It’s December and many of us will be rushing about looking for gifts for friends and family. Meanwhile, others may be treating themselves to a new outfit to mark the season. If that’s you, you’re in keeping with a medieval royal tradition. Curator Charles Farris tells us more.
King Edward I (d. 1307) isn’t the first monarch which springs to mind when we think of Christmas. He’s much better known for waging war in Scotland and Wales, building huge castles (including expanding the Tower of London) and erecting the “Eleanor crosses” – monuments to his much-missed Queen Eleanor of Castile, who died in 1290. However, records from his household shed a surprising amount of light on how Christmas was celebrated at court. In 1304, this included giving special green robes to his nobles, while the queen and king were treated to robes of red, lined with white fur. The scene, to our modern eyes, must have looked especially festive.
Edward I and his household spent Christmas 1304 at Lincoln. No doubt this was a welcome rest, as the king had spent much of 1303 and 1304 fighting in the First Scottish War of Independence (1296-1328). In December 1304 it seemed that his troubles were in abeyance. While in Lincoln the king probably stayed at the Bishop’s Palace. Although there were many royal castles and houses the king often had to stay in religious houses, and even the homes of his subjects. Queen Margaret of France, Edward’s second wife, was particularly fond of staying in monasteries, which were likely more comfortable than most royal castles, which were often in need of repair.
Edward was a peripatetic king, rarely stopping in one place for very long. Keeping the court on the road had many advantages, including helping the king stay connected with his subjects, and preventing the resources of one place from being drained too dramatically by the considerable needs of the royal court. Christmas could be especially exhausting due to the lavishness of entertainments, and the swelling of the royal household. Edward rarely spent Christmas at the same place more than once. During his thirty-five-year reign, he spent four Christmases at Westminster and two at Rhuddlan in Wales – all others were unique occurrences.
The king travelled with a large household and feeding it was a challenge at any time of year. While the king typically ate in private in his chamber, the rest of his household ate in the hall. A menu of bread, beef, pork, and mutton supplemented with ale and wine was common all year round. Food for the king was lavishly flavoured with exotic and expensive ingredients like almonds, rice, ginger, pepper, saffron, cumin, and sugar. On meat-free days (of which the medieval Church prescribed there should be many) the household consumed large quantities of herring and cod, sometimes supplemented with lampreys, sturgeon, salmon and eels.
However, Christmas Day was a cause for special feasting and the king would likely have eaten in the hall with the rest of his household. Numbers of diners would have increased considerably as the households of the queen, princes, and princesses would have likely joined them. Predictably, increased numbers and special celebratory foods caused expenses to surge. The surviving household roll for 1304/05 tells us that over £313 was spent on household expenses on Christmas day, more than twelve times the usual daily sum. Of this over £30 was spent by the pantry (which provided bread), £24 by the butlery (which provided wine), and £41 by the scullery (which provided utensils, cooking equipment and fuel for the fires).
The largest expense was predictably the kitchen which spent over £196. According to the National Archives currency converter this would equate to nearly £139,000 in modern money. A surviving kitchen roll from 1291/2 gives us an idea of what Edward’s Christmas fare in 1304 may have looked like. The roll describes a menu including:
- 1742 chickens
- 204 partridge
- 192 mallard ducks
- 72 plover
- 22 pheasants
On Christmas Day 1304 an additional 53 shillings was spent on sauces from the saucery, likely including vinegar, verjuice (acidic “green juice” often made from grape and apple juice), and mustard.
Alcohol would have been abundant. While ale was supplied both by local brewers and produced in the household itself, wine largely had to be imported and was sometimes harder to acquire. Fortunately, the crown had the right to take two tuns (large barrels containing roughly 250 gallons each) from every ship importing wine into the country at favourable rates. This was just as well because on Christmas Day 1286 the king’s household consumed thirteen tuns of wine – over 3000 gallons! One imagines there might have been a few sore heads on boxing day.
