*Skeps- Beehives made from upside down wicker or wooden baskets.
*Geoponica-A book with information about different types of agriculture, dating back to the 900’s.
Mudford, Somerset, England, 1460
The sun rose gently on Rowe farm that morning, casting a supernatural glow over the apiary. The eight skeps stood a metre apart under the four great oak trees where the bees were already busily buzzing to and from the skeps. The beekeeper had built a wooden shelter with a straw roof underneath the trees to shelter the bees from the elements. It was nearing the end of May and soon the honey would be ready to harvest.
The beekeeper’s daughter gazed at the apiary from where she was sitting at her bedroom window. She longed to work with the bees herself but the beekeeper wouldn’t let her. It was man’s work, he would say leaving her to cleaning, washing and cooking. On the rare occasion when he ran out of protection against the bees, he would allow her to make him a wild mallow concoction from the Geoponica, which he believed in heart and soul. From time to time, when he was feeling poorly, he would allow her to go to Yeovil and attempt to sell some of the honey as medicine. Alas, no one would buy it as the people were too poor. The beekeeper had ignored her pleas to be allowed to go to London to try and sell the honey there, swearing like many times before that he would never set foot in the city. So instead, the beekeeper’s daughter stared longingly at the skeps from her window everyday but Sunday as the beekeeper worked.
The beekeeper emerged from the small farm cottage, carrying a basket and walked laboriously towards the apiary. The beekeeper’s daughter watched as he stopped a few metres from the skeps, and took out large pieces of dried cow dung. He positioned one in front of each skep before setting it on fire to allow the smoke to confuse the bees while he retrieved the honey. As the beekeeper stepped towards the first skep, he suddenly clutched at his chest and collapsed. His daughter propelled herself from the window seat, rushed to the front door of the cottage and out into the garden towards the apiary, shouting: “Father!”
The beekeeper’s daughter did not make it to the village in time to find a healer, and would feel guilty for a very long time. Within the fortnight, most of the villagers had come to pay their respects and the beekeeper was buried in Mudford cemetery. Everyone fretted and worried about the beekeeper’s daughter. She overheard them saying, ‘She’s unmarried and twenty-two’, ‘she doesn’t have enough money to appoint someone to do the beekeeping’, ‘no one would marry her, she’s too plain, ‘the poor beekeeper’s daughter’.
A lifetime of sideways glances and poverty and was not what she wanted, therefore the beekeeper’s daughter set to work on the skeps. She did not have anymore cow dung so she took some of the wild mallow concoction into her mouth and blew into the skeps three times as the Geoponica instructed. She harvested the first honey of the year and pooled it into twenty glass containers. She taught the neighbour’s son the fundamentals of beekeeping in exchange for him taking care of the bees for two months. With the last of her inheritance, she hired a horse and cart to take her and the twenty jars of honey to London.
London, England, 1460
One month later, the beekeeper’s daughter was barely living off the little honey that she was selling. She had found lodging in a back-alley brothel that promised her room and board in exchange for her using a little of the honey’s healing properties on the inhabitants. She had used the very last of her inheritance money to rent a stall in one of the busiest market places in the city of London.
That particular day was busier than usual. The marketplace was so full that there was less than a metre between people. A boy was worming his way between them with a tray of meat, shouting: “Cooked meat, beef ribs, pie!” Farmers were selling livestock; chickens, sheep and cattle, the animals competing with the sound of the humans’ chatter. There were also the wealthy merchants wearing long gowns with high collars. The beekeeper’s daughter had five jars of honey left. If she could sell them, she would have enough money to go back to Mudford to harvest some more before returning. She did not know how long she would be able to continue as the journey was perilous and the income she made almost immediately went to living in the city.
A group of knights stepped up to her market stall, glancing over the jars of honey warming in the afternoon sun.
A young, slim man, wearing a green tunic and a black hood pulled low over his eyes, stood in the middle of the group. “We don’t often see honey sold in the market thus”, he noted, “is your husband a beekeeper?”
“My father was, sir”, she responded, warily. “After he passed on, I took his place”.
She could not see the man’s face but could tell by his body language that he was surprised. She expected him to protest the idea of a woman being a beekeeper, but instead he asked: “Where do you keep your bees?”
“On Rowe farm in Somerset, sir”.
“You mean to say that you travel all the way to Somerset and back?”
“It’s not much of a choice, sir”, she responded. “The little village of Mudford cannot afford honey, and I cannot afford to continue without the money”.
“Do you also sell wax?” he asked, interested.
“I can make it, sir but again there’s been no real need as those who would buy it regularly are the nobility who use it for their seals-“
“Indeed”, he responded,” are you married?”
“No, sir”, she responded, becoming annoyed with his manner of questioning.
“So you live by yourself now?”
“I beg you pardon, sir but I do not feel comfortable answering anymore of your questions”, she responded carefully.
“Of course, my apologies”, he answered, quickly. “I mean to offer you employment as the beekeeper of my estate…and I wanted to know if there were others depending on you. I will organise for your bees to be moved to London and I will be willing to pay you £40 a year. What say you?”
The beekeeper’s daughter stared at the hooded man, quietly. “I could not rightly take the employment of man whose face I cannot see, sir”.
As soon as she spoke the word, the man dropped his hood and a hush fell over the market place as everyone in a three metre distance sank into a bow. Prince Edward IV was standing in front of her stall.
The beekeeper’s daughter bowed too. “I beg your pardon, your highness”, she said, hastily. “I did not know it was you”.
“Well, of course you didn’t”, Prince Edward said. “I had my face hidden, didn’t I?”
She kept her eyes to the ground until the Prince asked her to rise. “Would you like to reconsider my offer? Would you consider being the King’s beekeeper?”
The beekeeper’s daughter looked into the eyes of the Prince of England and declined. “Your highness, please do not think me ungrateful. I’ve spent my whole life being the beekeeper’s daughter and now that I am almost free from that title, I do not want to trade beekeeper’s daughter for king’s beekeeper”.
In truth, everybody in the market place thought she was mad but the future king of England saw something of himself in her that day. He took back his offer and vowed instead that the King’s household would buy honey only from her for as long as she lived. Soon more and more people became aware of her honey, and within another four month’s time she had enough money to move her bees to the garden of a small house she had bought outside the wall of London. From that day on, she was known as Frances, the beekeeper.