Society in King Egbert's Time, Part 2

Society in King Egbert's Time

Part Two-
The Great Hall, Meals, Cooking and Eating Habits, Food, Feasts, Christmas

The Great Hall

The great hall was where King Egbert and his followers gathered for their evening banquets. There he honored his followers, and gift and stories were exchanged. The great hall was large, but simple. The remains of several such royal halls have been discovered in England. At Yeavering, in Northumberland aerial photography revealed the traces of a series of buildings, and excavation of the foundation found slots and pot-holes of several wooden halls. This great hall was an enormous barn-like structure of timber, with doorways in the long sides “through which a sparrow might pass from winter darkness to winter darkness,” said Bede.

The quantities of cattle bones excavated nearby suggest that the king and his retainers gorged themselves on beef, washed down no doubt with copious draughts of beer from generous drinking horns like those found at Taplow or Sutton Hoo. Not far from the hall there stood a flight of curved benches, rising in tiers and lengthening as they rose, whose occupants gaze would have focused on a dias at ground level backed by a massive wooden post. This structure could only have been designed for seating an assembly which might be addressed from the dias, rather like a Roman theatre.

Heorot, the hall in Beowulf, was of wood, and in the end caught fire and was burned; which probably explains why the wooden hall at Yeavering was replaced several times. The palace of Saxon kings at Cheddar in Somerset was a group of buildings covering a wide area and at its heart a timber hall, of the ninth century or earlier, which was about ninety feet by eighteen feet in area. This palace could have been made for, used, or visited, by King Egbert.

The most important room in a castle was the great hall. This room housed most of the main ceremonies and feasting. It was where the people who worked and lived in the castle ate. The room and the seating arrangements were in accordance with the medieval feudal structure. The lord and his guests sat on a dais at one end, from which he could look down upon his lesser subjects. Also, at the far end of the hall, was an open space for entertainers to perform. These entertainers were often wandering minstrels, poets, or an acrobat that could liven up the sometimes dreary atmosphere of the castle.

The halls at Yeavering and Cheddar were mainly banqueting halls. The meals were not always orderly. In spite of occasional disturbances, the evening would have a traditional order. As the evening closed there would be a visit from the queen, who carried a jeweled loving cup round the hall for all to drink, then she would take her husband to their chamber for the night. The king’s chamber was evidently a separate building; and in another separate building, important people would stay when visiting at the court. The palace was a group of halls and huts, with the banqueting hall at the center.

Most of the warriors, and the most trusted counselors, slept in the hall. Only the king and specially honored guests could expect any privacy. The rest would have to share rooms, and even the most intimate moments of their life would not be spent alone. Halls and castles were designed for splendor but not for comfort. On great occasions the hall would be adorned with golden tapestries and other ornaments, but the solid furniture would be mostly benches and tables. When night came the benches were cleared away and pillows and bedding spread on the floor. Tapestries adorned the wall. There were probably no carpets on the floor, no upholstery on chairs, and no glass in the windows. Since the hall was normally lit and warmed by a great open fire, the open windows had their advantages. King Egbert never lived without a draft, and birds, bats, and bugs would be free to come and go at will. The great hall was the symbol of a militant and military type of kingship, but much else took place in and out of it.

From the Saxon hall King Egbert and his followers went out for the day to ride and hunt, and in the summer, for longer expeditions, for war, plunder and the pursuit of feuds, and also to govern the kingdom and do justice. To the great hall they returned to drink, to exchange gifts, and on more sober occasions to give council. King Egbert had a society of warriors dedicated to loyal service to him, and the faithful pursuit of his and their own blood-feuds. Egbert was a great warrior and had inherited the tastes of his kind. He would have listened eagerly to Saxon poetry day or night, whether epics of heroic blood-feud, or religious poetry, probably both appealed to him. He was also fond of the chase, as were all successful medieval kings. Hunting was the sport of kings; it focused the energy of warriors, it accustomed men to swift, rapid and effective action in the field and it kept them in training. It was a savage sport in which men and animals were sacrificed to delight in an adventure often more destructive than medieval war.


Eating was one of the main uses of a great hall. Grace was said before every meal as part of the daily prayer ritual. Additionally, servants washed more important people's hands before and after they ate. The first meal of the day was breakfast, occurring after Mass. It was usually a small meal composed of bread and wine. The main meal of the day was around ten or eleven o'clock. There was also another smaller meal in the evening.

