Vol I No. 7
Feasts & Seasons

Simnel: the (considerable) history behind a cake.

by sinetortus

Easter and Simnel:

The history behind a cake

The history of the Simnel cake is much controverted, but what is clear is that it has come to have a close association with Easter and the Season that follows Easter Day itself as well as Mothers Day

This cake certainly contains an abundance of things that people have often given up during Lent and is a very fine cake indeed, replete with almond paste covering and eleven balls of the same almond paste on top (representing the Apostles other than Judas)

It is nowadays made thus as a rich fruit cake containing, dried fruits and candied peel, and pieces of the marzipan, or almond paste that is also used to cover it.

A fairly straightforward recipe for it is appended below.

But it is all the history tied up in the multifarious accounts as to how this cake has derived its name that give the Simnel Cake so much more interest.


Simnel and the 17thEarl of Warwick,  (See also the extensive Appendix at the very end of the main text below for a further historical possibility)

Pretender to the English Throne

One account, often now discounted, attributes the invention of the Simnel cake to one Lambert Simnel, who was the ten-year-old pretender to Henry VII’s throne, of whom it is alleged for the purposes of the cake story at least,  that he was spared death and sent to work in the royal kitchens where he came up with the recipe.

This account is generally held to fail on account of the fact that English historical references to cakes called Simnel long predate his time.

Nonetheless, the story of Simnel himself does bear telling.

The public saga began in 1486, a year after Henry VII had killed Richard III at the battle of Bosworth and seized the crown, when a young man claiming to be a Yorkist prince appeared out of the blue with the intent to depose the usurper and reclaim the throne for the legitimate royal line.

This pretender claimed to be Richard III’s heir and the rightful king of England, alleging specifically that he was in fact Edward, Earl of Warwick, the son of Richard III’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence – who was crowned king of England in Dublin Cathedral, despite the Tudor government insisting that his real name was Lambert Simnel and that he was an imposter.

John Ashdown-Hill in his volume, The Dublin King: The True Story of Edward Earl of Warwick, Lambert Simnel and the ‘Princes in the Tower, has in fact raised doubts about thethe generally accepted and entirely Tudor account according to which this boy was in fact  merely a pretender to the throne. Ashdown-Hill using previously unpublished sources, has sought to suggest that the true identity was indeed that of the Yorkist heir, and that he had a stronger claim to the throne than Henry VII. (And along the way he assails the belief of some that the so-called ‘Dublin King’ himself claimed to be one of the ‘princes in the Tower’.)

Complex though the contested accounts of the history certainly are, they are colourful and worth recalling. They are set out from the work of Ashdown Hill (who was involved in the recent uncovering of the remains of Richard III) as an appendix below.


The Shropshire Claim

Another improbable theory is evidently upheld in Shropshire particularly, where the name has been said to derive from a contraction of the names of one Simon and his sister Nell who decided, according to an apparent custom of Mediaeval times,  to make a cake for their mother (in relation to what we now call Mothering Sunday from which time it is alleged it might have been kept for the following Easter). Sadly they are alleged to have disagreed about whether to boil or bake their cake.

And it should be pointed out that boiling a cake in the manner we now associate with a Christmas Pudding was much more common then than now, and the Clootie dumpling would be an example of such a cake that persists down to this day in Scotland*). And from this strange alleged culinary mishap the cake of today eventually emerged.The Devizes Simnel is by tradition made in the shape of a star, while the Bury simnel cake is a flat spiced cake. The best known however, is the Shrewsbury Simnel with its layer of marzipan in the middle of a rich fruit cake and this type of cake is the one we mostly think of as bearing the name Simnel Cake today.


*Just in regard to the Clootie dumpling, its name almost certainly derives from the word used in Scotland for a piece or strip of cloth: the “Clootie”,  in which the pudding is wrapped, prior to its being boiled. A possible anticipation of that use,  occurs in Shakespeare,  when the Nurse observes to Juliet “Oh, he’s a lovely gentleman. Romeo’s a dishclout to him”. (Romeo and Juliet, Act III, scene 5).


