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Food & Feast in Tudor England
By Alison Sim
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Alison Sim
All rights reserved.
Introduction: Food and Society in the Sixteenth Century
Sixteenth-century society revolved around the monarch. He or she could provide jobs, pensions, help in a lawsuit and just about anything else any ambitious person could want. The monarch was not an easy person to gain access to, though, so for most people it was necessary to procure the good favour of one of the charmed circle of courtiers who were regularly in the royal presence. If you wanted to move in the highest circles, you had to find ways of gaining and keeping the support of these people.
At this time it was becoming possible for individuals not born to wealth and influence to rise in the world as never before. The expansion of both trade and government bureaucracy meant that new opportunities were opening up for those able to get an education. More and more people were trying to rise in the world, and, in the process, gain influence among those close to the king or queen. An ambitious Tudor would try to dazzle the influential with a very obvious display of wealth so as to be accepted into their circle. Tudor tastes were not subtle: if you had money, you flaunted it.
The reason behind this was the strict social hierarchy that existed in Tudor times. The Tudors saw society as being rather like a ladder, with each person standing on a different rung. This ladder included not only humanity itself, but the whole of Creation, with animals, plants, minerals, etc. all having their own place on the ladder beneath man, and with saints, heavenly beings and, of course, God himself above man.
The situation was not as fixed as it might seem, though. Just as in any age, some once-powerful families found themselves going down the ladder while new families replaced them. There were also lots of people fighting at all levels over who should take precedence. Putting on a lavish display of your wealth not only confirmed your place on the ladder, it could also help you and your family to climb.
For example, the more people you employed, the more patronage you evidently had at your disposal. If you were very obviously wealthy, families higher up the social ladder might consider marrying their children to yours, which would give you access to that family's network of contacts. As most business was generated by knowing the right people, new contacts could bring you all sorts of opportunities, from jobs at Court to the chance to make sure that a judge who was trying a case you were involved in saw things your way.
Then, as now, there were plenty of other ways of showing off your wealth. The most obvious was to dress well. Before the Industrial Revolution, cloth was, in real terms, vastly more expensive than it is today. The Petre accounts, which cover the years 1548 to 1561, include London russet at 7s 4d a yard, broad russet at 2s 6d an ell and kersey from 1s 3d to 4s a yard, depending on the quality. These were hardwearing, high-quality wools which wealthy people might give to their servants to wear as Sunday best or which might make an everyday gown for a merchant's wife.
It is difficult to estimate how much cloth would be needed to make a gown as there was no standard width for material at the time. Some were very narrow indeed, such as silks which might be only 22 inches wide. Gowns also varied a great deal in the amount of fabric needed. A gown for a wealthy lady who might want long, dangling sleeves and a train, if these happened to be in fashion, obviously required much more fabric than a poorer person's more practical clothes. A rough estimate of 10 yards per gown will give a fair idea, however, and it soon becomes obvious just how expensive clothing was. Considering that a skilled worker such as a shipwright might earn £12 in a year, while someone at the bottom of society, like a washerwoman, might survive on only £2, clothing formed a large part of most people's annual budget.
If you wished to display your wealth, the best fabrics to wear were silk, velvet (which was woven at least partly of silk) and even cloth of silver or gold. Not only were these fabrics expensive, they did not last as long as wool, so wearing them was a sign that you could afford to replace them as necessary. In real terms, clothes made of these fabrics cost even more than designer-original clothes cost today. John Johnson, a wealthy merchant of the staple at Calais in the mid-sixteenth century, had a quilted yellow silk doublet made up in Antwerp for a friend at the huge cost of 33s 6d – more or less a labourer's entire annual income. The Tudors took dressing to impress very seriously indeed.
Ladies and gentlemen who dressed so expensively also wanted their houses to provide a magnificent setting. Tudor tastes in decoration were elaborate to say the least. Every inch of the grander rooms in a large house would be decorated with wall paintings or panelling (which would be painted in bright colours rather than lovingly polished, as surviving Tudor panelling usually is today) and, if the family was particularly wealthy, hung with tapestries. Tapestry really was the ultimate wall covering, as it would take a team of skilled weavers around three years to make a single tapestry of fairly complex design, and on top of that was the cost of all the raw materials, such as fine silk and wool thread dyed in expensively bright colours. The cost of them was enormous. Henry VIII paid £1,500 for one set of ten tapestries showing the life of King David, and these were not even the best set he owned. The most magnificent in his collection were woven entirely of silk and even had silver-gilt thread woven into them. They are still on display at Hampton Court Palace.