The food was prepared in the kitchen, which was kept separate from the great hall to prevent any sort of fire that might occur in the kitchen from spreading into the great hall quickly. There was, however, a large hallway connecting the two areas, to make sure that the food arrived promptly and hot. There would be a good number of workers in the kitchen, for tending the fires, the cooking, the serving, the cleaning, and with a head cook and head server to supervise. A great many servers would be needed, for the food, drinks, and to assist the lord and guests. 

Cooking and Eating Habits

The kitchen had many different objects and appliances to help with cooking and preparation of food. The most important were the ovens and fireplaces. Animals were often cooked over the fire in the fireplace on spits. Soups and stews were also cooked in a fireplace. They were cooked in large iron, bronze, copper, or clay pots or cauldrons either placed directly on the fire or hung over it by a hook and chain that could be raised and lowered to regulate the temperature. A fireplace could also be used to smoke meat, a primitive form of preserving it. An oven might be used to make bread or cook other dishes like pastries or pies. A large sink was also built in the kitchen. Knives were used to carve and prepare the meat. Also in the kitchen, there was a storage area for wine, mead, and ale. Boiled meat was lifted out of the pot with an iron meat hook, a long fork with a wooden handle and prongs attached to the side. Soup was stirred with a long-handled slotted spoon.

In King Egbert’s time forks did not exist, but most in the upper class used their own knife, spoon, bowl, plate or trencher, and drinking vessel. Serfs generally shared bowls, cups, and trencher. Trenchers were hard pieces of brown bread which were rarely eaten. The lord would often have many elaborately decorated bowls and cups adorning his table, displaying his wealth to his subjects. The lord's table would each get their own bowl of food, but the people of lower rank would have to share with up to four other people. Meals were announced by a horn blown to signal time for washing hands. Servants with ewers, basins, and towels attended the guests. Dogs and other animals were permitted in the hall and were given food by the people as they were eating. Bones, scraps and leftovers were thrown to the floor among the reeds.  These halls often became crowded and quite smelly with the cooking smells, smoke, and all the people gathered together for prolonged periods of time.

At the table, seating followed status: The most important guests were at the high table, with the loftiest place reserved for an ecclesiastical dignitary, the second for the ranking layman. After grace came the procession of servants carrying the food. First came the pantler with the bread and butter, followed by the butler and his assistants with the wine and beer. Wine was drunk young in the absence of an effective technique for sealing containers. Wine kept a year became undrinkable. No attention was paid to vintage, and often what was served even at rich tables was of poor quality. The castle bought wine by the barrel and decanted it into jugs. Some was spiced and sweetened by the butlers to go with the final course. Ale, made from barley, wheat, or oats, or all three, was mainly for the servants. The castle household brewed its own ale, hiring an ale-wife for the task and using grain from its own stores.

There was ceremony in the way the food was served at table. There was a correct way to do everything, from the laying of cloths to the cutting of trenchers and carving of meat. Part of a servant’s training was learning how to serve his lord at meals: the order in which dishes should be presented, where they should be placed, how to cut the trenchers and place them on the table.

The solid parts of soups and stews were eaten with a spoon, the broth sipped. Meat was cut up with the knife and eaten with the fingers. Two people shared a dish, the lesser helping the more important, the younger the older, the man the woman. The former in each case broke the bread, cut the meat, and passed the cup.

Etiquette required diners not to leave the spoon in the dish or put elbows on the table, not to belch, not to drink or eat with their mouths full, not to stuff their mouths or take overly large helpings. Not surprisingly, in light of the finger-eating and dish-sharing, stress was laid on keeping hands and nails scrupulously clean, wiping spoon and knife after use, wiping the mouth before drinking, and not dipping meat in the salt dish.

The lord and lady tried very hard to make sure their guests amply served. Servants were made available during dinner, and would enter the room in an orderly way and avoid quarreling. Guests were served at dinner with perhaps two meats and two lighter dishes. Between courses, the steward would send the servers into the kitchen and see to it that the servants brought in the meats quietly and without confusion.

An everyday dinner, served between ten in the morning and noon, was made up of  two or three courses, each of several separate dishes, all repeating the same kinds of food except the last course, which consisted of fruits, nuts, cheese, wafers, and spiced wine. On festive occasions such as holidays and weddings, very large quantities of food were consumed. Such feasts included boar's heads, venison, peacocks, swans, suckling pigs, cranes, plovers, and larks.


