The Gargantuan Feast of George Neville

Arms of George Neville
Arms of George Neville (c. 1432 – 8 June 1476),
Archbishop of York and Chancellor of England.

Research notes.

When George Neville[1] was installed as Archbishop of York in 1465, the event was celebrated with a feast that would have impressed the most gluttonous of kings. And as it was in much of Europe at the time, meat was the main feature, boiled, roasted, fried; flesh, fish, and game; and in greater variety than is available anywhere today.[2]

The historian Paul Freedman gives a thorough account of the days-long banquet in his book Out of the East: Spices and the Medieval Imagination. At one point he uses this and another banquet to illustrate the Medieval European preference for meats—“the banquet menus read like extreme examples of a high-protein diet.”[3]  

Neville’s installation[3] went on for several days, perhaps, a week, with two to three thousand people attending, “an event of some fame and later notoriety because of the extraordinary amounts of food required.” Freedman calls the non-game meat “relatively modest”:

  • 104 oxen

  • 1,000 sheep

  • 304 “veales”

  • 2,000 pigs

  • 304 piglets (like veal?)

  • 4,000 rabbits

  • 204 kids (young goats, presumably)

That’s modesty for you.

Game animals (stags, bucks and “venison pastries”?) were slaughtered in similar proportions, but fowls apparently were the main attraction, with more than 10,000 birds prepared by hundreds of chefs. Freedman counts the types: swans (400), peacocks (400), cranes (204), and presumably less-expensive pigeons, which numbered 4,000.

Seafood also made the menu, four porpoises and eight seals standing out among lobsters, eels, and other fishy attractions.

The banquet was held at the Castle of Cawood near York. Seven tables divided the clergy and other officials present by rank, and that was just the main hall. Other rooms held nobles, landowners, and ladies of the region.

Freedman continues with a second example banquet, this one held for the enthronement of Bishop John Chandler of Salisbury in 1414 (or possibly 1417). For this meal, Freedman provides a menu that lists out three courses, all meat: the first oiled meats including swan, capon, pheasant, and peacock; the second roasted including piglet, kid, crane, and partridge; and the third, fried, with treats ranging from pigeon to rabbit to quail and lark. Both Neville's and Chandler's celebrations illustrate fully a sheer love for meats in medieval Europe.[5]

In Southeast Asia by contrast, fish and rice were the dominant source of calories for the common people—not a negative thing given the variety and abundance available. In Malacca, fishing was the chief occupation for men (Anthony Reid / Ma Huan).[4] And while Southeast Asian rulers and merchants held lavish festivals of their own, meat generally held a ritual character, Reid wrote, and it was eaten only when fresh, right after slaughter.

For Southeast Asian travelers to Europe, such as Enrique of Malacca, the European palate would have been an acquired taste.


1. Freedman's book appears to have a typographic error; it lists the archbishop being installed in 1465 as Richard Neville. In fact George Neville was archbishop of York from 1465 to 1476. 

2. A wider variety of meats cannot be had anywhere in the world today? Not many places have stags, bucks, swans, cranes, and peacocks on the menu, with dolphin and porpoise for greater variety.

3. To be fair, George Neville was a pretty important guy. He served as archbishop of York from 1465 to 1476 and chancellor of England from 1460 to 1467 and 1470 to 1471. In addition, served as chancellor of the University of Oxford for many years. All of that probably gave him quite an appetite. Meanwhile, George's brother was Richard Neville, who was known as the "kingmaker" and was major figure in the War of the Roses.

4. Reid, Anthony. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680. United Kingdom: Yale University Press, 1988.

5. As I was polishing this piece up, my son texted to say he was stopping for Indian food and asked if I wanted anything. I ordered vegetarian.

By John Sailors

Enrique of Malacca's Voyage. Updated from 4/5/23 4:30 PM.

(C) 2023 by John Sailors. All rights reserved.

See Also:

Antonio Pigafetta's account of the Magellan-Elcano voyage gives us both first-hand historical detail and color—the human aspects of the journey. The Italian scholar learned all he could about the cultures that Magellan's fleet encountered, even sitting down and recording samples of languages.

An excellent example of Pigafetta's curiosity and fascination is his description of the coconut and the palm tree, which he learned about soon after the fleet's arrival in the Philippines. Like the pineapple Magellan tried in Rio, the coconut was an unknown. "Cocoanuts are the fruit of the palmtree. Just as we have bread, wine, oil, and milk, so those people get everything from that tree. Read more.