Henry VIII, who ruled England from 1509 until his death in 1547, was known for his voracious appetite. Portraits of Henry show a man almost as wide as he was tall. When he wasn't marrying, divorcing, or beheading his wives (he was on his sixth marriage when he died at age 58), this medieval ruler dined like a glutton.
He enjoyed banquets so much that he extended the kitchen of Hampton Court Palace to fill 55 rooms. The 200 members of the kitchen staff provided meals of up to 14 courses for the 600 people in the king's court. Here are some dishes served at a typical feast.
1. Spit-Roasted Meat
Spit-roasted meat -- usually a pig or boar -- was eaten at every meal. It was an expression of extreme wealth because only the rich could afford fresh meat year-round; only the very rich could afford to roast it, since this required much more fuel than boiling; and only the super wealthy could pay a "spit boy" to turn the spit all day. In a typical year, the royal kitchen served 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs, and 53 wild boar. That's more than 14,000 large animals, meaning each member of the court was consuming about 23 animals every year.
2. Grilled Beavers' Tails
These tasty morsels were particularly popular on Fridays, when according to Christian tradition, it was forbidden to eat meat. Rather conveniently, medieval people classified beavers as fish.
3. Whale Meat
Another popular dish for Fridays, whale meat was fairly common and cheap, due to the plentiful supply of whales in the North Sea, each of which could feed hundreds of people. It was typically served boiled or very well roasted.
4. Whole Roasted Peacock
This delicacy was served dressed in its own iridescent blue feathers (which were plucked, then replaced after the bird had been cooked), with its beak gilded in gold leaf.
5. Internal Organs
If you're squeamish, stop reading now. Medieval cooks didn't believe in wasting any part of an animal, and in fact, internal organs were often regarded as delicacies. Beef lungs, spleen, and even udders were considered fit for a king and were usually preserved in brine or vinegar.
On the next page, our list of items at a feast of Henry VIII continues with Black Pudding.
Items at a Feast of Henry VIII, 6-12
Here is the rest of our items at a feast of Henry VIII, which includes roasted swan and spiced fruit cake for special occasions.
6. Black Pudding
Another popular dish -- still served in parts of England -- was black pudding. This sausage is made by filling a length of pig's intestine with the animal's boiled, congealed blood.
7. Boar's Head
A boar's head, garnished with bay and rosemary, served as the centerpiece of Christmas feasts. It certainly outdoes a floral display.
8. Roasted Swan
Roasted swan was another treat reserved for special occasions, largely because swans were regarded as too noble and dignified for everyday consumption. The bird was often presented to the table with a gold crown upon its head. To this day, English law stipulates that all mute swans are owned by the Crown and may not be eaten without permission from the Queen.
Perhaps the only type of food Henry and his court didn't consume to excess was vegetables, which were viewed as the food of the poor and made up less than 20 percent of the royal diet.
A paste made from ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites and flavored with cinnamon and pepper, marzipan was occasionally served at the end of a meal, although desserts weren't common in England until the 18th century when incredibly elaborate sugar sculptures became popular among the aristocracy.
11. Spiced Fruitcake
The exception to the no dessert rule was during the Twelfth Night banquet on January 6, when a special spiced fruitcake containing a dried pea (or bean) was served. Whoever found the pea would be king or queen of the pea (or bean) and was treated as a guest of honor for the remainder of the evening.
12. Wine and Ale
All this food was washed down with enormous quantities of wine and ale. Historians estimate that 600,000 gallons of ale (enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool) and around 75,000 gallons of wine (enough to fill 1,500 bathtubs) were drunk every year at Hampton Court Palace.
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