What are you having for dinner tonight? Maybe some fish or chicken? Maybe you fancy a curry or some sushi?
This ‘eeny-meeny-miny-mo’ may be familiar to you but it certainly wouldn’t have been to King Henry VIII. He could rarely make up his mind what he wanted for dinner so his cooks prepared everything for him and he ate as much or as little as he wanted. Because he was the king and if you’re the king you can do anything you want.
Presumably not every day, but this is a sample of the ‘Diett for the King’s Majesty and the Queen’s Grace for Dynner…’ and there’s a prize to anyone who can decipher what they actually ate …*
Cheat Bread and Manchett
Beare and Ale Wyne
Flesh for Pottage
Chines of Beef
Venison in Brew’z or Mult
Pestells of Reed Deere
Carpes of Young Veale in Arm’farced
Custard Garnished, or Fritters
Creames of Almonds
Pheasant, Hern, Bitterne, Shovelard, Cocks
Plovers or Gulles, Larkes or Rabbits
Venison in Fine Past
*There isn’t, sorry.
This is the fascinating tale of the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace, the grandest in Tudor England where if you were king (or presumably any one of his queens), you could eat whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted.
The Hors D’oeuvre
The kitchens at Hampton Court were built by Cardinal Wolsey in around 1515 but when he fell out of favour with Henry VIII in 1529, the king seized control of the palace for himself. He began a huge redevelopment project which included doubling the size of the kitchens to cater not just for his inner circle but for the 600-800 courtiers who ate their meals there every day.
On his frequent visits to Hampton Court, Henry would arrive with anything up to 800 servants and they all had to be fed. The new kitchens contained six massive fireplaces (it would be something close to 500 years before modern industrial kitchens with ovens would be the norm) as well as space for up to 200 kitchen staff to prepare a day’s worth of food, overlooked by a Sergeant and a team of yeomans and grooms.
The huge space notwithstanding, there were around fifty smaller anterooms for pastry, butchery, spicery (overlooked by the official Office of Spicery responsible for processing the tons of fruit and vegetables that arrived every week), saucery, pickling, bottling, desserts, boiling and fishmongery. There were hangar-sized larders for wet and dry supplies, utensils and crockery and space for hanging game, plate dressing, wine and ale storage and confectionery, where elaborate creations for table decorations were made from marzipan and sugar.
It was a staggeringly complex operation, not to mention swelteringly hot. Cooks, waiting staff, spit-boys, pot-washers and the lowly kitchen hands packed the kitchens. A Spanish visitor described the scenes as ‘veritable hells, such is the stir and bustle in them. There is plenty of beer here and they drink more than would fill the Valladolid river.’
It was so hot inside the labyrinth of the huge Tudor kitchens that the kitchen boys often stripped naked, taking the obligatory ticking off from their superiors as respite – even for a few minutes – from the unbearable heat. Over 1.3 million logs were burned every year.
The Main Course
The royal household took meals in two sittings at 10am and 4pm, such were the numbers. On any given day the kitchens would prepare, cook and serve 100 sheep, a dozen deer and sides of beef and countless wild boar, rabbits, poultry and game, roasted and in pies.
One cellar held 300 casks of wine for the courtiers. Another, the Privy Cellar, which contained the finest wines in Europe for the King and his inner circle, was locked and protected by two guards and a third held the 600,000 gallons of ale that was drunk every year.
At banquets, guests would be treated to incredible delicacies such as swan, conga eel and porpoise and even the regular menus offered up around 5,000 calories a day!
For the lowly servants, choice was limited but plentiful and a typical daily menu for each meal for ‘Maides, Servants, Children of Offices, Porters and Skowerers’ was ‘Bread, Ale, Beefe and Veale, or Mutton’. Portions would be shared between four people and the lesser ranks ate in the Great Hall under painted, carved faces known as ‘eavesdroppers’ to remind them not to gossip. The higher-ranking courtiers ate in the Great Watching Chamber.
‘And if the nobles and many of their servants do not have 20 varied meat dishes at dinner and supper, they consider themselves slighted.’
Thomas Starkey, Oxford Lecturer, c.1529
An interesting aside about the meals was that it was considered bad form to finish all the food on the table because others depended on what was left over. All remaining food was distributed at the palace gates to the ‘deserving poor’.
There were even strict rules when eating at court that were adhered to, many of which were recorded by Dutch writer Erasmus in his 1534 essay De Civitate:
- Sit not down until you have washed
- Undo your belt a little if it will make you more comfortable; because doing this during the meal is bad manners
- When you wipe your hands clean, put good thoughts forward in your mind, for it doesn’t do to come to dinner sad, and thus make others sad
- Once you sit place your hands neatly on the table; not on your trencher, and not around your belly
- Don’t shift your buttocks left and right as if to let off some blast. Sit neatly and still
- Any gobbit that cannot be taken easily with the hand, take it on your trencher
- Don’t wipe your fingers on your clothes; use the napkin or the ‘board cloth’
- If someone is ill mannered by ignorance, let it pass rather than point it out
It wasn’t just the volume of food served up every day that was previously unheard of in a royal court, is was also the quality and origin. To cement their status, the upper echelons ate not just the freshest, finest cuts ofmeat, but citrus fruit, almonds and olives from the Mediterranean, sugar from Cyprus and spices from as far away as China, Africa and India.
The King, of course, didn’t eat with the masses. His huge buffet of food was prepared in a separate kitchen under the personal supervision of Privy Master Cook John Bricket and he ate in his private rooms, unusually for the time – because they weren’t used for eating for another 100 years, only carving and serving – with a fork.
More than anything else, the gargantuan kitchens at Hampton Court Palace were as much about feeding thousands of people every week as they were a display of the monarch’s absolute power. The exotic foods on display were one such sign, as were the seating arrangements. The closer you were positioned to whoever sat on the throne, the higher up the social scale you were. In Tudor times, this was often a blessing and a curse on the basis that the monarchs of the time believed in the tenet of ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer’…
Later additions in the 17th century included the newly-discovered Chocolate Kitchens, built for William and Mary in around 1689 but used daily by the Georgian kings. King George I even had his own personal chocolate maker, a man named Thomas Tosier.
This summer at Hampton Court Palace there is a fantastic interactive exhibition where you can immerse yourself in the living, breathing Tudor world of the Hampton Court Kitchens.
If cooking for a thousand people a day isn’t your thing but you’re looking for an exceptional state-of-the-art kitchen, take a look at our kitchens for inspiration. And the best bit is that because every kitchen is designed bespoke for each client, you can, should you so desire, have a room whose sole use is for making elaborate marzipan creations…
Call us on + 44 (0) 1923 856 449 to arrange an appointment, email us on email@example.com or if you’re local, pop into the showroom at 339 Watling Street, Radlett, Herts, WD7 7LB and we will give you all the information you need, even if your title doesn’t start with ‘Your Royal Highness…’