Yesterday I had the good fortune of being allowed inside the banquet house of King William III at Hampton Court. A building big enough to house many of the hoi-polloi but a mere dot on the huge expanse which is Hampton Court Palace.
Even the attendant on the door had not been in this building for 5 years due to problems with preservation of the beautiful painted interiors which have been affected by centuries of issues related to damp and temperature differentials.
This beautiful building was where the King would go to eat and drink with trusted friends away from the prying eyes of the palace.
One might think that a King in those days might be able to do whatever he wished, especially eat when and where he wanted. Whilst he might have near-divine powers over life and death, usually the King or Queen had to eat in front of an audience. Partly it came with the job as the Defender of the Realm had business to attend to, cronies to keep happy and his eyes on those who might plot against him. Perhaps more importantly, however was the fact that in the pre-broadcast media days, banquets and feasts were a great way of employing propaganda. Visitors could easily be wowed and impressed at the magnificence of the surroundings, the rare and expensive food and most importantly, the health and robustness of the King.
Hundreds of people were involved in these feasts and on some occasions, members of the public were allowed to view proceedings from viewing platforms. On their way home to their villages through the country or even overseas, these observers and feast-goers alike would happily do the important job of telling everyone they met of just how strong, powerful and full of vigour the monarch was. This was important because not only would it dissuade people in our islands from plotting and causing trouble to the monarch, it would also do much to stop foreign attacks or invasions before they got off the ground.
Whilst some monarchs were good and others less so, generally speaking it was always good for the country when they had a young-ish strong monarch. If the monarch looked weakly or disappeared from sight for a few weeks then the dastardly French, Spanish and many others would think it be an opportune moment to launch an attack. If a monarch isn’t very good at safeguarding the realm in return for our allegiance then what good is he/her?
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.
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
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 he 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
King Henry VIII
Food in the Tudor era was very exciting, say historians. Big feasts could include venison, swan, peacock, heron, porpoise and seagull.
“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.
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.
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.
Fine, civilised and extravagant dining was a key element of being a King.
At state banquets there were no table decorations as the 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.
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.
Queen Victoria 1837 – 1901
Queen Victoria enjoyed a wonderfully long reign and during that time the dining practices that many of us still use today, were formalised. Self-service was replaced by Silver Service.
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.
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.
“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.
Queen Elizabeth 1952 – Present Day
Though The Queen is often involved in government events, around twice a year she hosts an official State Banquet at either Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle. Invited guests normally are made up of politicians, senior clergymen, diplomats and those with specific connections to the country of the guest of honour.
The table in the photo above seats 160 people and dates from 1846. It is so large that it is polished by men who stand on the table and polish it using furry slippers!
Incredibly for such a feast the table setting includes 2,000 pieces of silver gilt cutlery and 960 glasses. All placements are measured by the Royal staff using a tape-measure and before the meal begins, chairs are place exactly 27 inches from the table. The Queen herself makes a last minute check of the arrangement.
One man is responsible for preparing each napkin that must be folded precisely, in a shape called a Dutch Bonnet, with the Queen’s hand embroidered monogram showing in exactly the same place on each one.
Expect to drink well if you get to dine with Her Majesty. There’s a champagne glass for the toast, a red wine and a white wine glass, a water goblet, a champagne glass for dessert and a glass for port after dinner. The glasses are from the Order of the Garter and the Coronation sets of crystal.
The Grand Service consists of silver gilt serving pieces, platters, plates, centerpieces, candelabra and special serving utensils. There are 8,000 pieces and each one must be hand washed, dried and polished. It takes a team of eight to do it.
The Queen has countless sets of porcelain so like every hostess, likes to show off some of her lines of fine china.
In some ways modern day feasts are no different than others. These impressive surroundings and precise layouts are often beamed to TV news networks around the world that encourage things like tourism but also British industry and suppliers. Anyone who attends one will no doubt remember the event forever and tell all their highly influential friends and so the age old way of not so subtle manipulation continues as ever before.
Even an important Chinese delegation was recently given the honour (and many would say undeservedly so) of a state banquet with The Queen. A great way to secure favours, changes in policy or big contracts and alliances as who could really not fail to be influenced or honoured by being the guest of such a sumptuous occasion.
Other things that haven’t changed include no-one starting to eat before the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh and seconds after they finish their meal then the plates are whisked away. It is said that once the Queen has finished eating, if you put your fork down for a moment then your plate will be taken.