From banquets to pottage, what Tudors ate and drank varied greatly subject to their wealth and social status. Poor and wealthy alike lived off the land, using ingredients based on their availability and seasonality.
For those Tudors who could afford it, there was nothing like a good banquet to show off your wealth and social status. From interesting ingredients to intricately designed sugarcraft, banquets became a key social event, and Tudor monarchs notoriously indulged in some of the finest dishes and delicacies available.
Not Just The Tudors presenter Professor Suzannah Lipscomb discussed these banquets and how the arrival of sugar changed Tudor habits with historian Brigitte Webster. Here we take a look at what ordinary people ate and drank, and indeed what was served at these bountiful banquets.
What did the everyday Tudor eat?
Meat: The Tudors (especially the rich) ate a much wider variety and amount of meat than we do today, including calves, pigs, rabbit, badger, beaver and ox. Birds were also eaten including chicken, pheasant, pigeons, partridge, blackbirds, duck, sparrows, heron, crane and woodcock.
Wealthier Tudors would also have eaten more expensive meats such as swan, peacock, geese and wild boar. Venison was seen as the most exclusive – hunted in the deer parks of the king and his nobles.
Most peasants had small plots of land to keep chickens and pigs. Animals were generally slaughtered just before being eaten to ensure freshness (there were no fridges), and game often hung in a cold room for several days to improve flavour. Before Winter, animals were slaughtered (traditionally on Martinmas, 11 November), with meat smoked, dried or salted for preservation. Smoked bacon was the most common meat of the poor.
Fish: Meat was forbidden on a Friday and during Lent for religious reasons, and replaced with fish such as dried cod or salted herring. Those living near rivers, lakes and the sea had easier access to fresh fish – common freshwater fish consumed included eels, pike, perch, trout, sturgeon, roach, and salmon.
Herbs: Herbs were used for flavour, with wealthy Tudors commonly keeping a separate herb garden to grow what they needed.
Bread and cheese: Bread was a staple of the Tudor diet, eaten by everyone at most meals. Wealthier Tudors ate bread made of wholemeal flour (‘ravel’ or ‘yeoman’s bread’) and aristocratic households ate ‘manchet‘, particularly during banquets. The cheapest bread (‘Carter’s bread’) was a mixture of rye and wheat – and occasionally ground acorns.
Fruit/vegetables: The Tudors ate more fresh fruit, vegetables and salad than is commonly thought. Surviving account books tended to emphasise meat purchases as vegetables were home-grown, and sometimes seen more as a food of the poor.
Fruit and vegetables were locally grown and generally eaten in season, soon after being picked. They included apples, pears, plums, cherries, strawberries, onions, cabbage, beans, peas and carrots. Some fruit was preserved in syrup, including seville oranges imported from Portugal.
Towards the end of the Tudor period during Elizabeth I’s reign, new vegetables including sweet potatoes, beans, peppers, tomatoes and maize were brought over from the Americas.
Whilst we often think of great feasts in Tudor times, growing income inequality in the 16th century removed some sources of food and shelter for the poor (from landed gentry enclosing land to graze sheep and evicting farm labourers, to the dissolution of the monasteries).
Pottage was consequently a common staple daily diet for the poor. This was essentially a cabbage and herb-flavoured soup, with some barley or oats and occasionally bacon, served with coarse bread (sometimes peas, milk and egg-yolks were added). The rich ate pottage too, though theirs would have also contained almonds, saffron, ginger, and a dash of wine.
Beer/wine: Water was considered unhealthy and was often unfit for drinking, being contaminated with sewage. Thus everyone drank ale (including children), which was often brewed without hops so wasn’t particularly alcoholic. The rich also drank wine – under Henry VII, French wines were imported in greater quantities, yet only affordable for aristocrats.
The wider availability of sugar
Initially Tudors used honey as a sweetener as sugar was expensive to import, until an increase in its quantity and thus a more affordable price transformed diets.
Along with herbs, sugar was seen as medicinal, with people encouraged to eat sugar for its warming qualities and for ailments like colds. It’s therefore no coincidence that after the 15th century, dental health deteriorated.
Whilst initially women were deemed responsible for looking after their family’s health, towards the end of the 16th century health became medicalised (contributing to notions of ‘witches’ – often older women who had grown-up concocting medicinal remedies from sugar and herbs).
Despite its later ubiquity, medieval cooks used sugar in very small quantities – more as a seasoning to intensify sweet spices and to moderate the heat of hot spices. Thus, few dishes tasted perceptibly sweet.
Efforts were made to enshrine the distinctions between the classes in ‘sumptuary’ laws, which controlled what people ate according to their position. Failure to obey could earn you a fine for trying to ‘ape your betters’.
