The body of Richard III—the beleaguered king last seen in Shakespeare’s play bellowing “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”—was discovered in the summer of 2012, buried six feet deep under a parking lot in Leicester in the remains of Grey Friars Abbey, just where he was unceremoniously dumped over 500 years ago.
Since then, forensic reconstruction has shown us what Richard looked like—remarkably like his portrait—and sporting experiments with Dominic Smee, a teacher who shares Richard’s S-shaped curvature of the spine, have proved that the somewhat crooked king could indeed have worn armor, ridden a horse, and wielded a sword, lance, halberd, and/or battleaxe. Even more recent experiments have shown us what the slaughtered monarch ate.
Our dietary sins live on after us. Analyses of nitrogen and oxygen isotopes from Richard’s teeth, rib, and thigh bones by researchers at the University of Leicester and the British Geological Survey show that Richard, once seated on the throne, enjoyed high living. During his short 26 months as king (1481-1485), he ate great meals. His meat came from creatures ordinarily reserved for the rich—swan, egret, crane, and heron—and (so say his oxygen isotopes) he drank a bottle or more of wine a day.
“To eat like a king” traditionally means to feast—as in the dieter’s dogma: “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” For much of recorded history, however, what the king feasted upon isn’t necessarily appealing to the modern palate. Some royal picks we wouldn’t touch nowadays with a ten-foot pole. Take, for example, lampreys.
Lampreys are eel-like fish, capable of growing up to a yard or so long, who survive by parasitically attaching their toothy sucking mouths to other, non-eel-like, fish. Henry I—fourth son of William the Conqueror—was mad for them. His court routinely spent Christmas in Gloucester on the Severn River, home to particularly delectable lampreys, and the citizens of the city each year presented him with a spectacular lamprey pie. This Christmas lamprey pie tradition continued through the reign of Queen Victoria—and at least one lamprey-loving king (John, nemesis of Robin Hood) slapped a substantial fine on Gloucester for not paying him “sufficient respect in the matter of his lampreys.” The pie that year must have been small.
Royal meals—if not wholly delicious—were always massive. Surviving medieval menus describe meals of two to five courses, with twenty or more different dishes per course. Household accounts for a meal for thirty in the reign of Henry VIII list an impressive and expensive total of victuals, including beef, veal, lamb, bacon, capons, hens, plovers, woodcock, partridges, herons, snipe, leverets, rabbits, and larks’ tongues, fruit, raisins and almonds, 800 eggs, 90 dishes of butter, 80 loaves of chestnut bread, 300 wafers of marzipan, and 50 pieces of gold leaf for gilding the gingerbread. For Anne Boleyn’s coronation in the June of 1533, Henry pulled out all the stops: king, queen, and court shared a feast of three courses, consisting respectively of 28, 23, and 30 dishes, “besides subtleties and ships made of wax, marvelous gorgeous to behold.”
Subtleties—the high point of the medieval banquet—were elaborate sculptures made of pastry and colored almond paste, intended for amusement rather than eating. Popular themes were turreted castles, battleships, scenes from the lives of the saints, and flattering depictions of events in the life of the king. Robert May, Master Chef to King Charles I, described one such subtlety in The Accomplisht Chef (1664), a multi-piece extravaganza consisting of a ship armed with cannons, a stag “made of coarse paste, with a broad Arrow in the side of him, and his body filled up with claret-wine,” and a castle “with Battlements, Portcullices, Gates and Draw-Bridges,” each surrounded by salt in which was embedded eggshells filled with rosewater. Trails of gunpowder were positioned such that, when ignited, ship and castle fired their guns, after which the “Ladies” were encouraged to throw the water-filled eggshells at each other.
Ship, stag, and castle were also accompanied by a pair of gigantic pies, gilded and “yellowed over with saffron,” one containing live frogs (“which make the Ladies to skip and shreek”), the other live birds. The whole effect, assures May, “will cause much delight and pleasure to the whole company.” In a sad comedown from all this egg-flinging, frog-leaping jollity, the sole survivors of the medieval subtlety today, according to Constance Hiett, Brenda Hosington, and Sharon Butler in Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks, are cake decorations, such as the sugar roses and miniature brides and groom perched on wedding cakes.
Richard III’s favored birds were spectacles in and of themselves. Swans, peacocks, egrets, cranes, and herons were routinely skinned without being plucked, then roasted, re-dressed in their skins, and presented to the diners in their feathers, complete with gilded beaks. The variety of available meats meant that it was tricky to know just how to chop them up: The Boke of Kervynge by Wynken de Worde, published in 1508, was a how-to guide for the puzzled carver. The book is known for its lengthy list of gruesomely technical terms: “dismember that heron; unbrace that mallard; unjoynt that bittern; unlace that coney; disfigure that peacock; barbe that lobster.” Instructions for “Thigh that Woodcock” are quick and to the point: “Raise his legs as a hen, and dight his brain.”
Prior to the 17th century, king and court also ate a good deal of fish, since about half the days in the Church’s calendar were meatless. On the royal menus—along with the adored lampreys—were porpoise, whale, pike, sturgeon, mullet, tench, turbot, oysters, crabs, and lobsters. Also permissible on fast days were barnacle geese, which—according to popular folklore—did not hatch from eggs like other birds, but sprouted from trees by the sea, hanging downwards from the branches by their beaks and surrounded by shells. A suspicious London visitor of 1467 pointed out that this supposed “fish” tasted an awful lot like wild duck. “We had to eat it as a fish, but in my mouth it turned to meat,” he wrote.
Early cookbooks suggest that—when not presiding over a royal banquet—king and queen may have enjoyed homelier fare. The Forme of Cury—arguably the first English cookbook, dated to around 1390 and compiled by the cooks of King Richard III—contains 196 recipes, a mix of the elaborate and elite and the simple and down-to-earth. Among these last are cabbage soup (“caboches in potage”), “rauioles” (ravioli), and “macrows,” which was the medieval version of macaroni and cheese.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.
- Brown, Michele. Royal Recipes. Pavilion Books, 1995.
- Hieatt, Constance B., Brenda Hosington, and Sharon Butler. Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks. University of Toronto Press, 2013.
- Hope, Annette. Londoners’ Larder: English Cuisine from Chaucer to the Present. Mainstream Publishing, 2005.
- Lamb, Angela L., Jane E. Evans, Richard Buckley, and Jo Appleby. Multi-isotope analysis demonstrates significant lifestyle changes in King Richard III. Journal of Archaeological Science, August 2014.
- Sass, Lorna J. To the King’s Taste. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975.