monks of Tavistock’s Benedictine Abbey could have created the famous dish to reward workers who helped to restore the building. The Abbey was established in the 10th Century, but was plundered and badly damaged by Vikings in 997 AD. The task of restoring the Abbey was undertaken by Ordulf, Earl of Devon whose father had been responsible for establishing the Abbey. Ordulf was helped by local workers who the monks fed with bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves.

This is just no help, really. Who are these ‘local historians’? They are never named, and neither are the ‘ancient manuscripts’ whose ‘fragments’ are at issue. Nor, even, is the author of the story. This is presumably because really the article was a puff piece for the 2004 Tavistock Food and Drink Festival. Unfortunately, as this surprisingly sharp little page on the subject observes, it has subsequently become the source for all claims of Devon developing the cream tea before Cornwall, something some people would obviously like to believe. There it might rest, but the source of this is still a question, and it’s more interesting than it appears when one digs into it. I did this by fetching my copy of H. P. R. Finberg’s Tavistock Abbey off the shelf, as doubtless you have yours too by now, and finding there what is subsequently confirmed by Simon Keynes’s page for the abbey on the Kemble website and the article by Finberg which that points to.3 That is, that the refoundation of the abbey is referred to in two documents, a charter of King Æthelred the Unready confirming its endowment, known only through a record that it had been seen and confirmed genuine in the reign of Edward III, and a narrative of the foundation, also written with sight of that charter which it partly reprises. Both of these are known from the probably-fifteenth-century cartulary of the abbey, and that’s where the fun really starts.

Remains of the cloister arches from Tavistock Abbey, from Wikimedia Commons

Remains of the cloister arches from Tavistock Abbey, from Wikimedia Commons

The documents of the abbey went to the dukes of Bedford at the dissolution of the monasteries, but as early as 1755 (when their archives were catalogued) the cartulary was no longer among them. Finberg wrote his history of the abbey working among the muniments of the dukes, but the cartulary was not available to him.4 Its location is not known today. Extracts from it were printed, however, in a seventeenth-century work, the Monasticon Anglicanum of Sir William Dugdale, and in an English version of it that sits on the quick reference shelves in the Institute of Historical Research, so I had a look.5 Sure enough, the foundation narrative is there: one Ordgar has a vision on three successive nights in which an angel bids him found a minster and so he does, but then come the Vikings before the work is complete, he has other things to do defending the realm and the work has eventually to be resumed by his son Ordulf Ealdorman of Cornwall later in the reign of Æthelred (who was Ordulf’s nephew, in fact, and Ordgar’s grandson), leading to the charter, which Dugdale then gave in its Edward III version, also from the cartulary. But the extract as printed stops with the charter: it does not describe the rebuilding, or whatever the monks might have put on the table for the labourers.

Engraving of William Dugdale in 1656 by Wenceslas Hollar

Engraving of William Dugdale in 1656 by Wenceslas Hollar, Dugdale being the last person who certainly saw the Tavistock cartulary. Is it in that pile behind him? Argh, not to know! Image from Wikimedia Commons

So, Dugdale is not the source, and that’s the real interest here. The source must be another version of the foundation legend, and if we can take the BBC’s mention of `ancient manuscripts’ seriously and if they know what `manuscript’, i. e. manu scripta, ‘written by hand’ means, not a printed one. I really don’t want to put too much weight on any part of this, neither the unsigned BBC article, the `local historians’ it doesn’t name, nor the fifteenth-century narrative of late-tenth-century events it may be using, but where is it getting that narrative from if it be using it? Because if, just by chance, these `fragments’ are in fact the actual missing cartulary or parts thereof, I think there are some people who might like to know!

1. I think we agreed that the best we found overall was in the Abbey Tea Rooms, Glastonbury, should you be as interested as we were.

2. Full reference: Ann Hagen, Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink (Hockwold cum Wilton 2006).

3. H. P. R. Finberg, Tavistock Abbey: a study in the social and economic history of Devon (Cambridge 1951); Simon Keynes, “Tavistock”, in Kemble: the Anglo-Saxon Charters website,, last modified October 2011 as of 20 October 2013; Finberg, “Some Early Tavistock Charters”, in English Historical Review Vol. 62 (Oxford 1947), pp. 352-377, here esp. pp. 352-353; also Finberg, “The House of Ordgar and the Foundation of Tavistock Abbey”, ibid. Vol. 58 (Oxford 1943), pp. 190-201.

