Anglo-Saxon royals were largely vegetarian

A food list from the eighth-century reign of King Ine of Wessex.
A food list from the eighth-century reign of King Ine of Wessex. (Image credit: Chapter of Rochester Cathedral)

Despite their high status, Anglo-Saxon royalty didn't regularly feast on copious amounts of meat and fish. Rather, these medieval rulers dined primarily on vegetables, just like the commoners they ruled over, according to two new studies.  

In fact, social hierarchy did not have any bearing on the amount of meat consumed; both royalty and peasants chowed down on large amounts of meat only occasionally, the research revealed. It wasn't until the Vikings settled in what is now the United Kingdom in the ninth century and onward that meat became more common on the menu, the team reported.

The findings are based on the analysis of more than 2,000 deceased individuals from the Anglo-Saxon era, which showed no evidence of these people eating "much animal protein on a regular basis," Sam Leggett, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, said in a statement, as well as an investigation into Anglo-Saxon records about food consumption.

Related: Archaeologists have found the lair of an exiled Anglo-Saxon hermit king

Bioarchaeologist Sam Leggett analyzes samples in the lab.  (Image credit: University of Cambridge)

Leggett first presented her findings while completing her doctorate at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. Her project was among the largest of its kind, in which she analyzed isotopes, or elements with varying numbers of neutrons in their nuclei, in the skeletal remains of 2,023 people buried in England between the fifth and 11th centuries A.D. Studying a variety of isotopes was key, as these chemical signatures revealed which types of foods these people had consumed. Leggett then cross-referenced these findings with the social status of each skeleton based on its grave artifacts, body position and burial orientation, and found that there was no correlation between a high-protein diet and the status of an individual.

These findings surprised Tom Lambert, a historian at Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge who had studied medieval texts that indicated that the Anglo-Saxons did eat a lot of meat.

So, the two paired up to investigate the reality of Anglo-Saxon cuisine. The pair analyzed food lists, both royal and nonroyal, from southern England during the reign of King Ine of Wessex (circa 688 to 726). These food lists showed that people feasted on a large amount of meat, a modest amount of bread, a decent quantity of ale and no vegetables.

However, the duo soon realized that these food lists weren't menus for everyday living but instead spreads for rare lavish feasts.

A recreated Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow park in Suffolk, England. (Image credit: Sam Leggett)

"The scale and proportions of these food lists strongly suggests that they were provisions for occasional grand feasts, and not general food supplies sustaining royal households on a daily basis," Lambert said in the statement. "These were not blueprints for everyday elite diets as historians have assumed." If the Anglo-Saxons had indulged in more meat-heavy meals, "we would find isotopic evidence of excess protein and signs of diseases like gout from the bones," Leggett said. "But we're just not finding that." 

The finding shows that diets across social groups during this period were more similar than previously thought, she added. "We should imagine a wide range of people livening up bread with small quantities of meat and cheese, or eating pottages of leeks and whole grains with a little meat thrown in." 

Studying the food lists has also led Lambert and Leggett to conclude that such feasts were not just for the elite; peasants were likely to hosted feasts to pay "feorm," or "food rent," to the king.

"Historians generally assume that medieval feasts were exclusively for elites," Lambert said. "But these food lists show that even if you allow for huge appetites, 300 or more people must have attended. That means that a lot of ordinary farmers must have been there, and this has big political implications."

It's likely that free peasants, or people who owned their own farms and sometimes had slaves, hosted large barbecues which were visited by kings. "You could compare it to a modern presidential campaign dinner in the U.S." Lambert said. "This was a crucial form of political engagement."

Such feasts would have included whole oxen roasted over huge pits; archaeologists have previously found evidence for these kinds of feasts in East Anglia, where many Anglo-Saxons lived, the researchers noted.

Leggett and Lambert are currently waiting for the release of isotopic data from the Winchester Mortuary Chests, which hold the remains of several Anglo-Saxon royals — including Canute (also spelled Cnut), who ruled England, Denmark and Norway during part of the 11th century — to continue their investigation into the eating habits of Anglo-Saxon royalty.

The studies were published online April 20 in the journal Anglo-Saxon England

Originally published on Live Science. 

Staff Writer, All About History

Emily is the Staff Writer at All About History magazine, writing and researching for the magazine's content. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from the University of York and a Master of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Sheffield. Her historical interests include Early Modern and Renaissance Europe, and the history of popular culture.