Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Banbury cakes and Banbury Cross


That the ancient town of Banbury, lying on the northern verge of the county of Oxford, has been, from time immemorial, famed for its rich cakes, should not excite our special wonder; seeing that the district has some of the richest pasture-land in the kingdom; a single cow being here known to produce upwards of 200 pounds of butter in a year! Butter, we need scarcely add, is the prime ingredient of the Banbury cake, giving it the richness and lightness of the finest puff paste; and to the paper in which the cakes are wrapped, the appearance of their having been packed up by bakers with well-buttered fingers.

The cause of this cake-fame must, however, be sought in a higher walk of history than in the annals of pastry-making. The Banbury folks went on rejoicing in the fatness of their cakes until the reign of Elizabeth; from which time to that of Charles II., the people of the town were so reputed for their peculiar religious fervour, as to draw upon themselves most unsparingly the satire of contemporary playwrights, wits, and humourists. By some unlucky turn of time, cakes, which were much valued by the classical ancients, and were given away as presents, in the Middle Ages, instead of bread, were looked upon as a superstitious relic by the Puritans, who thereupon abolished the practice. They formed so predominant a party at Banbury, in the reign of Elizabeth, that they pulled down Banbury Cross, celebrated in our nursery rhymes. In the face of this historical fact, however, the reputed “zeal” of the Banburians has been attributed to an accidental circumstance, in modern phrase, “an error of the press.” In Gough’s edition of Camden’s “Britannia,” in the MS. supplement, is this note: “Put out the word zeale in Banbury, where some think it a disgrace, when a zeale with knowledge is the greater grace among good Christians; for it was first foysted in by some compositor or pressman, neither is it in my Latin copie, which I desire the reader to hold as authentic.” It was, indeed, printed, as a proverb, “Banbury zeal, cheese, and cakes,” instead of “Banbury veal, cheese, and cakes.” Gibson, in his edition of Camden, however, gives another version, relating: “there is a credible story—that while Philemon Holland was carrying on his English edition of the ‘Britannia,’ Mr. Camden came accidentally to the press, when this sheet was working off; and looking on, he found, that to his own observation of Banbury being famous for cheese, the translator had added cakes and ale. But Mr. Camden thinking it too light an expression, changed the word ale into zeal; and so it passed, to the great indignation of the Puritans, who abounded in this town.” Barnaby Googe, in his “Strappado for the Divell,” refers to “Banbury” as:

Famous for twanging ale, zeal, cakes, and cheese.

Better remembered are the lines in his “Journey through England:”

To Banbury came I, O profane one!
Where I saw a puritane one
Hanging of his cat on Monday
For killing of a mouse on Sunday.

Early in the seventeenth century, the Puritans were very strong in Banbury. In Ben Jonson’s “Bartholomew Fair,” Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, the Puritanical Rabbi, is called a Banbury man, and described as one who was a baker—“but he does dream now, and sees visions; he has given over his trade out of a scruple that he took, that it spiced conscience, those cakes he made were served to bridales, Maypoles, morrises, and such profane feasts and meetings:” in other words, he had been a baker, but left off that trade to set up for a prophet; and one of the characters in “Bartholomew Fair,” says: “I have known divers of these Banburians when I was at Oxford.” And Sir William D’Avenant, in his play of “The Wits,” illustrates this Puritanical character, in

To intice heaven by singinA weaver of Banbury, that hopes
To intice heaven by singing, to make him lord of twenty looms.

Old Thomas Fuller personifies the zeal in the Rev. William Whately, who was Vicar of Banbury in the reign of James I., and was called “The Roaring Boy.” Fuller adds: “only let them (the Banbury folks) adde knowledge to their zeal, and then the more zeal the better their condition.” The Vicar was a zealous and popular preacher, according to his monument:

It’s William Whately that here lies,
Who swam to’s tomb in’s people’s eyes.

In the “Tatler,” No. 220, in describing his “Ecclesiastical Thermometer,” to indicate the changes and revolutions in the Church, the Essayist writes, “that facetious divine, Dr. Fuller, speaking of the town of Banbury, near a hundred years ago, tells us: ‘it was a place famous for cakes and zeal, which I find by my glass is true to this day, as to the latter part of this description, though I must confess it is not in the same reputation for cakes that it was in the time of that learned author.

