Sunday, 26 July 2015

Dinner with Queen Victoria


The State Dining Room in the Semi-State Rooms,
Windsor Castle

My personal collection of historical ephemera includes an original and elaborately printed menu card for a Dinner given by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle on the 15th May 1879.

Given in honour of the visit of the Empress Augusta of Germany [the Consort of the German Emperor William I] , the Queen's personal diary describes in detail the events that took place this day.


Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach 1811 - 1890,
Empress of Germany 1871 - 1888
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

The Empress Augusta, then aged 67, had arrived at Windsor Castle the previous day, the 14th May 1879, having been officially welcomed upon her arrival at Dover earlier that morning. The Empress had suffered from rheumatism for some years and Queen Victoria now found her "...aged and bent and she looks very ill." Rather less charitably, and upon meeting the Empress at a party given in her honour by Lady Salisbury some days later, Lady Lucy Cavendish referred to meeting "a wizzy [meaning wizened or withered] old lady, who was just curtseying and complimenting herself out of the house when we arrived."


Queen Victoria and her Daughter, Princess Beatrice,
 taken in the Queen's Private Sitting Room 1895.

Thursday the 15th May, "A showery morning", began in a relaxed manner with the Empress breakfasting with the Queen, "The Empress breakfasted with us in my room, and seemed so pleased to be there." By "us" she would be referring to herself and her daughter and constant companion, Princess Beatrice. As to "my room", this appears to be within Queen Victoria's own private apartments rather than the adjoining private family Oak Dining Room. Hence the Empress's obvious pleasure at being invited into this private and personal inner sanctum.


Queen Victoria with daughter Princess Beatrice and
her husband Prince Henry of Battenberg, and their
three children at luncheon in the Oak Dining Room
with two uniformed Indian servants. Queen Victoria
normally took lunch and dinner in this room if there
were no state occasions. Taken 1895.

Queen Victoria is known to have preferred a boiled egg for breakfast, being served in a gold egg cup, but a comprehensive selection of egg dishes, cooked meats, chicken, game birds and fish would be prepared by the Royal Kitchen for her family and guests who might desire a heartier meal. It would be normal for a large quantity of uneaten food to be returned to the kitchens yet the same quantity and variety of food would continue to be cooked and served each day.


A 'Clarence' Carriage from the Royal Mews
[Source]

No further mention is made of the Empress until after luncheon, the Queen no doubt being earlier occupied with her red boxes and affairs of state. "The afternoon became very hot, so drove in the clarence [a covered horse drawn carriage with curved glass front side windowswith the Empress, to Cumberland Lodge & took tea there, with Lenchen and Christian" [her daughter Princess Helena, known in the family as "Lenchen", and her husband Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein]. Cumberland Lodge, a Grade II listed country house built in 1650, lies in Windsor Great Park and was at the time occupied by the former.


Cumberland Lodge, Windsor Great Park

My menu card refers to the formal dinner given by Queen Victoria that evening in the State Dining Room at Windsor Castle. The Head Royal Chef would have drawn up the menu which would then be amended or approved by the Queen.


The printed menu for the dinner
given by Queen Victoria described
in this Blog, 15th May 1879
[From my own collection]

"Had a large dinner of 32 in the Dining Room. Besides the Empress, whom Leopold led in, Lenchen & Christian (who led me in), Count Münster & Countess Marie, the Duke of Northumberland, the Salisbury's, Granville's, Sydney's, Lord & Lady A Loftus, Lord [?] Edgecumbe, The Empress's 4 people, the Duchess of Athol, Jamie Ely, the 2 Maids of Honour, Lord Yarmouth, Lady De Ros, Lord Torrington, Sir John Cowell, & Sir H. [Henry] Ponsonby, dinedThe band played during dinner."


