What is/was a thirlepolle?

Thirlepolle, thirlepoole, thirle-polle, however you spell it, it even has Google baffled. What kind of creature were they? And how did our ancestors eat them?

In short, a thirlepolle could have been either:

  • a type of fish
  • whales in general
  • a particular type of whale
  • whale meat

Our Elizabethan ancestors would have known what they were getting for dinner if told roast thirlepolle was on the menu. But within a few centuries, the exact meaning had been lost or forgotten.

The thirlepolle and the Solway

I first came across thirlepolles in an 1859 case about fishing rights on the Solway, which I was researching for my book (quick plug!), Port Carlisle, a history built on hope (see also my previous post).

The court case quoted historical texts from as far back as Edward I, and included a survey from the time of Elizabeth I:

“There is a libertye belonging to the saide Barrony of Burghe and so tyme oute of minde harthe been used, viz: that the Lord of the said manner ought to have all the Royall and principall fysshes, viz: whales, sturgeons, porposes, thirlepolles, seales, turbettes and such like, gotten of Englande syde, from that place called Skyneburne neus unto Bakkogarthe head, being about ten miles near to Carlill and therri harthe been used to be payed by the saide lord of the saide manner for the saide fysshes.”

Make of that what you will: my reactions was ‘what is/was a thirlepolle’?

whale, thirlepolle, Cumbrian Characters,

The University of Michigan defines ‘thirle-polle’ (Middle English) as ‘the flesh of a whale, used as food’.

A Dictionary of Early English, however, says it was a 15th-17th century word for ‘whale’ (‘thirl’ being a hole, eg ‘nostril’ comes from ‘nose-thirl’).


There is a big ‘however’

Neither seems to account for whales AND thirlepolles being mentioned together, as in the Elizabethan survey I quoted at the start. 

The annotator of Description of England, the Classic Contemporary Account of Tudor Social Life defines thirlepolles as ‘a species of whale’.

This is based upon William Harrison’s description of various kinds of fish, which continues ‘…the seal, the dolphin, the porpoise, the thirlepoole (sic), whale and whatsoever is round of body’.

William distinguishes thirlepolles from whales, so the two were not synonymous.

The 1723 History of the Ancient Abbeys, Monasteries, Hospitals. Cathedrals, and Collegiate Churches has a menu list of a great feast from the time of Edward IV. The occasion was the enthronement, in 1465 of George Neville as Archbiship of York and Chancellor of England,

There were a great many courses, each with a great many dishes. Including in the third course, ‘thirlpoole baked’.

(The second course included roast curlew, and ‘a dragon, a suttletie’. The guests also chomped their way through something like 2,000 chickens, 1,000 sheep, 400 herons, and when they’d finished eating every bird, fish and farm animal for miles around, had 4,000 baked tarts and 2,000 hot custards).

In 1791, the Reverend Richard Warner recorded the details of the same feast in his Antiquitates Culinariae, though he had the thirpolles as being roasted.

The Boke of Kervynge is a 1508 cookery book (printed by Wynken de Worde) which includes a long list of terms for carving, some of them suggesting sadistic pleasure: ‘dysmember that heron; disfygure that peacock’.

 suggests thirlpolles should be cut in the dish, the same way as the porpoise. 

The 1815 Encyclopedia Britannica defines thirlepolles as ‘a fish, unknown at present’.

And Manipulus Vocabulorum, an 1867 dictionary, also defines thirlpoole (sic) as ‘a fish’. 

fish, thirlepolle, Cumbrian Characters,

Which suggests an alternative to whales. Elizabethans may have counted whales as fish, but Georgians and Victorians didn’t classify thirlepolles as whales, but ‘unknown fish’.

So, the thirlepolle was..?

So there you have it. Or rather, there you don’t. An idea of what thirlepolles may have been, but no definitive answer.

As to whether they were ever seen or caught in the Solway, who knows?!