Yate Heritage Centre: Feast and famine, 500 years ago

May 03 2021
Yate Heritage Centre: Feast and famine, 500 years ago

Yate Heritage Centre's David Hardill looks at what life was like in Yate in 1521

IT is very tempting to see Yate as very much a modern creation, and ignore the rich history which exists before the 20th century.

Five hundred years ago, Yate was a parish with three manors and around 200 occupants. The medieval Catholic church held sway over the lives of most people in 1521 – about ten years before the English Reformation placed Henry VIII as head of the Church of England.

Most people worked on the land in a subsistence economy and sheep, bred for the cloth industry, would have been a regular sight on the landscape.

Yate was much as it had been in the 15th century, apart from the arrival of one of the great families of England. The Berkeley family were the tenants of Yate Court, seat of the Manor of Yate since 1504.

In the 1490s, William Lord Berkeley had died without children and Berkeley Castle was forfeited to the crown.

In 1519, the mighty Berkeley family transformed the existing medieval manor from a fortified house into a palatial Tudor mansion, which is today a ruin retaining only a small proportion of its earlier form.

We are blessed with the details of building the new Yate Court mansion in 1519, which demonstrate the stature of the Berkeley family. They were able to draw upon the services of 24 masons, 25 carpenters, 32 labourers and 38 carriers and hauliers.

Timber and nails came from the Forest of Dean. Stone came from Box, near Bath, and the Frome valley. It was a state-of-the-art building with little expense spared.

Maurice Lord Berkeley was head of the household from 1506 to his death in 1523, and oversaw the building of the new Yate Court.

Berkeley was often away, and held key military positions under Henry VIII in the 1510s.

When he was at Yate it was a great occasion, befitting his position.

Again, we are able to use details from the Berkeley records. In 1518, there are inventories of the feasting at Yate Court for the family, guests, retinue and sundry invitees.  

The upper classes demonstrated their wealth through their diet, with conspicuous eating of meat of most kinds, to the exclusion of “lesser foods” such as vegetables, raw fruit and dairy products.   Berkeley ate food from far and wide: both pepper and mustard seeds came from overseas in 1518 and there were sea fish eaten, including plaice, whiting and copious amounts of oysters.

The estate and Berkeley lands accounted for much of the food; wildfowl in local ponds were eaten in great quantities, notably snipe and woodcock.

The Tudors were also happy to consume small birds captured by their staff, which may have tested the cook’s ingenuity. In September 1518, more than 100 larks were eaten in nine days, while in December that year, 88 fieldfares (a member of the thrush family) were devoured.   

Two years later, England suffered a devastatingly poor harvest.

Maurice Berkeley would survive, of course, but many others wouldn’t have.

Five hundred years ago, it was feast or famine.

With thanks to Berkeley record office and the late Harry Lane. 

Diary dates

May 11, 7.30pm: Talk on 550th Anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury with Richard Goddard.

May 19, 7.30pm: Yate Archaeology Group, the Viking army at Repton, with Cat Jarman.

Contact info@yateheritage.co.uk for Zoom links for both of these online events.

News on the centre's re-opening will follow soon.