Another necessity for the up-and-coming Tudor was a good display of plate for the table. It was still usual in the sixteenth century for guests to bring their own cutlery; huge matching sets of silver cutlery lay some way in the future. This was one reason for giving a silver spoon as a christening gift: it was a useful item which could be used throughout the recipient's life. Instead, the Tudors bought elaborate plates, bowls, ewers and other large items. Some were meant for use, others purely for display, but it was all a sound investment: if the family suddenly needed cash, the plate could be melted down and made into coin.
Certainly the Tudors were prepared to pay large amounts for their tableware. John Johnson paid the vast sum of £11 for six silver goblets which he bought in Antwerp and he also ordered no less than £40 worth of tableware for his much wealthier landlord, Sir Thomas Blundell. William Harrison, in his Description of England (1587), describes the houses of the wealthier classes as follows: 'Certes in noblemen's houses it is not rare to see abundance of arras, rich hangings of tapestry, silver vessel, and so much other plate as may furnish sundry cupboards to the sum oftentimes of a thousand or two thousand pounds at the least, whereby the value of this and the rest of their studd doth grow to be almost inestimable. Likewise in the houses of knights, gentlemen, merchantmen and some other wealthy citizens, it is not geason to behold generally their great provision of tapestry Turkey work, pewter, brass, fine linen and thereto costly cupboards of plate, worth five or six hundred or a thousand pounds to be deemed by estimation.' Plate was a vital status symbol.
Not surprisingly, feasting was a favourite pastime. Dining has always been an excellent way to impress, as it allows the host to show off not only his house and tableware but also to provide his guests with suitably expensive delicacies. The Tudors also used feasts as a way of reminding everyone where they stood in the social hierarchy. Seating was strictly according to status. The most important diners sat on the high table at one end of the hall, set up on a raised dais to put them literally at a higher level than everyone else. They would sit at one side of the table only, facing down the hall towards the other guests. The other tables would be set at right angles to the top table, with diners sitting at both sides of each table. The guests who had not quite made it on to the top table were placed at the top of the table to the right of the top table, and the order of precedence then moved down the hall, the lowest position being the bottom of the table to the far left of the top table. This strict observance of precedence must have been a nightmare for the steward and the ushers who had to organize the seating. The Tudors felt so strongly about precedence that you could create an enemy by seating someone in a place which they felt to be too lowly. The Tudors also worked very much as families rather than as individuals so you could find yourself having offended a whole family by making a mistake.
It was for this reason that the etiquette books of the time go into such detail as to who should sit where. One of these books, John Russell's Book of Nurture, gives such great detail about precedence that it even includes a careful list of how different bishops should be seated, and even tells you what to do with the Pope's foster parents, although it was highly unlikely that such people would visit England. Diners in their turn also had to be careful not to sit down until shown to a place, as being asked to move down the table to a more lowly place would be a public humiliation.
Your place at table also determined what you were given to eat. Any modern hostess who gave some of her guests expensive dishes like quail and smoked salmon while serving others sausage and mash would be unlikely to have many people coming back a second time. In the sixteenth century, such an arrangement would be considered quite normal. The guests at the top table would be served expensive delicacies, which may also be passed on to the guests at the top of the next highest table as a sign of favour. Lower down the hall the food would be far plainer, although it was a matter of pride even so to provide far more food than the guests could eat. Although these arrangements sound odd to us today, at the time they were considered a perfectly reasonable way of reminding everyone of their place.
The vital importance of food as an item of display can be seen from its place in the sumptuary laws. Laws trying to limit ownership of certain luxurious items to the upper social classes had existed for some time. It is hard to know how strictly they were enforced, and certainly there are many examples of these laws being ignored. The fact that they were re-enacted so often does show that the ruling classes at least took them seriously.
These laws focus on clothing but food was also covered by the sumptuary laws active during Henry VIII's reign. For example, the regulations passed on 31 May 1517 stated that a cardinal may have nine dishes served at one meal, a duke, archbishop, marquis, earl or bishop could have seven, lords 'under the degree of an earl', mayors of the city of London, knights of the garter and abbots could have six, and so on down until those with an income of between £40 and £100 a year could have three dishes. There are also strict definitions of what was meant by a 'dish' and the sheer amount of food is quite a surprise to the modern diner. A 'dish' meant one swan, bustard, peacock or 'fowls of like greatness', or four plovers, partridge, woodcock or similar birds (except in the case of a cardinal, who was allowed six), eight quail, dotterels, etc. and twelve very small birds such as larks.
Rich people's tables must have been groaning with food as there were only certain items which were restricted. Dishes such as pottages and dishes made of offal or oysters, which were so cheap at this time that they were not considered to be delicacies, were not covered by the law. Anyone could eat as many of these dishes as they had the money and inclination to.
There were times when the sumptuary laws could be ignored, notably at weddings, and when entertaining nobles and ambassadors, when lavish meals would be seen as honouring an important guest. If you were entertaining someone of higher degree than yourself you were allowed to dine according to the higher person's estate.
