This is my contribution to the English Historical Fiction Authors’ Summer Banquet Blog hop. Keep reading until the end to visit other posts, or leave a comment to enter my giveaway! I’m offering three lucky winners a free Kindle copy of God Save the King. THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED. WINNERS WILL BE ANNOUNCED 10 JUNE 2013.
Good ladies and gentlemen, welcome! I hope you’ve brought your tickets. Come closer, fill up all the gaps. Press yourself against the rail, as much as your mantua will let you. There isn’t room for silly things like “personal space”. You’ll taste the breath, feel the sweat of the person next to you. What, you expected a chair? Outrageous! Just what kind of banquet did you have in mind? You should count yourself privileged to be here. Your blessed eyes will behold a spectacle: the royal family at dinner.
The idea royals dining in public came over from the Continent with Charles I. While the Stuart monarchs were happy to put on a show, their Hanoverian cousins proved somewhat less willing. George I submitted to it on a few occasions, mainly against his will, preferring to take supper privately with his mistress Melusine. George III was far too down-to-earth for such pomp and ceremony, although he found a compromise by parading his family up and down the terrace at Windsor Castle instead. As for George IV – well, he ate a lot. I don’t think I’d really want to stand and watch him gobble down his food, do you? And sadly, George IV didn’t have the foil of a dutiful family to sit at his side. If you imagine him sitting at table with his hated, frivolous wife and sulking daughter, you can see why he never dared to try it.
But George II was quite a different creature. He and his clever wife, Caroline, knew that the key to power lay in public opinion. They were tireless self-promoters and would do anything to raise their profile – or get one over on George I. This post is going to explore the fascinating ritual of dining in public at the court of the second George.
The spectacle usually took place on a Sunday, although the venue was varied: public dining rooms existed in Hampton Court, St. James’s and Kensington. The royal family would enter the room to a flourish of trumpets and sit, surrounded by officers of their household. The onlookers – admitted by ticket only – would be railed off, giving the whole thing a very zoo-like quality. In some accounts, benches are mentioned. I sincerely hope the spectators had somewhere to sit, but it may not have been the case in all the palaces. In Courtiers, Lucy Worsley recounts an incident where the press of people was so great that the rail broke, sending the public tumbling wig over heel. The good-humoured King and Queen laughed heartily. If the noise of chatter wasn’t enough to make them dizzy, the courtiers also had a band playing in their ear for the entire duration of the meal. Added to the heat and the smell created by the crowds, there must have been a cacophony of noise.
Serving the many dishes was a stressful affair. Not only were the household officers putting on a show for the public, but they had to beware of offending the monarchs – or, just as hazardous, inadvertently snubbing a colleague. Food had to be kept flowing and its path was fixed: through the chain of command, from the lowliest hands to the most important. Each member of the King or Queen’s household would perform their own role, from taking off the covers and carving to tasting for poison. The luckiest of the lucky got to serve the monarch themselves on bended knee. One only hopes the luckless retainers had something in their own stomachs before performing this task. You can just imagine their mouths watering and bellies rumbling as they served choice dish after choice dish.
What, exactly, would King George II and Queen Caroline eat? The list is endless. Stewed venison, sausages, potted pork, pheasant with prune sauce, smoked salmon, prawns, fried sweetbread, mutton loaf, chicken and mushrooms, gooseberry tart, turnips, carrots, parsnips, whipped syllabub, jelly, sweetmeats, pineapples, peaches and grapes – to name but a few! Vegetables were generally considered bad for the health, so it’s refreshing to see such a number on the royal table. After all, Queen Caroline was an advocate of science and enjoyed a healthy breakfast of fruit and cream. You may think, with all this food and elaborate serving, the Queen could manage to get a drink by herself. Not so. A page would hand a glass to her Woman of the Bedchamber, who then gave it to a Lady of the Bedchamber, who had the honour of presenting it to the Queen’s lips.
So who would you see, at this royal table? If you were visiting court before her marriage in 1734, you might get a glimpse of Anne, Princess Royal. Her face was badly marked by small-pox, but she had a commanding and imperious air. She was known to wish her brothers out of the way, so that she could inherit the crown of England herself. Her younger sister, Amelia, might also be there. The tomboy of the family, she carried the smell of the stables and probably a few dog hairs on her sumptuous mantua. Amelia was blonde, clever and catty – she loved to gossip and, to use a modern term “wind people up”. Lord Hervey said she was never happy without a back to lash. The third daughter, Caroline, was a dark-haired, shy girl. She took the role of peacemaker in the family, though she often had recourse to food as a comfort. She would probably be eating at a great rate, talking little. The younger sisters, Mary and Louisa, were in all likelihood a little too young for public dining.
On rare occasions, you would see Prince Frederick of Wales and his bride Augusta at table. The atmosphere with them around would be tense, as Frederick didn’t get along with his family. You also needed to watch out for his practical jokes – he once tried to make his sisters sit on stools while he and his wife got armchairs. He then tried to insist that his sisters were not served on bended knee. The fiery trio of girls were having none of it: they got their chairs back, and simpering service, though they missed out on coffee.
Another brother, the Duke of Cumberland, might have been present when he was a little older. He was the darling and the pet of the family, a precocious child. However, he would grow up to be an obese soldier who suffered from strokes. By 1745, he would also have the black stain of the battle of Culloden next to his name, tarring him as “the Butcher”.
Then we move on to the King and Queen themselves. George II was short but dapper with bulging blue eyes. If he was not in one of his famous tempers, he would enjoy the meal. I only worry about his long periwig – it must have been difficult to keep it out of the various sauces. His wife, Caroline, would make no such blunders. She acted as the perfect Queenl chatting amiably, only “stuffing” herself if chocolate was on the menu. Described by Lucy Worsley as “fat, funny and adorable”, Caroline charmed many of her courtiers. A visitor at court might admire her famous large bosom, her long blonde hair and magnificent dresses. But I would ask you to spare a thought for the woman standing behind her, serving the meal: the sylph-like Henrietta Howard, the King’s mistress. Unhappy with her royal lover and the Queen’s jealousy, Henrietta exuded an air of gentle melancholy. Her large, soft eyes would fix on you and say: “Get me out of here. This fine banquet is not all it seems.”
If you enjoyed my summer banquet, follow the hop through history! Below are links to all the contributors. Please do visit:
- Random Bits of Fascination (Maria Grace)
- Pillings Writing Corner (David Pilling)
- Anna Belfrage
- Debra Brown
- Lauren Gilbert
- Gillian Bagwell
- Julie K. Rose
- Donna Russo Morin
- Regina Jeffers
- Shauna Roberts
- Tinney S. Heath
- Grace Elliot
- Diane Scott Lewis
- Ginger Myrick
- Helen Hollick
- Heather Domin
- Margaret Skea
- Yves Fey
- JL Oakley
- Shannon Winslow
- Evangeline Holland
- Cora Lee
- P. O. Dixon
- E.M. Powell
- Sharon Lathan
- Sally Smith O’Rourke
- Allison Bruning
- Violet Bedford
- Sue Millard
- Kim Rendfeld