For hundreds of years, the British royal family has indulged their sweet tooths and love of a stiff drink. One thing that hasn’t changed throughout time? They eat the best the world can provide, and in doing so, influence what their subjects eat as well. Read on to learn what adorned previous monarch’s tables and the favorite nibbles of today’s royals.
1. King Henry VIII // Apricots
Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 to 1547, was known as a “consumer of food and women.” While staying at Hampton Court Palace, the king would easily have 1000 courtiers and hundreds of servants to attend him. And all these people needed to eat.
The palace’s 18 kitchens remained open and working around the clock, burning an estimated eight tons of oak daily to keep the cooking fires hot. Along with the massive fireplaces where meat and game were roasted and turned on spits by young boys, there were 50 rooms for making pastry, bottling, preserving, and pickling. Servants brought meats and other foods to a boiling house, where they were softened before roasting to cut down on cooking time.
At Henry’s huge banquets, guests could expect seafood like whale, porpoise, eel, cod, salmon, trout, and herring. Dishes such as roast gull, peacock, egret, swan, and heron were served alongside other elaborate foods made with mace, cloves, and cinnamon. These spices were a way for Henry to show off: During the Tudor period, the seasonings were imported and only the wealthy, like His Majesty, could afford to obtain them.
In 1542, Henry—who loved fruit—had his French gardener import apricot trees from Italy to the Hampton Court Palace gardens [PDF]. Apricots may have been present in England but still very rare at the time. When the botanist William Turner published The Names of Herbs six years later, apricots had yet to gain popularity.
2. King Charles II // Ice Cream
When Charles II became king after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he revived an earlier trend: public dining, in which members of the court served meals to the royals in front of an audience of their subjects. The displays were opportunities for the public to have access to the sovereign.
At least once a week, Charles supped publicly in the Presence Chamber of the state apartments at Windsor Castle or in the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. The king’s master cook prepared no fewer than 26 dishes for the mid-day meal, and the king’s table was decorated with gold and silver plates and cutlery on a monogrammed tablecloth. All courtiers chosen to serve the king had a specific responsibility. Uniformed servants brought the dishes to the table, Charles made his selections, and a carver, server, and cup bearer each presented food and drink to the king. His attendants tasted each dish before serving him.
In 1671, King Charles held a public feast to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his return to England from exile in France during the Commonwealth. The centerpiece of the meal, which was served only to Charles, was white strawberries and ice cream. Though ice cream was popular in Paris and Italy, Charles is credited with introducing the treat to his home country.
3. Queen Charlotte // Sweets
In 1761, 17-year-old Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz became queen consort of King George III of England, who ruled from 1760 to 1820 (including the Regency). Charlotte, originally from Germany, introduced the British court to international foods and sweets popular on the Continent.
For her birthday in 1780, Charlotte held a charity fundraiser and invited young aristocratic ladies of marriageable age to the palace in London. She also ordered an 8-foot-tall cake frosted in white icing to be placed before her. As the ladies arrived and curtseyed to the queen, it looked like they were paying homage to the confection. (Queen Charlotte’s Ball, as the annual event became known, originated the tradition of the debutante ball. Queen Elizabeth II put an end to the royal affair in the 1970s, but it was recently resurrected.)
Charlotte also adored pastries like mille-feuilles (which means “thousand leaves” in French), beignets, and Dutch pancakes, along with English desserts such as apple tarts and gooseberry fool.
But the royal family could not survive on sugar alone. In keeping with the royals’ appreciation of international fare, according to the British Academy, chefs would prepare “a traditional Dutch metworst (sausage not unlike salami), a Hanover ham cons[o]mmé, or Italian macaroni and vermicelli.” The king and queen and their 13 surviving children also dined on beef, mutton, pork, and veal; all manner of domesticated and wild poultry; skate, sturgeon, eels, and other seafood; rabbit, venison, and the occasional peacock or turkey.
4. Queen Victoria // Potatoes and Whisky
Royal advisors restricted the future Queen Victoria’s diet, but everything changed when she gained the throne in 1837. The young queen began making up for the deprivation she suffered during her early years. She enjoyed fresh, seasonal fruits, particularly grapes, peaches, and pineapples, according to The Private Life of the Queen by a Member of The Royal Household. “Among vegetables, her majesty confesses to a great weakness for potatoes, which are cooked for her in every conceivable way, and are—in common with all that she eats and drinks—set before her by a very faithful servant, who wears no livery, but in sober black stands by the queen’s side at her meals and assists her to everything,” the anonymous author observed.
But even her weakness for potatoes was no match for her love of Scotch whisky. In the 1840s, Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, made vacationing in Scotland fashionable. She gave the Chivas brothers, an Aberdeen-based distillery, a royal warrant for their whiskey in 1842. They released their first “regally” titled blend, called Royal Strathythan, in the 1860s.
The royal couple also visited a distillery near Balmoral Castle in 1848, and the queen, like everyone who tours the facility today, received a dram of Scotch whisky. According to The Private Life of the Queen, “She has for many years contented herself with a small portion of Scotch whisky, which is distilled expressly for her near Balmoral, at the small distillery of John Begg, and which is carefully mixed by her personal attendant with either Apollonaris [a sparkling mineral water], soda, or Lithia water [spring water containing lithium salts].” Known now as Royal Lochnagar Distillery, it’s located in Cairngorms National Park.
Victoria could put away a six- or seven-course meal in half an hour with no breaks and certainly no chatting. She made the buffet popular, and to share her table, you had to eat fast. When she was finished, so were you.
5. Queen Elizabeth II // Jam Pennies
Elizabeth II loved jam pennies, a type of tea sandwich, according to a U.S. News report in 2022. “The queen was served jam pennies in the nursery as a little girl. She’s had them for afternoon tea ever since,” explained Darren McGrady, her private chef for 11 years, on his YouTube channel. Making these sandwiches is a snap: Spread a little butter and jam (the queen preferred homemade strawberry) on slices of white bread, bring them together to make a sandwich, and cut them into circles the size of old British pennies.
Though she had her favorite dishes, Elizabeth wasn’t a foodie. Her meals were served not too hot nor too cold nor too spicy, according to former royal chef, Graham Newbould. She hated waste and would eat leftovers. She was known to occasionally take her dinners on a tray while watching TV. She also banned specific foods and ingredients from touching royal lips in public and private: Shellfish, garlic and onions, spaghetti sauce, pasta, or anything drenched in sauce were never served to, or by, her.
6. King Charles III // Extremely Precise Picnic Sandwiches
When traveling, King Charles III will eat only food brought from Highgrove, his private estate in Gloucestershire that he has been operating as an organic farm and gardens since 1980. Though Charles usually skips lunch, he has been known to request the “perfect” picnic sandwich while visiting Chatsworth, a great stately home in Derbyshire.
According to the Daily Meal, Herv Marchand, the former chef for the estate, received the king’s exact instructions for making the sandwich. “Charles wanted a homemade organic granary [roll] exactly 8 centimeters in diameter, and cut in half. I was told I had to cut it exactly to size if it were too big or small. I would butter the first half with mayonnaise, add pesto, shredded salad leaves, and an egg, which had been fried on both sides so that it was not runny. I would then have to season the eggs and add two thin slices of Gruyere cheese.”
On the other half of the roll, he slathered butter and Marmite, then gently combined the sandwich. The final flourish? To give it a rustic appearance, the chef covered it with white flour.