by Eleanor Herman
It would only take one person to slip a little something into a king’s food. Henry VIII had two hundred people employed in his kitchens at Hampton Court: cooks, scullery maids, stewards, carvers, porters, bakers, butchers, gardeners, butlers, pantlers (pantry servants), and delivery men who plucked, chopped, boiled, baked, carried, garnished, plated, scrubbed, and ran errands. Royal kitchens were food factories, pumping out hundreds of meals a day as servants trudged in and out.
With such an unsettling number of hands touching his food, what steps did a royal take to avoid ingesting poison? The earliest advice comes from the great Jewish physician, philosopher, and scholar Maimonides, who in 1198 wrote a treatise on the subject for his employer, Sultan Saladin of Egypt and Syria. He advised against eating foods with uneven textures, such as soups and stews, or strong flavors that could conceal the flavor or texture of poison. “Care should also be exercised with regards to foods… obviously sour, pungent, or highly-flavored,” wrote Maimonides, “also ill-smelling dishes or those prepared with onion or garlic. All these foods are best taken from a reliable person, above all suspicion, because the way to harm by poison is only to those foods which assimilate the poisonous taste and smell, as well as the poison’s appearance and consistency.”
According to Maimonides, poison in wine was particularly dangerous and difficult to detect. “The trick is easily done by mixing the poison with wine,” he wrote, “because the latter as a rule covers up the poison’s appearance, taste, and smell, and speeds it up on its way to the heart. Whoever drinks wine about which he has reason to suspect that someone has tried to outwit him is certainly out of his mind.”
In the late sixteenth century, the powerful minister of Spain, Gaspar de Guzmán, Duke of Olivares, was evidently well aware of the dangers of poisoned wine. According to a report in the Medici Archives in Florence, Olivares, when dining in the city of Valencia, “having taken his first drink and tasting a very unnatural flavor in the wine, he feared poisoning and jumped away from the table in a great fury asking for remedies. Meanwhile, the wine steward, having heard what was going on, reassured His Excellency that the bad taste resulted from his not having rinsed the wine flask well after washing it with vinegar and salt. When the steward then preceded to drink the same wine, he [Olivares] finally calmed down.”
Girolamo Ruscelli agreed with Maimonides. He wrote the 1555 book The Secrets of the Reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont, Containing Excellent Remedies Against Diverse Diseases, Wounds, and Other Accidents, with the Maner to Make Distillations, Parfumes, Confitures, Dyings, Colours, Fusions, and Meltings, which swept across Europe in numerous translations and editions. In a section called “For to preserve from poisoning,” he noted, “You must take heed that you eate not things of strong savor, or of a very sweete taste, because that the bitternesse and stench of poisons in this maner is wont to be covered, for the over-sweet, souer, or salte thing mixed with poison, doth hide the bitternesse of it.”
Ambroise Paré, physician to four kings of France, wrote in his 1585 treatise on poisons, “It is a matter of much difficultie to avoid poisons because… by the admixture of sweet and well-smelling things, they cannot easily bee perceived even by the skillful. Therefore such as fear poisoning ought to take heed of meats cooked with much art, verie sweet, salty, sowr, or notabley endued with anie other taste. And when they are opprest with hunger or thirst, they must not eat or drink too greedily, but have a diligent regard to the taste of such things as they eat or drink.”
For thousands of years, kings hired tasters to test each dish before it reached the royal mouth. However, poisons—even a hefty dose of arsenic—don’t necessarily work instantly. Contrary to what we see in film, the victim of poison didn’t swallow something, grab his throat, and hit the floor dead. The length of time required for the first symptoms (abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea) to appear varied greatly depending on the individual’s height, weight, genetics, general health, and how much food was already in the stomach, which would slow the poison’s absorption.
