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Politics at the Table

Maggie Black looks at the political uses of dining in 18th century England

Politics and meals have always been inseparable in our society. Satisfying man's most basic need was turned, quite early, into a vehicle for promising and seeking the benefits of power. One can pinpoint these meals throughout recorded history. They reached their peak however, in modern times, in the eighteenth century.

The house-parties and meals offered by Sir Robert Walpole in his palmy days as a Minister of the Crown provide outstanding examples of the political and public use of hospitality. We know a good deal about them from bills for food and wine, especially for the year 1733, and from earlier letters written to Walpole by his steward, John Wrott between 1700 and 1707. Both have been analysed by Professor J. H. Plumb in his book Men and Places .

Walpole entertained vastly and luxuriously, in two ways. First, semi-privately: his twice-yearly house-parties on his Houghton estate were called the 'Norfolk Congresses' because of the many and varied guests and the lavish fare. Second, he entertained politically both at his own London homes and publicly, holding open house as First Lord of the Treasury at St. James's Palace or Hampton Court on certain days. On these days, courtiers and politicians alike could dine on Walpole's fare, at his expense.

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