A Present from the Past: Sir Robert Menzies and the Fishes Royal
The role of prime minister is tough. But it also has some perks. Prime ministers get to live in The Lodge; they’re immortalised in our Prime Ministers of Australia gallery; and they get a lot of presents. Our collection features a variety of engraved keys, bells and trowels; silverware, certificates and swords; and cigarette and cigar boxes (from back when smoking meant ‘debonair’ not ‘death’). We know of a portrait of Julia Gillard meticulously mosaicked in coffee beans. Harold Holt had a frigate named after him. But perhaps nothing will surpass the gift bestowed upon Sir Robert Menzies.
An embroidered pennant now on display in the Prime Ministers of Australia gallery was given to Sir Robert after Queen Elizabeth appointed him Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1965. He was the first foreigner in a role filled over the centuries by British royalty or prime ministers: Sir Robert’s immediate predecessor was Sir Winston Churchill. The appointment was reward for Sir Robert’s years of devotion to the Crown, but he felt it was part of the grander scheme of things. In a press release he said ‘the selection of an Australian for a position so steeped in British tradition and history is a real demonstration of the family bonds of the British Commonwealth.’ But the pennant was just one gift. There was another gift, something even more British, traditional and historic. Bear with me while I give you some backstory.
The confederation of the Cinque Ports—the five seaports Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich—was established by Royal Charter by Henry II in 1155. In the days before the Royal Navy, these strategically important ports on the English Channel coast provided naval assistance to the Crown. The ports’ primary obligation was to provide 57 ships, each with a crew of 21 men and a boy, for 15 days’ service to the monarch each year. The Cinque Ports fleet saw plenty of action, including a stoush with the Spanish Armada in 1588. They were also used to convey monarchs and armies to and from Normandy and other parts of Europe. (‘Cinque’ is pronounced ‘sink’, not ‘sank’ or even ‘chin-kway’, because it is Norman French, the language of the English Court at the time of King Henry’s Charter.)
In exchange for their efforts, the Cinque Ports were granted a variety of privileges. You really must read this aloud:
Exemption from tax and tallage, right of soc and sac, tol and team, blodwit and fledwit, pillory and tumbril, infangentheof and outfangentheof, mundbryce, waifs and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan.
Rather than being an attempt to kill my spellchecker, these terms set out the Ports’ right to self-government. They could levy their own taxes, hold their own courts, seize felons, punish (and even execute) those found guilty, enter land or property (for defence purposes), and claim lost belongings and any wreckage or cargo found on the sea or shore. Sounds great, right?
No. The resulting piracy, pillage and the general dodginess of some Cinque Portsmen led to the creation of the Lord Warden position in the 13th century. The Lord Warden was a Minister of the Crown and conveyed Royal Commands to the Ports while simultaneously maintaining (and controlling) their liberties. Having to gather 1,254 men and boys for a fortnight each year was a stretch at the best of times, but it got harder when the port of Hastings silted up and seafaring men moved on. The Cinque Ports borrowed men from nearby towns and villages to help fill their quota but by the 14th century most Cinque Ports were unnavigable. Eventually, the role of Lord Warden became ceremonial.
Nevertheless, as the symbolic defender of Britain the Lord Warden still enjoys certain privileges. They have the right to claim ‘wreck’ and in 1707 were granted the most exalted privilege of all: the right to claim Fishes Royal within the Cinque Ports jurisdiction.
Fishes Royal are whales, porpoises, grampuses, dolphins and sturgeon which, come to think of it, are the only actual fish in the group. In 1317 King Edward II declared that no member of the aforementioned menagerie caught in British waters could be eaten by lower-class people without Royal consent. And in medieval times, the Royals and their friends pretty much gobbled the lot. According to Jonathan Gutoff’s Like A Sturgeon?: Royal Fish, Royal Prerogative and Modern Executive Power, the feast following the enthronement of the Archbishop of York in 1466 included 4,000 plovers, 1,000 egrets, 104 peacocks and 12 porpoises and seals.
The Royals got their Fishes because sturgeon were rare in Britain and, like porpoise and the other ‘fishes’, are nice and oily. They made a tasty dish for the numerous Catholic fast days when all the usual meats were banned. (And it was the flesh or blubber people craved. Caviar is from the sturgeon of the Black and Caspian Seas and probably wasn’t known even in cosmopolitan Constantinople until the 12th century; in Britain, much later.)
The rarity and value of sturgeon in particular was also due to it being difficult to preserve. Fatty fish tend to get a bit maggoty if not appropriately pickled. Sturgeon was such a delicacy that in the 17th century, naval contractors gave barrels of it to Samuel Pepys, the Secretary of the Admiralty, as bribes.
By now I’m sure you’re desperate to try some, but if you’re in Britain, beware: the Fishes Royal rule is still current. That said, the gobbling has slowed considerably thanks to the protection of sturgeon and other ‘privileged’ Fishes by endangered species legislation. But if you happen to be a member of the Royal family, and happen to have some Fishes Royal caught before the implementation of this legislation, why not try this at home (and you really must read this aloud, too):
Take a Sturgeon or porpeys, and kut hit in faire peces to bake; And then make faire kakes of faire paast; And then pouder of peper, pouder of Ginger, Canell, and salt; And medye thes pouders and salt togiders; And take and ley a pece of the fissh on a kake and ley the pouders vnderneth the fissh, and aboue ynowe; And then wete the sides of the paast with faire colde water, and close the sides togider, and settle hem in an oven, and bake hem ynowe.
This English recipe dates from 1430 and Medieval Cookery, from which I stole it, advises that ‘Canell’ is cinnamon. Judging from the other recipes on this website, it seems Fishes Royal were also popular in vinegar-based sauces with ‘clowes, Maces and saffron’. If you’re fresh out of saffron you could try calendula as a substitute. (Incidentally, calendula has been used for aeons in traditional medicine as a digestive remedy, which might come in handy if your Fish is a little … historic.)
Despite the temptation, it seems Lord Warden Sir Robert Menzies did not indulge in this particular privilege of his ‘family bonds’. Indeed, he considered the Fishes Royal ‘more of a liability than an asset in that they usually have to be buried, and the cost of the burial is a charge to be borne by the Lord Warden.’ It is unknown whether Sir Robert had to dispose of any bloated corpses besmirching the white cliffs of Dover during his term. We are certainly relieved to be displaying his small, fragrant and worm-free pennant in the Prime Ministers of Australia gallery.