How Royal Family Feasts Have Changed Over Time

June 17, 2019

One thing has been true for nearly every British royal family member throughout England’s long and storied history. They absolutely love to eat. And unsurprisingly, royal feasts are commonplace. However, each monarch typically had (or has) very unique tastes, so what chefs served at the royal tables varied greatly. For example, Queen Elizabeth II notably refuses to allow garlic or onions when she dines. But did all the monarchs who preceded her share in her preferences? What other food quirks marked the palace kitchens? And just how hard did the cooks have to work? Thankfully, there’s a plethora of information that helps us answer these pressing questions.

We know about the more modern royal feasts, but we also know which meats graced King Henry VIII’s plates. Moreover, this food history teaches people who love food (aka all of us) more about certain cultures. In a way, it even makes the royals seem more relatable. Everyone’s curious about Kate Middleton and Megan Markle’s food and dieting habits, but it turns out they eat a lot like the average citizen. Go figure.

The more archaic royal feasts often focused on quantity, though. Occasionally, it was less about what was served and more about how much was served. Additionally, different monarchs from earlier time periods favored different courses; it all depended on the occasion or celebration. Sometimes, guests even had to sit at royal feasts for specific amounts of time throughout the years. Certain royal dining aspects morphed significantly over time.

Now, here are some of the most notable changes in royal feasts.

William the Conqueror

He reigned from 1066 until 1087.

Incredibly well-known as the Duke of Normandy who won the throne of England, William the Conqueror was initially knighted in 1042. He was only 15 when he received that accolade, but his morality and dedication to the Church helped him gain his countrymen’s high esteem. In fact, William never even learned to speak English, but the English people still respected and valued his influence.

So, what were his feasts like?

William did not take his feasts or his food lightly.

And he evidently enjoyed dining in splendor. No trouble was spared. In fact, reports indicate the monarch usually sat at a trestle table (basically, a fancy table) during festive and important occasions. Moreover, servers fitted the king’s table with linen immediately after he sat down. Talk about dining in style. And that’s not all.

William certainly didn’t eat the same food as all of his guests.

In fact, his meal often went through an entirely different cooking process. The king also used intricate cutlery, and platters of gold and silver, and enjoyed rare dishes of rabbits and lampreys. The guests, however, frequently used bread loaves in place of bowls and plates. And while more important court members had roasted meat, less notable guests ate their meat boiled.

Edward IV

He reigned from 1461 to 1470, and then from 1471 to 1483.

And he worked incredibly hard to gain his throne. Indeed, Edward IV made significant impressions on his courtesans and people. Court member Philippe de Commines noted that Edward was “the handsomest prince [his] eyes ever beheld.” And Sir Thomas More, a historian, claimed that the king was “princely to behold, of body mighty.” And those weren’t even all of the king’s notable traits.

King Edward seemed to truly respect his subjects.

Whether they were from higher or lower social classes, the king treated them well. He did appreciate the finer things in life, though. And even though he established many facets of English etiquette during his time on the throne, he also made his feasts remarkably elaborate. I mean, what else would you expect from a king?

But, what did he do exactly?

The Edwardian king had special servants for small tasks; they weren’t common folk. In fact, they held rank in court. One special carver prepared the king’s meat right on the table in front of the entire party. That’s how you truly know it’s fresh. Other feast attendees got their meat from pre-prepared trays that came from the royal kitchens. Now, let’s talk about the king’s unicorn horn.

Edward IV employed one of his preferred servants to test every dish.

To do so, the high-ranking helper used a unicorn horn (which was, in fact, a simple shell) and would prod the king’s food to determine if it was safe. This was a performance in and of itself. And with dinner came even more entertainment. Guests often saw politically-based performances when supping with King Edward.

Henry VIII, 1509-1547

This involved the time period of 1509 to 1547.

Henry VIII’s time was known as the Tudor time. And, well — things got wild in the Tudor time. What else would you expect?  You’ve probably heard about his six wives in history class, which is wild enough on its own, but you may not have learned that peacock was often on the dinner menu. Talk about a truly wild feast.

That is, unless it was a Friday.

History Extra reports that eating meat on a Friday was forbidden during this time period. Still, Henry VIII got over this rule by lying, stating that certain meats were actually just fish. He clearly wasn’t messing around when it came to his royal meals. These days, most of us consider fish to be in the meat category anyway, so Henry VIII was clearly ahead of his time.

What else did they eat?

The Tudors definitely weren’t as picky with their food as we are today, worrying about whether what we get at the grocery store is organic, free of GMOs, and straight from the farm. They especially weren’t picky about the meat they were eating and often ate swan, beaver, and wild boar. It’s almost a little upsetting, but hey — those were different times.

Henry IV

Henry IV served as the King of France from 1589 to 1610.

And according to certain records, food was very important to him (yes, just like with most kinds out there). In fact, he was quoted as saying, “A chicken in every peasant’s pot every Sunday,” from the Old Foodie Blog, who tried hard to emulate the feast that made the most sense to him. Now, if Henry IV was saying this about his peasants, just imagine what he himself was eating.

What kind of chicken were peasants dining on, though?

Every peasant ate Poule-au-pot every Sunday. What’s that, exactly? If you’re curious, it’s a dish of stewed chicken that Henry IV also enjoyed. According to BBC Good Food, aside from chicken, the stew also contains white wine, celery, carrots, leeks, bacon, and breadcrumbs. Sounds pretty indulgent to us, although peasants probably weren’t able to get their hands on all of these ingredients.

What else did Henry IV eat?

