05 May 2023
The Coronation Banquet of Henry VI
What was the food like at a medieval coronation banquet? As the coronation of King Charles III approaches, we look back over 500 years to an account of the coronation banquet served before the young Henry VI (r. 1422-1461, 1470-1471) on 5 November 1429 when he was only 7 years old.
The account is featured in an episode of The Food Programme that will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 7 May 2023 at 12.30pm, in which Jaega Wise and Head of the Eccles Centre and food historian Dr Polly Russell explore the history of coronation eating from the 1400s to the present day.
The coronation of the child Henry VI as King of England at Westminster, from the Pageants of Richard Beauchamp: Cotton MS Julius E IV/3, f. 23v
The details of Henry’s coronation banquet are recorded in a work by John Lydgate (d. c. 1451), a prolific writer of Middle English verse often seen as a successor to Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400). Lydgate was well connected at the royal court throughout his literary career, and in 1429 he was commissioned to write a number of works to mark the coronation of Henry VI, including a text now known as the ‘Soteltes for the coronation banquet of Henry VI’.
The text is a Middle English poem in three stanzas, designed to accompany each of the banquet’s courses as they arrived into the hall (probably Westminster Hall, the traditional venue for such occasions during this period). One surviving manuscript at the British Library (Egerton MS 1995) incorporates the poem as part of a medieval chronicle of the city of London. Most notably, the chronicle also preserves notes about the dishes served at the banquet itself.
The first and second courses of the coronation banquet feast of Henry VI, recorded in a medieval chronicle of London: Egerton MS 1995, ff. 176v-177r
The banquet was lavish in both its scale and the sheer variety of dishes served across its three courses. The dishes included:
- All kinds of meat and fish, including roasted beef, mutton, pigs, rabbits, chickens, swan, heron stuffed with capons, quails, curlew, larks, partridge, carp, crab, chopped eels, pike.
- Boars heads encased in pastry castles decorated with gold.
- Slices of red jelly carved with white lions.
- A ‘custade rooial’ (a type of pastry) enclosing a golden leopard.
- A fritter shaped like a sun with a fleur-de-lis.
- A fritter shaped like a leopard’s head with ostrich feathers.
- A jelly sculpture containing a red antelope, wearing a crown around its neck with a golden chain.
- A roasted peacock served in its plumage.
- A ‘flampayne’, a pork pie ornamented with leopards and gold fleur-de-lis.
- A cold ‘bakemete’, a meat pie shaped like the royal coat of arms.
The third course of the coronation banquet of Henry VI: Egerton MS 1995, f. 177v
At the heart of the banquet were its ‘subtleties’. A subtlety was a special type of medieval dish that served as theatrical tableside entertainment. Subtleties typically took the form of lavish tableau, with scenes and models depicting emblematic subjects, often made entirely out of confectionary, such as marzipan or other foodstuffs.
The account of the coronation banquet of Henry VI records that each course had its own subtlety that was brought in with the dishes. The subtleties and the accompanying verses were highly symbolic, emphasising Henry’s dual role as King of England and of France and the unity between the two countries, and this message was of immense political import. At the time the young king was crowned, the Hundred Years War was raging between England and France, as the two countries made opposing claims to the French throne.
The subtlety for the first course depicted St Edward the Confessor and St Louis of France wearing their coats of arms with Henry VI between them. The accompanying stanza written by Lydgate emphasises Henry’s role as heir to these two saintly kings:
Loo here been ii kyngys right profytabylle and right goode
Holy Synt Edwarde and Synt Lowys
Also the braunche borne of hyr blode
Lyyvynge a monge Crystyn most soverayne of pryse
Enherytoure to the flowredelysse.
God graunte he may thoroughe grace of Cryste Jesu
The VIte Harry to raygne, and be as wyse
And hym resemble in kynghode and verte.
Look here are two kings beneficent and good
Holy St Edward and St Louis
As well as the descendants born of their blood
Living among Christendom most sovereign of princes
Inheritor of the fleur-de-lis.
God grant that he may through the grace of Jesus Christ
The sixth Harry to reign and be as wise
And resemble him in kinghood and virtue.
The subtlety for the second course depicted the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund and Henry V, King of England, together holding aloft Henry VI, with Lydgate’s second stanza focusing on the military achievements of the two kings against rebellious factions in their respective kingdoms. The final subtlety, meanwhile, depicted the Virgin Mary and infant Christ in her lap holding a crown, with St George and St Denis presenting Henry to her. Lydgate’s closing stanza links the two patron saints of England and France explicitly to the king’s right to rule both countries:
O blessyd lady, Crystys modyr dyre
And Syn Gorge called hyr owne knight;
Hooly Syn Denys, O martyr, moste entere,
To the here vi Harry we present to the in youre syghte.
Schechythe youre grace on hym,
Thys tendyr and whythe vertu hym avaunce,
Borne by dyscent and tytylle of right
Justely to raygne in Ingelonde and yn Fraunce.
O blessed lady, Christ’s dear mother
And St George, called her own knight;
Holy St Denis, O martyr, most perfect
To you here Harry VI we present to you in your sight.
Showing your grace on him,
This tender (youth) and with virtue him advance,
Born by descent title of right
Justly to reign in England and in France.
This was not the only time St George would make an appearance at the feast. The London chronicle records that the King’s Champion, a man called Sir Philip Dymoke, rode into the banqueting hall dressed in full armour as the English patron saint, declaring to the crowd that the king was rightful heir to the throne.
The description of the entrance of Sir Philip Dymoke to the banqueting hall: Egerton MS 1995, f. 176v
The effect of the entrance of these tableaus and performances must have been striking to the assembled onlookers. Not only would they have contributed to the visual extravagance of the occasion alongside the numerous tables of food on display, they would also have impressed upon the king’s subjects the strength of his claim to the thrones of England and France, even as the ensuing political strife and the ongoing war loomed large on the continent.
Henry VI enthroned in front of the joint arms of France and England, from the Talbot Shrewsbury Book: Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 405r
To learn more about Henry VI’s coronation feast, tune in to The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, 7 May 2023 at 12.30pm, or listen on the BBC Sounds website afterwards!
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