Festive feasts: A history of royal Christmas food

Osborne’s Housekeeper with mince pies. Credit: Robert Smith

We serve up mouthwatering moments from history, tucking in with kings and queens as they have feasted through the centuries

Wild boar’s head cooked in wine, boiled capon, roast goose, peacock, swan, fruit jellies, syllabubs and Christmas pie (“a most learned mixture of neats [beef] tongues, chicken, eggs, sugar, raising, lemon and orange peel, and various kinds of spicery”): if you were a guest at a Tudor court banquet, such mouthwatering mountains would likely be among the treats to set your tastebuds dancing. Conspicuous consumption was the name of the game in extravagant dining displays of wealth and power.

Through the ages, royal Yuletide feasts dish up rich insights into both changing tastes and changing times: from medieval boar’s head to modern turkey, and from extravagant public shows to more private meals behind closed doors. Eating has never been simply about sustenance. So, pour the lamb’s wool (hot spiced ale) and sack posset (hot milk curdled with Canary wine), and get ready to wash down some memorable menus.

In 1252 Henry III laid on a festive feast in York for 1,000 guests that was so costly that the Archbishop of York helped out by donating 600 oxen and an enormous £2,700. Richard II, nearly 150 years later, splashed out on 2,000 oxen and 200 tuns of wine for his 10,000 guests.Then in the reign of Edward IV (1461–83) banqueting reached new heights of social complexity, with a whole rash of courtesy books written to explain etiquette. An army of servers, carvers and cup-bearers attended Edward’s feasts, layering on pomp and ceremony and maintaining pecking orders. A high-ranking servant
of honour even tested King Edward IV’s food for safety by prodding it with a unicorn’s horn (a fossil shell).

The Great Kitchen at the Royal Pavilion. Credit: CC BY-SA

The Tudors were as flamboyant over food as they were about everything else and a visit today to Henry VIII’s Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace gives a vivid flavour of the behind-the-scenes activities required to feed the court. Some 200 cooks, sergeants, grooms and pages were employed in hot, sweaty conditions described by one observer as “veritable hells”.

Henry VIII’s Kitchens at Hampton Court. Credit: Historic Royal Palaces/James Linsell-Clark

For Henry VIII, Advent was a time of fasting, explains Historic Kitchens team member Richard Fitch; king and courtiers would have eschewed meat and dairy products for the month before Christmas, relying instead on fish and basic vegetables to keep them going. Christmas Day, reserved for religious devotions rather than being a culinary high point, nevertheless signalled the welcome start of twelve days of frivolity, food and feasting, culminating in the Epiphany or Twelfth Night. 

The parade of a boar’s head at Yuletide was an established custom by now, and there was lots of meat for the court, and fowl and game birds for the king and nobility. Turkey arrived on the scene in England early in the Tudor period and it is claimed that Henry VIII was the first monarch to eat it during his Christmas revels, probably poached in wine or served in a pie rather than roasted as today. 

As ever, there was great attention to seating arrangements, reflecting the court’s hierarchy, and ink continued to be spilled on the subject of table manners. “Sit not down until you have washed… Don’t shift your buttocks left and right as if to let off some blast. Sit neatly and still”, the Renaissance scholar Erasmus counselled in De Civitate (1534). 

Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I was notorious for her sweet tooth and fondness for (receiving) presents, two passions that dovetailed nicely at New Year, the traditional time for gift-giving before the Yuletide focus shifted to Christmas Day in later centuries. For New Year 1577, Elizabeth’s Serjeant of the Pastry department gave her a gilded pie of quinces and warden pears, while a tasty haul of treats at New Year 1585 included sweetmeats from her physician, a box of lozenges and pot of conserve from her apothecary, and “a fayre marchepayne” (marzipan) from her master cook. No one who wanted to curry royal favour could afford to stint on flavoursome flattery.

The Great Hall at the heart of Hampton Court Palace. Credit: Stephen Bennett Photography

“To make Minst Pyes. Take your Veale and perboyle it a little” begins a recipe in The Good Houswives Treasurie (1588), a reminder that our sweet mince pies of today once contained meat as well as fruit. Their association with Christmas grew in the latter part of the 17th century and they were often shaped to resemble Christ’s manger. Soon the Prince Regent (later George IV) would be solving any present-giving dilemmas by sending hundreds of mince pies to friends – his gift list for 1812 names 124 people, their importance indicated by the number of pies each was sent.

Indeed, after the hiccough of mid-17th-century clampdowns on Christmas frivolities by Puritan government, it was Georgian royalty, reigning from 1714, who really led the way in restoring Yuletide cheer, and the iconic ingredients of our modern celebrations began to settle. George I insisted that his first English Christmas in 1714 be garnished with a plum pudding – a sticky favourite that was well on its evolutionary way from medieval plum pottage of meat and fruit, to the densely rich (and alcoholic) fruity staple of festive tables today. 

Kitchens during the era reached a new level of sophistication, as you will find if you drop into the Great Kitchen in the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, the Prince Regent’s exotic seaside palace. ‘Prinny’ was so proud of its state-of-the-art equipment, including a steam table to keep dishes warm, that in 1817 he even held a Christmas dinner party below stairs to show it off.  

The full festive spread Osborne House. Credit: Patrick Eden/Alamy

With Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, royal festivities became much more family-centric, and dinner on Christmas Day had now become the focal point of seasonal feasting. Whether at Windsor Castle or Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Victoria’s chefs cooked up a storm with courses typically ranging through soup, fish, chicken breasts, roast beef or turkey with chipolatas, plum pudding and mince pies. A side table groaned with a buffet of baron of beef, boar’s head, woodcock pie, game pie, brawn, tongue and roast fowl. Victoria also made sure staff were well fed, throwing huge tea-and-bun parties for them and their families at Osborne.  

Meanwhile Victoria’s son, the future Edward VII and noted bon viveur (his nickname was Prince Tum-Tum) loved to throw lavish Christmas and shooting parties at Sandringham in Norfolk. Practical jokes included hiding a dead pheasant in a guest’s bed.

Today’s Royal Family, too, heads for Sandringham for Christmas Day. According to former royal chef Darren McGrady, following morning church the family sits down to a traditional lunch including roasted turkey with all the trimmings, and Christmas pudding with brandy butter. After viewing the Queen’s (pre-recorded) Christmas Broadcast on TV, there’s fruitcake for tea and an evening buffet – at which Her Majesty presents the senior chef with a glass of whiskey and they toast. A fitting finale to our royal feast of Christmases.