Talk not of goose and capon, give me good beef and bacon
And good bread and cheese at hand:
With pudding, brawn and souse all in a farmer’s house
That is living for the husband-man
‘A Dialogue Between the Husbandman and the Servingman’, a traditional country ballad
Before reaching Whiteladies house, in the early hours of Thursday 4th September 1651, Charles II had fought in a battle, ridden 25 miles through the night and all on very little food (to pick up the full journay see these posts). One account refers to a brief halt at ‘Stourbridge’, where the King ate a chunk of bread and drank a cup of beer, but otherwise he had not eaten. When he arrived on their doorstep, the Penderel’s had a problem; what do you feed a famished monarch when he turns up at your door in the dead of night?
What the Penderel families did feed Charles is recorded in the various contemporary accounts that were written after the Restoration. Despite some minor differences in detail, the accounts mostly agree on what he ate whilst staying at the Boscobel estate. The food given to the King corresponds with what we know about eating habits of the seventeenth century and were undoubtably included in the story to demonstrate the humble nature of the people that the King relied on. Caught unprepared the Penderel’s gave Charles the best of what they had, or what they could obtain by their own means without causing suspicion. The above ballad spells out exactly what we would expect to find on a good Yeoman’s table: bread, cheese, beef and bacon. All that is missing from that list is trusty mutton. While most of these items are offered to Charles, some are missing and it is the dishes that are missing that tells us more about the Penderels’ circumstances.
The first thing that Charles is fed, after rousing the inhabitants of WhiteLadies, is a cup of sack and some bisket. Biskets were the forerunner of modern biscuits, although recipes indicate that they were longer lasting, hard-wearing, but still sweet (more like modern Biscotti). Sack was a fortified white wine from Spain, and was a common drink.
To make Bisket bread.
Take a pound of flour, and a pound of Sugar beaten, and mingle them together with the Yolks of six Eggs, and the Whites of three Eggs, and Anniseed, Corianderseed, and Carrawaies, of all these half an ounce, and a little Rosewater, to the quantity of half a quarter of half a pint, you must labour all these together with a wooden Ladle, till it be mingled like thick water, and the more you labour it the whiter it will be, and annoint your Coffins or plates with a little melted butter, and so fill it no to full for running over, and so set them into the Oven, and your Oven must be no hotter then to bake a Tart, and they must have as much soaking as Manchet, and then take them out, and cut them thin with a knife in slices and lay them on a sheet of paper, and then put them into the oven to dry till they be hard like Bisket bread.
Natura Exenterata, Philiatros, 1655
It is Mrs Giffard who brings the sack and bisket to Charles, this would make sense, as it is likely to have been a dish of higher standard than the Penderels would normally have to hand. When he is out of Whiteladies the King doesn’t get bisket and sack again. In one account, (An Exact Narrative), Richard Penderel is sent off to buy more sack and bisket, which might imply that even the Giffords didn’t have a large supply.
The most common meal that is referred to in the narratives is cheese and bread. Charles is given cheese and bread at Boscobel House, while he is in the Boscobel Oak, and in some of the accounts, it is also what he eats at Hubbal Grange. As is indicated in the ballad quoted at the top of the post, cheese and bread were a staple part of the diet of ordinary folk. Many yeoman household would have a side building for either brewing or dairy production, or both. This would keep the family in cheese, but could also provide a surplus to sell at market.
While Charles shivered in Spring Coppice he is a brought a ‘Messe of Milk, Eggs and Sugar in a black earthen Cup’. Scrambled eggs anyone? The meal of last resort when the fridge is bare. I can’t find a recipe specifically for a ‘Messe’ of eggs, I’m assuming this is because as it is such a basic dish that putting in a recipe book would have seemed ridiculous. I’ve had similar problems looking for Seventeenth Century descriptions of cuts of meat, one recipe book specifically saying that it won’t list them as everyone knows what they are. I have, however, found a recipe containing similar ingredients, an omelet:
To make an Amalet.
Take ten eggs, and more then half the whites, beat them very well, and p… in a spoonfull or two of cream, then heat some butter in your frying pan, and when it is hot put in your eggs and stir them a little, then fry them till you find they are enough; and a little before you put them out of the pan, turn both the sides over that the may meet in the middle, and lay it the bottome upward in the dish serve it in wit verjuice, butter and sugar.
Next on the list of food from the Husbandman’s ballad is bacon. In one account the King is given a ‘Fricasse of Bacon and Eggs’ in Richard Penderel’s house. Whether it was referred to by the Penderel’s as a fricasse, we don’t know, but it is unlikely. Fricasses were generally considered fanciful, French dishes at this time. However, bacon was certainly eaten by husbandmen, indeed it was more associated with the poorer end of the class scale. This appearance of bacon is the only reference to the Penderels having meat near at hand. The appearance of another staple meat also prompts us to consider what the Penderel’s diet says about their social position.
One of the more awkward moments of Charles’ time with the Penderels occurs toward the end of his stay, straddling the Saturday and Sunday. It is a scene often considered to portray Charles’ common touch, but in fact it goes to show the gulf that separates him and the Penderel family. This is the best account:
After supper Colonel Carlis asked his majesty what meat he would please to have provided for the morrow, being Sunday; his majesty desired some mutton, if it might be had. But it was thought dangerous for William to go to any market to buy it, since his neighbours all knew he did not use to buy such for his own diet, and so it might beget a suspicion of his having strangers at his house. But the colonel found another expedient to satisfy his majesty’s desires. Early on Sunday morning he repairs to Mr. Wm. Staunton’s sheepcoat, who rented some of the demeans of Boscobel; here he chose one of the best sheep, sticks him with his dagger, then sends William for the mutton, who brings him home on his back.
As soon as the mutton was cold, William cut it up and brought a leg of it into the parlour; his majesty called for a knife and a trencher, and cut some of it into collops, and pricked them with a knife point, then called for a frying-pan and butter, and fried the collops himself, of which he eat heartily; Colonel Carlis the while being but under cook, and that honour enough too, made the fire and turned the collops in the pan.
Thomas Blount, Boscobel
It’s a great passage; surreal, gruesome and amusing. By asking for mutton no doubt the King thought he was choosing a humble dish, well he was certainly polite enough not to ask for venison or swan. It is immediately clear that mutton does not usually appear on the Penderel’s diet, to the extent that Richard Penderel marching into town and buying mutton would immediately have raised suspicion. Even the way in which they cooked the meat would have been alien to the brothers and their family, meat was for roasting not cutting up into callops and sizzling in a pan. Is it odd that this staple of yeoman fayre, is absent? It’s also worth noting that the great defining meat of the Yeoman, Beef, is not mentioned in relation to the Penderels at all.
Richard Penderel took his Yeoman status seriously, as we would expect, but it appears that the Penderel family, in their diet at least, were not at the higher end of the social scale. Yeoman they may have been, but they ate like husbandmen. Charles never once complained about the food he was given, though surely it was rough pickings compared to what he was used to. He is gracious throughout, referring to the mess of eggs it is recorded that;
the King guessed to be Milk and Apples, and said, he loved it very well; after he gave the rest to George and bid him eat it; for it was very good.
Food fit for a King after all.