Hot cross buns at the Widow’s Son pub

I’m not a fan of religious holidays, but it’s Good Friday and that happens to coincide with one of those odd, localized British traditions that are always worth dropping in on. 

Every Good Friday, a sailor comes into the Widow’s Son pub in Bromley-by-Bow, in London’s East End, and adds a hot cross bun to a net of aging hot cross buns strung above the bar. 

And that’s it. 

Okay, that’s not quite it. It’s not one sailor, but a group of sailors from HMS President, which is docked nearby, and they climb on each other’s shoulders to get to the net, with the youngest being the designated bun-putter-inner. 

Or possibly smallest. It depends on who you believe.

Then that’s it. 

Irrelevant photo: heather

Or it used to be. In recent years, though, a few hours of free drinks and loud music have been added, along with a buffet that includes hot cross buns. This year, of course, all bets are off. Pubs are closed, gatherings are banned, and flour’s hard to come by. Someone will probably scan a bun and email it into the net. 

In recent years (and no, I don’t know how recent recent is), the buns are shellacked before they’re put in the net so they’ll last as long as possible.

What’s it all about? Legend has it that a widow and her son lived in the cottage where the pub now stands. The boy went to sea, and every year he came back on Good Friday and she’d made him a hot cross bun. 

One year, he didn’t return. She kept the bun and baked a new one for him every year. 

Or else, he never did come back, even that first year–he’d drowned at sea. I’ve read two versions of the tale and if I kept going I’m sure I’d find more. 

When she died, they found a net of buns hanging from the ceiling. For 80 years, the pub kept up the tradition, adding a bun a year. 

In 2015, the pub closed and the collection of buns disappeared. Or else a fire destroyed most of them fifteen years ago. Or possibly both. We’re in the land of legend, where what actually happened doesn’t weigh much. The stories, though? They’re what carry the weight.

When the pub sold, the new owners, under pressure from locals, revived the tradition.

End of story and we still haven’t reached 400 words. Surely I owe you something more, so let’s talk about hot cross buns.

According to one belief, hot cross buns baked on Good Friday will never go stale. Or moldy. That surely has something to do with the legend of the widow’s immortal buns. Another belief holds that if you hang a bun from your kitchen rafters on Good Friday it won’t go bad. The next year, you replace it with a new one. 

Back when people took this stuff seriously, they’d break up the year-old bun, mix it with water, and use it as medicine. If the patient recovered from whatever was wrong, they credited the bun. If the patient didn’t–well, medicine was like that in those days.

I haven’t read that anyone bit down on it and said, “Hey, guys, it tastes like it was baked this morning.” On the other hand, I can’t prove that they didn’t.

The bun was also supposed to protect the kitchen from evil spirits, prevent kitchen fires, and ensure that the bread you made there would be glorious.

If you took a hot cross bun to sea, it would prevent shipwrecks.

Sharing a hot cross bun ensured a strong friendship.

Writing about hot cross buns ensures that you’ll visit some very silly websites, along with some serious ones.

Legend dates hot cross buns back to a twelfth (or in one telling, eleventh) century monk. Or to the Saxons, who baked something along those lines even before they became Christians, with the cross symbolizing the four quarters of the moon. Or to the early Greek Christians, or to the ancient Greeks, who lived before there were Christians. But the first recorded mention of them comes from a sixteenth and seventeenth century text: “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns.”

In 1592, Elizabeth I banned the sale of spiced buns on any day but Good Friday. (Or possibly any day but Good Friday and Christmas. Or Good Friday, Christmas, and burials. Take your pick.) I’ve seen two explanations: One, they were too special to be eaten on any other day. Two, they smacked of popery and she wanted to set a limit on them. 

These may have been what we know as hot cross buns and may have been some other kind of spiced bun. Either way, people could–and apparently did–bake them at home to get around the law. If they were caught, though, they had to give all the buns they had on hand to the poor.

*

By way of philosophical balance, Alf Dubs, a Labour member of the House of Lords, is scheduled to send out a secular Good Friday message to prisoners in British jails via the prison radio system. (Britain’s a strange and complicated place and I won’t explain why the Labour Party has members in the Lords–it’d take too long.) It’s aimed at atheist and humanist prisoners on behalf of an organization that offers them pastoral care, Humanists UK, offering hope at a time when the prisons are locked down and prisoners can’t see their families.

Dubs escaped Nazi Germany as a child, coming to Britain on one of the Kindertransports. In recent years, he’s become an advocate for refugees.

