Royal wedding food in Victorian times: an extract from The Greedy Queen

21 May 2018

Annie Gray’s The Greedy Queen, out now in paperback, tells the fascinating stories behind Victorian diets. Dr Annie Gray, presenter of BBC2’s Victorian Bakers, draws together Queen Victoria’s intimate breakfasts with the King of France, to romping at tea-parties with her children, and from state balls to her last sip of milk.  

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Royal weddings are interesting but the food that is eaten at them is the real draw. This extract from The Greedy Queen tells the stories of Victorian royal wedding spreads.

From chapter 5: Cooks

The cooks were a disparate group of people, from across Europe and occasionally beyond. They had to be ready for anything, from dealing with the appalling conditions of the Buckingham Palace kitchens in the 1840s, to cooking in a none-too-brilliantly converted stable at Osborne House. Every cook had to be prepared to work in any or all of the Queen’s palaces. As with country house staffing conventions, they moved with the family, and only a skeleton staff was left in each palace when it was vacated. However, if they did spend an occasional night without the main staff, they got an extra allowance, board wages, to cover eating expenses. Some cooks would usually be sent on ahead to the next palace to prepare for the descent of the full Household, while others stayed behind to clear up. In later years, when the Household was at the new, private palaces of Osborne and Balmoral, the staff divided entirely, some going with the Queen, and some remaining at Windsor, sending goods out as needed. Edible gifts winged their way across the world, especially at Christmas, while all of the stupendous iced wedding cakes that were produced for the weddings of Victoria’s many children, wherever they were held, were baked and decorated at Windsor. Victoria’s own wedding cake was made at Buckingham Palace by the then confectionery chef, the impressively named John Chichester Mawditt.

Mawditt had been in the service of the Duke of Clarence, and transferred to the royal Establishment with him when he became William IV. He became head of the confectionery in 1835, remaining until 1850, and his name appeared regularly in the newspapers of the time. Confectionery was a true art form, centred on sugar, and regarded as a separate branch of cookery. Mawditt was lauded for his creations: for the christening of the Prince of Wales in 1842 he produced a christening cake which was,

ornamented round the bottom with a neatly-executed border of the rose, thistle and shamrock. On the sides of the cake were placed, alternately, medallion portraits in silver of Her Majesty and Prince Albert, with the arms of England over them, and the Prince of Wales’ feathers with the arms of Wales over them; the whole surmounted by a neat scroll in dead sugar work. Above were three tiers, each environed by smaller scroll work, surmounted by silvered princes’ feathers; and on the summit were pedestals supporting sugar figures of Ceres, Fortune, Plenty, Britannia holding the infant Prince, Clio, the goddess of history, and St David, the titular saint of Wales. In the centre of the group was a representation of the royal font; and several small vases, with flowers, surrounded the figures. The tout ensemble presented an elegant and chaste appearance.

Mawditt also contributed to the dessert course at the dinner which followed, with, ‘several pieces of the most exquisitely prepared confectionery … from the profusion of flowers with which they were decorated it seemed as if a gay parterre had suddenly sprung up among the other gay illusions of the scene’. Ornamental – yet theoretically edible – sculpture was a popular element on the à la Française dessert table. For Albert’s birthday in 1842, Mawditt made two sugarcraft columns, which, ‘more resembled elaborately executed pieces of sculpture in marble, than being fashioned from the frail material of sugar’. They came complete with statues, bas-relief representations of battles and military trophies, ‘tastefully grouped … in appropriate colours’.

Many of the newspapers of the time had a Hello-magazine- like tendency to heap praise on the doings of the royal family. Criticism of Victoria and Albert and, later, their children, for their political choices, was common at various times, but weddings and christenings were rarely attacked. There were telling exceptions, however, and the royal wedding cake was one. Most reports followed a pattern, describing the cake in detail. It was composed of ‘the most exquisite compounds of all the rich things with which the most expensive cakes can be composed, mingled and mixed together into delightful harmony by the most elaborate science of the confectioner’. It weighed 300 lb, with a circumference of 3 yards, and on top were foot-high sugar models of Britannia blessing Victoria and Albert, ‘dressed somewhat incongruously in the costume of ancient Rome’. The happy couple were surrounded by symbols of fidelity, love and a large number of cupids. So far, so good for Mr Mawditt. The Morning Post, however, took a different view, and gave more details. The ‘Queen’s own cake’, intended for the Queen’s wedding breakfast, was indeed made by the confectioners at the palace. But there were also a number of others, made by professional confectioners. The most well known firm of confectioners in Britain was Gunter’s, on Berkeley Square, and they supplied the cake for the state banquet. The Post described it as ‘a piece of elaborate architecture built up so proudly as to out-top all other dishes and be the envy of surrounding ornaments’. Gunter’s also supplied fourteen cakes to be sent out to friends, relatives, foreign ambassadors and the like, across the world. Another well-known confectioners, Waud’s, provided eighteen more. They make Mawditt’s efforts sound somewhat lacking:

‘There is no gilding or “gingerbread” about any of them – no allegorical nonsense, no chubby cherubs, no colours, no muslin, no silver-leaf, no white mortar-work executed by trowel and hod! All is naturally and delicately fanciful … [they have] one serious defect – they are too pretty to be eaten!’

Amid all this hyperbole, the description of Mawditt’s cake is stark:

‘as plain as a sugar-loaf in its exterior, so that nobody need feel any hesitation in demolishing it. Its proportions are, indeed, so cheese-like that all the poetic effect of the allegorical figures on the top, and the elegance of Mr Yates’ artificial flowers around the sides cannot carry off its clumsiness. But no matter. The shape is orthodox. The wreaths and roses are made to be pulled to pieces and carried off as souvenirs, and the cake itself to be cut to pieces and eaten; and so it shall fulfil its destiny.’

Mawditt’s skills must have been up to the job in some respects, or he would presumably not have remained in place as long as he did. However, when scrutiny of the kitchens increased in the late 1840s, he was found to be somewhat lacking, and was dismissed in 1850. (He then seems to have gone freelance or set up shop with his nephew, listed with him as a confectioner in Marylebone in the 1861 census.) The papers were obviously being kind, or perhaps the journalists simply didn’t get close enough to see the flaws.