One of the few recorded examples of this phenomenon occurred in 1867 when a group of twenty guests sat down to a meal at an Illinois hotel and ate biscuits mistakenly made with arsenic instead of flour. One guest fell ill shortly upon rising from the table, while the others became sick over several hours, although they all consumed the arsenic at the same time. All the victims had nausea and diarrhea, but other symptoms varied, including a burning pain in the gut, a constricted throat, cramps, and convulsions. One victim had diarrhea and difficulty urinating for several weeks. None died.
Certainly, the royal family wouldn’t wait at the table an hour or two after a taster tested their meal to see if he started retching—their food would be stone cold. Evidently, kings and their physicians weren’t aware of this time lag and expected poisoned tasters to start gagging and vomiting immediately. They also must have relied on the taster to test for unusual flavors or textures.
According to Maimonides, it was preferable if the taster—or a host whom the king suspected of unkindly intentions toward him—took a great heaping helping of the food rather than a polite nibble. “Someone who wants to guard himself against someone else whom he suspects,” the philosopher wrote, “should not eat from his food until the suspect first eats a fair quantity from it. He should not be satisfied with eating only a mouthful, as I have seen done by the cooks of kings in their presence.” To prevent the poisoning of his hard-won son and heir, the future Edward VI, Henry VIII had tasters stuff their faces with the young prince’s milk, bread, meat, eggs, and butter before the boy took so much as a spoonful.
By the Middle Ages, the tasting of the king’s food developed into a complicated set of protocols, rituals, and safeguards. Testing began in the royal kitchen. A 1465 report of the banquet held to celebrate the installation of George Neville as Archbishop of York described the numerous assays, or tests, of the dishes. “In the mean tyme the Sewer goeth to the dresser,” the author explained, “and there taketh assay of every dyshe, and doth geve it to the Stewarde and the Cooke to eat of all Porreges, Mustarde, and other sawces … And of every stewed meate, rosted, boylde, or broyled, beyng fyshe or fleshe, he cutteth a litle thereofe … and so with all other meates, as Custardes, Tartes, and Gelly, with other such lyke.”
When faced with any dish bearing a crust, such as a meat pie, the tasters broke the crust, dipped bread into the food below, and tasted it. By the time the monarch received a plate of food, the resulting haggis was not only lukewarm but may have looked more like a dog’s breakfast than a king’s dinner. Servants carried the tested dishes in pompous procession to the royal dining chamber, where they placed them on a credenza, which takes its name from the various “credence” tests for poison conducted there. Each servant had to eat from the dish he himself had carried, and armed guards made sure no unauthorized person approached the food.
Anything the king drank—whether water, wine, or ale—was also tested, of course. The taster poured a few drops of the beverage into the “bason of assay,” or testing basin, and drank it. A servant also tested the water the king used to wash his hands before and after eating by pouring some from the royal basin over his own hands to see if it caused pain, itching, or burning.
But tests were not only reserved for food and drink. Servants also kissed the king’s tablecloth and seat cushion. If their lips didn’t itch or swell, they assumed the items were poison-free.
Even the king’s salt was tested. The pantler scooped out a bit of salt from its large, ornate dish and passed it to the porter to taste. The servant bringing the king’s napkin from the linen closet did so by hanging it around his neck so that he could hide no poison in its folds. According to the 1465 report, “Then the Carver taketh the Napkyn from his shoulder and kysseth it for his assay, and delyvereth to the Lorde. Then taketh he the Spoone, dryeth it, and kysseth it for his assay.” With all this kissing of the king’s utensils, it is far more likely his royal highness was sickened with germs rather than arsenic.
Eleanor Herman is the author of Sex with Kings, Sex with the Queen, and several other works of popular history. She has hosted Lost Worlds for The History Channel, The Madness of Henry VIII for the National Geographic Channel, and is now filming her second season of America: Fact vs. Fiction for The American Heroes Channel. Herman, who happily dresses in Renaissance gowns, lives with her husband, their black lab, and her four very dignified cats in McLean, VA.