Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Henry VIII or George I : Who Dined With More Style?

To celebrate 300 years since George I acceded to the throne of England, the Queen’s Chambers, Hampton Court Palace, have been opened to the public. I was particularly struck by the dining room, where King George I dined alone, but with an audience watching his every move – Somewhat reminiscent of a chimps tea-party! 
A table set for one - King George I dines before an audience
at Hampton Court Palace
This in sharp contrast to the Great Hall, where Henry VIII presided at the top table, over what must have been boisterous and rowdy mealtimes.
In contrast, Henry VIII sat at the top table in
the Great Hall, at Hampton Court.
‘Banketynge Braynlesse’
The excess of Henry VIII’s banquets and feasts are legend. In an earlier post we looked at the Tudor kitchens at Hampton Court Palace, and the industry required to produce such feasts.  
From the perspective of the 21st century, we get the impression of a feast being a cross between binge drinking and a brawl, but the impression Henry had poor table manners is erroneous. A Tudor saying advises, ‘leaving one’s manners at the table’ – but here ‘manners’ refers to the left-over food, which would be fed to the poor waiting at the gate.
King Henry's view, watching over proceedings
 Indeed, in Babee’s Book (1475) of sage advice to those wishing to dine at court:
Wash your hands before you eat
Don’t let children linger at the table
Don’t fart
Don’t pick your nose, your teeth or any part of your body whilst at the table,
Don’t wipe your hands on the tablecloth or your clothes.
Perhaps Henry used these occaisions to watch the factions at court, or listen for gossip, but whatever his motivation, he was frequently at the centre of things when it came to eating in public.
Alone, and yet surrounded by a crowd.
George I was the only diner, whilst the watching audience were
corralled behind a barrier.
Contrast this, with King George I in the 1720’s. George was a much more private man. He preferred to dine privately but could not completely avoid the show of dining in regal splendour at a table of plenty, as previous kings had done.
‘Persons of good fashion and good appearance that have a desire to see us at dinner.’ Charles II
Detail of the barrier re-created by historians from the Historic Royal Palaces

The desire to ogle the masticating king seems to know no bounds, and in order to contain the crowds a barrier, or rail, was erected around the royal table to confine the spectators. Even so, incidents occurred where the barrier gave way, causing injury.  No records exist of exactly what these fences looked like and so the historians at Hampton Court Palace have used contemporaneous sources to re-create the barriers.
The view from George's chair
What George I hadn’t grasped, was the importance of royal feasts and entertaining as a means of drumming up support. George didn’t get on with his son and heir, the Prince of Wales, and in a battle of popularity, the future George II hosted feasts and made his table a place of entertainment and influence. The son’s popularity then dangerously eclipsed the father’s, who had his hand forced into more public revelry than he felt comfortable with.
Dine with Henry or George?
Which would you prefer?
Anyhow, I feel sure you will agree that royal dining at Hampton Court was a sight to be seen. Which do you prefer? George's refined luxury or Henry's boisterous opulence? Do comment and tell us!


  1. Eating is a social thing... in nursing school we were taught to sit and chat with patients who were otherwise left alone to eat. Not that a nurse has time to do much of that in real life, but at least we were taught.

    I wouldn't want an audience, though....

    1. I can't imagine nurses getting a lunch break these days...
      As for George and his shyness - it must have been utter torture, trapped in what was effectively a cage, with people leering at him whilst he ate. It makes me think being king is over-rated.
      Thanks for popping by,
      G x

  2. The table layout in the Great Hall at HCP is for a photo opportunity, the Great Hall was where the servants ate, nobles in the Watching Chamber. Henry mostly dined in his private apartments supplied by his own cook & kitchen.
    Here's a link to a Holbein cartoon of Henry VIII dining in his chambers.

  3. P.s. there's some Georgian cookery going on in the 18th century kitchens that supplied Prince Frederick & George III at Kew Palace this weekend (26th&27th Apr) and the last weekend of every month up to September.

  4. Henry sounds like a lot more fun. Eating with a bunch of people just watching does not sound like my idea of a good time.

  5. I think I'd rather eat with Henry VIII. Eating is social


Due to the amount of SPAM I have been forced to moderate comments. If you are a spammer - please go away! You comment will not be posted and you are wasting your own time.