Medieval cooking was not a dubious practice that produced inedible dishes filled with strange spices and dangerous ingredients. The dishes and recipes they prepared were delicious and nourishing meals that used the finest meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables medieval society was capable of developing. Then as now, mankind knew what tasted good and the sauces, stews, pies, roasts, and soups that satisfied the medieval family were wholesome and enjoyable.

The food consisted of fresh game when it was available, caught by the lord's trappers or by the lord himself. These meats were usually coneys, geese, pigeons, or the occasional deer. There were also more exotic spices and wines consumed. They ate bread made locally. There were most of the same fruits and vegetables we have today.

Meat preservation was by salting or smoking, or simply by keeping the meat alive until needed. Salting was done by two methods. Dry-salting meant burying the meat in a bed of salt pounded to a powder with mortar and pestle. Brine-curing consisted of immersing the meat in a strong salt solution. Before cooking, the salted meat had to be soaked and rinsed.

In addition to roasting and stewing, meat might be pounded to a paste, mixed with other ingredients, and served as a kind of custard. An example of this kind of custard was blankmanger, consisting of a paste of chicken blended with rice boiled in almond milk, seasoned with sugar, cooked until very thick, and garnished with fried almonds and anise. Another was mortrews, of fish or meat that was pounded, mixed with bread crumbs, stock, and eggs, and poached, making a kind of dumpling. Both meat and fish were also made into pies, pasties, and fritters.

Sauces were made from herbs from the castle garden that were ground to a paste, mixed with wine, verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes), vinegar, onions, ginger, pepper, saffron, cloves, and cinnamon. Mustard was a favorite ingredient, and was used in many dishes.

In Lent or on fast days fish was served fresh from the castle's own pond, from a nearby river, or from the sea, nearly always with a highly seasoned sauce. Salt or smoked herring was a staple, as were salted or dried cod or stockfish. Fresh herring, flavored with ginger, pepper, and cinnamon, might be made into a pie. Other popular fish included mullet, shad, sole, flounder, plaice, ray, mackerel, salmon, and trout. Sturgeon, whale, and porpoise were rare seafood delicacies, and were considered "royal fish," fit for kings and queens. Pike, crab, crayfish, oysters, and eels were also favorites.

The most common vegetables, besides onions and garlic, were peas and beans, and were staples of the diet of the poor. For the rich peas and beans might be served with onions and saffron. Honey, commonly used for sweetening, came from castle bees; fruit from the castle orchard - apples, pears, plums, and peaches - and wild fruits and nuts from the king’s wood. There were imported luxuries such as sugar, rice, almonds, figs, dates, raisins, oranges, and pomegranates, purchased in town or at the fairs. Ordinary sugar was bought by the loaf and had to be pounded; powdered white sugar was more expensive.

Feasts occurred for special occasions, such as a wedding, a noble's christening, saints' holidays, and Christmas. There was also a large town feast to celebrate the harvest each year. The feast was a major celebration for the town and all around. It usually lasted for up to four hours, and the meal contained four to five courses. The main course would include salted beef; fresh fish; a variety of fowl, and tough, chewy pork. The meats were made to taste more interesting (and hide the tastes of rotting) with expensive imported spices. Salt was also a favorite spice, and the elaborate saltcellars were always placed near the important nobles and guests at the tables. Honey was used from the castles' beehives to sweeten the foods. The lord of the castle and his guests drank milk, wine, ale, and mead, which was a kind of beer. The water was not to be trusted as a drink, so most people preferred wine.

Meat pies filled with pork, beef, raisins and dates, topped with chicken pieces; soups flavored with wine and thickened with almonds; vegetables and fruit marinated in wine, honey, & herbs and savory sauces & stews of all varieties. Venison pies & rabbit in gravy; beef roasts, stuffed goose, & fish marinated in ale; sweet pastries fried in oil, fruit confections, and sculptures made of sugar. Exotic creations such as the Cockentrice, half pig & half chicken, and the Coqz Heaumez, a knightly hen who rides a suckling steed were foods fit for a feast.


Our word Christmas is derived from the Middle English usage "Christ's Mass," and central to the celebration of the Nativity was the liturgical activity which had been established by the year 600, and did not change in the Middle Ages. In Medieval England there were three Masses celebrated on Christmas Day. The first and most characteristic was at midnight (the Angel's Mass), catching up the notion that the light of salvation appeared at the darkest moment of the darkest date in the very depth of winter. The second Christmas Mass came at dawn (the Shepherd's Mass), and the third during the day (the Mass of the Divine Word). The season of Advent, the forty days leading up to Christmas, was being observed in the Church then. St. Nicholas was a very popular medieval saint, and his feast day came in Advent, but he was not “Santa Claus.”

