THE stunning medieval backdrop of the Weald and Downland Museum will take centre stage this autumn, as three presenters turn the clock back to experience life under Tudor monastic rule.
Tudor Abbey Farm will follow archaeologists Peter Ginn, Tom Pinfold and historian Ruth Goodman as they take up residence and explore working life on the farm.
Surrounded by the greatest variety of 15th and 16th-century buildings in the country, the six-part series sees the team take on the role of the lay-folk who did the bulk of the farming and craft work within monastic lands.
“It is fascinating,” said Ruth. “I’m a Tudor girl through and through. I like the completely different way of thinking.
“It’s about understanding where we come from so we know where we are going. It is still a very hands-on world.
“In the programme, we are at the top end of the peasantry – this isn’t hand-to-mouth living.
“This is the beginning of more commercial farming. It is about planning and becoming skillful.”
The team is turning the clock back to the year 1500 – a turning point in British history. After centuries of war and plague, the nation was enjoying new-found stability under the reign of its first Tudor King, Henry VII. But it also marked the last decades of the monastic system.
“Monasteries were seen as a brand,” said Peter.
“It is amazing how much the monasteries were a source of craft and entrepreneurial spirit. In farming there was a remarkably smooth transition over the reformation period.
“The field work takes priority, and as a farmer you are still really involved.
“Particularly about staff management. If you aren’t in the field ploughing – you don’t know what your staff are doing!
“Many of your workers will be quite young. There is other work to be done, but field work takes priority. Even the women would largely be working in the fields.
“Farming was hard work. It’s still hard now. What modern-day farmers make up for in machinery, they lack in labour.”
Scrupulous record-keeping and archaeological finds have allowed the team to tackle the Tudor way of life, down to the very last detail – even Tudor dress.
“Getting in and out has been difficult,” said Peter. “I don’t tie myself in fully, and I’ve got faster – it’s almost as quick as if I was getting into a dinner jacket.
“I’ve been washing the shirt and pants as often as I want – but if you are all in it together you never notice!”
The fabrics are all natural and breathable
“They suit the work we’re doing,” said Ruth. “My dress is largely flame-retardant, so it’s ideal for cooking around open-fires. Tudor women never showed their hair – but there is something wonderful about having it out of the way.”
Tom, however, wore his Tudor garb while the team were lead-smelting during the heat-wave. “It was hot – and restrictive, but I’m getting used to it.”
The presenters have grown a crop of field peas, driven the oxen, sickled the barley, reaped, brewed and gleaned, made paper, sheared sheep and built a pigsty.
Ruth has been cooking regularly.
“Cooking is all about seasonality,” said Ruth. “It’s something we take for granted now. But they would’ve used seasonal herbs. Some dishes even used 30.”
Describing Ruth’s cooking as some of the best food he has ever had, Peter said: “It is fantastic. The best meal so far was a spit-roast lamb. The crew ended up eating it.”
As the diet of the day was largely beer and bread, it made up 80 per cent of a Tudor farmer’s diet. “Water was generally avoided as it wasn’t safe,” said Ruth.
“The monks’ diet was different – there have been deformities found in monks who had a diet too rich in protein.”
BBC Two’s living history series has included Victorian, Edwardian and Wartime Farm, but archeologist Tom is new to the series.
“It’s been a learning curve,” he said.
“But I’m working with some good people. You’ve just got to get involved and throw yourself in. It’s a very physical life.”