Another possibility:

it is all about Latin


Perhaps the most plausible theory however, is the simplest,  which is that the name simnel merely derives from theLatin word from which we also derive the name semolina, namely similameaning fine, as in fine white flour. Such flour is indeed used in the mix of rich ingredients found in the Simnel cake which brings us to a recipe and just how to prepare your own:


To make a Simnel Cake

1 1/4    sticks of butter

3/4      cup muscovado sugar

2         cups plain flour

11/2tsp baking powder

3          eggs

3         cups mixed dried fruit (sultanas, raisins, currants)

1/2 cup chopped almonds

1/2 cup glace cherries roughly chopped (and dried)

1/2 cup mixed candied lemon and orange peel

2-3 tbsp milk or rum

1 tsp mixed spice

Grated zest of an orange and a lemon


For the Almond Paste: (though a ready prepared one can be substituted)


2 cups ground almonds

1 cup   confectioner’s sugar

1/2 cup fine sugar

1 tsp    lemon juice

2 drops almond essence (extract)

  • beaten egg

2-3tbsp sieved apricot jam (for brushing onto the cake surface)



To prepare:


  1. Cream the butter and sugar together till light and fluffy
  2. Add the previously sieved together flour, baking powder and mixed spice.
  3. Beat the eggs and add, one at a time, with a spoonful of the flour to the butter and sugar mixture.
  4. Add all the other ingredients and fold in carefully.
  5. Make (or unpack) the almond paste.


(To make the Almond paste:simply mix the ground almonds, confectioner’s sugar and fine sugar together. Add lemon juice, almond essence and enough egg to form a fairly dry but malleable paste.)

  1. Cut the almond paste in two and roll out one half to the size of the 8 in diameter cake tin.
  2. Put half the cake mixture into the greased tin, then place the almond paste layer on top of that before adding the rest of the cake mixture.
  3. Bake in oven at 300 degrees for 2 -2 1/2hours.


To test for when it is cooked one can probe with skewer  which should come out more or less clean with just the almond paste remaining sticky, or one can press the cake lightly with a finger; which should disclose it to be relatively firm.

  1. Allow to cool in the tin for a short while before turning the cake out onto a cake rack to cool
  2. When cool, decorate with the remaining almond paste in the traditional way: with a layer of almond paste on top (secured by first brushing the cake’s surface with a layer of Apricot Jam – sieved if needed) And complete the decoration with the traditional eleven small balls around the outer edge if wished. These balls and the whole top surface of the cake can be lightly brushed with egg white and browned lightly under a hot grill for a matter of just seconds to give the slight browning usually expected.





Lambert Simnel putative 17thEarl of Warwick


It is known that he was born on 25thFebruary 1475, Warwick Castle and official history has tended to follow the Tudor version which ends with his being beheaded for treason, on Tower Hill,  on 28th November 1499. But there is an alternative possibility

He was the third of four children of George, Duke of Clarence and his wife, Isabel Neville. Edward’s maternal grandfather was the famous ‘Kingmaker’ Earl of Warwick. His father’s brothers were the Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III. Edward’s eldest sibling, Anne, and his younger brother, Richard, both died soon after being born. His mother, Isabel Duchess of Clarence, also died soon after Richard’s birth

Supposedly he spent his teenage years as Henry VII’s prisoner in the Tower of London, and suffered from a mental disorder.

However there as is another possible account according to Ashdown-Hill:

Edward’s father, George, believed his enemy Elizabeth Woodville (consort of his brother, Edward IV) was behind the poisoning of his wife and younger son. He became scared about the future of his surviving children – and himself.

Fear for his children led to plans to smuggle Edward out of the country – and to contacts with Ireland. Fear for his own future prompted George’s campaign against Elizabeth Woodville and her children. This resulted in George’s imprisonment and execution. Thus, as his third birthday approached, Edward Earl of Warwick found himself orphaned.

His uncle, Edward IV, sent for him. But King Edward IV had not seen his nephew and namesake for three years. Could the king have recognised the boy who was handed over to him and then brought up as Earl of Warwick at the Tower of London?

In 1483, following the death of Edward IV, Richard III was offered the crown on the grounds that Edward IV had been legally married to Eleanor Talbot, daughter of Lord Shrewsbury. Thus Edward IV’s subsequent marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous and their children were illegitimate.

Richard III assumed care of young Warwick (then aged eight). He housed him at Sheriff Hutton Castle near York, with other Yorkist princes and princesses, and began training Warwick for a future position of power and influence.

