Surely the most prestigious Christmas partying seen in Berwick must have been in 1310. This was the winter Edward II and Queen Isabella stayed in town.
Edward II and Queen Isabella, with their son, the future Edward III depicted above.
This was possibly not a particularly Happy Christmas though for a variety of reasons. Edward and his queen never really got on and the deeply unpopular court “favourite” Piers Gaveston accompanied them on this trip. The campaign in Scotland against a resurgent Bruce was lacklustre to say the least. There seems to be an element of Edward dealing with the resentment of the English nobility in the south by removing himself and Gaveston to the north, away from the immediate line of fire.
Edward II receives the crown from Piers Gaveston.
This hostility was not only due to the hold Gaveston had over the king, but they were becoming increasingly resentful at his requisitioning money and food from them for his army, believing it was being used for his own household.
Providing for the household would have been no mean feat. You may think its a bit inconvenient having certain relatives around for Christmas but at the best of times the royal household was on the move throughout the land from castle to palace to castle again. This was ostensibly about showing favour to the nobles “lucky” enough to be chosen and maintaining loyalty but in reality was as much about spreading the cost of the royal household’s keep.
A book survives listing some of the things that would have been transported for Queen Isabella. As well as taking a few cartloads of clothes and jewels, she had her own Spicery – a medicine chest – containing such exotic items as nutmeg, cloves, bay leaves, long pepper, spikenard and grains of Paradise!
Cutlery, plates and even furniture would be transported around the land. The multitude of servants had to have their belongings and equipment transported too and everyone had to be fed. For example, we know that 3000 salmon were provided for the royal household’s arrival in September 1310, but there would have been vast quantities of pork, mutton and beef, wheat, peas and beans provided too. And all that when the Borders was struck by extreme famine because of a crop failure that year.
Oh and to top it all off, Christmas Day was a quarter day which meant everyone had to pay everyone else, be it the soldiery getting their wages or the peasantry paying their rent.
But everybody can enjoy the Christmas dinner. Can’t they?
Christmas dinner at Berwick Castle would have been held in the Great Hall (where the Network Rail yard is now). The kitchens may have been in an undercroft below it, though it is known kitchens were located on the south wall of the castle.
The king and queen and the most senior nobility would have been seated at a top table with the others seated at lower tables. Food would have been brought to the hall in courses much as we might have today.
Servants bring he next course to the high table.
To start the meal light soups or broths would be served. This might have been followed by a fish course with nuts to aid digestion. Swan, goose, or heron might be served rather than turkey. Meat courses might have beef, venison or wild boar. Cheeses would have been served throughout the meal to “aid a weak stomach”. And then there were other delights of creativity where the mediaeval cook disguised the food as other food such as the cockatrice. Today we have Heston Blumenthal.
There would have been entertainment from musicians, dancers and jugglers and players. At Christmas, mummers plays were very popular.
A dance of wodehouses, mythical forest creatures.
But pity the cooks and servants and you really can forget that diet. A mediaeval Christmas feast would not be for just the one day but go on for all twelve days of Christmas – up until the 6th January!
For more about mediaeval feasting check out these pages: