Fine Dining in Charing

By Amy Myers

Stuffed peacocks in all their plumage, swans, boar’s head, doves, ducks, pheasants, cranes (skip the latter to avoid melancholy humours), pigs, capons, larks and blackbirds, followed by flummeries, rose potage, fruit creams and trifles, with subtleties (flamboyant sweet concoctions) in between groups of fish and meat courses, some of which could consist of as many as twenty dishes from which to choose.

Such was fine dining in medieval and Tudor times, all accompanied by fine wines if ales and mead were not sufficient. Did the archbishop always push the boat out with such zest in the Great Hall of Charing Palace or would he only have provided such fare when kings such as Edward I or Henry VIII came to stay?

Probably the latter, but as entertainment and the quality and presentation of the feast were an integral part of one’s status, the archbishop would have dined far from frugally, even without royal visits. Display was the accepted norm – although an official would gather uneaten food for the poor as part of his job [1].

When Archbishop Stratford entertained the Abbot of Faversham at Charing on 26th March 1348 however, it was Lent, and therefore no meat was served in the fasting diet. The clergy were fortunate to be allowed any meat at all, for in earlier times eating meat was completely forbidden for them on the grounds that it incited lust [2].

The menu in the Great Hall on that March day was hardly restricted though; it included sturgeon, salmon, lampreys, eels and many more fish dishes, accompanied by gallons of beer and wine [3]. They ate, drank and were no doubt merry, but darkness was to come soon enough. 1348 was the year that the Black Death hit Kent, wiping out a huge percentage of the population and causing famine through the loss of workers on the land.

The kitchens at the archbishop’s palace were in the eastern court and were probably, as was usual, set at a distance from the Great Hall because of the risk of fire and connected with the Hall by a passageway. Here too would probably have been the other rooms associated with it, the bake-house, the buttery, the spicery, pantry and larders.

Whenever the archbishop or the king travelled they brought their own households with them, and by Tudor times Charing would have a boost to its economy through the vast amounts of food that had to be bought in.

When the king visited, he would have brought at a minimum his own gentlemen usher, cupbearer, carver, server and waiters, together with the indispensable cross-bearer, doctors, chaplains, yeomen, grooms, pages and ‘males’ [4]. When the archbishop visited his palace at Charing, he would have run the king a close second as his visits were no less formal.

No popping over to the weekend retreat on the spur of the moment. In the twelfth century, he had to give his tenant, Adam of Charing, who held its manor, two weeks’ notice in which to ‘prepare the farm’, the value of which was then deducted from his annual rent of £32 [5].

Details of the Charing kitchens are not so far known, as their remains lie beneath several centuries of building above them. Archbishops and royalty often had a separate kitchen and the hall was then supplied from the larger ‘hall kitchen’ which served everyone else. And of course a cupbearer had a few drops (carefully siphoned into a separate part of the cup) from every drink that passed the noble’s lips, for fear of poison [6].

The Great Hall itself would have required much attention. Banqueting tables were usually in a U shape, with a raised area for the top table where the honoured guest would take his place. Trumpeters heralded the beginning of the feast and then the feasting could begin. Even by Tudor times, forks were not yet in use for eating, which still depended on knives and spoons; these were usually brought by the guests themselves.

It’s easy to think the medieval habit of tossing chicken bones over the shoulder on to the floor reflected primitive manners and procedures. Far from it. There were rigid rules of etiquette and social behaviour [7]. But the chicken bones? With no forks, bones had to be gnawed and would you want to sit in front of a growing pile of bones gnawed by your neighbours? Much more sensible to throw them over your shoulder so that scurrying servants could continuously rush by to scoop them up.

What did the kitchens produce at Charing? The archbishop’s palace was in use from late in the eighth century, although in an earlier building than the one we can see now. Archbishops would have eaten just as well then as they did in later years, although the food was not yet influenced by the Normans.

Archbishop Dunstan, later a saint, is said to have been very fond of Charing. His kitchen would have produced for him a vast range of vegetables and fruit from his estate, bread from the estate mill, fresh fish from an estate stewpond or from rivers, local fowl and meat (when permitted), and plentiful dairy food [8].

By the time that Archbishop Lanfranc was installed at Canterbury in 1070 the menu on any visits to Charing – at his high level of office – might already be beginning to show a Norman influence, which introduced Arabian flavours and spices encountered after the Norman conquest of Sicily. A century later, when Thomas Becket was paying a visit to his much loved Charing, the menu had become more sophisticated with spices, colourings and sauces, and featured dishes such as ravioli and mawmenny (meat minced with wine). Almond milk was popular as was rose potage [9].

By the end of the fourteenth century The Forme of Cury, an early English cookery book, was using sugar as well as honey and had a vast range of suggestions for the kitchens of the mighty ranging from capons in white sauce, capons in black sauce, swans, meat and herb crustardes to blancmange (then a more savoury dish than today’s pale sweet imitation).

And then two centuries later the Tudors rode into Charing to sample the archbishop’s hospitality. However, the easy going Archbishop Warham, who got on so well with Henry VII, was not quite so thrilled by the cost of entertaining his son, especially when Henry VIII was on his way to the Field of Gold in 1520. The archbishop wrote a plaintive letter to Cardinal Wolsey complaining about the cost of the king’s overnight stay at his Otford palace – not only the king, but the queen and their retinue of over 5000 from noble officials to grooms [10]. No doubt a day or two later at Charing the same standard of entertainment was maintained.

Twenty-five years later Henry insisted Archbishop Cranmer sold him Charing Palace, having already snaffled Knole and Otford; his prime motivation was that he thought Cranmer was becoming too powerful and had too much property in Kent. Charing was acquired later than the others, at a time when relationships with Cranmer were strained, and perhaps Henry had happy memories of staying at Charing in his younger years.

It was Cranmer who had endeavoured to introduce downsizing into the archbishops’ menus – such as, for instance, not having more than six dishes of meat or fish at his table. The new rules were quietly forgotten [11].

Whatever Henry’s motivation in acquiring the archbishop’s palace at Charing, perhaps he also spared a passing thought for the glories of its kitchens. Let’s hope their legacy is given a new life if, as is planned, the palace is restored as a centre for the community, perhaps boasting a café, if not the stuffed peacock. The days of glory for the archbishop’s palace and its kitchens might not yet be over.

  1. English Episcopal Palaces, R.S.Rait (ed), Constable & Co Ltd 1910
  2. British Food, Colin Spencer, Grub Street, 2002
  3. Accounts relating to preparations for the visit of John Stratford, archbishop of Canterbury,, translated by Bridgett Jones and quoted in Sarah Pearson’s ‘The Archbishop’s Palace at Charing in the Middle Ages’, Archaelogia Cantiana, Vol.121, 2001
  4. English Episcopal Palaces, op cit
  5. The Lordship of Canterbury, F.R.H.DuBoulay, Barnes and Noble, New York, 1966
  6. The Art of Dining, Sarah Paston-Williams, The National Trust, 1993
  7. Food in England, Dorothy Hartley, MacDonald, 1954
  8. ibid
  9. The Pleasant Town of Sevenoaks, Sir John Dunlop, The Caxton and Holmesdale Press, Sevenoaks, 1964
  10. English Episcopal Palaces, op cit

Main image: British Library royal_ms_14-E.iv_f244v, detail/© British Library Board 2017