*

I owe someone thanks for pointing me in the direction the Widow’s Son. I took all the information I’d need to thank him or her, put it someplace safe (since I know better than to trust my memory–effectively, I don’t have one), and have never seen it again. Whoever you are (1) forgive me and (2) remind me so I can post a link to your blog.

71 thoughts on “Hot cross buns at the Widow’s Son pub

  1. I came across this story on Icy Sedgwick’s blog, so you might have seen it there too. It’s another one of those traditions that doesn’t bear too much thinking about. What kind of sailor before the last century could predict to the day when he would be home? Where was he going that he always got home on Good Friday?

    Liked by 2 people

    • At this time of year, I’m happy to celebrate spring in general. Especially in Britain, where you–or we, really–have so many wildflowers. I’m halfway drunk on them. The Jewish holiday of the moment is Passover, but I’ve seldom celebrated it.

      Liked by 3 people

        • Cyrus the Virus? At least now I know who I’m hiding from. What a terrible and beautiful spring it is.

          I’ve had people burst out laughing when I say I’m a Jewish atheist. Until the first time that happened, I hadn’t thought about how absurd and contradictory that must sound to an outsider. It seemed perfectly natural to me.

          Liked by 1 person

            • Aha! I was just trading comments with Autolycus about that. Judaism is a religion, but even if you leave (or never belonged to) the religion behind, you may well still be part of a tradition. Call it a culture, call it an ethnicity. It’s hard as hell to define. In many ways, I’m not culturally Jewish. I didn’t grow up celebrating the Jewish holidays. Some of them I barely understand. And yet, I am still Jewish. As a much older cousin once told me, “As long as there is anti-semitism, I am Jewish.” Whether he meant that as a principled position or was simply saying that a hostile outside world keeps a smaller group together, I don’t know and didn’t think to ask. I think both are true–certainly the first was for him, and is for many people. As long as this is an embattled group, I can’t walk away.

              But it’s more than that. There are just some elements of who and how I am that have come down to me through the culture, through the generations–thing I could no more leave behind than I could fly.

              Does that begin to make sense of it?

              Liked by 2 people

  2. I love the bun story and the many fascinating people involved. The sailor, the widow, the queen – would love to have them all over for a bun evening. Sounds like Lord Dabs might be well advised to extend his radio message to us all, seeing as we are all mildly incarcerated somewhere. I even made him a very small list, in case he has some humanist connections with Santa https://helpincoronatimes.wordpress.com/2020/04/08/what-i-miss/

    Liked by 3 people

    • Sourdough starter! All you need to get it going is a jar, water, flour, and something porous to keep the flies out. Oh, and a week or two to get it up to strength. From there on, you can laugh at the yeast shortage. I still use yeast for some breads, but my basic one is a sourdough rye/wheat mix.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t really considered Hot Cross Buns, except as a child about the only tune I could play on my recorder was “Hot Cross Bun”, a dreadful tune. As you can tell, I am not at all musical as far as playing an instrument is concerned (I like listening to not playing music).

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I hope your blog is not seen in the White House. Trump would have a field day recommending old buns as the cure for the pandemic. Thanks for another fascinating look at the life and legends of Olde England, Ellen. Stay safe down there in Cornwall and keep any holidaymakers that succeed in running the gauntlet of the police cordon at arm’s length.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You know, I’m getting tired of people using every thing that happens to blast Trump. I’m no fan of his, but everyone is doing the best they can to mitigate this pandemic the best they can, no one’s perfect. If you think you could do better then get off your lazy arse and enter the political arena yourself and make the difference you want to see. It’s easy to sit back in a comfy chair and make pronouncements, try being on the front line where you have to make the decisions. Again, no one is perfect, we all do the best we can with the information we have and the people with whom we talk and interact.

      Why does politics have to enter into every facet of our lives?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Because whether we like it or not, politics shapes every aspect of our lives. It sets a context, sometimes visibly and sometimes invisibly. Right now, in this crisis, it determines how many people die and in what conditions. I’d say Trump has failed in so many ways in this crisis that I can’t begin to list them. That may or may not be the best he can do, but it doesn’t matter. He’s not some awkward ten-year-old coming 103rd in a race who needs consolation. He’s someone who fought his way into a position of power and has let everyone down.

        We don’t know, from people’s comments here, to what extent they are politically active or whether they’re sitting on their asses making pronouncements.

