Was England's First Ever Turkey Dinner Eaten At Fulham Palace?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 8 months ago

Last Updated 16 November 2023

Was England's First Ever Turkey Dinner Eaten At Fulham Palace?
A roast turkey on a tray
Did the Bishops of Fulham feast on the first turkey dinner? Image: iStock.com/LauriPatterson

Was England's first ever turkey Christmas dinner eaten at Fulham Palace? We might not be talking total gobbledegook.

In 2018, during excavations around the west London palace, two turkey bones were discovered in a medieval ditch backfilled with kitchen waste. So far, so unexciting. That is, until archaeologist Alexis Haslam dated the bones as being from sometime between 1480 and 1550.

These date are important, because a) the first turkeys aren't thought to have arrived in England till 1524, and b) the well-plumed birds were initially treated with the reverence of expensive pets like peacocks, i.e. generally not stuffed with Paxo and eaten — therefore the discovery among ancient kitchen waste in this instance was conspicuous.

Turkeys only came to England in the first third of the 16th century, and it didn't take us long to start eating the poor things. Image: public domain

So was Fulham Palace — then owned by the Bishops of London and used as a country home — a festive feasting trendsetter? We know the English soon started looking at their feathered pets in an increasingly hungry manner, and by 1573, turkey was recorded as being dished up on English dinner tables as a yuletide repast. It's not a great leap of imagination to think that whichever Fulham bishop was in the job at the time, got on the drumstick-munching bandwaggon early — or even started it. Even if the turkey wasn't gobbled up on 25 December, we can presume these remains are from one of the first turkey dinners on these shores*.

Let's assume the Bishop of London WAS necking turkey for lunch — would it have come with all the trimmings? Alexis Haslam, the Palace's archaeologist, tells us he's unsure if they'd have grown sprouts in the kitchen gardens back in those days, although they certainly do in 2022. Unfortunately, Sir Walter Raleigh — potato-discoverer-in-chief — was yet to be born, so we can conclude that if the England's inaugural festive turkey feast was enjoyed at Fulham Palace, then it was served sans roasties. (And it would be CENTURIES till the cracker came along.)

Lean-to greenhosues
The gardens at Fulham Palace grow sprouts these days, although we're not sure if they did in the 16th century. Image: Edwardx via creative commons

Until the Fulham Palace discovery in 2018, the oldest turkey bones to be excavated in London were from the former Royal Naval Victualling Yard opposite the Tower of London (but these dated back "only" to between 1560 and 1635). Haslam tells us that the earliest English reference to turkey dates to 1520, when Alessandro Geraldini, the Bishop of Hispañola, sent a pair of birds to Lorenzo Pucci, the Florentine Cardinal in Rome. (Bishops, it would seem, were central in those early days of turkey hype.)

However, actual turkeys didn't arrive here until a few years later, when a number of the gangly birds were imported into Bristol by explorer William Strickland. Little did the poor things know the carnivorous English would be munching on their descendants' carcasses all these centuries later.

*Just a year previously, in 2017, turkey bones dating between 1520 and 1550 were excavated in Exeter, meaning these are also contenders for the first turkey dinner ever eaten in England.