17th of May

St Possidius, 5th century. St Maden, of Brittany, St Maw. St Cathan, 7th century. St Silave, 1100. St Paschal Baylon, 1592.

Died. – Heloise, 1163, Paraclete Abbey; Catharine I. of Russia, widow of Peter the Great, 1727; Samuel Boyse, poet, 1749, London; Alexis Claude Clairhaut, mathematician, 1756; Prince Talleyrand, 1838, Paris.


One of the customs of great houses, in former times, was to place a large ornamental salt-vat (commonly but erroneously called salt-foot) upon the table, about the centre, to mark the part below which it was proper for tenants and dependents to sit. The accompanying illustration represents a remarkably handsome article of this kind which belonged to Archbishop Parker, and has since been preserved in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, along with other plate presented to that institution by the venerable prelate, who was at one time its Master. The Corpus Christi salt-vat is an elegant fabric of silver and gold, beautifully carved externally, and twice the size of our illustration.

The salt-cellar of Bishop Fox, 1517, which is preserved in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, is a beautiful specimen of the goldsmiths’ work of the period. It is silver-gilt, covered with ornaments elaborately chased, one of the chief figures being the pelican, which was the bishop’s emblem.


This practice of old days, so invidiously distinguishing one part of a company from another, appears to have been in use throughout both Scotland and England, and to have extended at least to France. It would be an error to suppose that the distinction was little regarded on either hand, or was always taken good-humouredly on the part of the inferior persons. There is full evidence in old plays, and other early productions of the press, that both parties were fully sensible of what sitting below the salt inferred. Thus, in Cynthia’s Revels, by Ben Jonson, we hear of a character who takes no notice of any ill-dressed person, and never drinks to anybody below the salt. One writing in 1613 about the miseries of a poor scholar in the houses of the great,1 says, ‘he must sit under the salt – that is an axiom in such places.’ Even, strange to say, the clerical preceptor of the children had to content himself with this inferior position, if we are to trust to a passage in Bishop Hall’s satires –

‘A gentle squire would gladly entertain 
 Into his house some trencher-chapelaine, 
 Some willing man that might instruct his sons, 
 And that could stand to good conditions: 
 First, that he lie upon the truckle bed 
 Whiles his young maister lieth o’er his head; 
 Second, that he do, on no default, 
 Ever presume to sit above the salt; 
 Third, that he never change his trencher twice,’ &c. 

A Scotch noble, again, writing in 1680 about his family and its old neighbours, introduces a derogatory allusion to the self-raised son of one of those against whom he had a spite, as coming of a family who, in visiting his (the noble’s) relatives, ‘never came to sit above the salt-foot.’2


The connexion of Heloise with Abelard, their separation, their subsequent lives, spent in penitence and religious exercises, not unmingled with human regrets, have employed a hundred pens. Heloise, surviving Abelard twenty-one years, was deposited in the same grave within Paraclete’s white walls. The Chronique de Tours reports that, at the moment when the tomb of Abelard was opened for the body of Heloise, Abelard held out his hand to receive her. The author of a modern life of Abelard tells this tale, and, the better to support it, gives instances of similar miracles; as, for example, that of a senator of Dijon, who, having been interred twenty-eight years, opened his arms to embrace his wife when she descended into the same tomb. These, being French husbands, may be supposed to have been unusually polite; but that posthumous conjugal civilities are not necessarily confined to that nation, is shown by an anecdote told of the sainted Queen Margaret of Scotland. When, many years after her death, this royal lady was canonized, it was necessary to remove her body from a place in Dunfermline Abbey, where it lay beside her husband, King Malcolm, to a place more convenient for a shrine. It was found that the body was so preternaturally heavy that there was no lifting it. The monks were nonplussed. At length, one suggested that the queen refused to be moved without her husband. Malcolm was then raised, and immediately the queen’s body resumed its ordinary weight, and the removal was effected.

The bodies of Abelard and Heloise, after several migrations, were finally removed in 1800 to the cemetery of Père la Chaise, near Paris.

1  Strange Foot Post, with a Packet full of Strange Petitions. London, 1613. 4to.
2  Memorie of the Somervilles. Edinburgh. 2 vols. 1816. In an early volume of Blackwood’s Magazine there is a keen controversy on this subject, in which Mr Riddell, the genealogical antiquary, bore a part.

On this Day in Other Sources.

A parliament, [held] at Edinburgh, the 17th day of May [1536], this same year, wherein the King’s revocation, which he had lately made at Rouen, in France, is ratified and approved by the estates; as also the institution of the College of Justice is ratified, and their power set down, with the place where they shall sit, and times of [holiday], with the authority of [Gavin Dunbar] the Lord Chancellor of Scotland to be principal of this counsel and supreme court, with 15 others to be judges. 

Historical Works, pp.238-275.

