Daniel Pursglove, the reluctant spy at the centre of KJ Maitland’s crime-thriller series, is back. In Traitor in the Ice he’s sent to Battle Abbey, seat of the Roman Catholic Montague family, to find a murderer in a nest of suspected priests. Karen tells Historia about the strange rituals that surrounded serving meals in this great house in late Tudor times.
“None shall stand unseemly with his back towards my meat, whilst it is cooking on the range.”
In 1595, concerned that standards had slipped on his estates of Battle Abbey and Cowdray Castle, the young Lord Anthony, 2nd Viscount Montague wrote a book of rules for his servants, which today gives us a fascinating glimpse into the bizarre rituals that servants had to observe when serving meals. Never presenting your backside to your master’s meat was just one of them.
At 10am the Gentleman Usher would summon the Yeoman Usher to assemble the servitors in the Great Chamber, in preparation for dinner, the main meal of the day. In cities, dinner might shockingly be served as late as noon.
Laying the table was a ritual in itself. The Yeoman Usher of the Great Chamber approached the master’s table, pausing to bow twice. He kissed his own hand and placed it exactly in the centre of the table to indicate where the Yeoman of the Ewery was to lay the table cloth. (The ewery was where table linens and ewers were kept.)
The Yeoman of the Ewery carried the tablecloth in both arms, bowed twice, kissed the cloth, and together the two men would gracefully unfold it. In addition to showing respect, kissing the cloth had its roots in the medieval custom of servants pressing their lips to a napkin or towel before the master touched it, to show it hadn’t been poisoned.
The Yeoman of the Ewery then fetched the ‘plate’ – serving dishes, bowls and drinking vessels – for the sole use of the master and mistress, set them on a side table, and covered them with napkins. The Yeoman of the Buttery would bring the plate for guests and others who were dining.
The Yeoman of the Pantry was formally conducted in by the Usher, to place the salt, the master’s trencher with a manchet of bread, and a knife and spoon on either side of it, no forks, of course. After the second course was served, this Yeoman would return with a purpyn (basket of bread) and a box of clean knives, in case anyone needed them. Like the other servants, he was instructed to watch the diners “diligently” to see what was required without any guest having to “call for anything” which would have been bad manners
Two key servants at mealtimes were the Carver and Sewer (the chief server). They’d wash, overseen by the Gentleman Usher, then the Carver was ‘armed’ with a towel draped around his neck and tucked under his belt, a linen napkin folded over his left shoulder and another draped across his left forearm.
The Sewer was armed with a cloth laid over his right shoulder and tied under his left arm. When all was ready, the Sewer positioned himself by the ‘dresser’ in the kitchen – a side table where meat was dressed for the table – while Usher called loudly: “Gentlemen and Yeomen, wait upon the Sewer for my Lord.”
When the Sewer had been joined by at least six Gentlemen and Yeomen, he’d order the Chief Cook to bring the first-course dishes to the dresser and would supervise the procession of men, often 15 or more, carrying them through the hall and upstairs to the Great Chamber.
As the meat was processed through the hall, an Usher called out the warning: “By your leave, my masters.” All the servants were expected to stand, their heads uncovered, facing the meat as it was carried by.
The Sewer leading the procession was met at the door of the Great Chamber by an Usher who would then march ahead of him up to the lord’s table where the dishes would be presented, before meat was taken to a side table to be carved.
And all this was just on an ordinary day! If it was a feast day or special guests were present, the Steward and Comptroller (accountant) would head the procession, clad in robes and holding white rods, followed by all the other senior staff of the household.
On an ordinary day, two courses were served for both dinner and supper, in the form of ‘messes’. A mess consisted of three or four different dishes placed between four people to share. So, for twenty people, the Clarke of the Kitchen would order five messes. Each mess was made up of different dishes from those that other people had been served.
You selected food only from the mess that you’d been given to share, hoping your host might send your favourite food down to you or someone else along the table might notice you weren’t tucking in and offer you one of their dishes that was more to your liking. It was considered rude to ask for anything to be passed along.
Both courses at dinner and supper included savoury and sweet dishes. But meat and fish were also often cooked with honey or served with sweetened sauces. The first course might include roast capons in ale sauce; pottage of eel and lamprey; roast veal; pork; pasties of red deer; mutton pies; custard tarts, and “salad with hard eggs”.
The second course might have roasted lamb; coneys (mature rabbits); baked venison; crab; sole with mustard sauce; fritters; several different game birds; gulls; heron; tarts of cream and gingerbread. Supper would be similar assortment of dishes, but fewer of them.
The Yeoman waiters fetched and carried dishes to and from the tables. Only “comely” waiters were allowed to serve meals in the Great Chamber, and they were not to laugh, make “uncomely gestures” or “harken to tales” which might distract them.
Once dinner was finished, the table was voided (cleared) with almost as much ceremony as it had been laid while the master and his guests sat on. The table cloth removed, basins and linen towels were brought to the table, so that everyone who’d eaten could rinse the hands in water perfumed with herbs.
Finally, the servitors were free to “dispose themselves at their pleasure” until supper at 5pm, when the whole ritual began all over again.
Traitor in the Ice by K J Maitland is published on 31 March 2022. It’s the second in her Daniel Pursglove Jacobean crime-thriller series and is set in Battle Abbey in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.
Read more about this book.
KJ Maitland has previously written eight medieval thrillers under the name of Karen Maitland, and also writes as one of the Medieval Murderers.
- Still life with oysters, roasted chicken, sweets and dried fruits by Osias Beert, 1610–19: Kunstberatung Zürich AG via Wikimedia (public domain)
- A kitchen interior with a young maid hanging various meats, figures preparing food beyond by the circle of Jan Baptist Saive, 1563: Wikimedia (public domain)
- Armed servant, detail from Renaissance Interior with Banqueters by Bartholomeus van Bassen, 1618–20: North Carolina Museum of Art via Wikimedia (public domain)
- Great Banquet from the Brussels Album by the circle of Frans Floris, c1565: Warsaw University Library via Wikimedia (public domain)
- Renaissance Interior with Banqueters by Bartholomeus van Bassen, as above