The Day the King Came to Dinner

Charing Archbishop’s Palace, 24th May 1520

By Amy Myers

Entertaining kings was no joke. The Archbishop of Canterbury must have been quaking in his boots as he made preparations for King Henry VIII’s visit to his palace at Charing, and later complained bitterly about the expense.

The king’s visit on 24th May 1520 would be Henry’s last lodging before reaching Canterbury for a breathing space before sailing to France to meet its king, Francis I, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Henry himself was not the problem. His entourage was. In all Henry and his queen, Catherine of Aragon, were accompanied by no less than 5,804 courtiers, attendants and servants not to mention a mere 3,223 horses [1]. Even this figure did not include the separate entourage of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s chief strategist.

Imagine Archbishop Wareham’s staff when the king’s Master of the Hoste announced that 5,804 people had to be accommodated and fed. On the other hand, there must have been great excitement in the village at the news of the descent of this vast horde. It would be a challenge to say the least, but the chaos that this overnight stay might bring could be well compensated for by the shillings and pence it could earn for them.

The vast entourage which left the palace at Greenwich on 21st May after long and meticulous planning was not simply vanity on Henry’s part but a political requirement. Both he and Francis I needed to impress the other with their importance in international strategic positioning, and this was the accepted way of doing so. After staying at Otford (another of the put-upon Archbishop Waring’s palaces) Henry’s procession continued on to Leeds Castle – at least the king himself owned this one.

It was probably after breakfast or jantaculum – eaten early and not just a bowl of cereal but a full meal – that the procession left for Charing in order to arrive for the main meal of the day, prandium or dinner. This would be a grand affair of three courses, each composed of many different dishes and each course followed by a subtlety, a confection of sugar and almond paste intended to amuse both the eye and the palate whilst awaiting the next bombardment of food [2]. Later in the day would come supper, followed by late night snacks for the hungry. Wine and beer (with hops, newly arrived from the continent) would be copiously supplied, some at least from the Archbishop’s buttery and brewed in the palace’s brewhouse. No water of course, since this was not drinkable

This was splendid for the royal party and for those elevated enough to be accommodated in the palace, but what of the knights, chaplains, heralds, trumpeters, and all the rest of those with some claim to status in the royal household – 935 in all? And what of those who attended them? That numbered 230chaplains and 228 gentlemen plus 3151 other servants. All these people were just for the king’s benefit. The queen was relatively economical set beside her husband’s requirements. She had a mere 265 persons to help her through the day, but serving them were 54 chaplains, 32 gentlemen and 909 servants.

How did poor Charing cope? The Archbishop’s household would have had its hands full with the royal party, but what of the courtiers not grand enough to be lodged in the palace, which was not huge?

Judging by the arrangements made by the king’s Master of the Hoste when a month later the king paid a day’s visit to Gravelines,near Calais, to meet the Emperor Charles V, they would be lodged ‘in such a place as shall be convenient to their estate and degrees’ [3]. If the same arrangement was made in Charing, there would be a number of manor houses on which the Master’s eagle eye mightfall: Pett Place obviously, and Wickens, but there were also Newlands, Newcourt, Stilley, Brockton, Tremhatch, Burley and Acton.

What of everyone else and all those horses? At Guisnes, where the king would be staying before he met Francis at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the gentlemen who could not procure better accommodation ‘set up tents in the field… which was a goodly sight. [4]’ The tents might well have been a goodly sight compared with the probable fate of the lesser servants, who probably bedded down in the fields, some with the horses – just as people bedded down in the Mall for the current Queen’s coronation and jubilee. When monarchs pass, anything goes.

And what about the food? Where did that come from? For the royal party the Archbishop’s household would have bought in cows and pigs in time to fatten them up for the great day, and huge quantities of stockfish and river fish would be bought. Cooks, brewers and bakers would be hired and the village bakers and piemakers would be working day and night to satisfy the demand both for the palace and for the lesser mortals out in the fields. They would be drinking ale, and as everyone in the village would brew their own there would be plenty available – for a price.

But the next morning, the procession moved on. The villagers must have watched the last of those thousands of people riding or walking away with mixed feelings. It’s hard to believe that the hordes could have left without leaving much evidence of their stay in the fields, and no litter collectors appear in the list of officials travelling with the procession.

But the material benefit remained. Charing would have been the richer for that memorable day. Residents must have chewed over the day’s events for a long time thereafter.

As for the king himself, he entered Canterbury that Friday no doubt fortified by his stay in the Archbishop Wareham’s palace for the journey ahead of him to France. In Canterbury he had probably been expecting a relaxing holiday weekend – it was Pentacost – but if so, his hopes were doomed. He was no sooner there than unexpected news came that the Emperor Charles V, highly suspicious of what plans Henry and Francis might be cooking up at their forthcoming meeting, was at sea and heading for England [5]. Politics never sleep.

  1. Jerdan, William, The Rutland Papers.
  2. Sara Paston Williams, The Art of Dining.
  3. Jerdan, William
  4. Ibid.
  5. Hall’s Chronicle.

Main image: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017