In 1485 Richard III was killed at the battle of Bosworth. The usurper Henry VII had no real claim to the throne. To improve his weak position Henry decided to marry Elizabeth of York (eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville). He revoked the act of Parliament which stated that Edward IV’s real wife had been Eleanor Talbot, and then represented Elizabeth to the nation as the Yorkist heiress.

But Henry VII was worried about Warwick. In 1470 King Henry VI had recognised George Duke of Clarence as the next Lancastrian heir to the throne after his own son. As Henry VI and his son had died in 1471, and George had died in 1478, by 1485 Warwick was the legitimate Lancastrian heir – a claim arguably unaffected by his father’s execution at the hands of a Yorkist king.

So Henry VII took charge of Warwick. First he was placed under the guardianship of Henry VII’s own mother, and later he was consigned to the Tower of London.

Butcuriously, at the same time an alternative ‘son of Clarence’ was being entertained in Mechelen, at the palace of his putative aunt, Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy: Margaret’s Edward Earl of Warwick had apparently been brought up in Ireland. Had George’s plot to smuggle his son and heir abroad in 1476 therefore succeeded?

Henry VII’s prisoner, or Margaret of York’s guest  – which of the two Earls of Warwick was genuine?

Margaret’s ‘Warwick’ returned to Ireland with an army and key Yorkist supporters, led by Warwick’s cousin, the Earl of Lincoln. In Ireland they combined forces with the great Earl of Kildare – former friend and deputy of Warwick’s father.

On 24 May 1487, Margaret’s ‘Warwick’ was crowned ‘Edward VI, King of England’ at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. Henry VII’s anxious government sent servants to inspect the new king. They hoped to prove the boy a fraud, but when the servants met ‘Edward VI’ they were confused.

Later, Henry VII’s government announced that the boy crowned in Dublin was an impostor, named either ‘John [……..]’ or ‘Lambert Simnel’. But the government’s accounts of the ‘pretender’ were also confused. Fortunately for Henry VII, when ‘Edward VI’ invaded England, he was defeated at the battle of Stoke – and possibly captured – although one account says he escaped! The young prisoner became a servant in Henry VII’s kitchen under the name of ‘Lambert Simnel’.

Meanwhile, the official Earl of Warwick remained in the Tower. In 1499 he was condemned to death, to clear the path for the projected marriage of Henry VII’s son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, to the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon. His body was buried at Bisham Priory.

So which is the true story of Edward Earl of Warwick?

If the remains of the young man executed by Henry VII in 1499 could be rediscovered on the site of Bisham Priory, DNA research (similar to that used in the 2004 discovery which prompted the search for, and subsequent identification of, the remains of Richard III) could potentially be used to clarify the truth.

Regarding Bisham Priory:

Bisham Abbey is a spectacular manor house located in the town of Bisham, Buckinghamshire, England and currently houses one of the UK’s National Sports Centres managed on behalf of Sport England;

The buildings on the site however, derive from Bisham Manor House originally listed as the manor house in Bisham, (the name having been taken from the monastery which once stood alongside the manor house). The Abbey church, previously known as Bisham Priory, was the traditional resting place over the years of many of the Earls of Salisbury who inhabited the manor house.

The manor house was itself first built around 1260 for the Knights Templar; the powerful order of knights in the Middle Ages famous for their white mantles with a red cross and for fighting in the Crusades in the Holy Land.  When the Templars were suppressed in 1307, King Edward II took over the manorial rights of the Abbey and granted them to various relatives.

Bisham Priory was dissolved in July 1537, but was re-founded six months later as a Benedictine Abbey, though this was not to last and was also dissolved six months later.  In June 1538 all the monastic buildings were demolished.  In dry weather, a rectangular and a round building used to be able to be seen beneath the grass; these are now however, the tennis courts of one of the  Sports Centre.  These building may have once been part of the abbot’s house, which was once kept as a Royal lodging.

The Priory’s foundation stone was laid in 1337 by King Edward II as the home for an order of Canons.  Austin Canons took three vows, one of which was to live together in one community. Pope, Adrian IV (the only English Pope) was the most famous Canon from this order.  The brass plaque once affixed to the Priory can still be seen at Denchworth in Oxfordshire and the Priory went on to hold the  relics of Saints Cosmas and Damian for many years.

A. M-R