Castle Learning Center Castle Food
Castles of Britain


© 1995-2015 by Lise Hull
feast Eating was one of the castle dweller's most popular pastimes, for not only did food provide needed sustenance, it was a means of entertainment. In particular, the banquet was used to impress a lord's guests with his generosity and his wealth. Robert Dudley's 19-day festival of fun and feasting in honor of Queen Elizabeth is perhaps the most notorious of all, and the masses of food consumed are staggering by our modern, weight-conscious standard.

For Dudley's feasts in 1575, ten oxen were eaten each day! The behavior we call bingeing is nothing compared to the mounds of food eaten during one of these feasts. As Mead (1928) stated, "their appetites corresponded to their activity, and they were not appalled when confronted with the mountainous heaps of food prepared for their consumption". And many lords bankrupted themselves in an effort to show their guests a good time. (It seems that Dudley's queen must not have had a good enough time, for she never accepted his marriage proposal!)

Generally, meals were taken three times a day. A small breakfast of bread and cheese at sunrise was followed between 10 AM and noon with the main meal, dinner. Then, towards sunset a lighter supper would be served, consisting of bread, cheese and perhaps a small dish like a stew. After supper, entertainment might be provided by minstrels, storytellers, acrobats or contortionists, or games and song enjoyed.

A lord's dinner usually had two to three courses, mainly meats and pastries, bread, wine or ale (usually the drink of the lowest classes), fruits, cheeses, nuts, and the like. But a feast was something so much more - even our modern day attempts at medieval banquets fall way short of the mark. Beef, pork, mutton, venison, poultry, fish, eggs, bread, milk, cheeses, vegetables (in lesser quantities, because they were considered "common"), and a profusion of wine, ale, cider, and mead were in ample supply. Mead cites the feast celebrating the installation of Archbishop Neville of York in 1467 as typical.

For the 6000 or so guests, the following was readied: 300 quarters of wheat, 300 tuns of ale, 100 tuns of wine, 1 pipe of hipprocras, 104 oxen, 6 wild bulls, 1000 sheep, 304 calves, 304 "porkes", 400 swans, 2000 geese, 1000 capons, 2000 pigs, 104 peacocks, over 13,500 other birds, 500 stags, bucks and roes, 1500 venison pies, 608 pikes and breams, 12 porpoises and seals, 13,000 dishes of jelly, cold baked tarts, custards, and spices, sugared delicacies and wafers!

During the spring and summer months, food stuffs were in ready supply, and included: "starlings, vultures, gulls, herons, storks, cormorants, swans, cranes, peacocks [often displayed in full feather after cooking], capons, and chickens... dogfish, porpoises, seals, whale, haddock, cod, salmon, sardines, lamprey, dolphins, tunnies, and eels (Kenyon, 1995)", as well as mullet, sole, shad, flounder, plaice, ray, mackerel, trout, crab, crayfish and oysters (Gies, 1974).

Fruits were also eaten, as were onions, garlic, peas, and beans. So what fruits were available? Wild cherries, grapes, and plums. Apples and pears were usually cooked. Roasted apples were popular. Citrus fruits began to be imported around 1290. Fresh and pickled lemons, and also Sevelle oranges. Other imports for the wealthy included currants, raisins, figs, dates and prunes. Roasts, stews and soups were the favored ways of preparing a meal. Potatoes and corn was not used until the 16th century.

The winter months were a time of scarcity, and preparations were made during the rest of the year to ensure the availability of meat. Wild animals were always hard to find during the winter, so most of the cattle were eaten. Beef had to be dried, though, or would rot if kept for any length of time. One imaginative, yet practical, addition to the winter meat supply was the harvest of pigeons. Dovecotes were built to house and breed pigeons during the year; when winter came, the birds were killed for the lord's table.

Fish from the castle's pond were also gathered to augment the winter's food stores, as were others from nearby rivers or the sea. Like meat, fish were salted or smoked for longer preservation. And as far as drink was concerned, where water dwindled, wine was abundant, popularly shipped in from the Continent. Apparently, England was the primary consumer of wine during the Middle Ages. It seems that Henry II acquired a vast wine-producing region upon his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and "for three hundred years the wines of South-East France flowed without hindrance to England and, apart from some ale, was the main beverage (Warner, 1971)".

The lower classes, on the other hand, had a tough time surviving, and not just in the winter. Their main foodstuffs consisted of vegetables such as turnips or salad, dark breads (deemed not fit for nobler individuals), porridges, an occasional fish, cheese curds, beer, ale, or mead. It is a wonder they survived as well as they did, and were able to fend off disease. Ironically, the rich, who should have had better methods of staying healthy, suffered from a variety of ailments, such as scurvy, tooth decay, heart problems, skin eruptions, and infections caused by rotting meat and lack of proper nutrition.

So, while the banquets offered diners respite from the harsher realities of the day (although one wonders just how harsh things were, at times), and provided excitement and full bellies for the attendants, there was a downside to the types of food the rich enjoyed: their health suffered. Yet, the quality of food was not the only reason for poor health. Lifestyles played a major role (but that is a topic for another article...). Since medieval and Elizabethan peoples relished their feasts with such lust, it is highly unlikely that gaining better health would have enticed them to give up one of their most favored activities.