        Actually, even making pronouncements from the comfort of a chair is a political act. Every country has a political conversation–spoken and unspoken–going on. The conversations we have over breakfast and online are part of it.

        Liked by 4 people

        • I just find it interesting how people are so willing to blast Trump over everything, here the CDC did more to screw up what is happening here than Trump. They were slow to recognize the problem, slow to react, and they are still allowing one state to get into a financial bidding war with other states over medical supplies.

          Where were people when Obama screwed up everything he did…like the immigration problem he left? The screw-up he enacted called the ACA, which has never been affordable, nor caring, it was just an act.

          No one is perfect. Today we remember what we did to the last perfect person to walk among us.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Let’s start w/ Trump’s handling of Covid-19: He’s supposed to be leading the country. That means he doesn’t get to offload the blame onto the CDC. At a time when medical experts and your basic idiot on the street (I offer myself as an example of the second group) knew that the virus was serious, he was shrugging it off–something he now denies. Whatever the CDC’s failings–and they may have been many–he still has to answer for his own actions and leadership. Ditto about states bidding against each other for essential supplies. Where is he in this mess? What’s he doing to stop it? The US New & World Report writes, “President Donald Trump tweeted on April 2 that some states and hospitals ‘have insatiable appetites’ and ‘are never satisfied,’ suggesting federal supplies should serve as ‘a backup’ for states and that the ‘complainers should have been stocked up and ready.’ ” https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2020-04-07/states-compete-in-global-jungle-for-personal-protective-equipment-amid-coronavirus

            Arkansas’s governor (a Republican) talks about the federal government telling the states to “go out there and compete.”

            The Atlantic–a generally conservative magazine–calls Trump’s leadership on Covid-19 “disastrous.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/trumps-authoritarian-covid/609304/

            As for Obama, although I can’t help thinking he’s probably a lovely person, I’m not a big political fan. He dodged taking any action on global warming. The Affordable Care Act was a murky compromise–better than nothing, but not what was needed. He set a dangerous international precedent with the use of drone warfare and assassination. About immigration, I frankly don’t think it’s the problem that you do. Immigrants are coming to the country and taking jobs that no one else wants. They’re young, they’re full of energy, and the lower they average age of a seriously aging country. They’re needed. The immigration “problem” is a problem because it’s been defined as a problem by people who are afraid of them. I remember a time when we used to brag that we were a nation of immigrants. I don’t know about your ancestors, but I can tell you that mine were considered, by the native born, the scum of the earth. It’s a fear almost every wave of immigrants faces, sadly. But my god, what’s being done on the Mexican border? That hits a new low.

            Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Modern. Thanks for your comment. I have indeed “been there, done that, wore the T-shirt”, although in a minor way. In the 1980s I was an elected representative on a UK county council with a population close to 1 million and with authority for education, social care, roads, fire and police services, parks and recreation. I do indeed have sympathy for anyone in a position where they have to make decisions effecting the lives of ordinary people, especially in a crisis like the present one. But, do you really think that the way the crisis has been handled by the man in the White House could not have been better handled, especially with the experience of China and Italy to call upon?

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I think I may claim to having mentioned the widow’s bun in a comment on your post about the Tichborne dole and such. Glad to be have been of service if that did inspire you to do all that research. Just a thought: I wonder if Elizabeth I’s restrictions on spiced buns was a way of trying to restrain imports of expensive spices and make more of the rich’s riches available for taxation – if memory serves, the 1590s were not a particularly happy time economically in England.

    As for the notion of being a Jewish atheist – it doesn’t sound at all absurd and contradictory to me. Being brought up in a particular religious/cultural tradition leaves its mark on a whole range of principles, assumptions and preconceptions. I’ve often noticed such differences between Catholic atheists and Protestant atheists like me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think you’re probably right about where you left comment. Thank you. A proper link will be forthcoming. Whether it’ll do you any good is a whole ‘nother question.

      I agree with you about the cultural differences between Protestant and Catholic (and Jewish) atheists. I’ve often noticed, in talking to nonreligious Catholic friends, that they’re still Catholic in much the same way that I’m still Jewish. The people who are surprised by the idea are people who learned to think about Judaism purely as a religion, at which point being a Jewish atheist makes no sense at all. As a fan of confusion, I’ll admit to enjoying it.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I guess they didn’t pack any HCBs on the Titanic, sad. It’s always good to learn something before the week is over, you know, in case there’s a quiz.