It was a time of merriment, feasting and general festivity, but still primarily a holy day, not the commercial fantasy it has become today. Three masses were, in fact, celebrated on Christmas day - the most important at midnight, because, according to the Romans, this was when Christ was born; the second at dawn and the third during the day.

There was even a version of the Christmas tree in medieval England although the custom did originate in Germany. This was called the Kissing Bough or the Kissing Bunch,  “ hung from the ceiling in a luminous crown: a hemisphere of evergreens marked with a ring of candles above, and with a ring of bright red apples below, curiously hinting at fulfilment in the hour of promise.” The wassail, a mixture of roast apples, sugar, nutmegs, cloves and ginger, was the traditional Christmas drink. Its name came from the words “Was Haile” - Saxon for “Your Health”', still a popular toast.

The word “carol”originally meant “ ring-dance with song.” They celebrated the season with the carol-dance. The leader of the dance sang a verse of the carol, and a ring of dancers responded with the chorus. Carol-dances were developed from pagan dances. Holly and ivy for Christmas decoration had pagan fertility associations with male and female. Further music for the celebration of the season was provided by the Latin hymns of the Church.

Often the ring dance would be performed around the crib in church. The first Christmas carols were written in Latin in the fifth century and were very solemn. In the middle ages young people would often perform the “Star” carols: they pretended to be the Wise Men and carried a pole with the Star of Bethlehem from house to house singing. Mumming, i.e. dressing up, dancing and performing a play at various houses in return for a gift, and miracle plays, based on the Bible and acted by members of the Craft Guild in the town or village square were also popular entertainments.

Carol singers going from house to house now is as a result of the carols being banned within churches in medieval times. Since it meant singing and dancing in a circle many services were thought to be spoiled by carol singers doing this and some churches banned it, ordering the carol singers into the streets. Some of the songs they might sing includes: “Nowell Sing We,” “Ave Maria,” “Lullay Lullow,” “What Tidings Bringest Thou,” “Marvel Not, Joseph,” “Alma Redemptoris Mater,” “Make We Joy Now in this Fest,” “Hail Mary, Full of Grace,” and “Beata Progenies.”

A Medieval Christmas celebration was not over in a day, but continued until the Feast of the Epiphany on the 12th day after Christmas Day, January 6th. Epiphany celebrated the visit of the wise men, the Magi, around whom many layers of legend accumulated. Epiphany also symbolized the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.  This was the origin of the Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The Monday after Epiphany was called Plough Monday, and it was then that plowing began.

Yeavering from the air

sketch of Yeavering

Palace at Cheddar, Somerset

In a Great Hall

a medieval dinner woodcut

medieval  cooking implements

the cook in the palace kitchen

woodcut of a grand feast

Anglo-Saxon Calendar illustration

© The British Library Board  
The Nativity

from the Benedictional of St. Aethelwold, by the scribe Godeman,
preface to the first blessing for Christmas Day. The scene is surrounded by a frame of '
Winchester' acanthus, with round
 bosses at the corners. made in
Winchester ca. 971-984, in Latin

for larger image

© The British Library Board
Also from the Benedictional of St. Aethelwold,
by the scribe Godeman,
text, with initial 'B'; beginning of
the blessing for Christmas. Decorated border of 'Winchester'
acanthus, with six round bosses.
For  larger image
Historical Time Line
The Making of Kings- Kingship, The Army and Warfare
Events before King Egbert's Time- Beginning in Europe, The 7 Kingdoms and the ChurchLineage, Ancestors and Parentage
The Life of King Egbert- The Early Years (775-802)
The Kingship- Chronicle Excerpts, 802-824, 825-829, 830-839, Reasons for Success

The People and Places Important to King Egbert - The People, The Places
Society in King Egbert's Time- Part 1 (Government, Household, Allegiance, Finances) Part 2 (Great Hall, Cooking & Eating, Food, Feasts, Christmas)
Part 3
(Crafts & Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine) Part 4 (Peasants, Farming, Gardens & Plants, Common Tasks, Home, Village) Part 5 (Art)
Sources and References