Royal feasts: What was eaten through the ages?

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Schoolchildren are being invited to cook for the Queen, as part of her Diamond Jubilee. Celebratory banquets and feasts have always been part of royal life, but what would they have involved in the past?

What makes a dish fit for a queen? If past royal delicacies are anything to go by then pretty much anything, including seagull, marigolds or peacock - with the skin and feathers put back on after cooking of course.

Lavish banquets and feasts have always been part of royal celebrations and as part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, schoolchildren in the UK are being asked to create a special menu for Her Majesty. The winning school will see its recipes served to the Queen at a special reception.

But what was on the menu in times gone by and would serving a canape directly to the monarch have resulted in you losing your head?

Queen Victoria 1837-1901

There were big changes in service style through Queen Victoria's 63-year reign, says food historian Annie Gray. Towards the end food was served to guests at the table sequentially, known as "a la russe". It's silver service as we now know it.

There were four to six courses, with seven to nine dishes in each. For big occasions dishes often included cod with oyster sauce, ballotines of duck in Cumberland sauce and roast lamb. There would be a dessert course, with dishes like chocolate profiteroles. A buffet of hot and cold meats was also kept on a sideboard during the meal, just in case you got hungry between courses.

Queen Victoria Queen Victoria insisted on all windows being open

What was unusual about Victoria was the speed with which she ate. Usually a banquet would last for hours, but she could put away seven courses in 30 minutes, says Gray.

"For many people eating with her was purgatory. Everyone was served after the Queen and when she had finished all the plates were cleared for the next course. If you were the last person served often you wouldn't get a chance to eat anything before your plate was taken. She also insisted on all the windows being open whatever the time of year because she got hot."

Like all monarchs Victoria had a master chef, but on big occasions help was bought in. For her Diamond Jubilee banquet 24 chefs were brought over from Paris to help, according to the Royal Collection.

There was a very well established etiquette. Victoria's famous line "we are not amused" was uttered when someone told her a joke at the dinner table, breaking strict rules, says Gray. Many of today's rules about manners were formalised in the Victorian era.

The Banquet at Guildhall
  1. Top table: For the most important guests, with the most favoured at the Queen's direct right
  2. Other guests: Seated in order of importance, highest ranking closest to top table
  3. Food: At start of Victoria's reign food would be placed on table and guests would serve themselves
  4. Flowers: After self-service went out of fashion and dishes were not left on table, elaborate flower displays were used as decoration
  5. Drinks: Fine wine and Madeira would be served, but Victoria often had whisky with her meal
  6. Minor guests: Furthest away from the Queen and served last, they often hadn't even eaten by the time plates were cleared for the next course
  7. Public gallery: On big occasions members of the public were allowed to watch the banquet from viewing galleries

Charles II 1660-1685

For Charles II dining was extremely important, it was one of the things that defined him as a king.

At a banquet he would sit at a top table, under a canopy. The table would be raised so he could be seen by everyone and to show his status. Only a very select group of people could sit with him, a maximum of just six.

Pineapple Charles II loved pineapple

The King would always be served on bended knee. He had three "officers" to attend to him - a carver, a server and a cup bearer. Cleanliness was extremely important and Charles would have someone whose sole job was to dab his mouth during the meal.

"At that time dining was one of the things that absolutely defined royalty," says English Heritage's Dr Anna Keay. "Even when Charles was in exile and living in poverty in Germany, he followed the royal form of dining and was served on bended knee."

At state banquets no table decorations were needed as elaborate dishes did the job. They included a 2ft-high, silver salt cellar, made in the shape of a castle and encrusted with jewels. Often there were also silver fountains on the table flowing with wine or water.

There were not courses as we know them, more stages of service. Each could involve hundreds of plates. At one banquet in 1671, guests were served 145 dishes alone during the first course, says Kathryn Jones, curator at the Royal Collection and author of For the Royal Table: Dining at the Palace.

By his reign a dessert course had developed. Charles loved fruit and was one of the first people in the country to eat a pineapple.

Charles II

Seating Table Dishes Customs

Only people who could sit with the King were his own family, royalty from another country and high-ranking officials

Fine linen, gold and silver plates and crystal glasses. No decoration due to amount of food and ornate serving dishes

First recorded mention of ice cream is on a banquet menu for Charles II. Root vegetables were considered common

Dinner would start at about 3pm. It was someone's job to design exactly how food would be laid out in front of the King

Henry VIII 1509-1547

Food in the Tudor era was very exciting, say historians. Big feasts could include venison, swan, peacock, heron, porpoise and seagull.

