Tuesday 28 August 2012

You are what you eat: Food and Status in Tudor Times.

What people ate in Tudor times depended on who they were. Every aspect of the process, from the formal to the informal, was indicative of status, even before any food was actually consumed. The ceremony of service, with its rituals and strict protocol, was vital to royalty and the nobility, as were the behaviour and appearance of those who served. Elaborate manners and rules often took priority over the actual process of consumption, posing the question whether the Tudors were more aesthetes than gourmands. When it came to the food itself, the ingredients, presentation and quantity of dishes consumed varied vastly, from the labourer with a bowl of boiled vegetables, to the King at a three course banquet, his food cooked in exotic spices and decorated with gold leaf. What, how and where you ate, denoted exactly where you stood in society.

The basic ingredients marked perhaps the greatest difference. For those on the lowest rung of the social ladder, meals comprised mostly seasonal vegetables, supplemented with oats, bread and pulses. Onions, leeks, pumpkins, spinach and garlic were the most common “worts” grown, with almost all Tudor households dependent on their own small plot of land, even those living in cities. Leeks were so popular among the poor that the kitchen garden often came to be known as the “leek garden”. Peas and beans were grown in larger, field crops and formed the basis of many people’s diet throughout the seasons. Many of the herbs the Tudor housewife would have relied upon are unrecognised now and no longer used, such as herb-mercury, sorrel, wormwood and mallows. Meat would have been an occasional treat, perhaps weekly or monthly, depending on the family’s resources. Apples, quinces and pears were stewed and preserved, baked in pastry or thickened with oats or bread crumbs to make a sort of pottage, or stew. Nuts were also harvested and stored as ingredients of pies and puddings; walnuts and hazelnuts were also eaten at the end of meals, to “close” the stomach. Many of these would have been available in season across England in Tudor times, although people were rather suspicious of fresh fruit, thinking it could upset the stomach and preferring dried or preserved alternatives.

Central to the diets of rich and poor were fish and bread. Both had religious connotations and their use varied hugely by class. As a Catholic country before the 1540s, fish was prescribed in England for fast days and afterwards, was still eaten to promote the industry. As Andrew Boorde wrote in his “Dyetary” in the 1540s, the country was well served by “sea-fysshe… fresh-water fysshe and …salt fysshe.” While the rich enjoyed shellfish, turbot, whale, porpoise and sturgeon, the poor made do with salted herring or dried cod. Storing and transporting it was a problem, so the best, freshest fish could be found at the coast, although medieval monasteries were famous for their carp ponds. The bread they ate varied in colour, with the shade of it literally equated with status. The finest, white flour was baked into hand-sized loaves for the richest tables while the poorer ate brown or even black bread, made up from the flour of ground acorns, peas and beans. Bread was a staple for everyone, with even the stale crumbs used in other recipes. It formed the basis of the breakfast consumed by labourers early in the morning, to get them through until the first formal meal of the day.

The yearly consumption of the household of George, Duke of Clarence (d 1478) was recorded in detail in the late fifteenth century. Wheat topped the list of supplies, coming in at over £205 for the year’s consumption, then wines were listed, at £206 for everyday drinking plus £20 for exotic imports such as malmsey, bastard (a Portugese sweet wine), romany and others. Ale then took up the largest proportion of income so far, with £486 spent on it annually. Twelve sheep were consumed daily, either powdered or fresh and £8 was spent on “boars.” Veal and pork were also popular, to the tune of £30 and £42 respectively. Fish days were well provided for, with the high status sturgeon and salmon eaten alongside eels, stockfish, sprats and herrings. As the brother of the King, Clarence’s consumption gives an idea of the amounts required to maintain a household at the highest end of the scale.

Spices were included in many dishes, not only to improve the flavour but to demonstrate a host’s wealth. London was the centre of the spice trade, where mixtures of ginger, cloves, saffron, almonds, cinnamon and pepper could be bought from the merchant or grocer, made up to different levels of heat. Among those listed in Clarence’s account are mace, nutmeg, liquorice, green ginger, raisins, currants and rice. Spices were used in all manner of dishes, sweet and sour, from tarts and pies, to plates of meat and savoury puddings. Sugar also arrived from Cuba and Jamaica, sold in large cones or loaves and sprinkled over dishes, rather like salt. Food was highly coloured on the richest tables too, with ingredients dyed brightly to catch the eye: green colouring came from spinach, yellow from egg yolk or saffron, red from sandalwood and blue from indigo. On special occasions, dishes were presented in rainbow stripes of colours and sweets were adorned with gold and silver leaf. The wealthy could also enjoy imported treats from Spain, Italy and Portugal; marmalade, oranges, figs, walnuts, lemons and pine nuts. All these expensive ingredients were kept carefully locked away in the kitchen, to prevent their theft by unprivileged hands. They were issued in small amounts by the cook, for the kitchen staff to use in recipes. Served up with in all their glory, they must have proved a real visual feast.