The State Dining Room in the Semi-State Rooms, 
Windsor Castle

The dinner comprised of six courses all described in French, as was then the custom, on the elaborately printed souvenir menu card. English translations are provided :

Her Majesty's Dinner
Thursday, 15th May 1879

Potages (Soups)
A la Tortue (Turtle soup)
A la Julienne (Julienne cut vegetable Soup)

Poissons (Fish Course)
Whitebait (Fried baby herring or sardines)
Le Saumon bouilli (Boiled salmon)
Les Filets de Merlans frits (Fried whiting fillets)

Entrées (Entrees)
Les Petite Pâtés à la Bechamelle (Small pies with Bechamel sauce)
Les Ris de Veau, en escalopes sauteés (Sautéed veal sweetbreads)
Les Filets de Canetons, aux pois (Duckling fillets with peas)

Relevés (A Main Meat Course)
Les Poulardes à la Milanaise (Pullets in Milanese sauce)
Roast Beef
Roast Mutton

Rôts (Roasts)
Les Cailles Bardées (Roast quail wrapped in bacon)
Les Poulets (Roast pullet)

Entremêts (Desserts)
Les Asperges à la Sauce (Asparagus in sauce)
Les petits Gàteaux de Compiegne (Small 'Compiègne' cakes)
Les Tartelettes merniguées à l’Italienne (Italian style meringue tart)
Les Gelées d’Oranges oubannées (Jellied oranges)


The Great Kitchen at Windsor Castle,
from "Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management"

The dinner would be prepared under the supervision of the Head Royal Chef with no less than eighteen chefs of various levels of expertise and seniority working under his personal direction and a total kitchen staff of 45. This was besides the 300 plus indoors household staff which Queen Victoria employed, many following her around the various Royal residences.


The State Dining Room in the Semi-State Rooms, 
Windsor Castle

A formal evening dinner would normally be timed to last exactly an hour and a half at most. When Queen Victoria, who ate very quickly, finished a course the table would be immediately cleared for the next course, regardless if everyone had actually finished. Even though it broke Royal etiquette, The Queen once found it decidedly amusing when a guest vocally objected to his plate being quickly removed by a waiter as he had not yet finished, demanding that it be brought back! Many guests in fact found invitations to dine with the Queen an "onerous honour", if not in fact "purgatory", as she would be served before her guests but began eating immediately the food was placed in front of her. Those served last (normally being those of less importance in the social hierarchy) would hardly have time to eat a morsel of food before the waiters commenced clearing the table.


A Relaxed and Smiling Queen Victoria
[Source : TheRoyalForums.com]

But, unless she was in a disgruntled or melancholy mood, dinners with Queen Victoria were not always "irksome affairs". The Queen could be an entertaining host, full of conversation and, if one was lucky, often displaying her keen sense of humour. There are in fact numerous recorded instances where The Queen was observed to heave with laughter until tears rolled down her face upon hearing or observing something that she found amusing, attempting to hide her face with her napkin or handkerchief. But dining with an elderly German Empress no doubt made for a generally more restrained atmosphere, conversation with the Empress most likely being conducted in German.


The Crimson (Red) Drawing Room 
in the Semi-State Rooms, Windsor Castle

After the meal had ended it was then customary for the ladies to withdraw to the Drawing Room for personal conversation and tea or coffee leaving the men, who might remain in the dining room or retire to the library or billiards room, to enjoy an after dinner glass of port or cognac and maybe a cigar before later rejoining the ladies. The Drawing Room was strictly non-smoking. And while royalty may sit down, guests were normally expected to remain standing unless card games were being played. Queen Victoria would, at least in later years, be seated with her cup of coffee, the saucer being held by a page, as guests were brought up to speak to her.

[After the dinner] "We talked to the company in the Red [Crimson] Drawing room. Then the Empress & my daughters came for a short while to my room."  


Entry in Queen Victoria's Diary describing
the Dinner given for the German Empress,
at Windsor Castle on the 15th May 1879.
(as transcribed by Princess Beatrice)
[Source : Royal Archives]


Bibliography :

- "Life in the Victorian Kitchen: Culinary Secrets and Servants' Stories" by Karen Foy
- "Plenty and Want : A Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day" by John Burnett
- "Queen Victoria : A Personal History", by Christopher Hibbert
- Various Internet Resources


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