The English poet John Taylor (1578-1653) wrote, in The great eater, of Kent, or Part of the admirable teeth and stomacks exploits of Nicholas Wood, of Harrisom in the county of Kent His excessiue manner of eating without manners, in strange and true manner described, by Iohn Taylor (1630):
One Iohn Dale was too hard for him at a place called Lennam, for the said Dale had laid a wager that he would fill Woods belly, with good wholesome victuals for 2. shillings, & a Gentleman that laid the contrary, did wager, that as soone as noble Nick had eaten out Dales 2. shillings, that he should presently enter combate with a worthy Knight, called Sir Loyne of Beefe, & ouerthrow him.
The word sirloin is from French surlonge, upper part of the loin, composed of sur, over, above, and longe, loin. Its first known use is in Le Ménagier de Paris (The Household Book of Paris – circa 1392-94), in which an anonymous (and probably fictional) wealthy elderly Parisian bourgeois addresses his 15-year-old bride:
Les espaules et les cuisses levées, l’en fent le beuf par les deux costés et fait-l’en du devant une pièce, et du derrière une autre ; et ainsi est apporté le corps du beuf à l’estal, se le beuf est petit ou moïen : mais s’il est grant, la pièce de devant est fendue depuis en deux tout au long, et la pièce de derrière aussi, pour apporter plus aisiéement. Ainsi avons-nous maintenant du beuf six pièces, dont les deux poictrines sont levées au premier, et puis les deux souppis qui là tiennent qui sont bien de trois piés de long et demy-pié de large, en venant par en bas et non pas par en hault. Et puis couppe-l’en le flanchet : et puis si a la surlonge qui n’est mie grantment plus espais de trois dois ou de deux.
The shoulders and thighs being removed, the ox is split from the sides, making one piece of the front and another of the rear; and in this manner is transported the ox’s carcass to the market stall, if the ox is small or medium-sized. But if it is large, the front quarters would be split down the back, and the hind piece also, to be carried more easily. Thus we now have six pieces of beef, of which the two briskets are removed first, and then the two plates underneath that hold them, which are three good feet long and a half foot wide, coming from below and not from above. And then the front quarter is cut, and next the sirloin, which is hardly more than three or two fingers thick.
The English word is first recorded in 1525 as serlyn, and has long been in use with the spelling surloyn, surloin, etc. On 21st November 1661, the English naval administrator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) wrote in his diary that a Mr Moore and he “had a good surloyne of roast beef”. And a public notice from Berwick and District Meat Traders’ Association, published in the Berwickshire News of Tuesday 4th January 1955, used the spelling surloin.
The spelling with i instead of u appeared in the early 17th century. It shows the same tendency as, for instance, sirname for surname, but its final prevalence seems to have been largely due to the fictitious story of a British king or queen who found this joint of meat so splendid that he or she knighted it (and it is quite possible that one or several monarchs repeated the pun).
There are several versions of this story. For example, in A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, According to the Most Polite Mode and Method Now used At Court, and in the best Companies of England, a satire on the use of clichés published in 1738 but written in the first decade of the 18th century, the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) credited James I with knighting the cut:
– Colonel Atwit: I vow, ’tis a noble Sirloyn.
– Miss Notable: But, pray, why is it call’d a Sir-loyn?
– Lord Sparkish: Why, you must know, that our King James the First, who lov’d good Eating, being invited to Dinner by one of his Nobles, and seeing a large Loyn of Beef at his Table, he drew out his Sword, and in a Frolic knighted it. Few People know the Secret of this.
In The Cook’s Oracle; Containing receipts for plain cookery on the most economical plan for private families, etc. (1822), the English optician, inventor of telescopes and cook William Kitchiner (1775-1827) wrote, about “the Noble Sir-Loin”:
This Joint is said to owe its name to King Charles the Second, who dining upon a Loin of Beef, and being particularly pleased with it, asked the name of the Joint; said for its merit it should be knighted, and henceforth called Sir-Loin.
Frederick William Hackwood gave an account of various versions of the story in Good Cheer: The Romance of Food and Feasting, published in 1911:
« The era of the large roasted joint of beef recalls the legendary knighting of the Sir Loin; it will not be uninteresting to trace, or attempt to trace, this old English legend to its source.
« The lore of the legend is somewhat contradictory, and one of the earliest references to the “Sir Loin” is by old gossip Fuller in his Church History (1655):—
King Henry VIII, as he was hunting in Windsor Forest, either casually lost, or (more probably) wilfully losing himself, struck down about dinner-time to the abbey of Reading, when, disguising himself (much for delight, more for discovery, to see, unseen), he was invited to the abbot’s table, and passed for one of the King’s guard; a place to which the proportion of his person might properly entitle him. A sir-loyne of beef was set before him (so knighted saith tradition by this King Henry); on which the King laid on lustily, not disgracing one of that place for whom he was mistaken. ‘Well fare thy heart,’ quoth the abbot; ‘and here is a cup of sack [= dry white wine]. I remember the health of his grace, your master. I would give an hundred pounds, on the condition I could feed so heartily on beef, as you doe. Alas! My weak and queazie stomach will hardly digest the wing of a small rabbit or chicken.’ The King pleasantly pledged him, and heartily thanked him for his good cheer; after dinner departed, as undiscovered as he came thither. Some weeks after, the abbot was sent for by a pursuivant, brought up to London, clapt in the Tower, kept close prisoner, fed for a short time on bread and water; yet not so empty his body as his mind was filled with fears, creating many suspicions of himself, when and how he had incurred the King’s displeasure. At last a sir-loyne of beef was set before him, on which the abbot fed as the farmer of his grange, and verified the proverb that two hungry meals make the third a glutton. In springs King Henry out of a private lobbie where he had placed himself, the invisible spectator of the abbot’s behaviour. ‘My lord,’ quoth the King presently, ‘deposit your hundred pounds of gold, or else no going hence all the days of your life. I have been your physician to cure you of your queazie stomach; and here, as I deserve, I demand my fee for the same.’ The abbot down with his dust, and, glad he had escaped so, returned to Reading; as somewhat lighter in his purse, so much merrier in heart.
