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Letter From England Number 9

17 August 2009

I have been very busy on a few projects, but have found enough time to write another letter, that I hope you will find entertaining.

This week I have a bit more history, including a rather interesting tale of a head that was buried 300 years after it's owner. We also learn to cook Shepherd's Pie.

Pepys's Secret Mission

Pepys's diary begins on the 1st January 1660. Just three months later he accompanies his boss on a secret mission.

Portrait Of Samuel Pepys

In recent months Pepys has been carrying letters to and from powerful people, but does not know the contents, although he probably guesses them. Pepys is in a boat, part of a small fleet that is setting sail to the Netherlands(Holland).

He is about to witness yet another momentous event in British history. Read on to find out what about this mission.

A couple of letters ago I told you of the Civil War, that the King, Charles I was executed and the monarchy abolished in Britain. Well, how come we have a Queen now?

After the king was executed Britain became a Commonwealth, it's leader was Oliver Cromwell, who we have met before and will be meeting a lot of (or parts of him) in this letter.

Cromwell died on the 3rd September 1658 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. On his death his son took charge, but he was not such a formidable force and there was a power vacuum developing. Remembering back, the execution of the king was due a lot in part to his refusal to negotiate and it was a rather reluctant decision to chop his head off!

Restoration of Charles II

So now there was a distinct possibility of another Civil War. A compromise was found by bringing back his son, who was in exile in Europe. The idea being that hopefully he would have learnt from his father's fate and be a more moderate leader, one who listened to Parliament.

 Charles II Sitting On The Throne

So after eleven years the monarchy is back.

Shepherd's Pie

If you invite an Englishman to dinner, and he is not a vegetarian, I have a tip for you. Feed him Shepherd's Pie.

It might not be high dining, but trust me it will be very appreciated. It is also very simple to make.

Originally the ingredients were mainly from leftovers of a previous roast meal. Basically it is minced (or ground) meat with a mashed potato top.

Here is a recipe that I took from Wikipedia.

Shepherd's Pie


  1. Brown the mince in a frying pan. There is no need to add oil, as the meat is fatty enough.
  2. Finely chop the onion and lightly fry in a little butter until clear.
  3. Add the onions to the mince along with the mixed herbs and some pepper.
  4. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture and stir and cook for 3 - 4 minutes (if using gravy powder, omit this step).
  5. Cover with beef stock (or add water and beef bouillon/gravy powder) and simmer for 30 minutes.
  1. Peel, chop and boil the potatoes for 20 minutes until cooked.
  2. Once the meat is cooked, skim off the excess fat, then boil rapidly to reduce the liquid until it just covers the mince and onions.
  3. Drain the potatoes very well until completely dry. Mash until smooth and free of any lumps.
  4. Add butter to the mashed potato, taste and adjust the seasoning.
  5. Add enough milk to make the mash very soft (heavy mash will not float properly on top of the mince).
  1. Put mince mixture in a shallow oven proof dish.
  2. Spread the mash on top of the meat and brush the tops of the potatoes with melted butter.
  3. If desired, sprinkle the grated cheese on top of the mash.
  4. Spike the top with a fork - that is, rough up the surface of the mash with a fork.
  5. Cook in a hot oven for about 30-50 minutes until the top is golden brown.
  6. Serve with peas or beans

Now this is not my recipe. So I will just give you a few of my tips. I don't bother with any stock. I don't think it needs it. I would use more onions and normally add quite a few mushrooms and a tomato or two. Also, I just mash the potato but sometimes I might add a bit of cheese. Sometimes I might add a bit of parsnip or swede to the mash. You can add things like peas to the mince, a lot of people add baked beans. I don't like this too much, but you may.

As I stated at the beginning Shepherd's Pie was a cheap leftovers dish, so I think that you should bear that in mind and don't slavishly follow the recipe.

Oliver Cromwell's Head

Oliver Cromwell's Head

I have been building up to this peculiar story, that I discovered recently.

After less than a year of being on the throne, Charles exacted what revenge he could on Cromwell.

Exactly 12 years after Charles's execution, the bodies of Cromwell and 2 others who were instrumental in the trial and death of the king were dug up. Here is a contemporary account from Thomas Rugge:

Execution Of Oliver Cromwell

"This morning the carcases of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw (which the day before had been brought from the Red Lion Inn, Holborn) were drawn upon a sledge to Tyburn, and then taken out of their coffins and in their shrouds hanged by the neck until the going down of the sun. They were then cut down, their heads taken off, and their bodies buried in a grave under the Gallows."

Another account from Samuel Sainthill:

"they were hanged by the neck from morning. Cromwell in a green seare cloth, very fresh embalmed; Ireton....hung like a dried rat"

Oliver Cromwell's Head On A Spike

So the bodies were hung all day and then decapitated. But, here comes the even macabre bit. The heads were put spikes above Westminster Hall.

There Cromwell stayed for about 25 years. Then one day, in a storm it was blown down. A soldier on duty found it and brought it home as a souvenier. There was a big enquiry and thoughts that it was taken by Cromwell sympathizers. So is stayed a secret for many years, until it reappeared as an attraction.

Oliver Cromwell's Head Being Exhibited

The head moved through a few hands until being bought by Josiah Henry Wilkinson in 1814. It remained in the family for 150 years.

Oliver Cromwell's Head Being Shown

In 1960 the head was given to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where Cromwell attended as a student. It was buried in secret so that it wouldn't be dug up and used as a curiosity again.

So that is the end of this rather grisly tale that lasted 300 years, I hope you enjoyed it!

A Plaque Commerating The Burial Of Oliver Cromwell's Head

What's News

An NHS Nurse

This week this section is directed to our American cousins, and serves as an apology for some misinformation from one of our politicians.

The debate in America about health care reforms created a big ripple here because of comments made by Daniel Hannan a Conservative MEP. I will explain his position a bit better. He is a politician whose party (the Conservatives) are not in power but are the main opposition party. He is a Member of the European Parliament.

Daniel Hannan talking of our National Health Service on national American television stated that he:

"wouldn't wish it on anybody. We have a system where the most salient facts of it you get huge waiting lists, you have bad survival rates and you would much rather fall ill in the US"

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is rubbish. It caused the leader of his party, David Cameron to issue this statement.

"He does have some quite eccentric views about some things, and political parties always include some people who don't toe the party line on one issue or another issue"

So this is my message to any Americans who heard Daniel Hannan's comments. I am sure that I speak for the vast majority of Britains.

Our National Health Service is a worthy concept. Free health care for all. Yes it has major faults. It has become too bureaucratic, unwieldy and inefficient. A lot of this has been caused by central government. But these are issues that can be addressed and since it's inception in 1948 it has been a great success.

To put it another way any political party that advocated scrapping the National Health Service would stand no chance of government. That is why the comments in America by a member of his party made David Cameron move fast with his statement.

This must be a pointer for any doubters of Obama's policy.


That's the end of this week's letter and I hope you won't have nightmares.

I hope you have a good week!