Royal fish and Christmas Day lamprey pies

The queen has been a little under the weather recently but for someone in her mid-nineties she has kept herself in fantastic health. Could fish be playing a role in the longevity of our longest serving monarch?

lamprey pie

What are my chances of meeting the Queen?

On the face of it, my chances of getting to meet the Queen are hovering close to zero. My prospects of a knighthood or other honours award are significantly less than that of a thumping great national lottery jackpot win. However, due to an unusual piece of law, a circumstance might just arise when the day job will require me to theoretically call the monarch with some important news. In a law known as de Prerogativa Regis dating back to the reign of Edward II, the law has decreed that whales, porpoises and sturgeons are royal fish. In other words they belong to the monarch and must be offered to the reigning sovereign upon capture or shortly thereafter. It is, I have to admit, a bit of a long shot to think we might end up with any of these species in a future River Severn lock stoppage fish rescue, but stranger things have happened.

Northern Canal Sturgeon

However, very occasionally an angling customer sends us a photograph of a sturgeon that they have caught. They usually turn out to be specimens of the sterlet species Acipenser ruthenus which is a non-native member of the sturgeon family. As sterlets are a non-native species, the law is quite clear in that these fish must not be returned to the waterway. Now I am beginning to think that I need to seek clarification as to whether legally the sterlet, being a member of the sturgeon family is a royal fish or whether like other canal fish it is the property of the Trust. In the event that one is ever caught again, will I have to ensure it is offered to her majesty?

Prince Philip and the Fishmongers’ Company

The Fishmongers’ Company is one of the twenty great livery companies with a wonderful headquarters building on the banks of the Thames, a stone’s throw from London Bridge. If the opportunity ever arises for a visit, snap it up. The Duke of Edinburgh, who sadly passed away in 2021 at the ripe old age of 99, was the prime warden of the Fishmongers Company for a while back in the 1960s. Although I have no inside information as to the royal shopping list, it would not surprise me one bit if fish was a significant part of the royal diet. It’s well known that many fish species contain plenty of essential omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids that keep cell membranes sufficiently fluid whilst also lowering blood cholesterol levels. However, at least one royal in times gone by rather overdid the fish component of his diet.

A surfeit of lampreys kills the king

According to chronicler Henry of Huntington, King Henry I, William the Conqueror’s youngest son, died shortly after eating a large number of lampreys baked in a pie. Apparently, Henry went against his physician’s advice, as lamprey pie in excess was believed to be a food of bad humour. I don’t suppose dietary advice regarding lampreys gets much of a mention in the syllabus of undergraduate medical students these days. Come to think of it, none of my former students have ever mentioned it. King Henry was not alone in royal circles for his love of lampreys; King John was definitely a fan. He even levied a lamprey related fine on the City of Gloucester which did little for his opinion poll rating in that part of the world.

Christmas lamprey pie tradition

However, despite Kings Johns efforts, the City of Gloucester did continue to show its loyalty to the royal family for hundreds of years by presenting the reigning sovereign with a lamprey pie each Christmas. This was sometimes a costly gift, as the lampreys used (sea lampreys) would have been very rare as they typically tend not to move upstream into freshwater until the spring. The custom was discontinued in the late 1830s, probably because sea lampreys were simply becoming unobtainable by that time.

It was around this time too that navigation weirs started to be installed on the Severn which would have made the migration route of sea lampreys back into freshwater more challenging. Only with the recently completed Unlocking the Severn project have these barriers to migration been largely addressed.  

However the tradition of presenting the monarch has not died out entirely. These days the City of Gloucester send a lamprey pie to the monarch only at times of coronations and jubilees. And so it was that in 2012 Queen Elizabeth, to celebrate the 60th year of her reign, received another lamprey pie.

However, it is understood that the lampreys for this pie were sourced from the North American Great Lakes rather than from the UK where sea lamprey are a non-native invasive species. With the queen due to celebrate her platinum jubilee (70 year on the throne) in February 2022, I’m sure the residents of Gloucester will once again be contemplating presenting her with another lamprey pie.  I do wonder what it will taste like.

Last date edited: 9 November 2021

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The fisheries & angling team

Our team undertake a diverse range of work, looking after £40m worth of fish stocks, managing agreements with over 250 different angling clubs and helping more people take up angling on the canals. Follow this blog to keep updated with the thoughts and work of the team.

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