The Sumptuary Law of 31 May 1517 dictated the number of dishes that could be served per meal depending on rank (for example a cardinal could serve 9 dishes, while dukes, bishops and earls could serve 7). However, hosts could serve the number of dishes and food appropriate to the highest-ranking guest to prevent higher ranks feeling deprived when out for dinner.
Rise of the banquet
Al fresco dining originates from banqueting food. The word banquet is French, but originates from the Italian banchetto (meaning bench or table), first documented in England 1483, and again referenced in 1530 in relation to sweetmeats.
After a multiple course feast, the last ‘banquet’ course was a more special course of the feast, designed to be eaten elsewhere and indicate that guests should soon prepare to leave. Although banquets were customary following important dinners, they were far more lavish than desserts and seen as a repast of sugared medicines.
Banqueting food was essentially finger-food, usually served cold and prepared in advance. Sweet spiced wine (hippocras) and wafers (for the highest ranks) were often served to standing guests whilst staff cleared tables.
Cold and draughty great halls led to the nobility seeking smaller, warmer and more comfortable and inviting rooms to consume the last course of their feast in. Changing room provided guests with more privacy – generally staff kept out of the new room and as there was no strict seating order, the banquet developed as a social event. This was politically important in Tudor times where guests could speak out of earshot and initiate more intimate conversations.
Tudor banqueting food
The Tudor court was a place of lavish feasts. (King Henry VIII’s waistline is known to have expanded from 32 inches at age 30, to 54 inches at age 55!) The Tudor elite enjoyed a wider range of foods than English people in the mid-20th century, including lamb, early recipes for macaroni and cheese, and chickpeas with garlic. Guests were plied with the most exotic dishes, made from the most expensive ingredients and displayed in the most outrageous way.
Favourite recipes of Henry VIII included globe artichokes; Catherine of Aragon was said to enjoy seal and porpoise; Jane Seymour is documented as having a weakness for Cornish pasties and cherries, whilst Mary I was particularly fond of pears.
Banquet food features in very early Tudor cookery books. The banquet was a distinctive Tudor social institution that began at the highest level at the royal court, but filtered down to a new fashion that wealthy households wanted to copy.
Serving sugar and spices also served as an important way of showing off your wealth, influence and power – and to highlight an awareness of nutrition, with these ingredients seen as healthy at the time. Typical dishes included comfits, sweetmeats, or sugar-coated seeds and nuts, anise, carraway, fennel, corriander, almonds or angelic/ginger root.
Banqueting food was believed to boost wellbeing, facilitate digestion and act as an aphrodisiac, enhancing its reputation as a romantic feast. It also required great knowledge and skills, contributing to its aura of exclusivity. Recipes were often secret, with hosts happily preparing the treats themselves instead of servants.
The Tudor form of marzipan (marchpane) and small sugar-work sculptures also became a key and fashionable part of the banquet dessert. Initially intended to be eaten, these ended up being predominantly to show-off (designs presented to Elizabeth I included sculptures of St Paul’s Cathedral, castles, animals or chessboards to make a striking focal point).
Wet and dry suckets (essentially sugar and fruit-based) were also a key sweet treat, some vaguely similar to present-day marmalade. This was made of a quince paste from Portugal, boiled down with lots of sugar until solid, then poured into moulds. In 1495 imports of this form of ‘marmalade’ started to attract special custom duties, highlighting it’s proliferance. Wet suckets such as this (and pears roasted in red wine) were so popular that a specialised sucket fork was made to eat them with, with fork tines at one end and a spoon at the other.
Candied fruits were also popular, including orange sucade – a dry sucket made from seville orange peel. This was submerged in water multiple times over several days to withdraw the bitterness, then boiled in lots of sugar to thicken and sweeten, then dried.
How did the Tudors eat?
The Tudors predominantly used spoons, knives and their fingers to eat. As eating was communal, having clean hands was important, and strict etiquette rules attempted to prevent anyone touching food that would be eaten by someone else.
Everyone brought their own knife and spoon to a meal (giving rise to the custom of giving a spoon as a christening gift). Although forks were used to serve, cook and carve (and started to be used at the end of the 1500s), they were largely looked down upon – considered a fancy, foreign notion. It wasn’t until the 18th century they became ubiquitous in England.
Estimates suggest the Tudor nobility’s diet was 80% protein, with many feasts consisting of several thousand calories more than we would eat today. However the Tudors – including the nobility – required more calories than we do due to the phyiscal requirements of their lives, from cold houses, travel on foot or horseback, hunting, dancing, archery or hard labour or domestic work.
Nevertheless, the new Tudor appetite for sugar as a foodstuff might not have been the best health plan for their teeth, or arteries…