In 1304 Edward I’s Great Wardrobe (the household department in charge of buying, storing, and distributing fabrics) issued a variety of fabrics and furs to make the king two new sets of robes for Christmas. Fashion was extremely important in the medieval period, promoting the magnificence of the court, the generosity of the king, and even identifying position and rank. According to one chronicler, Edward I was not the grandest monarch sartorially, but he did take the dignity of his court very seriously indeed. Clothing reflected this dignity and the king ensured his household was well-presented. He provided each member of the royal household with livery robes twice a year, in addition to their wages, board, and lodging. These robes were issued either in money or materials.
The king’s Christmas robes of 1304 were recorded in an account which still survives today in the National Archives (E101/367/17). Edward’s first set of robes was made from a whole cloth of murrey-coloured fabric and lined and furred with miniver. Murrey is a dark red or purple colour, and the fabric was described as having been dyed in grana (in grain) – which asserts that it was dyed with kermes, an expensive red dyestuff made from the eggs of the female shield louse. The fur for lining and trimming the robes was equally lavish. Miniver was an expensive white fur, usually made from the white winter belly fur of the red squirrel. In addition some cheaper “grover” fur was used to line the sleeves. Perhaps the sleeve linings were less visible, and hence this small economy was not an issue.
The same account recorded that Queen Margaret also received a set of murrey robes lined with miniver at Christmas. Meanwhile, Prince Edward (the future Edward II) received a green set of robes instead, as did the Earls, Barons, and Knights. Of course, we cannot be sure if any of these robes were made in time for Christmas. The accounts cannot tell us this. Regardless, the thought of the king and queen presiding over a Christmas feast wearing new red robes lined with white fur accompanied by dozens of nobles dressed in new green robes is a jolly one indeed.
However, perhaps not everyone was made to feel quite so welcome. In contrast, if he was in attendance, was the 21-year-old Edward Balliol, son of the deposed king of Scotland John Balliol, who had abdicated after the Scottish defeat at Dunbar in 1296. Edward came to England with his father in 1296 and was lodged at times in the household of Prince Edward and at times in the Tower of London. However, when his father was transferred to papal custody in France in 1299, Edward was retained in England. Although held honourably he was effectively a political prisoner. In 1304, Edward Balliol’s Christmas robes were made from cameline, a sumptuous imported fabric made from wool or silk. These robes were lined with miniver and grover like those of the king. Although a very generous gift, one cannot but wonder that the young Balliol’s robes were supposed to set him apart from the united body of the English Court.
Royal household accounts provide us a mere glimpse into the medieval royal Christmas, which must have been spectacular affairs. With so much money spent on lavish food and sumptuous clothing it is heartening to know those less fortunate were not excluded from the celebrations. The medieval Church encouraged personal charity according to an individual’s means and kings were expected to lead by example. The king’s almoners organised the feeding of a set number of poor people every day, and more were fed on days of special religious importance. In 1296/7, for example, the king fed 200 extra poor people on Christmas day and a total of 2700 more on the related feasts of the Holy Innocents (28 December), the Circumcision of Christ (1 January), and Epiphany (6 January). In addition, the poor were supposed to receive the leftovers from the king’s table – which one imagines were considerable after a royal Christmas feast. So, if we imitate our medieval predecessors by treating ourselves to new clothes and a hearty Christmas feast, we should do likewise and think of those who might benefit from a little kindness. Merry Christmas!
Public Historian, Curators Team
Historic Royal Palaces
Select Primary Sources (The National Archives, Kew)
E101/353/2 – Roll of Daily Expenses of the Kitchen (1291/2)
E101368/3 – Roll of daily expenses of the household (1304/05)
Select Secondary Reading
Michael Prestwich, Edward I (London, 1997)
Chris Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200-1500 (London, 2016)
You will be able to learn more about the Great Wardrobe of Edward I in my forthcoming article in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 17, edited by Cordelia Warr and Monica Wright.