4. Finberg, Tavistock Abbey, pp. 294-295, lists his sources at the dukes’ seat of Woburn Abbey; they include two other cartularies of the abbey (one of which he thought earlier, see his “Some Early Tavistock Charters”, pp. 294-295) but not the one from which this story comes.

5. Roger Dodsworth & William Dugdale, Monasticon anglicanum, sive, Pandectæ cœnobiorum, a primordiis ad eorum usque dissolutionem, ex mss. codd. ad monasteria olim pertinentibus (London 1655-1673), 3 vols, and John Stevens, The history of the antient abbey, monasteries, hospitals, cathedral and collegiate churches: being two additional volumes to Sir William Dugdale’s Monasticon anglicanum (London 1722-1723), 2 vols, all transl. and augmented by John Caley, Henry Ellis & the Rev. Bulkeley Bandinel as Monasticon anglicanum: a history of the abbies and other monasteries, hospitals, frieries, and cathedral and collegiate churches, with their dependencies, in England and Wales; also of all such Scotch, Irish, and French monasteries, as were in any manner connected with religious houses in England (London 1817-1830), 6 vols in 8, covering Tavistock in II pp. 489-505 of the translation and giving the “Fundationis historiae (ex cartulario de Tavistok penes Joh. Maynard armigerum, fol. I)” pp. 494-495 and the Edward III inspeximus pp. 495-496.

24 responses to “The English cream tea: a question of preservation

  1. Good luck getting Wikipedia changed, whatever the results. However, I am beginning to think it is April Fool’s Day in Britain, since Heavenfield just posted an image of glasses on two persons in a 12th century illustration from a BL manuscript!

    • We can’t yet be sure that Wikipedia isn’t correct as it stands, though! As for April Fool’s, well, the stub of this post has been in my drafts folder for more than a year now, so it’s at least existed through an April Fool’s.

  2. Allan McKinley

    You could always just send a polite letter to one of the local history societies to see if they know the source of the claim?

  3. Great read! And what a mystery. If there isn’t an actual written record of the strawberry jam, then where the heck did that story originate??

  4. Intriguing!
    The news story is here attributed to BBC Devon’s Laura Joint:
    …who now, it seems, works in the autobiographical industry:

  5. Interesting you should mention this – recently a new copy of S 838, the only Anglo-Saxon diploma surviving from Tavistock, was discovered in the local record office here (Julia Crick is working on the find). Suffice to say, though, that I like you am rather dubious of the tale preserved by Dugdale. Tavistock was sacked in 997, and Ordgar apparently retired there in 1006, but beyond that we have little firm to go by.

    • *Ordulf, that should read!

    • Blimey. Now, if this were numismatics, and two items from a similar context had shown signs of appearing on the market in just a few years, one would conclude that a hoard had been discovered and was slowly being dispersed to avoid Treasure laws. But firstly one couldn’t easily disperse something into the local Record Office, I’d have thought, and secondly with manuscripts, why on earth conceal the discovery if it can be made public at all? I mean, if someone has been sitting on this stuff for centuries, why let anyone at it and yet not let it be more widely known? Intrigue and more intrigue, thankyou Levi!

  6. Most interesting, have reblogged on my blog.

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  10. The large strawberry that we are all used to is modern development.

    WKPD: “The garden strawberry was first bred in Brittany, France, in the 1750s via a cross of Fragaria virginiana from eastern North America and Fragaria chiloensis, which was brought from Chile by Amédée-François Frézier in 1714. Cultivars of Fragaria × ananassa have replaced, in commercial production, the woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca), which was the first strawberry species cultivated in the early 17th century.”

    • Oh sure; I was thinking of the wild ones that grow at my mother’s house, to be honest. They can still be quite sweet, but I’m not sure how many you’d have to gather to make any real quantity of preserve…

  11. Rather a late response to a 2013 post on Tavistock Abbey and Cream Teas

    So how true is the legend of Tavistock’s first Cream Teas? Well, it is said that when the Abbey was being re-built after being plundered and badly damaged by a band of marauding Vikings in 997AD, the monks rewarded the local workers by feeding them with bread and ‘clowted cream’. It proved so popular that the monks continued to serve the treat to passing travellers.

    Unfortunately for those workers it is highly unlikely that the monks topped their ‘clowted cream’ with strawberry preserve in the true Devon tradition. Sugar hadn’t made its way to England in the 10th century and so fruit preserves were made by mixing fruit pulp with honey and allowing it to dry in the sun, creating a texture more like that of a jellied sweet. It would take another seven centuries for tea to arrive from the Far East. So, it is more likely that the workers’ treat would have been made up of rye bread, clowted cream, dollops of honey and a jug of ale.

