A Hogshead of Claret and a Gallon of Custard: Dining at the Exchequer of Receipt

Created on Thursday 8th April 2021 by:
Kirsty Wright
Preparations for a Feast c.1550-1575, Birmingham Museums Trust

Institutional histories often address the carrot or the stick, examining the value and benefits of officeholding or the authority and punitive capabilities of institutions. In this post I’d like to think a little more literally about the carrot. Part of my research on the Exchequer of Receipt is trying to figure out what its officers actually did in a given day – what time they started/finished work, where they went and who they interacted with. In doing this I came across a surprising amount of material on food, which provides insight into administrative appetites including purchases of a hogshead of claret and a gallon of custard. Monarchs were typically obliged to provide food for royal servants in administrative institutions, and the officers of the Exchequer were no exception. The offices of the Receipt in the Palace of Westminster included dining space that was frequently used to cater to its officers. However, this was by no means a proto-work canteen. Meals were largely provided on an ad hoc basis in line with the needs of Exchequer business, ranging from humble provisions to feasts. This post discusses what officers ate in a long administrative day and considers the function of the dinners within the administrative routine.

The formal spaces of the Exchequer, the Tally Court and the Court of Exchequer, have typically been seen as the main centres of administrative activity, but examination of informal activity reveals another: the Lord Treasurer’s chamber. As the most senior officer in the Exchequer, the Lord Treasurer had a comfortable suite of rooms in the Receipt that were thickly carpeted and perfumed with rosewater and cloves. They provided workspace for the Lord Treasurer and his clerks and storage for his papers, but also acted as a dining room. Dinners in the Receipt ranged from catering to a handful of officers to hosting the entire Exchequer. Crucially dinners held in the Treasurer’s chamber were one of the few occasions that all the officers of the Receipt were in the same place. The proceedings of the courts only involved certain officers, and each officer had their own office space so they seldom congregated beyond these meals. 

Business in the Tally Court usually concluded around 11am, at which point the officers could head home and go about other affairs. When the demands of work, such as auditing accounts, kept them in the Receipt into the afternoon they were provided with a meal. These meals were only provided for the affected officers, so were small and simple. The most complete record of these dinners survives for 1567 and reveals that 91 dinners were held in that year.1 On 8 October 1567 the Auditor, Clerk of the Pells, Deputy Chamberlains and Tellers were provided with dinner when they remained at the Receipt all day ‘about the examynacion of the bookes of the said tellers.’ The meal cost the Exchequer 7s 11d for a spread of bread, beer, oysters, boiled beef, wine and fruit. On occasion these smaller dinners played host to guests, particularly high-profile criminals on their way to trial at the King’s Bench in Westminster Hall. In February 1556, the day before he was tried for murder, Charles Stourton, 8th Baron Stourton, was provided with dinner in the Lord Treasurer’s chamber.2 

In contrast, dinners attended by the Lord Treasurer were more extravagant. A handful of times throughout the year the entire contingent of Exchequer officers attended the Lord Treasurer’s chamber on tantalisingly vague business ‘about her maiesties affairs’ and dined together. The scale and splendour of these meals required additional staff to be hired including cooks, spit boys and butlers to manage the kitchens. Accounts of a dinner from February 1582 reveal a fish-based meal taken on white cups and trenchers. The officers dined on bread, beer, a pottle of sack, sweet butter, salt eels, ‘one great pike’, bream, fresh salmon, trout, and shrimps dressed with herbs, rosewater, fruit and spices. Outside of lent, meat was back on the menu. A dinner on 14 July 1595 provided bread, beer, beef, veal, mutton, capons, rabbit, duck, quails, eggs, white wine, a quart of sack, and seasonal fruits including cherries, strawberries and gooseberries.3
Insight into these Exchequer menus is interesting in itself, but what else does it tell us? As a rare convergence of all the Exchequer officials it seems likely that communal meals provided space for business and discussion. Records of the dinners survive from the mid sixteenth century up to 1616. It is possible that they were suspended around this time as similar meals held in the Star Chamber were temporarily prohibited in this period to reduce costs to the crown. Indeed, they were a significant expense with many dinners in the Receipt costing upwards of £6. Writing about Star Chamber in 1621, William Hudson described how ‘the lords have usually had diet at his majesty’s charge; for howsoever it were for a time omitted, yet surely it was happily renewed; it being a means of dispatch of much business.’4 It is not clear if the dinners in the Receipt also resumed at this time, but the officers continued to dine together in some capacity into the late seventeenth century. Samuel Pepys records in his diary how the officers of the Receipt maintained an ‘old custom’ where they dined together on St Thomas’ day.5 The origins of this practice are unclear but St Thomas’ day fell on 21 December, which marked the final day of Michaelmas term, the busiest term for the Exchequer; so it was presumably a celebration!

These practices in the Receipt suggest that communal meals were an established part of Exchequer proceedings, provided to sustain business or held to commemorate specific events. They functioned as a part of the administrative routine and through further research I plan to investigate the significance of the dates of the dinners within the Exchequer year and whether dining traditions continued at the Receipt lodgings in the former St Stephen's buildings.

TNA, E 407/61/2.
2 TNA E 407/68 1556.
TNA, E 407/68 1582, 1595.
4 W. Hudson, 'A Treatise of the Court of Star Chamber' in F. Hargrave ed., Collectanea Juridica, vol.2, 1792.
5 Pepys diary, 21 Dec 1660 and 21 Dec 1661.