All these guns opened simultaneously on Sunday, the 17th of May [1573], by salvoes; and the shrieks of the women in the Castle were distinctly heard in the camp of the Regent [Morton] and in the city. The fire was maintained on both sides with unabated vigour – nor were the arquebuses idle – till the 23rd, when [Sir Thomas] Sutton’s guns having breached David’s Tower, the enormous mass, with all its guns and men, and with a roar as of thunder, came crashing over the rocks, and masses of it must have fallen into the loch 200 feet below. The Gate Tower with the portcullis and Wallace’s Tower, were battered down by the 24th. The guns of the queen’s garrison were nearly silenced now, and cries of despair were heard. The great square Peel and the Constable’s Tower, with the curtain between, armed with brass cannon – edifices of great antiquity – came crashing down in succession, and their débris choked up the still existing draw-wells. 

– Old and New Edinburgh, pp.47-66.

On the 17th day of the same month [May, 1590], Anna was crowned Queen of Scotland, with all requisite solemnity, in the abbey church there, by the Duke of Lennox and the Lord [James] Hamilton. 

– Historical Works, pp.340-416.

[George Sempill] was discharged by the Presbytery in December following. They found him “guyltie of ryving thrie leives out of the Presbytery-book,” and deposed him from the ministry on the 17th of May, 1604. 

– Scots Lore, pp.253-259.

After his victory at Dunbar, some of Cromwell’s troopers in their falling bands, buff coats, and steel morions, spent their time alternately in preaching to the people in the Parliament Hall and guarding a number of Scottish prisoners of war who were confined in “the laigh Parliament House” below it. On the 17th of May, 1654, some of these contrived to cut a hole in the floor of the great hall, and all effected their escape save two; but when peace was established between Cromwell and the Scots, and the Courts of Law resumed their sittings, the hall was restored to somewhat of its legitimate uses, 

– Old and New Edinburgh, pp.157-166.

ON the 17 of May 1665 their was a disorder that happened at St Cuthberts Kirk (which is without the priviledges of Edenburgh) betuixt Mr Gordon the first minister and Mr David Williamsone the 2d minister their, about their precedency in the Kirk Session; the 1 minister but the last intrant having presided 2 dayes togither the 2d minister told him that it was the custome of the ministers of that parish to moderat per vices and said he would not losse his right, it being a part of his ministrie. 

– Scots Lore, pp.151-152.

In the year 1662 the burgh accounts show a payment of twenty dollars “to Mr. Johne Andersoun ane of the doctors of the Grammer school for divers respects and for dedicating a book to the magistrates.” On another occasion the treasurer has “ane warrand for the soume of eight rex dollars payed to Mr. Wm. Geddes minister for his incuradgment to print the twa books called a Memoriall Historicum and another book sett our be him.”1

– Old Glasgow, pp.215-237. 

1  17th May, 1684.

   “Last Thursday night the Rt. Hon. JOHN (Elphinstone) Lord BALMERINO departed this Life at his House in Leith, in the 84th Year of his Age. He was esteem’d a wise and good Man, a Lover of Mankind, and more particularly of his Country. In the last Parliament of Scotland he opposed the Union of the Two Kingdoms, as thinking it prejudicial to the Honour and Interest of Scotland. He had the Honour to sit in the 3rd and 4th Parliaments of Great Britain under the late Queen Anne of Glorious Memory, and was by her Majesty appointed High Sheriff of the County of Edinburgh, and one of the Lords Commissioners of Police…” 

– Caledonian Mercury, Monday 17th May, 1736.

– Treaty of Union Articles, 1700-1750.

In the report of Mr. Tucker to Oliver Cromwell, already referred to, he says that in 1656 no vessels of any burden could come nearer to Glasgow than fourteen miles, where they unladed and sent up all commodities by three or four tons of goods at a time, in small cobles of three, four, or five, and none above six tons burthen. The first vessel of any size that arrived at the Broomielaw was a small schooner called the triton, belonging to Mr. Cunningham, which landed some French brandy on the 17th of May, 1780.1 This was twenty-two years after the commencement of the operations for deepening the river. The contrast now afforded by the forests of masts of ocean-going ships and steamers is very striking. 

– Old Glasgow, pp.248-266. 

1  Glasgow Mercury, 18th May, 1780.


   ‘Reciprocity treaties have,’ says the Edinburgh Review, ‘been of late the object of severe attack; but a reciprocity treaty which is to diffuse among the contracting powers a community of evil, and not an extension of benefit, is an anomaly in the history of nations, which hitherto few have ventured to avow, and none can dare to justify.’ 

   A treaty of this description, according to the present working of it, is, unquestionably, the treaty of Union. It has raised the standard of our taxation in nineteen cases out of twenty to that of England. It has given us a partnership in the 120 millions of debt. It has thus far exposed is to a ‘community of evil.’ What has it bestowed upon us in the way of ‘extension of benefit?’ It certainly has not given us our due share of peace, relief, or anything like it, our portion being to that of England as one to five-and-thirty. – Has it given us anything that may be called an increase of wealth? If it have, how is the state of our revenue to be accounted for? Why is its declared amount less than it was thirty years ago, though, notwithstanding all the tax remission, there has been nearly 30 per cent. added to the British revenue?” 

Dublin Weekly Register, Saturday 17th May, 1834.

– Treaty of Union Articles, 1800-1850.