The Banburians, however, maintained their character for zeal in a grand demonstration made by them in favour of Dr. Sacheverell, whose trial had just terminated in his acquittal; and in the same year, this High Church champion made a triumphal passage through Banbury, on his journey to take possession of the living of Salatin, in Shropshire, which was ridiculed in a pamphlet, with a woodcut illustrative of the procession; and there appeared another pamphlet on the same lively subject.

Thus far the association of cakes with zeal in the case of Banbury. It is worthy of remark that cakes had formerly not unfrequently a religious significance, from their being more used at religious seasons than at other times. The triangular cakes made at Congleton, in Cheshire, have a raisin in each corner, thought to be emblematic of the Trinity; the cakes at Shrewsbury may have had something to do with its old religious shows. Coventry, on New Year’s day, has its God-cakes. Then we have the Twelfth-cake with its bean; the Good Friday bun with its cross; the Pancake, with its shroving or confession; and the Passover cake of the Jews. The minced pie was treated by the Puritans as a superstitious observance, and after the Restoration it almost served as a test for religious opinions. According to the old rule, the case or crust of a minced pie should be oblong, in imitation of the cradle or manger wherein the Saviour was laid; the ingredients of the mince being said to refer to the offerings of the Wise Men.

Returning to the Banbury cake. In a “Treatise of Melancholy,” by T. Bright, 1586, we find the following:—“Sodden wheat is a grosse and melancholicke nourishment, and bread especially of the fine flower unleavened. Of this sort are bag puddings made, with flower, fritters, pancakes, such as we call Banberrie Cakes; and those great ones confected with butter, eggs, &c., used at weddings; and however it be prepared, rye, and bread made thereof, carrieth with it plentie of melancholie.”

At Banbury, the cakes are served to the authorities upon state occasions. Thus, in the Corporation accounts of Banbury, we find a charge of “Cakes for the Judges at the Oxford Assizes, 2l. 3s. 6d.” The present form of the Banbury cake resembles that of the early bun before it was made circular. The zeal has died away, but not so the cakes; for in “Beesley’s History of Banbury, 1841,” we find that Mr. Samuel Beesley sold, in 1840, no fewer than 139,500 twopenny cakes; and in 1841, the sale increased by at least a fourth. In August, 1841, 5000 cakes were sold weekly; large quantities being shipped to America, India, and even Australia.

The cakes are now more widely sold than formerly, when the roadside inns were the chief depôts. We remember the old galleried Three Cranes inn at Edgware, noted for its fresh supplies of cakes; as were also the Green Man and Still, and other taverns of Oxford Road, now Oxford Street.

Banbury Cheese, which Shakspeare mentions, is no longer made, but it was formerly so well known as to be referred to as a comparison. Bishop Williams, in 1664, describes the clipped and pared lands and glebes of the Church “as thin as Banbury cheese.” Bardolf, in the “Merry Wives of Windsor,” compares Slender to Banbury cheese, which seems to have been remarkably thin, and all rind, as noticed by Heywood, in his Collection of Epigrams:—

I never saw Banbury cheese thick enough,
But I have often seen Essex cheese quick enough.

The same thought occurs in “Jack Drum’s Entertainment,” 1601:—

Put off your cloathes, and you are like a Banbury cheese—nothing but paring.

In the Birch and Sloane MSS., No. 1201, is a curious receipt for making Banbury cheese, from a MS. cookery book of the sixteenth century. A rich kind of cheese, about one inch in thickness, is still made in the neighbourhood of Banbury.

We have already traced the destruction of the Cross at Banbury to the leaven of fanaticism. The nursery rhyme,

Ride a cock-horse
To Banbury-cross,

is by some referred to this act; and to signify being overproud and imperious. Taylor, the water poet, has

A knave that for his wealth doth worship get,
Is like the divell that’s a-cock-horse set.

The Banburians have lately rebuilt the Cross to commemorate the marriage of the Princess Royal with the Crown Prince of Prussia. They also exhibit, periodically, a pageant, in which a fine lady on a white horse, preceded by Robin Hood and Little John, Friar Tuck, a company of archers, bands of music, flags and banners, passes through the principal street to the Cross, where the lady (Maid Marian) scatters Banbury cakes among the people. How far this pageant may be associated with local tradition time and the curious have hitherto failed to explain.

John Timbs.