Posted in Activity, Bringing Alive The Past, Country House, Event, History, History of Medicine, Rural Heritage

Making Ends Meet Tudor Style – Beekeeping & Candlemaking

I love cooking with honey, particularly lavender honey, it gives even the most ordinary cake or biscuit a delicate, sweet, floral flavour.  I think that bees are one of nature’s wonders. One only has to look at the structure of a honeycomb for evidence as to why.

As part of the event series, ‘Making Ends Meet Tudor Style’, organised by the Tudor Revels Project, I attended an exhibition at The Hawthorns Centre on beekeeping and candlemaking. The exhibition was put together by The Meridian Beekeepers Association. The display included a ‘teaching hive’ complete with honeycombs in various stages of maturity, specimens of different species of bees and explanations on how honey is produced.  I also had a go at rolling my own beeswax candle.

Here are a few facts about honey bees, gleamed from The Meridian Beekeepers Association text panels:

  • honey bees collect nectar and pollen;
  • the bees return to the hive with the pollen carried in their Corbiculae (pollen baskets) on their hind legs;
  • nectar is transported internally in the ‘honey stomach’;
  • pollen is packed into the wax cells and capped;
  • pollen is an important source of proteins, lipids, minerals and vitamins for larvae and young adults;
  • nectar is processed into honey and capped in the wax comb for storage.

There are several different types of bee:

  • the bumble bee.  They have round bodies with a thick striped coat. They are not kept in beehives. The ‘queen’ bumble bee mates in Autumn and flies about in Spring looking for somewhere to nest, such as a disused mouse or bird nest or a compost heap.  There are currently twenty-five species of bumble bee in Britain;
  • solitary bees.  In Britain there are approximately two hundred and fifty species and many look like honey bees.  This type of bee can be found in sandy soil or in the soft mortar of old houses;
  • honey bees. These are kept by beekeepers but can also live wild, for example in chimneys or hollow trees. Honey bees can be identified by their black bodies with light tan banding and are of a similar size to a wasp. They live in large colonies of workers and have a queen at the head. Honey bees convert nectar they collect into honey which will provide food for the colony during the winter months. Honey bees are the only source of beeswax;

During the Tudor period beekeeping was a popular activity.  Tudor honey bees were black and not striped like they are today. Evidence still exists, at a number of Tudor properties, of bee boles, alcoves where the skeps were housed. Before modern, movable wooden frames appeared in 1862, bees were housed in basket hives or skeps.  The Tudor garden at Thornbury Castle, Gloucestershire had twenty-six bee boles and in a south-facing late Tudor wall, behind Quebec House, Westerham, there are three.  Other examples of Tudor bee boles include: Packwood House, Warwickshire,  which has thirty lining a south-facing garden wall; Titchfield Abbey, Hampshire, there were four alcoves, in two rows along the boundary wall which have long since been bricked-up;  a ragstone wall adjoining Maidstone Museum has four and on a north-west facing wall at Fulham Palace, there are three which have been bricked-up but the outline of each recess can still clearly be seen. (IBRA Bee Bole Register, 2012)

In Scotland, monks at Pluscarden Abbey near Elgin still use skep hives, kept in thirteenth century bee boles, to capture swarms.  At Tolquhon Castle in Grampian, which was built by Sir William Forbes, 7th Lord of Tolquhon, there are twelve bee boles in the south-west facing wall of the outer court. These boles were constructed in 1589. (Kritsky, 2010)

Bee showing a full ‘pollen basket’,  situated on its hind legs.

The poor of Tudor Britain used honey as a sweetener and the wealthy used it in baking, medicines, furniture polish and to make mead, an alcoholic honey wine.  Monastries brewed mead using honey produced in their own hives. The monks of the Monastery at The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland, had a Brew House, remains of which can still be seen today. Mead continues to be brewed in a location close by to Lindisfarne.  Queen Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) favourite tipple was a variation on mead, metheglin.  A flavoured mead that contained herbs and spices including ginger, tea, orange peel, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, cloves or vanilla.

Beeswax was highly sought after before The Reformation,  when the value of beeswax was higher than that of honey. In Bee Boles and Bee Houses (1994), Anne Foster writes: ‘..beeswax was valued for its use in making candles for the great churches (some of which weighed thirty pounds): “The origin of bees is from paradise,” said the Gwentian Code, “and because of the sin of man they came thence; and God conferred His grace upon them, and therefore the mass cannot be sung without the wax.”‘ (p.12).

The Tudor beekeeper extracted honey from the wax comb through a cloth bag, the first squeeze of honey was the best quality, the second squeeze came from wringing the cloth.  The cloth could also be washed in warm water to extract the meth which was used in mead and metheglin.

Charles Butler (1560-1647) is considered to be the Father of English Beekeeping. He lived in rural Hampshire, first in the tiny village of Nately Scures near Hook, he then became Master of Holy Ghost School, Basingstoke.  In 1600 he secured a pastorage of the tiny Parish of Wootton St. Lawrence, near Basingstoke. Butler remained their until his death in 1647.  During his pastorage of Wootton St. Lawrence he wrote his seminal work, The Feminine Monarchie (1609), a guide to bees and apiculture.  In the course of my research, I found a very interesting article, ‘A ting or two dat bees do’ (July 2011), about Butler’s book. The article is written by Rupert Baker, Library Manager at The Royal Society, and is published on The Society’s Blog, The Repository. For Baker’s article, CLICK HERE.

Suggested Further Resources 

  • my article on ‘Britain’s Rural Heritage: Beekeeping’, CLICK HERE;
  • Tudor Revels Project, Events, CLICK HERE;
  • Foster, A. M., (2011), Bee Boles and Bee Houses, Shire Publications Ltd;
  • Kritsky, G., (2010), The Quest for the Perfect Hive: A History of Innovation in Bee Culture, Oxford University Press;
  • Breamore House Countryside Museum, Nr. Fordingbridge, Hampshire. A lovely display of vintage beekeeping equipment. CLICK HERE;
  • The International Bee Research Association (IBRA) Bee Boles Register, CLICK HERE;
  • The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA), CLICK HERE;
  • The Meridian Beekeepers Association, CLICK HERE.


Social historian, based in the UK.

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