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Henry VIII is surrounded by his favourite court ladies.Medieval banquets around Britain and Ireland now follow traditions that go back into a long-distant past, 40 years ago.

The pioneer show dates from around 1962, when Bunratty Castle on the west coast of Ireland began to feature medieval banquets served by saucy-eyed colleens in 15th-century costume. In full medieval aristocratic style, guests eat off wooden platters, using daggers and fingers. 

Drinks are included: mead (reputedly good for virility on honeymoons) and mulled wine, served in pottery goblets. Minstrels entertain, a harpist plays, and the serving-wenches line up for an occasional folk-song.

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Contact Addresses: 

Bookings and enquiries for the three castle banquets in Ireland can be made through Central Reservations, Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, Bunratty, County Clare, Ireland. Tel: 00-353-61-360788.  

Bunratty is open the year-round when demand is sufficient;  Knappogue, open from April;  Dunguaire, open from April.

London Medieval Banquet, Ivory House, St Katherine's Dock, London. 
Tel: 0207 480 5353.

Ruthin Castle, Ruthin, Denbighshire LL15 2NU. Tel: 01824 702664. 

Sales Office, Warwick Castle, Warwick CV34 4QU. Information & Reservations 0870-442-2372.  

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Bunratty Castle was built in the 15th century by the Earl of Thomond, and from here he ruled over his Chiefdom and entertained lavishly. In fact he was famous for his hospitality. 

This tradition of hospitality has become so world renowned that today's replica Earl holds a banquet twice nightly, especially during high season. 

As the idea took off, other castles in the Shannon region jumped on the banquet-wagon. In 1966, Dunguaire Castle on the shores of Galway Bay - an area closely linked with the Irish Literary Renaissance of the early 20th century - launched a medieval banquet with extracts from the works of Irish poets, writers and dramatists like Shaw, Yeats, Synge and O'Casey.
A serving wench who can also sing and dance.
The following year, the Texan owner of 15th century Knappogue Castle near Shannon Airport launched a banquet in his Great Hall, featuring delicacies such as Beef Ryall and Greveys en Sauce, while actors re-created the atmosphere of a medieval evening.

Like Bunratty Castle, both Knappogue and Dunguaire hold banquets during the main season, especially when the American tour groups arrive in sufficient numbers.

Closer to hand is the Welsh fortress of Ruthin Castle in Denbighshire, partly converted into a hotel complete with battlements, dungeons, peacocks and a resident ghost. The once-nightly banquet, with the option of renting an appropriate Welsh medieval costume, includes mead and the Welsh specialities of soup, lamb, chicken and a syllabub of fruit, cream and wine.

The most dramatic of Britain's medieval banquet locations is Warwick Castle, rearing up on its dominant mound. With a non-stop run since 1982, a highly successful Kingmaker's Feast starts with an 8-room tour of a Madame Tussaud's display to put the banquet in historical context. 

Drinks are included: mead or mulled wine, served in pottery goblets. Minstrels entertain, a harpist plays, and the serving-wenches line up for an occasional folk-song. 

In mid-15th century England, Richard Neville the Earl of Warwick was a wily character who kept changing sides during the Wars of the Roses - Yorkists versus Lancastrians. The Earl used his power to get the crown for the Yorkist king Edward IV. Later he drove Edward into exile and put the Lancastrian Henry VI on the throne. Hence his nickname, 'The Kingmaker'.

The idea of the Kingmaker's Feast is that it's held on the day before a battle. First everyone checks on preparations - chainmail being made, swords sharpened and arrows stockpiled. Then, to the sound of music, guests seat themselves in the 14th-century castle basement and 'Eat, Drink and Be Merry for tomorrow - who knows?'

Like the other medieval banquets, the evening is an entertainment - not 100 per cent 'authentic'. The musicians do not play totally 15th century music, which is not easy for the 20th century ear. 

The pear-shaped lute is wired like a guitar. Percussion comes from a bodhran, the Irish drum with a double-headed beater. Even a Victorian concertina is used. The songs sound more or less traditional. 

A-level medieval history it's not. But, warmed by a five-course menu, unlimited beer or wine, a final apple pie and custard and a mug of 15th-century-style coffee, everyone agrees it has been good fun. 

You could easily make a full day out at Warwick Castle, visiting all the other attractions: 60 acres of grounds and gardens, Madame Tussaud's version of 'A Royal Weekend Party 1898', or enjoying the Ghost Tower or torture chamber. 

Other occasional events include a demonstration of medieval archery, jousting tournaments and medieval festivities during the summer peak weeks from mid-July to early September.

London entered the medieval banqueting scene in 1972 with the most action-packed of the shows. King Henry VIII and a number of his court ladies are entertained by jesters, jousting knights, a fire-eating escapologist, strolling minstrels, Samson the strong man, singers and dancers. 

Obviously they try hard for an authentic appearance. King Henry has several large pillows where his stomach should be. As diners' cameras flash, dancers give a full view of nylon stockings and high heels beneath their long whirling skirts, and all the singers use mikes. Knives and forks are used instead of daggers and fingers. Tables are lit by candles of the type you buy at ironmongers, not of tallow. 

Plenty to eat and drink at London's medieval banquetDiners are encouraged to cry "Wassail, wassail, wassail" as they drink their Californian red wine. The royal banquet is held in the air conditioned vaulted cellars of Ivory House, just a stone's throw from the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. 

The massive cellars formed part of the St Katherine dock storage area in the 16th century, but there are no itinerant rats to add some authentic bubonic to the festivities. After two hours of feasting and live entertainment, disco music and dancing continue till 11.30 pm. By then, all those luscious serving wenches have gone home. 

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Castles and Ancient Monuments of England by Damien Noonan. A county-by-county guide to more than 350 historic sites. 

Castles and Ancient Monuments of Ireland by Damien Noonan. A unique guide to over 150 sites.

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