Keeping on the subject of mediaeval food, I decided to write about a foodstuff that is no longer commonly eaten or even very well known of in the UK – the lamprey. The lamprey, an ancient and primitive species of fish, was popular in mediaeval times because of the Church’s ruling that people were not allowed to eat meat on certain days, often the eve of Church feast days, Fridays and Lent for example. Fish was allowed however, and lamprey was liked because it was meatier than most other fish. It was considered a delicacy and was eaten at feasts and special occasions, especially by the nobility. In fact, Henry I was so fond of it that he was famously thought to have died from ‘a surfeit of lamprey’ in 1135 and Samuel Pepys refers to it in his diary as popular among ‘mediaeval epicures’.
So what does this fish look like? Well, it is a long, eel-like fish with no scales or jaw and is a dark colour on its back (olive green to greyish brown) with a silvery underbelly. It has no bones, but only cartilage and no normal gills, just seven pairs of gill holes behind its ear. It has only one nostril on the top of its head. Instead of a regular fish mouth it has a round tooth-like opening with sucker-like lips and a rasp like tongue. Some species attach themselves to host fish and use their tongue to make a wound in the other fish and secretes an anti-coagulant so they can suck their blood, but they rarely kill the host fish, moving on to another host before this happens. Yes, it sounds lovely doesn’t it? Like a cross between an eel, a leech, a vampire and the Alien!
There are three types of lamprey, the brook lamprey, the river lamprey and the sea lamprey. The sea lamprey is the largest, reaching up to a meter in length. The river lamprey grows up to 30cm and the brook lamprey only 15 cm. They all spawn in fresh water silt beds and the young can take several years to develop before they become adult. They only choose to spawn in water which is unpolluted, so their presence shows the water quality is good. Although they were alive before the dinosaurs, they are now an endangered species in Britain.
They were often eaten in a pie and there are recipes for lamprey pie on the internet. A fifteenth century one is as follows:
The fish placed in a crust and baked in a sauce of wine, vinegar, cinnamon – and its own blood.
The lamprey is then removed and served separately, while a syrup of sweet wine, sugar and ginger is added to the crust, along with white bread.
So what connection does the lamprey have to Richard III? Well, this was a very popular food with the royalty of mediaeval times and it was therefore almost certain that Richard III would have eaten it. The best lamprey was found in the river Severn estuary and there was a tradition which is apparently ‘centuries old’, dating from at least the Middle Ages, that the City of Gloucester would bake a lamprey pie for the reigning monarch for special occasions such as Christmas, Coronations and Jubilees. I was unable to ascertain exactly when this tradition started, but as Henry I enjoyed them perhaps Richard did have a lamprey pie presented to him at his Coronation and Christmas by the City which bore his Ducal name.
This tradition was discontinued at the time of the Industrial revolution but was revived in 1952 for the present Queen’s 1953 coronation and subsequently her Silver and Golden Jubilee. However, by the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, the lamprey had become so scarce in the Severn that Gloucester had to source them from Canada’s Great Lakes for the first time. Here is a link to a video reporting this and showing the pie being made: Gloucester makes pie for Queen