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In William Shakespeare’s play, Merry Wives of Windsor, Bardolph declares “You Banbury Cheese!” as an insult. The reason this line is an insult is because for the life of William Shakespeare, Banbury England was famous for making a particular kind of cheese that was thinner on the rind than other cheese typical of the period. Therefore, calling someone a Banbury cheese was akin to calling them a string-bean, or saying they were too thin. It works especially well as a joke for Shakespeare in the play because the character Bardolph is insulting is named, as you might expect, Slender.The joke is a highly contemporary reference by Shakespeare and in order to better understand the history of Banbury England and their famous cheese, we have invited the chair of the Banbury Historical Society, Helen Forde, to visit with us today and explain what made Banbury cheese so unique for Shakespeare’s lifetime.

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Helen Forde is a history graduate and archivist, now retired, having worked in local, private and national archives during her career.  At the latter – The National Archives – she was the head of what is now called Collections Care and wrote a book entitled Preservation Management; Helen has also written numerous articles both on archives and on local history. She  worked internationally as well for UNESCO, travelling to many countries and at home taught local history to adult classes in Nottingham and London universities, and post graduate archive students.  SInce retiring, Helen has worked extensively with museums, notably the Postal Museum in London of which she was the chair, and now as a trustee at the local Banbury Museum & Gallery.  Helen is the chair of the Banbury Historical Society and editor of its annual journal, Cake & Cockhorse. 

I'll be asking Helen Forde about:

  • Helen identifies the cost of Banbury cheese in her article when she relays that one man tried to use Banbury Cheese to secure a bribe, writing “Two years later [so in 1533]…Nicholas Glossope who wrote ‘I send you 12 Banbury cheeses, half hard, half soft and wish they were worth £20,000.” Helen, twenty thousand pounds is a substantial amount of money in today’s currency, but allowing for inflation and tracking backwards, those cheeses were worth close to 18 million dollars. That’s astounding. What on earth made the cheese so valuable?
  • In her article for the Banbury Historical Society about Banbury Cheese, Helen writes that “In 1531 William Tresham of Banbury wrote to Cromwell, thanking him for his good treatment of his brother in law who was sending him a small gift which included half a dozen Banbury cheeses” Helen, what made Banbury cheese special that it would be given as gifts in this way?
  •  How is the width of a cheese rind determined during the production process? Was the Banbury cheese intentionally thin or was there a mistake in the development process?

Books and Resources Helen Forde recommends:

The Victoria County History, Oxfordshire Vol 10, p 1-120, available online at https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol10

Cake & Cockhorse, the journal of the Banbury Historical Society available at https://banburyhistoricalsociety.org where there are numerous articles relating to Banbury and the area round the town

Barrie Trinder Victorian Banbury (Banbury Historical Society, 1982)

Detailed Show Notes! This post expands!

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  • Map of Banbury, England
  • Portrait of John Lancaster, Duke of Bedford
  • 15th century recipe for Banbury Cheese
  • Title page and link to 1614 husbandry book that calls Banbury cheese the third best in England
  • Example of a “Truckle”, large cheese wheel
  • Example of a thin gruyere cheese wheel
  • Title page and link to the earliest cookbook reference for Banbury cheese
  • 1621 publication calling Banbury cheese the best
  • Link to Victoria County History that explains “in the sixteenth century the name of Banbury at once brought to the mind of the hearer the famous cheeses.”
Access coordinating visual content including woodcuts, portraits, & maps when you become a patron for just $5