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”. This Christmas, daily cookery on an Elizabethan theme reveals the sort of dishes produced.

Henry VIII’s Kitchens at Hampton Court. Credit: 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.

For more on festive feasts through the centuries, read the full article in BRITAIN Volume 87 Issue 6, on sale here