A Medieval Christmas Party
An archaeological dig at Kingston Lacy has helped us unlock its hidden past, bringing Christmas in 1371 back to life after the discovery of a hidden Medieval manor.
The 14th century was a time of chivalry, royal banquets and extravagance. England, following military victories against France, had an air of superiority and was ready to celebrate.
So comes the time for the biggest party of the year; Christmas. It wasn’t just a one day event– it was a 12 day extravanganza. Lords dressed in fine silks and ladies paraded in full skirts and furs. Kitchens were awash with frenzied activity, as cooks prepared roasted meats, pies and pastries. Mince pies are a new addition to the feast, filling Medieval banqueting tables around Britain for the first time.
But where to spend the highlight of the 14th-century social calendar? Rather surprisingly, not London or any other city, but Kingston Lacy in Dorset, though not the flamboyant Renaissance-style house you know today.
Instead, imagine a house twice the size of the modern mansion, in which medieval knights are mingling with princes, stewards and grooms. This is one of the largest and most extravagant festive parties, hosted by the Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt.
A mysterious medieval mansion
Aside from the fleeting records, including letters sent from John of Gaunt whilst staying at Kingston Lacy, very little is known about this medieval mansion.
Following the War of the Roses in 1485, the house was demolished and replaced by the lavish Italian palace you can see today, leaving this Christmas resort for kings and princes buried and forgotten for over 650 years.
Uncovered by archaeology
A team of National Trust archaeologists and volunteers rediscovered Kingston Lacy’s medieval past.
Latin manuscripts found in a cupboard in the current house hinted towards a lost community. Soon after these were found, a storm blew over a tree in the parkland, revealing medieval treasures in its roots.
Excavations unearthed a large sandstone wall measuring over a metre wide, medieval pottery and glazed floor tiles in alternating colours of yellow, green and purple.
Oyster shells, animal bones and fine wares all showcase the distinguished position held by its nationally important residents, such as Henry de Lacy, John of Gaunt, Henry IV and Henry V.
" This was a particularly exciting project. It combined the detective techniques of archaeology and history to enable National Trust archaeologists and volunteers to rediscover the roots of Kingston Lacy. "
Preparing for Christmas
Aside from the archaeological dig, evidence was found to show the scale and drama of the festivities.
Newlywed and ready to show off his new Spanish wife, Constance of Castile, Letters from John of Gaunt at Kingston Lacy in 1371 reveal the extravagant preparations made for one of the most prestigious events of the year.
He insists all game had to be "prize beasts and carried to us in good condition."
" We command that you take six deer and six dozen rabbits and bring them to our manor of Kingston before Christmas Eve, also the following Sunday and the Tuesday after that."
Invites would include his father King Edward III, his sister-in-law the Princess of Acquitaine, numerous influential barons and a ‘household’ consisting of brave knights, esquires, grooms and valets.
Staff were also sent out to buy opulent gifts, including a pair of silver slippers, a gold brooch and silver casket.
Clues from history
The archaeological finds are valuable historical clues to Kingston Lacy’s past life, helping to paint a colourful picture of the once forgotten manor house.
Britain’s leading minds once trod the colourful tiled floors, discussing politics, dancing and feasting at one of the largest Christmas banquets of 1371. With the help and support of visitors and volunteers, we were able to learn all about Kingston Lacy’s medieval Christmas.