    By the 11th century jams did become popular amongst wealthy folk thanks to the Crusaders who brought sugar back to western Europe, but they were far too precious to spread on bread. Instead they were eaten as “spoon sweets” with feasts being capped off with the distribution of delicate silver spoons laden with fruit preserves. The price of sugar fell in the mid-19th century after the abolition of sugar tax and this brought sugar prices within the means of the ordinary citizen making jam more readily available to all.
    Clowted Cream
    As for ‘clowted cream’, well that had always been a speciality in Devon where the cows’ milk has an exceptionally high butterfat content. Traditionally, clotted cream was created by straining fresh cow’s milk, letting it stand in a shallow pan in a cool place for several hours to allow the cream to rise to the surface, then heating it either over hot cinders or in a water bath, before leaving it in shallow pans to cool slowly. During this time, the cream content rises to the surface. The name is thought to originate from ‘clout’, or ‘clowt’, an old word for a patch of cloth, which is what the crust on the cream resembles. Think of the saying ‘Cast not a clout till May be out’.
    Unfortunately, Devon can’t claim to be the birthplace of the scone. According to Webster’s Dictionary, scones originated in Scotland in the early 1500s. They started off as Scottish quick bread. Originally made with oats and griddle-baked. As for the origin of the word “Skone”, some say it comes from the Dutch word ‘schoonbrot’, which means beautiful bread, while others argue it comes from Stone of Destiny, where the Kings of Scotland were crowned. When baking powder became available to the masses in the mid-19th century scones began to be the oven-baked, well-leavened items we know today.
    As for the compulsory pot of tea, well Britain’s love affair with tea didn’t begin until the 17th century when it was first introduced via the coffee houses. By the 1800s tea was so popular in Britain that it was being shipped in by the ton by the East India Company using streamlined clipper ships like the Cutty Sark.
    So how did the Cream Tea as we know it today first evolve? Well strangely enough Tavistock is once again linked with the modern incarnation of that monkish treat as an afternoon delight. We have the 7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell, to thank for first introducing the delightful ritual of Afternoon Tea.

    As was the fashion of the time the evening meal wasn’t served until eight o’clock thus leaving a long period of time between lunch and dinner. In 1840 the Duchess was feeling faint from hunger during a visit to the Duke of Rutland and asked that a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake be brought to her room during the late afternoon. This became a habit of hers and she began inviting friends to join her.

    Soon the habit of afternoon tea spread across every level of society complete with cake, sandwiches and the delicious addition of scones, jam and cream. Tea rooms and cafes started to spring up across the country, but it was down here in Devon that these afternoon treats became known as ‘cream teas’.

    Dr Geri Parlby, Tavistock Heritage Trust

    • Thanks for this lengthy contribution! If only it had some references… However, it doesn’t seem to address the problem I was raising with the post, which is the obscure origin of the tale of Ordulf’s abbey in 997. As you will have seen from the above, it’s not apparently attested anywhere before the Internet. Have you found something I could not? If so I’m eager to know, even so far down the line…

  12. Thank you for this – I’m weighing in but briefly to combat the afternoon tea myth above (so not at ALL helping with the main question). Not invented by the Duchess of Bedford – widely practiced in late C18, name spread mid-late C19 and codified by etiquette writers then-nish. Full refs on Gray (2012) ‘the proud air of an unwilling slave’ in S. Spencer-Wood (ed) Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on Gender Transformations: From Private to Public. Paper is on – soz to reference myself, but there’s not much done on it.

    Incidentally, I’ve also heard it *definitely stated* that Henry VIII and Wolsley invented strawberries and cream (as if), so this seems to be one of those areas where the myth just runs and runs….(sigh)

    • Thankyou for this! You have provided the references I was asking for and more. But as you say, the main question remains unanswered. I did talk to a Tavistock specialist the other day who confirmed that the dukes still don’t know where the main cartulary went (although there is a smaller later one that doesn’t contain these documents). I didn’t have the chance to ask her about cream teas though!

  13. Clotted cream is a Middle Eastern/Arabic invention- probably brought back by the Crusaders.

    • That’s really not the same thing, though. Kaymak is not the skim but the remainder. It would be what was left behind after the clotted cream had been removed, perhaps, except for the fact that kaymak is made by boiling, which is why it is fermented and slightly sour of taste whereas clotted cream is neutral-to-sweet. I can only suggest you try them both, since they’re both delicious in different ways! But I think the basic technique involved is simple enough to have been evolved in many places.

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