Banqueting in Elizabethan England

Jemma Field

I am not a food historian, but I have become increasingly interested in the political significance attached to the provision, display, and consumption of food in the early modern period. Since the medieval period, food has functioned as an indicator of wealth and social position. For royals, the ability to provide an excess of food for the household and any important guests was absolutely essential, as was the provision of suitable tableware and appropriate waiters and servers. For the diners, their favour and influence was signalled by their position in the room and the number of dishes they were given. In this situation, the more dishes received the better, and close proximity to the monarch (if present) and high-ranking members of court was the primary aim. This hierarchy of foodstuffs and table arrangements was repeated in elite households too.

Lambeth MS 647 2 copy.jpg

A document held in Lambeth Palace Library (MS 647) is illuminating in many of these respects. Coming across it in one of my paleography classes at the Institute of Historical Research, London, it details the expenditure incurred at Gorhambury during the visit of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) for five days from 18 to 22 May 1577 (a reproduction of a detail from one of the folios is provided above). Judging from the date and the location, Elizabeth must have been hosted by Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (1510-1579) who had built Gorhambury House just outside St Albans in Hertfordshire between 1563 and 1568. The document is written in secretary hand and the scribe has taken care to note both the quantity of the required item and its associated cost. Most entries relate to foodstuffs, but there are also charges for transport, wages, and rewards. The total amount is staggering, running in excess of £570 at a time when the average knight earned between £200 and £400 a year.

What is really interesting is both the diversity of the goods and the quantities, although it is unknown how many meals these provisions were to cover, or how many people were to be in attendance. In comparison to current western tastes, the Tudors ate a staggering array of birds. While we rarely stretch beyond chicken, turkey, quail, and duck, the types of fowl that graced the early modern English table seems almost limitless, and some of them may cause a little horror. For Elizabeth’s visit, Bacon made sure he was equipped with the following: capons, pullets, chickens, geese, herons, bitterns, ducklings, pigeons, godwits, dotterels, shovelers, pheasants, partridges, quails, mallard and teal ducks, larks, and curlews.

Furthermore, the numbers in which these were ordered, is rather eye-watering. The most common bird was the chicken, which numbered 256 and was closely followed by 238 pigeonsand 206 capons (castrated cock). There were a further152 herons, 120 geese, and 106 bitterns. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the small birds also occur in vast quantities: 201 quails, 144 ducklings, 223 so-called “birds of the nest”, which I presume is some type of chick, and 204 “Mayechickes”, which maybe refer to birds hatched in May [ie. the same month of the banquet, and therefore very small]. The grand total for all these birds was £105.7s.11d., which was the largest subsection, but it only accounts for just over a fifth of the total cost.

Of course, this wasn’t a banquet only furnished by birdlife. 501 rabbits were supplied, along with 26 whole pigs, 55 sheep, 34 lambs, 10 kid goats, 18 calves, and a lone hare. The odder, or more exotic, is to be found in entries for sheep tongue, dried tongue (of an unspecified animal), cow udder, and calf feet, but it is unfortunately unclear as how these items were presented at the table. There is also little information given about the fish, breads, pastries, cakes, alcohol, spices, and vegetables that were provided in the banquet. Beer, ale, and “all kyndes of wyne” were on offer, and a huge £47.12s.6d. was spent on wheat for “the pantry & pastrye,” presumably in the baking of savoury and sweet loaves, cakes, and pastries, while £25.19d. was disbursed for “herbes, fflowers & artichockes.” While the document leaves many things unanswered, it does provide a fascinating insight into some of the types of foodstuffs considered appropriate for royal consumption, the range animals and birds that were consumed, and the relative costs of food in Elizabethan England.