Assaying Meat and Drink

By William Andrews, f.r.h.s.

From the time of our earliest Norman king down to the days of James I., the chief people of the land partook of their food in fear. Treachery was a not infrequent occurrence, and poison was much used as a means of taking life. As a precaution against murder, assayers of food, drink, etc., were appointed. Doctors usually filled the office, and by their unremitting attention to their duties crime was to a great extent prevented. In a royal household the physician acted as assayer.

Let us imagine ourselves in an old English home, the palace of a king, or the stronghold of a leading nobleman. The cloth is laid by subordinate servants, but not without considerable ceremony. Next a chief officer of the household sees that every article on the table is free from poison. The bread about to be consumed is cut, and, in the presence of the “taker of assay,” is tasted, and the salt is also tested. The knives, spoons, and table linen are kissed by a responsible person, so that assurance might be given that they were free from poison. Then the salt dish is covered with a lid, and the bread is wrapped in a napkin, and afterwards the whole table is covered with a fair white cloth. The coverlet remains until the head of the household comes to take his repast, and then his chief servant removes the covering of the table. If any person attempted to touch the covered bread or the covered salt after the spreading of the coverlet, they ran the risk of a severe flogging, and sometimes even death at the hands of a hangman.

The time of bringing up the meats having arrived, the assayer proceeds to the kitchen, and tests the loyalty of the steward and cook by compelling them to partake of small quantities of the food prepared before it is taken to the table. Pieces of bread were cut and dipped into every mess, and were afterwards eaten by cook and steward. The crusts of closed pies were raised, and the contents tasted; small pieces of the more substantial viands were tasted, and not a single article of food was suffered to leave the kitchen without being assayed. After the ceremony had been completed, each dish was covered, no matter if hot or cold, and these were taken by servitors to the banqueting hall, a marshal with wand of office preceding the procession. The bearers on no account were permitted to linger on the way, no matter if their hands were burnt they must bear the pain, far better to suffer that than be suspected of tampering with the food. On no pretext were the covers to be removed until the proper time, and by the servants appointed for that purpose. If very hot, the bearers might perhaps protect their hands with bread, which was to be kept out of sight.

We produce from the Rev. Charles Bullock’s interesting volume entitled “How they Lived in the Olden Time,” a picture of bringing in the dinner. It will be observed that the steward, bearing his staff of office, heads the procession.

Each dish as it was brought to the table was again tasted in the presence of the personage who purposed partaking of it. This entailed considerable ceremony, and took up much time. To render the delay as little unpleasant as possible to the guests, music was usually performed.

In the stately homes of old England, as a mark of respect to the distinguished visitor, it was customary to assign to him an assayer. History furnishes a notable instance of an omission of the official. When Richard II. was at Pontefract Castle, we gather from Hall’s Chronicle, edition 1548, folio 14, that Sir Piers Exton intended poisoning the King, and, to use the chronicler’s words, forbade the “esquire whiche was accustumed to serve and take the assaye beefore Kyng Richarde, to again use that manner of service.” According to Hall, the King “sat downe to dyner, and was served withoute curtesie or assaye; he much mervaylyng at the sodayne mutacion of the thynge, demanded of the esquire why he did not do his duty.” He replied that Sir Piers had forbidden him performing the duties pertaining to his position. The King immediately picked up a carving-knife, struck upon the head of the assayer, and exclaimed, “The devil take Henry of Lancaster and thee together.”

Paul Hentzner, a German tutor, visited England in 1598, and wrote a graphic account of his travels in the country, which were translated into English by Horace Walpole. The work contains a curious account of the ceremonies of laying the cloth, etc., for Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace. The notice is rather long, but is so entertaining and informing that it well merits reproduction. “A gentleman,” it is stated, “entered the room bearing a rod, and along with him another who had a table-cloth, which, after they had both kneeled three times, with the utmost veneration, he spread upon the table, and after kneeling again, they both retired. Then came two others, one with the rod again, and the other with a salt-cellar and a plate of bread: when they had kneeled, as the others had done, and placed what was brought upon the table, they, too, retired with the same ceremonies performed by the first. At last came an unmarried lady (we were told she was a Countess), and along with her a married one, bearing a tasting-knife; the former was dressed in white silk, who when she prostrated herself three times in the most graceful manner, approached the table, and rubbed the plates with bread and salt with as much care as if the Queen had been present; when they had waited there a little time, the Yeomen of the Guard entered bareheaded, clothed in scarlet, with a golden rose upon their backs, bringing in at each turn a course of twenty-four dishes, served in plate, most of it gilt; these dishes were received by a gentleman in the same order they were brought, and placed upon the table, while the lady-taster gave to each guard a mouthful to eat, for fear of poison. During the time that this guard, which consists of the tallest and stoutest men that can be found in all England, being carefully selected for this service, were bringing dinner, twelve trumpets and two kettle-drums made the hall ring for half-an-hour together. At the end of the ceremonial, a number of unmarried ladies appeared, who, with particular solemnity, lifted the meat off the table and conveyed it into the Queen’s inner and more private chamber, where, after she had chosen for herself, the rest goes to the ladies of the Court.”

Drink as well as food had to be assayed twice, once in the buttery and again in the hall. The butler drank of the wine in the buttery, and then handed it to the cup-bearer in a covered vessel. When he arrived at the hall, he removed the lid of the cup, and poured into the inverted cover a little of the wine, and drank it under the eye of his master. We give an illustration, reproduced from an ancient manuscript, of an assayer tasting wine. The middle of the twelfth century is most probably the period represented.

In the ancient assay cup, it is related on reliable authority, a charm was attached to a chain of gold, or embedded in the bottom of the vessel. This was generally a valuable carbuncle or a piece of tusk of a narwhal, usually regarded as the horn of the unicorn, and which was believed to have the power of neutralising or even detecting the presence of poison.

Edward IV. presented to the ambassadors of Charles of Burgundy a costly assay cup of gold, ornamented with pearls and a great sapphire, and, to use the words of an old writer, “in the myddes of the cuppe ys a grete pece of a Vnicornes horne.”

The water used for washing the hands of the great had to be tasted by the yeoman who placed it on the table, to prove that no poison was contained in the fluid. This ceremony had to be performed in the presence of an assayer.