Carp baggers hit royal palate

fishing lines
Archaeologists working at the Tower of London helped me make a fascinating discovery this week: Henry VIII and my mother-in-law share the same taste in fish.

It all came about when archaeologists, digging in the Tower's West Moat, uncovered a wicker fishing basket almost perfectly preserved in waterlogged clay four metres down. That alone would have got the diggers dancing, but there was further cause for celebration when they found the backbones of two carp close by.

According to newspaper reports, experts have surmised that the basket, made between the late 15th and mid-16th century, was used to catch fish for Henry VIII's dinner table. During Henry's reign (1509-47), the moat was fished exclusively for the royal household. The carp bones enhance the theory and probably show that Henry piled on the pounds by stuffing himself with double helpings of carpe a la juive and extra chips.

Being an angler, my reaction was not: "How will they preserve the basket for posterity?" (Answer: keeping it in an air-tight container), but "How did they know the bones came from carp?" This is not the dumb question it sounds. The exact date that carp were introduced to the UK is still open to conjecture.

Many people erroneously look to Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, published in 1653, as the authority on such issues. Walton says that the carp is "a subtle fish - nor has he been long in England". But he's wrong, and inconsistent too. The rhyme he quotes, "Hops and Turkies, Carps and Beer; Came into England all in a year"is seriously off-course.

Without copyright laws to worry about, Walton snaffled much of his work from Leonard Mascall's snappily entitled The Booke of Fishing with Hooke and Line and all other instruments thereunto belonging, published in 1590. Not that we can trust Mascall overmuch either. He modestly credits the introduction of carp to a Mr Mascall of Plumstead, Essex.

Hops were introduced around 1428 but it is probable that carp were around quite a bit earlier. They probably came in from the Low Countries during the late 14th or early 15th century. At Southwark, not far from the Tower, there was a flourishing Thames-side production centre for freshwater fish around 1360, and by Henry's reign there was almost certainly a thriving nationwide carp-rearing business.

So far, so good. The bones could certainly have been carp - but how did the archaeologists know? It's not the sort of thing you find even in Archaeology - An Advanced Primer. Dr Alwynne Wheeler, who knows more about UK fish than anyone, reckons there are probably only three people in the country who could positively identify carp from a 400-year-old skeleton. "I would love to see the bones," he said.

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, would far rather see the whole fish - only she can't. Carp is her favourite fish, and she claims to have a whole string of recipes that would have Henry himself round for dinner every Sunday. The trouble is, her local Tesco store near Cambridge won't stock them any more - because of fishermen.

It appears that anglers have been berating the poor assistant at the fish counter for even daring to have carp alongside cod, salmon and kippers. Working on the principle that it's all right to catch them but not to eat them, they have been threatening to boycott the store if it dares to sell their favourite fish food. Never mind the fact anglers never complain about salmon or trout on a wet fish counter, nor that the carp in question have almost certainly come from fish farms in Eastern Europe. It's the principle that counts, and to hell with tradition (carp is a classic East European Christmas dinner) and my mother-in-law.

I don't know if the boycott threat has affected Tesco nationwide (the press office are obviously having problems finding a suitable spokesperson) but the company really should be able to overcome anglers' objections. All it needs, next to the price ticket, is a large sign saying: By Royal Command.