The feasts of the wealthy comprised many dishes and courses. One fifteenth century banquet, to celebrate the appointment of the Bishop of Ely, had three courses including dishes of venison, swan, pheasant and peacock all cooked in thick, spiced sauces, mixing sweet and sour. Custards and jellies were served alongside meat, which seems odd to the modern palate but typical of the fruit and meat combination that prevailed in many surviving dishes such as mince pies. Subtleties, carved from marchpane (marzipan) or sugar, came after each course, sometimes also before, when they were called “warners:” for the bishop of Ely, an impressive white lion was carved, as well as a scene of the nativity of St.John, God as a shepherd and various saints. Hours of labour must have gone into these, merely for the pieces to be briefly on show. Huge quantities of supplies were called for, running to thousands of deer, sheep, pigs, chicken and other varieties of meat. One Cardinal’s installation feast at Canterbury in the fourteenth century called for 36 oxen, 200 pigs, 100 hogs, 200 sheep, 973 capons, 1,000 geese, 9,600 eggs, 600 rabbits and 24 swans, all to feed 6,000 guests! The kitchens at Hampton Court, which Henry VIII obtained from his minister Wolsey in the late 1520s, give an impression of the scale of the operation, with the separate departments for baking, boiling, brewing and cooking, along with the sections dedicated entirely to the making of waffles and storing of spices. Different forms of food were kept in the wet or dry larders and large pieces of meat turned on spits in the huge fireplaces. Servants were often paid in kind; Clarence’s spicer received no fee except boxes of comfits and green ginger, while those in his scullery and saucer were allowed to keep the “garbage” of swans!

Since before the advent of the Tudors, kings had been regulating when and how they should eat. The fifteenth century saw a rash of household books on this, epitomised by Edward IV’s Black Book ordinances inspired by the Burgundian model. Manuals outlined the behavioural expectations for children and those in service: the right table manners could take you far while the wrong ones could ruin your chances! Henry VIII ruled in 1526 that his meals should be taken at eleven in the morning and six in the evening. All those in attendance needed to be clean and tidy, well-mannered and skilled at their jobs: the carver of meats was one of the highest respected positions and required knowledge of an exact science. The King and Queen sat on a raised dais in the Great Hall, looking down over their court and used the best gold plate, eating with spoons and knives encrusted with jewels. A set featuring rubies and pearls belonging to Henry VIII survives. Richard III dined off silver and gold at his 1483 coronation and drank from a cup of gold, covered in cloth of the same colour. At Henry VIII’s coronation feast in 1509, the King’s champion rode through the hall on horseback, wearing a plume of ostrich feathers, to challenge any who disputed his claim. At other times, royalty might dine quietly alone in their chambers, or invite special guests to join them in their apartments; in summer, or on special occasions, feasts were often eaten out of doors in huge tents and arbours. Not everyone was so fortunate.

One anonymous fifteenth poem, “Good Ale,” exposes the practices of those providing bad quality food for the poor. The narrator rejects brown bread as being made of bran and beef as being full of bones. Bacon is too fat for them, while mutton is too lean and tripe is “seldom clean.” Their eggs are full of shell and their butter contains hairs. The flesh of capons is too expensive while ducks are rejected because they “slobber” during life. Instead, the poem insists the only safe thing to consume is ale!

The poor man at his table, or eating in the fields as he worked, would have used his fingers and perhaps, one sharp knife of his own. At home, he would have eaten from iron, brass or pewter dishes; the wills written by lower class Tudors are full of bequests to friends of such tableware, as are accounts of their theft. Court records list how such items were often a target, giving an indication of what the average household possessed. In 1593, a Christopher Wood of East Ham, stole four pewter pots and eight pewter dishes from one Thomas Harrold. In 1600, two men were hung for stealing two dozen pewter dishes worth 10s from the house of Thomas Patch. Such items were clearly prized by the poor. They would have laid their table with them as proudly as the King with his gold and silver. If he was eating at home, there would be no one to serve the poorer Tudor man, except his wife and family. Etiquette must have given way to hunger and necessity, as the family dined in a room that was probably multi-functional. Pieces of dried meat were often hung from the ceiling in poor homes to smoke and herbs as well as other items were stored in main living rooms, high up, out of the reach of animals. To own and use a room specifically for eating was a significant social step up. Meals among the poor were more likely to fit in around working hours and take less time than the hour-long banquets enjoyed by the monarchy.

By the Elizabethan era, food had become even more impressive for the rich. The discovery of the New World and opening up of new trade routes brought more produce to England. The consumption of sugar rose. Noble women used their still room to create jams, jellies and “suckets” or candied pieces of fruit or flowers. Cordials were also popular as were preserved treats that could last through the long winter months. Elizabeth’s own teeth were supposedly blackened by her sweet tooth and the range of dishes available at her court reflected this. The main meal was often followed by a banquet consisting entirely of sweet foods, wafers, fruit and other delicacies that showed the expense the host had gone to. The more luxury and waste incurred by such a banquet, the greater the status displayed. Luckily for the poor, many of the left-overs were passed on to the Almoner, whose job it was to redistribute them among those who came to beg at the gates. This made the gap in status even more apparent, with the poor waiting for the scraps from his lord’s table.

The Tudors were very status-conscious. Throughout the period, food was a powerful visual tool used to re-enforce social position, along with clothing and housing. The diets of the rich were varied and exciting, both to eat and to look at. Eating was a ritual, with food on display to assembled guests, dressed in expensive sauces and spices. However, the meals of the poorer Tudors, eaten informally, with their emphasis on vegetables, were probably healthier and far closer to today’s ideal.



  1. An excellent and pretty accurate account of Tutor food, status, and the relationship of the two. Nice! As a member of the Tudor Historic Kitchens team at Hampton Court Palace - immersed in the Tudor food world - there are snippets of information here that I am certainly enlightened by!

    1. That's lovely, thank you for your comment, it means a lot from someone with your expertise.