First edition of Wolf Hall from the British Library Collection.


Halloween comes from the festival of Hallowtide, which consisted of three Christian feast days: All Hallows’ Eve on 31 October; All Hallows’ Day on 1 November; and All Souls’ Day on 2 November.

As is often the case with many Christian holidays, the root of Hallowtide goes back much, much further – all the way back to the Celtic festival of the harvest, Samhain, which celebrated the end of summer, the harvest and the dark coming of winter. The Christian adoption of pagan rituals was a common attempt to make the conversion process smoother, and in this case was ordered by Pope Gregory I to Mellitus (the first Bishop of London and third Archbishop of Canterbury) in the 6th century.

In the Tudor period, soul cakes were baked by the wealthy on two of the three nights of Hallowtide celebrations. First, on All Hallows’ Eve soul cakes were left with glasses of wine, ale or milk for spirits of the beloved dead. Then, on All Souls’ Day, soul cakes were given to the poor, mainly children, who went ‘souling’ where they begged door-to-door for treats. In return for these treats, children would pray for the souls of the dead to hurry their passing through purgatory.

This practice was revived in Victorian England, when children would also sing rhymes at the door. One such was recorded in Lucy Broadwood, English County Songs: Words and Music:

‘A soul! a soul! a soul-cake! / Please good Missis, a soul-cake! / An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry, / Any good thing to make us all merry. / One for Peter, two for Paul / Three for Him who made us all.’

According to pre-Reformation Catholicism, alms giving also aided a soul’s speedy move through purgatory, thus making this practice beneficial to both sides of the souling.

Wolf Hall

There’s a wonderful reference to the Hallowtide observance in Hilary Mantel’s award-winning Wolf Hall, which charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son, to the position of chief minister to Henry VIII. Beautifully written and respectful to the history and characters portrayed, Wolf Hall is everything modern historical fiction should be.

Notably, there is also a plethora of food references throughout the novel, reflecting everything from courtly excess to Lenten austerity.

The year Cromwell’s wife and daughters died of the plague, he sits vigil for the dead at Cardinal Wolsey’s country home, Esher Place. He follows the rituals accordingly. On All Hallows’ Eve he sits awake at night hoping the spirits of his family will return. On All Hallows’ Day, he is struck with grief. The following year, Cromwell suffers the deaths of his beloved sister and brother-in-law. And the Hallowtide season again causes him to reflect:

No year has brought such devastation. His sister Kat, her husband Morgan Williams, have been plucked from this life as fast as his daughters were taken, one day walking and talking and the next day cold as stones, tumbled into their Thames-side graves and dug in beyond reach of the tide, beyond the sight and smell of the river; deaf now to the sound of Putney’s cracked church bell, to the smell of wet ink, of hops, of malted barley, and the scent, still animal, of woollen bales; dead to the autumn aroma of pine resin and apple candles, of soul cakes baking.

Mantel elicits such a dark sense of season: autumnal spice and warm baking on a cold night, juxtaposed with loss and mourning for the dead. It puts the reader in the shoes of Thomas Cromwell – a perfect example of literary time travel.

Tudor baking

Traditionally soul cakes were flavored with seasonal spices such as allspice, nutmeg, cloves, mace and cinnamon. I came across several variations, some like cookies, biscuits and others like cakes.

One of the earliest references to Tudor cake baking is in Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book, which she compiled in 1604 and passed down through the Fettiplace family until Hilary Spurling inherited the manuscript and published it in 1986. A recipe for soul cakes reads:

Take flower & sugar & nutmeg & cloves & mace & sweet butter & sack & a little ale barme, beat your spice, & put in your butter & your sack, cold, then work it well all together, & make it in little cakes, & so bake them, if you will you may put in some saffron into them and fruit.

Cakes and breads in pre-industrialized England and America were made using ale barm as yeast, which was actually the froth on top of the fermenting liquid of ale production. Cooks would let the dough rise before baking, creating a slightly sweetened bread.

The inclusion of ale barm causes many modern takes on soul cakes to be more cookie or biscuit-like in consistency. This isn’t necessarily more accurate – soul cakes had added sugar and were supposed to be a cakey, boozy, spicy holiday treat (by the way, ‘sack’ actually refers to sherry). So we made the rare decision here to modernize the recipe a bit by using baking powder and baking soda. We think it’s a perfect blend of old and new – you’ll see all next week!