« The story may, or it may not, be apocryphal; on the face of it, the tale seems designed to force prominently into notice the high-feeding proclivities of the Churchmen of those days. The actual ceremony of the accolade is not mentioned, as it is in the legend which attributes the freak to Charles II.
« The Merry Monarch is said to have returned from Epping Forest literally as hungry as a hunter to that hospitable mansion, Friday Hall, Chingford. His delight at beholding on the table a huge loin of beef, steaming hot, was such that he exclaimed, “A noble joint! By St. George it shall have a title!” And drawing his sword, he raised it above the gallant joint, crying with mock dignity, “Loin, we dub thee knight—henceforward be Sir Loin.” Within recent times the old Chingford mansion, formerly a royal hunting lodge said to have been used by Queen Elizabeth, claimed to possess the veritable table upon which King Charles knighted the beef. It was a clumsy-looking piece of furniture, made of stout English oak, but very much dilapidated.
« The epithet “mutton-eating king” was said to have been conferred on Charles II by his favourite, Lord Rochester. Rochester had been the King’s companion in the years of his exile, during which time they had often to dine on what they could get, and the epithet is generally supposed to have reference to their starvation diet.
« With regard to England’s typical joint of beef, another suggestion is that the travestied honour was conferred upon it by Queen Elizabeth. The lines in which the audacious suggestion is made occur in one of those spurious “old ballads” which date back no farther than the beginning of the last century:—
Elizabeth Tudor her breakfast would make
On a pot of strong beer and a pound of beefsteak
Ere six in the morning was tolled by the chimes—
Oh, the days of Queen Bess, they were merry Old Times!
From hawking and hunting she rode back to town
In time just to knock an ambassador down,
Toy’d, trifled, coqueted, then lopped off a head,
And at three-score-and-ten danced a hornpipe to bed.
With Nicholas Bacon, her councillor chief,
One day she was dining on English roast beef—
That very same day when her Majesty’s grace
Had given Lord Essex a slap on the face.
My Lord Keeper stared, as the wine cup she kissed,
At his sovereign lady’s superlative twist;
And thought, thinking truly his larder would squeak,
He’d much rather keep her a day than a week.
‘What call you this dainty, my very good lord?’
‘The loin’—bowing low till his nose touched the board.
‘And—breath of our nostrils and light of our eyes—
Saving your presence, the ox was a prize.’
‘Unsheath me, mine host, thy Toledo [= sword] so bright:
Delicious Sir Loin! I dub thee a knight;
Be thine at our banquets of honour the post—
While the Queen rules the realm, let Sir Loin rule the roast!’
« Variants of this popular tradition have even found their way into local histories. In “The Traditions of Lancashire” the scene is changed to Houghton Tower, near Blackburn, and the hero this time is James I. During the King’s visit in 1617 to this mansion high revelry was held, including sports, a masque, and much feasting.
« The local historian of the County Palatine says that while James “sat at meat, casting his eyes upon a noble surloin at the lower end of the table, he cried out, ‘Bring hither that surloin, sirrah, for ’tis worthy a more honourable post, being, as I may say, not sur-lion, but sir-loin, the noblest joint of all!’ which ridiculous and desperate pun raised the wisdom and reputation of England’s Solomon to the highest.”
« Those who would credit this story have the authority of Dr. Johnson to support them, among whose explanations of the word sir, in his dictionary*, is that it is “a title given to the loin of beef which one of our kings knighted in a fit of good-humour.”
[* A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), by Samuel Johnson (1709-84)]
« Dr. Pegge, a learned antiquary, though no great authority on language, says: “Surloin is, I conceive, if not knighted by King James as is reported, compounded of the French sur, “upon,” and the English loin, for the sake of euphony, our particles not easily submitting to composition. In proof of this, the piece of beef so called grows upon the loin, and behind the small ribs of the animal.”
« Following up this idea, the double sirloin has received the fanciful name of baron, and we thus find Scott, in “Old Mortality,” speaking of
The knightly sirloin, and the noble baron of beef.
[In the above-mentioned dictionary, Samuel Johnson wrote: “A baron of beef is when the two sirloins are not cut asunder, but joined together by the end of the backbone.”]
« The association of James I with the episode may possibly have grown out of his proposal to banquet the devil on a loin of pork. The association of Charles II’s name with it has been crystallised into an epigram:—
Our Second Charles, of fame facete,
On loin of beef did dine;
He held his sword, pleased, o’er the meat—
‘Rise up, thou famed Sir Loin!’
« And this fairly well exhausts the literature of the legend. »