Anatomy of a Castle – the Kitchen

With upwards of fifty people to feed every day, you would expect castles to have large kitchens and you would be correct.  Often they were separate buildings. It wouldn’t do for a fire in the kitchen to spread to the lord’s domestic apartments. Given that cooking was done over an open fire, there was always a risk of a fire escaping the confines of the hearth and burning down the kitchen, as we’ll see below. Where the kitchen was joined to the building housing the hall, there was usually a thick stone wall between them

The kitchen at Kenilworth is essentially that built by John of Gaunt in the second half of the fourteenth century. It’s huge.  The English Heritage guidebook tells me that it’s 66ft by 28ft, significantly larger than most aristocratic kitchens. For once I’m grateful that I couldn’t take a photograph without children on a school visit appearing in it, as they give an idea of the scale.


The Kitchen, Kenilworth Castle, with obligatory schoolchildren

There were three fireplaces along the wall to the left of the photograph. The brickwork down the middle of the room was a drain for kitchen waste. John of Gaunt had a very large household, hence the need for a large kitchen.

It also had a bread oven.


Bread oven, Kenilworth Castle

I’m not sure they could have baked many loaves in an oven that size. There must have been more ovens somewhere else.

Within the large kitchen at Kenilworth Castle there was a smaller kitchen: the privy kitchen. That was where the food for John of Gaunt, his family and his important guests was prepared.

The kitchen at Old Sarum was much smaller. It was divided into three and the largest part contained three bread ovens. It was probably built around 1307, when the previous kitchen burned down. That might explain why it’s in the middle of the inner bailey, far from the castle’s main buildings.

The inner bailey and bakery, Old Sarum

The inner bailey and bakery, Old Sarum

The kitchen in the palace of John of Gaunt’s nephew, Richard II, at Portchester Castle is tiny and cooking was probably done over a central, open fire, which was quite old-fashioned for the 1390s, especially in the palace of a king. This was, however, one of Richard’s many palaces and it wasn’t his main one.

As you can see from the photograph below, the food was taken up the steps and through the doorway into the Great Hall.

Entrance to the Great Hall from the kitchen

Entrance to the Great Hall from the Kitchen, Portchester Castle

The kitchen is on the left of the palace and its entrance is just to the left of the unavoidable visitor. You can see how compact the palace is. The great hall takes up the rest of the building, and the king’s sleeping quarters are in the building that sticks out at right-angles.

Richard II's Palace 2

Richard II’s Palace, Portchester Castle

Kitchen staff, like most of the household, were men (or boys) and they were mostly unseen. In aristocratic households where boys and young men were sent to learn how to be knights, one of their first lessons was waiting on the lord’s table. They learned the ritual of a meal, so they would be able to perform it correctly in their own households.  It was considered an honour to wait on the lord.

A large household meant storing vast quantities of food, drink and fuel. This is one of the vaulted cellars at Kenilworth Castle.


Vaulted cellar, Kenilworth Castle



Old Sarum – John McNeill

Kenilworth Castle – Richard K. Morris

Portchester Castle – John Goodall


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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22 responses to “Anatomy of a Castle – the Kitchen

  1. The surviving kitchens in castles and great houses are always interesting. It’s fun to think how busy they would have been when the lord was in residence.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Oh lord look at the size of that kitchen…would have been marvellous to see it in action…and great to see theres finally a use for school tours 😀 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great info April, I’ll be using these posts for reference when I do Raby.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I remember watching a program where a group of historians went into a medieval kitchen and cooked a meal that was accurate to the period. It was astonishing how much work and how many people were required to fix a simple meal. I can’t for the life of me remember the title, but like your post, it was very informative. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you. Everything was a lot more effort. If you wanted to boil some water, you had to fetch it first, usually from a well. Then you had to light a fire and someone had to watch the pot so that it didn’t boil over, and so they would know that it had boiled. It all makes me very grateful to have running water and my gas cooker.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. The addition of the visitors certainly adds to the photos! I only wish something like this had been a field trip option when I was a schoolchild. So much rich history!

    Liked by 2 people

    • There are very few places you can visit during term time without encountering a school trip. I think they have more now than we did when I was a child. I remember going to the Roman baths at Bath and Kennet Longbarrow, but there must have been more.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Lydia

    Wow, I can’t imagine cooking for 50 people every day under those conditions. I wonder how many cooks they had?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. So interesting April, I love wandering around castles imagining how people lived, but the kitchens always have me thinking about how busy and hot it must have been. Just love history. Another castle for my list 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I can only imagine the hustle and bustle in that kitchen! Super interesting as always April!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well, let’s see, there is the kitchen, buttery (potent potables), dairy, bakery, pantry (bread storage), herber (herbs/vegetables) and larder (meatstuffs). Each place would be unique for the needs of the product; temperature, humidity, space. For the smaller palaces, a few of these might have been mere alcoves, or incorporated into another of similar needs. All would have direct access to the kitchen, where everything came together.

    Certainly the spices would have been kept in her Ladyship’s quarters, locked away with other precious items.

    With the importance attached to wines & ales, it’s easy to see where the steward of them gained the upper hand in domestic arrangements. The butler (or chief butler) would one day refer to the man in charge of all the lower household. The way to a lord’s trust is through his stomach!

    All the terms in the first paragraph have finally come together! I’ve seen or heard them referred to separately, but through your articles can piece out what each contributed to the castle meals. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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