Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Making of a Medieval Queen

by Anne O'Brien

Or How to Throw a Party in Lent ...

On the day that Katherine de Valois was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey on 23rd February 1421, her husband of nine months, Henry V, was not present at the ceremony or the resulting festivities.  It is suggested that he absented himself in order not to detract from the new Queen's glory.  That his time was too valuable to waste on such 'junketings', or that it was not tradition for the King to attend the coronation of the Queen.  Or even that his initial affection for her had cooled.  Whatever the truth of it, I imagine that Katherine might have valued his company at such heavy ceremonial.  She was neglected as a child, raised for much of her young life in the convent at Poissy, and her command of English or any language other than French was not very good.

 We know that Katherine rode through the streets of London which were hung with cloth of gold, silks and velvets.  The crowning by Archbishop Chichele was 'performed with such magnificence that the like had never been seen at any coronation since the time of the noble knight Arthur, King of the English.'

It was a very popular marriage and a splendid occasion.

After the ceremony there came the coronation feast, which was so notable that we have the complete menu for three vast courses.  Since it was Lent, fish was definitely the order of the day:
pike in herbiage
eeles in burneax
lamprie fresh baked
smelts fried
fresh sturgeon with welks
cervisse de eau doure
eeles roasted with lamprie
pearch with goion
carp de ore
and so on, with a vast array of trout, plaice, whiting, crabs, sole, halibut, salmon and lobster.

There were two interesting exceptions to the fish:
Roasted porpoise was served, which since it lived in water was frequently considered to be 'fish' as were beaver and water birds (which were not on the menu on this occasion.)
Also brawn, which is a traditional, classic, British dish cooked from the meat of a pig's head, trotters and other parts of porcine offal.
I think I would stick with the fish!

At the end of each course there was a superb subtlety produced for the admiration of all, full of political symbolism for the marriage and heraldic meaning, made of pastry and sugar and marzipan:
- a pelican sitting on her nest with St. Catherine (Katherine's own saint) holding a book in her hand.
- a panther and St. Catherine with her terrible wheel and holding a scroll of poetry.
- St. Catherine with angels.
- a tiger with a mirror, and an armed man on horseback holding the tiger's cub.
They must have been wonderful to see.

What did Katherine think of all this?  What did she wear for the occasion?  Sadly we do not know either her thoughts or her appearance.  We have no indication of Katherine's sentiments on any aspects of her life until the final months when on entering Bermondsey Abbey she comments on her state of health, and The Pageant of the Birth, Life and Death of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick K.G. 1389-1439 which is always a valuable source does not include an illustration of Katherine's coronation.   But if it was anything like her marriage, she wore an ermine trimmed gown and mantle and a eye-catching necklace.

I doubt that Katherine's experience as Queen of England was a stimulating one, but the fishy coronation feast was obviously a memorable occasion.

The illustrations here have no connection to Katherine's coronation or feast but are merely illustrations of medieval feasts, and lovely for that.

My novel The Forbidden Queen, Katherine's story, will be released in March 2013
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  1. Very interesting! I just wish we knew more about her thoughts and appearance!

  2. Lovely post Anne, I hope that we'll get your imaginings of her thoughts and appearance when the book comes out. Looking forward to it...


  3. Informative, Anne, and lovely illustrations of medieval feasts, too. Katherine must have lived an often lonely life. Looking forward to your novel.

  4. I love details like these that make events come alive. One can see the colors, smell the foods, hear the crowds. What could the participants be thinking during such processions? What could a lady be thinking, going to her marriage or her coronation? I look forward to reading how you develop it all! And what a great idea to blog such things.

  5. Wow! I've always been impressed with the full menus and elaborate confections that they had at the time.

    Thanks for sharing!


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