Culinary Kingship: Medieval feasts and royal authority



For most people, feasting is a quintessential part of medieval culture. Partly this is due to the romantic notion of subtleties, edible delicacies produced by cooks who would shape food into often entertaining forms that disguised their original  ingredients. However, whilst it is easy to see subtleties as alien and humourous they in fact could be used by political figures for propaganda purposes, as an examination of the coronation feast of Henry VI in 1429 shows.

This coronation took place in a period of great political uncertainty as Henry followed the reign of his successful father Henry V, whose famous victories in France had led to his son having a claim to both the English and French crowns. However, this claim was complicated by Henry VI’s young age, he was only eight when the feast took place, and the rival claimant of Charles VII who had also been crowned King of france. A young King always held risk in the medieval period as his weakness could lead to internal conflict as various political factions could vie to influence the boy and govern in his name. Thus the promotion of stability as well as justifying Henry’s rule of France was the order of the day in 1429.

This was achieved through ladening the three subtleties of the coronation feast, which took the form of figures constructed of pastry, with (ironically in the modern sense of the word) unsubtle symbolism. The first set of figures took the form of St Edward and St Louis, famous historical kings of England and France respectively, who brought the figure of Henry VI between them, visually depicting that he was of their descent. This idea of legitimately holding both crown’s was made even more explicit in the third subtlety. Here the Virgin Mary presented a crown to young Henry flanked by St George and St Denis, the saints associated with each kingdom, showing this crown represented both royal titles.

The second subtlety can seem more anomalous but was still arguably vital. It showed both Henry’s father Henry V and the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund. The likely focus here is that both men were ‘miles Christi’ in that they were Christian Kings who defended the Church. Both had fought against heretics in their own lands (Henry the Lollards and Sigismund the Hussites of Bohemia).  The juxtaposition of the two figures would also have likely reminded contemporaries of the two rulers combined achievement of ending the Western Schism , a division in the contemporary Catholic Church caused by the election of two different Popes. Thus here an idea of unity was being expressed, vital in the early years of a child King.

Unfortunately no images of Henry VI’s feast were made for us to have an idea what these figures may have looked like. However, the record of the feast shows us their intended effect: they were supposed to inculcate unity and legitimate Henry’s French claims. Thus even something as bizarre as the subtlety could have clear political purposes.  
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