23 March 2023
Mary had a little lamb
One of the more unusual manuscripts digitised for the British Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project is Cotton Roll XIV 8: a year-long menu for the 15-year-old Princess Mary (the future Queen Mary I) and her household, in 1531.
The lunch menu for Mary and her household on Christmas, New Year’s Day and Twelfth Night: Cotton Roll XIV 8
This manuscript gives us a fascinating insight into the food eaten not only by Mary herself, but also by her household officials and servants. It is divided into six columns. The first column lists the dishes given to Mary and the second those for her lord president, chancellor, chamberlain, vice-chamberlain, steward, treasurer, comptroller, and other leading councillors. The third column is for her senior household officials, the cofferer, the clerk of the comptroller, the clerk of the kitchen, and the marshal. The fourth column is for gentlemen and gentlewomen. The titles of the final two columns have been torn off, but they were probably for Mary’s more junior servants and staff.
A portrait of Princess Mary, attributed to Lucas Horenbout (Hornebolte), c. 1525: courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 6453
The manuscript lists many dishes that may be unfamiliar to us today, such as pottage (a thick stew), brawn (meat boiled in spices and jelly, eaten cold), and bakemeats (pastry dishes, savoury or sweet, such as pies or tarts). More recognisable foods are pork, custard and blancmange. One of the most common meats is poultry, including chicken, swan, goose, partridge, snipe, crane, pheasant and heron.
The menu begins with Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Twelfth Night (6 January), the culmination of the Christmas season. On these days, Mary was to have two courses at each meal, with over 10 dishes per course at lunch and about 8 dishes at dinner, including roast swan, venison, pike, brawn, heron, rabbit, pheasant, sturgeon, crane, lamb, partridge, blancmange, custard and tarts. For lunch, she also had a boar’s head ‘solemnly served’. This was the traditional centrepiece of a Christmas feast for royal and noble households and it was usually seasoned with rosemary and bay leaves. Mary would be served this same menu on the feasts of All Saints (1 November) and the Purification (2 February), with the exception of the boar’s head. In contrast, the lowest of her household servants would have just five dishes at lunch, eating pottage, meat, pig or goose, veal or pork, and bakemeats.
After Christmas, the manuscript moves on to the menu for Sundays and feast days, and then for the others day of the week. The dishes are quite similar but fewer in number. Mary still had two courses at each meal, usually totalling 14 dishes at lunch and 10 at dinner. For the lowest servants in her household, only one course of two or three dishes was served. The exceptions to this rule were Fridays and Saturdays, when Catholics were supposed to eat fish instead of meat. On those days the menu lists a wide array of different fish, including plaice, haddock, cod, salmon, bream and lampreys.
A miniature of a feast from a Book of Hours ('The Golf Book') (Bruges, c. 1540): Add MS 24098, f. 19v
Our manuscript sheds light on the meals eaten at a royal court and how the food differed according to social status. Mary herself and her chief officials enjoyed a wide selection of dishes, while those at the lowest end of the scale were offered a much smaller range. The impression is of a wealthy court, with the princess feasting on a wide array of foods.
But 1531 was a difficult year for the princess. Her father, Henry VIII, banished her mother, Katherine of Aragon, from court in favour of his mistress, Anne Boleyn, who kept Mary away from Henry. Mary’s health declined and she suffered several illnesses. Although Mary might not have enjoyed the food listed here as much as in a typical year (she was unable to keep her food down for three weeks in the summer), this manuscript does give us a valuable insight into the food eaten by her household just two years before she fell further out of favour. In 1533, Henry divorced her mother and married Anne Boleyn. In response, the princess’s household was reduced from over 160 servants to just two. The following year, Mary was declared illegitimate. She would not again enjoy the lavish feasts described in this menu until she became queen of England in 1553.
We are grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.
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