A handwritten 17th-century book of recipes, household tips and medicinal potions gave historian a fascinating insight into the life of the woman behind it
If you had to leave your home with no more than a few hours’ notice, forced out by war or the risk of fire, what would you take with you? Nowadays, we can carry addresses, family photos, love letters (or texts) and favourite music and books with us anywhere on our smartphones, but in the 17th century – and up until only a decade ago – people escaping impending disaster would have had to choose: a wedding picture, their aunt’s cake recipe, a scrapbook or book of poems; those precious reminders of our lives and the secret selves that make up who we are.
When Ann Harrison (later Fanshawe) was 17, in early 1643, her father sent for her and her younger sister Margaret to join him at Charles I’s court-in-exile at Oxford. The king had fled London the previous year, declaring war against his unruly Parliament, and the first inconclusive battle of what would become the English Civil War was fought at Edgehill, in rural Warwickshire, that October. Ann’s elder brother Simon was already with the king’s army, and her father had managed to evade arrest at his London house, slipping away from the Parliamentarians by promising to fetch them important papers they wanted pertaining to the royal finances.
Ann and Margaret had remained at Balls Park, the beautiful house their father had recently built outside Hertford, paid for with the fortune he’d amassed during more than 20 years as a customs officer in the king’s service. There, their father hoped, the sisters would be safe. But times were changing; bands of men opposed to the king began roaming the countryside, searching houses for weapons and money they could confiscate in Parliament’s name. Two young girls were too vulnerable to be left alone. So Ann and Margaret rode 70 miles on horseback through a chill February into the unknown. Accompanying them were two male servants who carried their few possessions in cloak bags.
Their lodgings at the makeshift royal capital of Oxford were nothing like the comforts of Balls Park. ‘From as good a house as any gentleman of England had, we came to lie in a very bad bed in a garret, to one dish of meat, and that not the best ordered, no money,’ wrote Ann, years later, ‘for we were as poor