Researchers from Cambridge University in the UK have uncovered some surprising evidence on how the early Anglo-Saxon kings of England ate. Until recently it was thought that members of royal households from the Middle Ages would have eaten much better than the peasants who farmed for the elite. But, chemical analysis of more than 2,000 human remains from the period shows that kings ate much like the underclasses: a diet low in expensive meat and animal products.

Bayeux Tapestry depicting Anglo-Saxons
Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, one of the few to illustrate Anglo-Saxons. Via: Marko Kudjerski/Flickr

A series of 2 studies were published in the April 2022 edition of the scientific journal, Anglo-Saxon England. Since the Victorian period scholars have presumed that kings feasted everyday and this assumption was largely fueled by accounts from the middle ages describing what was eaten. However, according to Sam Leggett and Tom Lambert, the authors of the 2 studies, these accounts were likely taken from actual feasts- events that certainly did not happen every day.

The physical evidence came from the skeletal remains of 2,023 people living in England from the 5th to 11th centuries. The isotope signatures found in the remains point to a diet low in overall animal proteins and free from diseases seen in populations that eat a lot of meat, like gout.

variety of vegetables on a white background
Via: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Instead of lavish feasts, rich and poor alike probably subsisted mainly bread with the occasional chunk of cheese or meat, with protein from beans, nuts, and peas all more likely than animal sources on most days. Unlike past archaeology that aimed to examine diet alongside grave goods (searching for a correlation between wealth and a higher intake of animal protein), by examining a random sampling of deceased Anglo-Saxons the team found that there were no discrepancies between higher status and peasant individuals.

This largely plant-based diet flies in the face of the traditional narrative that royals, and especially kings and male high status individuals, ate better than females of their class and certainly better than the farming families that supplied the rich with produce.

wheat in a basket
Via: Gabriela Fechet/Unsplash

Of the findings, Dr. Leggett said, “The isotopic evidence suggests that diets in this period were much more similar across social groups than we’ve been led to believe.”

The evidence for what those feasts held was enough to feed hundreds of people and this means that not only did the royal families eat a very modest diet, but when they did hold feasts peasants were often invited, too. The lavish dinners with many types of meat, lard, gravy, cheese, and other animal products would have been a treat for everyone attending, not just the peasants.

harvesting wheat depicted in medieval manuscript
Via: Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts/Flickr

Mr. Lambert said of these feasts that it would not have been unusual for rulers to travel far and wide, hobnobbing with farmers in what could have been highly political events not unlike “a modern presidential campaign dinner in the US” today.