Oddly enough, he had a thing for raw garlic — and supposedly stank of it, as he also wasn’t fond of bathing. Queen Elizabeth II definitely wouldn’t approve. According to the Duchess of Cornwall, “I hate to say this, but garlic. Garlic is a no-no,” when she was asked about what’s not on the royal menu while appearing on MasterChef Australia. 

Oliver Cromwell

He didn’t have a crown, but Oliver Cromwell ruled the U.K. between 1653 and 1658.

He had the same powers that a monarch would, but his official title was “Lord Protector.” If you assumed he ate well, you might be wrong. While a fan of hunting, Cromwell was very religious, and his views on food reflected that. Medieval England initially took part in feast days that celebrated the saints, but Cromwell preferred to hold a day of fasting, instead. Henry VIII would never!

He also didn’t like celebrating Christmas. Seriously.

He reportedly stole dinners, like cooked goose, from people who tried to partake in the holiday. BBC reports that he also tried to ban Christmas carols, seeing them as sinful, which basically makes him a real-life Ebenezer Scrooge. Now let’s all take a moment to be thankful that we weren’t alive during Oliver Cromwell’s rule.

Charles II

King Charles II, who reigned from 1660 to 1985, was a fan of dogs.

In fact, he helped bring awareness to the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, which were obviously named after him. But he also brought something different to the dinner table. He was a big fan of etiquette. BBC writes that King Charles II was always served on bended knee. Royal Collection Trust reports that in general, breakfast and dinner were private events during this time period.  But there was the weekly King’s Dinner, which was served around the time we’d normally have lunch.

That meal was massive.

During those times, Charles II was served with 26 dishes. You read that right. He was reportedly a big fan of fruit, especially pineapples, which he saw as a symbol of status, according to The Paris Review. He even called it “King-Pine,” and used it as a way to assert that his nation was the best when serving the fruit at dinner with other nations. Charles II even had a painting commissioned of himself being presented with a pineapple, which really shows his dedication to the fruit.

George III

George III reigned from 1760 to 1820.

This time was known as the Georgian era. George III was the first King in the House of Hanover that was actually born in England, according to History. He married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whom he met on his wedding day, but the two probably got along quite well, as they had 15 kids. So, what did he eat?

Though the king and queen kept a close watch on their diets, they still had some fun with food.

It’s been reported that George III and Queen Charlotte both restricted themselves when it came to food, but they did enjoy pasta — namely, macaroni and vermicelli. Parmesan cheese was also ordered often. As for dinner, it was served every day between 4 and 5 p.m. Sometimes, there were up to eight dishes served to those who joined them. Leftovers were also reportedly saved, meaning that they tried hard not to create much food waste.

As for the strangest thing on their menu, it was reported that the princesses at the time often ate birds like larks and blackbirds, proving that they definitely ate a wider selection of meat than we do today. Hey, at least it’s better than peacocks.

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901.

She had 63 years to set the pace over how meals went down. Sometimes, when banquets were held, guests were able to watch (which doesn’t exactly sound like a fun way to spend one’s time). If only they were able to partake as well, since Queen Victoria was quite a fan of food and likely served delicious meals.

What did Queen Victoria normally eat?

HistoryExtra reports that Queen Victoria had no problem chowing down on foods that many royals today would turn their noses up at. For one, she liked fancy bread and whiskey. Also, duck and roast lamb were popular choices. Interestingly enough, she was also known for eating fast. BBC writes that big meals included seven to nine courses, and Queen Victoria — who stood at five feet — could finish about seven in just a half hour. In-between courses, there was also a hot and cold meat buffet ready, just in case anyone couldn’t wait for the next dish.

King Edward VII

This is one king who was generous with his food.

Edward VII was officially the King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Emperor of India between the years of 1901 and 1910 (which is, putting it lightly, quite a bit of territory to reign over). He was married to Queen Alexandra, and the two reportedly had wonderful Christmas feasts. But first, they gifted food to their workers. Honestly, this sounds like our ideal gift.

According to Edwardian Promenade, laborers were given beef and other types of substantial foods as a gift on Christmas Eve. As far as the family goes, they often tried to eat a nice breakfast in the dining saloon while the children opened gifts. At lunch, the children often ate flambéed pudding to celebrate the holiday. This is a pudding that gets lit aflame so that it caramelizes.

What about Christmas dinner?

Dinner was even more of a spectacle. Taking place in the Grand Dining Saloon, food was presented on gold and silver plates. Turkey, beef, cygnets, and mince pies were commonly served. Edwardian Promenade states that all of this food had to be consumed within the time set aside for dinner (which was about an hour). Queen Victoria would have likely faired well with her quick-eating skills.

Queen Elizabeth II

From 1952 to today, Queen Elizabeth II has reigned.

Queen Elizabeth has openly admitted that she’s not much of a foodie, which might come as a shock when you look at what other royals were feasting on throughout history. But one of the most interesting things about her is the strict dietary restrictions she puts on herself and her family. (Sadly, though they’re royals, they are not allowed to eat whatever they want.)

Garlic and onions are certainly a no-go.

As mentioned earlier, plenty of chefs have opened up about Queen Elizabeth’s distaste for onions and garlic. Tasting Table has reported that it’s actually banned from Buckingham Palace, since it’s not ideal for when you want to have fresh breath. She also tries to stay away from potatoes and pasta, unless it’s a fancy occasion. For example, when the Trump family recently feasted with Queen Elizabeth, lamb and halibut with watercress mousse were on the menu.

Delish reports that Queen Elizabeth has a few other rules as well.

For one, her family needs to show up in formalwear. The Queen also approves the menu before the food is made, which means that nothing’s going to be served that she doesn’t like. And when she’s done eating? So is everyone else. So, if you’re dining with Queen Elizabeth II, again, you may want to adopt Queen Victoria’s speed.