This need to impress naturally affected the cooking of the period. Cookery books of the time go into long and loving detail about how to make dishes into elaborate shapes. For example, a pig's stomach is filled with ground pork and spices and covered all over with blanched almonds so as to look like a hedgehog. A fabulous beast, the cockentrice, could be made by sewing the hind part of a pig to the front half of a capon. Dishes like these would have been sure to amuse and impress as they were paraded around before being served.
The sumptuary laws give a good indication of the kind of money being spent on food by the upper classes. It seems that the wealthy were supposed to limit their spending to about 10 per cent of the value of their property. For example persons with goods to the value of £2,000 were told to limit their spending on their table to £200 a year. This is for food for their private table only, and does not include food for their household!
All this emphasis on display suggests that the Tudor's wealthier subjects lavished money on their kitchens without thought. Their entertaining was designed to give this impression but in fact expenditure was carefully controlled. Expenditure, even in the royal kitchens, was carefully supervised, and studies of other wealthy people's accounts show that they, too, kept a careful note of what was going on in their kitchens. The ninth earl of Northumberland's accounts for example show that such detailed records were kept that a note was even made of how many loaves were used at each meal.
The elaborate meals you might be served at the top table in a grand palace were very unlike the everyday food that most Tudor subjects ate. The first thing that would strike most modern people about it was how boring it was. Today we take a very wide choice of food for granted, but in the sixteenth century anything imported was expensive. Ordinary people's food consisted of what could be grown locally, which meant eating the same thing day in, day out. For most Tudors a meal meant bread and pottage unless there was some kind of celebration going on.
In his Dyetary published in 1542 Andrew Boorde, one of Henry VIII's doctors, described pottage as being made with meat stock. In this he showed himself to be a wealthy man, as for most people meat was a treat eaten only a few times a week, or at celebrations of one kind or another. For most of the population pottage was a cross between porridge and stew, consisting of vegetables and a grain to thicken it, which was usually either oats or barley.
Different things could be added to pottage to vary the flavour, but ordinary people were limited to home-grown items like onions, leeks, garlic and herbs. Imported spices were far beyond most people's pocket. To give an idea of just how expensive they were, at the Field of Cloth of Gold, the magnificent meeting between Henry VIII and the French king Francis I in 1520, the estimated cost of food for the king, queen and nobles for a month was £7,409. Of this £440 was the estimated cost of spices alone. Tudor food today has a reputation for being heavily spiced, but this can only ever have been true for the food served to the tiny minority.
Meat did sometimes appear in pottage, as Andrew Boorde's comments suggest, but meat was a luxury in most homes. It was usual for anyone who could afford it to keep a pig which would provide the family with meat for the year, but obviously this would not go very far. The meat would be preserved by being salted or smoked, so fresh meat would be unusual for most of the year for many people.
A great quantity of bread was eaten at the time. It is not always possible to be precise about the exact amount, as the best source for this information is the financial accounts of the wealthy households. All great households baked their own bread and their loaves did not necessarily conform to the official weights and measures which applied to loaves made for sale. In Dame Alice de Brynne's accounts, dating from the early fifteenth century, at least one white loaf per person, and usually more, is consumed at each meal.
Poor people's bread was usually brown. Today in Britain we import most of our wheat used for bread making, as our wheat does not contain much gluten, the elastic protein that catches the gas that the yeast gives off as it works, making the bread rise. Modern bread-making methods also make our bread lighter still. Tudor bread would have been a great deal more solid than today's factory-made bread.
At all levels of society, bread was eaten, though the main ingredient would differ. Wheat was considered the finest flour for bread making, but bread was often made from other grains, such as barley, or from a mixture of grains, known as maslin. The poorest bread, made of ground-up beans, was known as horse bread as its usual use was to feed horses. Those at the bottom of the social ladder might also find themselves eating it.
Higher up the social scale food became more varied and elaborate, although the basic bread and pottage appeared even on the grandest tables. A wealthy man's pottage might contain almonds, spices and wine. One recipe book of the time, now in the British Museum, describes a pottage which was to be served cold, and which contained almonds, wine, ginger, cinnamon and saffron. This was obviously a world away from the poor man's version, and would have been just one of many dishes served rather than the mainstay, but it was still basically pottage.
Excerpted from Food & Feast in Tudor England by Alison Sim. Copyright © 2013 Alison Sim. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Introduction: Food and Society in the Sixteenth Century,
2 Kitchens and Kitchen Equipment,
3 Staffing and Provisioning the Kitchen,
4 Beer and Brewing,
6 Health and Diet,
8 Table Manners,
9 Feasts, Entertainments and Luxury Food,