    I hope you guys are staying safe and healthy. Throw a bun up in the gutter, at least a bird will enjoy it.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. the widow’s immortal buns – sounds like some kind of pinterest post and other twerky non-sense. Now the hot cross buns story sounds like a variation of the three legged pig. You know where the pig saves the family from a burning house and because the pig is so special they can only eat it one leg at a time. I think the pig now resides at farm in almost nearly but not quite next to Maralago by Miami. And yes the pig was pardoned by president Narcissus. Thanks for today’s installment about spicy buns – both the widow’s and Elizabeth’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I liked the song about hot cross bums. It was on dome of the albums/cds I would play for my lids when they were little. The Grand Old Duke if York was another. A post on English nursery rhymes would be good.

    Nice legend. Din’t know if I have ever had a hot cross bun that I recall.

    This whole idea of classifying by ethnic/culture/racial/religious/identity groups is all jumbled and confusing. I never know how to answer. There are so many different opinions and definitions floating around and being debating. Everyone seems to want to belong to something and exclude certain others. Humans gave some strange habits.

    New cases of the virus seem to be decreasing, at least in New York. That us good news. Hope it ends this summer.

    A good week to all and to all a good day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Never had a hot cross bun? They’re actually–well, let’s put it this way: Queen Liz has a lot to answer for, banning them.

      I agree about classifying people into groups. It’s inherently muddled because they’re both invented and, because we act as if they’re real, real. We give them a great deal of power, which gives them power. Do I sound like I’m going in circles? I am. They have no scientific reality–no one can draw a line between one group’s DNA and another’s–but because of our history we can’t act as if they don’t exist. We–or other humans–have made them exist.

      Like

    • Oh, kung fu, please. I can just see the sailor kick-flying up to the net to deposit his bun, evading assorted assassins (don’t worry about why they’re there–they’re essential) to get there. It’s a brilliant idea.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. My version of lapsed Protestantism depends more on the Maple-Iced Cinnamon Roll – with or without butter (well, margarine.)

    Glad others were able to help you get the trolls back under the bridge. My blood pressure wouldn’t allow me to take part.
    Stay safe and well.
    My cats refer to my trotting iut the sunflower seeds as “baiting the cat feeders.” Regards to Eddie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wouldn’t classify that as trolling, just a passionate disagreement, although I understand your decision to stay out of it. We don’t all need to jump in. Maybe it’s better if we don’t.

      As for food, yeah, that’s a lot of what goes into being Jewish for me, and I’ve learned to bake bagels and challah since I moved to Cornwall. It’s a form of self-defense. Although in honor of my partner’s Texas roots, I also make baking powder biscuits. We’re a mix here. Fax me a cinnamon roll, would you? I’m happy to honor many traditions.

      Like

    • Like I said (probably, and somewhere–I have no idea where), Britain is a strange and wonderful country that I can’t begin to explain. Or understand. Some years back, I read about nonreligious groups getting together for non-church meetings on Sundays. I guess they wanted the fellowship and that was the form they knew who to pour it into. I’ve seen humanist ministers (yes, really) officiate at funerals in the way a minister-minister would. They’re non-religious but fill the role that people expect to have filled. For me, the whole thing is a misfit, but then I’m a bit of a misfit so why should that surprise me? It does, I think, speak to how deeply our thinking is shaped by the beliefs we hold. We can look at the beliefs and decide we don’t believe them, but we still have the forms that held those beliefs, and they’re still powerful. Not all of us get rid of them–or want to.

      It’s fascinating, isn’t it?

      Like

    • Good question, but sadly, despite an extensive spy network the government too focused on finding illegal Catholic priests to bother with an illegal bun census. But banning them would’ve made them tastier, I’m sure.

      Like

    • I think what’s happening now is unusual in terms of how sudden and how dramatic the change has been–and how unexpected it is, in spite of how thoroughly we should have expected it.

      Like

  10. My experience with hot cross buns is that they’re pretty dry and not particularly flavorful .(I thought they were some kind of penance thing.) I could definitely see them lasting a year. :) Of course, they may taste better over there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know if they’re better here, but they do taste different. My best guess is that the spices are different, but I haven’t been able to really narrow down what it is. The best ones I ever had were from a local bakery that added chocolate chips for a couple of years. The third year, when I asked about them, they looked at me like I was hallucinating.

      I think, though, that if you eat them closer to when they’re baked you’ll find they’re not such a penance. You’re sure you ate them in the right year?

      Liked by 1 person

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