Modern state banquets

Queen Elizabeth II
  • Takes two days to lay the 175ft-long dining table at Buckingham Palace
  • Each place setting measures 45cm and a rod is used to achieve the exact alignment of chair and table
  • 1,104 glasses are used, six for each guest
  • George IV's 4,000-piece Grand Service is used
  • Takes eight people three weeks to clean the service
  • 170 linen napkins, with the Queen's monogram, are folded by one man in the shape of a Dutch bonnet

Source: Royal Collection

"Sometimes the skin of a peacock would be carefully removed along with the feathers," says Peter Hammond, author of Life In A Medieval Town. "Once cooked they were replaced, as if it were still alive. They did this to show wealth."

While a lot of meat was served, there were also vegetables. Whatever could be grown was served, including cabbage, peas and lettuce. Flowers were also eaten, such as marigolds. They were used in salads and as a garnish.

There was a top table and the highest ranking and most highly favoured guests would sit on the right of King Henry VIII. Everything was about hierarchy, even the way you walked into the room. Gold and silver dishes were also displayed on sideboards to show wealth.

Food was served in stages called "removes". These consisted or up to 20 dishes. They were not all served together, individual dishes would be served in procession. Only the King's table was offered all the dishes.

It's a misconception that banquets were raucous and messy. "The way banquets are portrayed in many films is ridiculous," says Hammond. "They were extremely civilised, with a very firm code of etiquette."

Henry and his guests would have eaten with a knife and fingers, as forks hadn't been introduced. This would have been very delicately done and again involved very complicated rules about what could be touched with fingers.

Henry VIII

Seating Table Dishes Customs

Top table including King and the most important guests, the most favoured to the King's direct right

Fine linen tablecloths, laid with gold and silver plates, dishes and crystal glasses. No forks

Sweet dishes were served throughout the meal, not at end. Fruit and nuts were eaten at the end

Definitely no bone throwing or feeding dogs from the table. That would have been the height of bad manners

Edward IV 1461-1470 and 1471-1483

Royal banquets got a lot more elaborate under Edward IV and the whole notion of behaviour more complex, says Chris Woolgar, professor of history and archival studies at Southampton University. Courtesy books were produced to explain the etiquette.

Edward would have "servants of honour" to tend to his needs at banquets. These were people senior in rank. Often their tasks were menial, but it was still considered a great honour.

A very important servant was the carver, who would cut the King's meat at the top table. Guests would have their meat carved in the kitchen and brought up to them.

One of the "servants of honour" would test the King's food using a "unicorn's horn", basically a fossil shell. In an elaborate performance they would use the "horn" to touch the food, then deem it safe.

Elaborate silver salt cellars would be on the table. Often shaped like a ship, they would be encrusted with jewels. Fine wines were served for the higher ranking guests and ale for others.

In between the stages of services there would be dramatic performances, usually with a political message. Some were more entertaining, like someone jumping out of a cake, says Prof Woolgar.

Edward IV

Seating Table Dishes Customs

A top table seating the King and important guests, most favoured to the King's right

Fine linen tablecloth, with gold, silver and silver-gilt plates and cups. No glass or forks

The finest meats and fish. Sweet dishes were served with meat and fish, not separately

The King and guests would sit for a banquet from 11am and it could last for up to four hours

William the Conqueror 1066-1087

During William the Conqueror's reign a trestle table was used and it would only be set up after the King was seated. It would then be laid with a linen table cloth and the finest gold and silver. Lower ranking guests would have eaten out of a trencher, this was a piece of stale bread cut into a square shape and used as a plate. At the end of the meal, having soaked up all the juices from the food, they were frequently given as alms to the poor.

Turbot Turbot was popular with William

The top table would seat high-ranking guests, with a cleric seated directly to the right of William. Sometimes it was his almoner, an official who gave out alms to the poor on the King's behalf.

All of the King's food would be cooked separately from everyone else. He would often give out food from his plate to guests, this was considered a great honour and a sign of favour.

There were several stages of service, with many dishes. Food would get more elaborate as each dish was served. Only the top table would have roast meat, those of junior ranks would be served boiled meat.

Banquets in Norman times were very dignified affairs, with strict etiquette rules. Noise and mess were not acceptable, neither was burping.

William the Conqueror

Seating Table Dishes Customs

King would sit at a top table with senior guests, including important religious figures

Elaborately embroidered linen, gold and silver plates and cups. No glass or forks

The finest meat, including venison and game birds, and fish, including turbot, were served

Would sit from 11am. The King would often give out alms to the poor from the banquet

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