‘And if they [the nobles and many of their servants] have not at dyner and souper xx dysches of dyversemetys, they lake they chefepoynt that perteynyth to theyrhonowre… And if they [the nobles and many of their servants] do not have 20 varied meat dishes at dinner and supper, the consider themselves slighted.’
– Thomas Starkey, ‘A dialogue between Cardinal Pole and Thomas Lupset, Lecturer in Rhetoric at Oxford’, 1529-32
The royal court had been waiting for the christening of their next king for decades, making this event one of the most important of all the feasts held at Hampton Court Palace. But what exactly did they eat?
Without a doubt, the feast which celebrated the new prince’s christening would have been a massive event, but we actually don’t know all that much about what would have been on the menu. We do, however, know that the meals enjoyed by the court on a daily basis were already spectacular and outlandish, so the menu for this particular event must have been truly spectacular.
We know, for example, that for the average member of society at this time, meat was off the table. It was too expensive and cooking it was time-consuming. This, however, was not the case for members of royalty, who ate a preposterous amount of meat. Over the course of a year, the royal court could get through:
- 8,200 sheep
- 760 calves
- 53 wild boar
- 1,870 pigs
- 2,330 deer
- 1,240 oxen
And these numbers don’t even include the massive orders created for grand events such as Edward’s christening.
Needless to say, the superior and least common meats were saved for the table of the King, but courtiers could still expect a grand choice of meats such as pork stew, chicken pie or roasted mutton.
Along with the rather tame selection mentioned above, the Tudor meal plan could also include more unusual animals which are now protected species, such as heron, dolphin, swan, egret or peacock.
‘Kutte a Swan in the rove of the mouthe toward the brayne elonge, and lete him bleded, and kepe the blode for chawdewyn; or ells knytte a knot on his nek, And so late his nekke breke, then skald him. Drawe him and rost ghim even thou doest goce in all poyntes, and serue him fort wit chawd-wyne.’
This love of meat was forced to be put on hold on Wednesdays and Fridays, which were decreed as ‘fish days’ by the Church. Meat was not to be eaten on these days, but your social standing still had a large impact on your menu. For example, if you were but a humble servant, your menu may have included ale, salted ling (cod), herrings and cheat (bread). Meanwhile, if you ranked a little higher up on the social ladder, you could have a menu similar to that of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon:
‘…for first course there was chett and manchett bread, ale, beer, wine, herring, pottage, organe ling (cod), powdered eales or lamprons [tiny young eel], pike, calver salmon, whiting, haddocks, mullets or bass, plaice or gurnard, sea bream or soalles [sole], congers [eels] door [dory], porpoise, seale, carp, trout, crabs, lobsters, custard, rascalles or flage [cuts of venison], tart, fritter and fruit; and for the second course they had the options of second pottage, sturgeon, tench [carp], perch or other dish, roast eels with lampreys, chynes [a cut like a loin piece, like a salmon fillet today ] of boiled salmon, crayfish, shrimps, tart, fritter, fruit, baked apples, oranges, butter and eggs.’
Although vegetables were often perceived as the food of the poor, they weren’t entirely absent from the menu for the nobility. Tudor diners often enjoyed meals which involved peas, leeks, onions, broad beans and cabbages.
Fruits available to Tudor diners included those which could be grown in England, such as pears, plums, strawberries, cherries and apples, as well as those which had to be imported, such as oranges and lemons. It was Katherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII‘s first wife, who was responsible for making oranges popular in the royal court, being as they were imported from her native Spain. King Henry himself grew rather fond of marmalade. Fruits which had been planted in the orchards at Hampton Court by Thomas Wolsey, the palace’s previous occupant, were often stored and eaten by Henry VIII, with the king even ordering for apricots to be grown in his garden.
The ability to import foods from the Mediterranean was a real statement of power and abundance, as well as adding an exotic element to the experience of royal feasting. The courts would often import Mediterranean foodstuffs such as olives, almonds, artichokes and citrus fruits as a means of enhancing the king’s status as a wealthy ruler. Some of the most common imports at this time, however, were spices.
The vast majority of the foods served in court were served with a sauce which was flavoured with herbs and spices such as cinnamon, liquorice, mace, pepper and ginger. Many have come to believe that these spices became popular as a means of covering the taste and smell of expired meats, but this could not be further from the truth. The wealthy Tudor court could easily afford their fill of fresh, expensive meats, and would never have had to resort to eating spoiled foodstuffs. Spices, as luxurious imported items, were used to highlight the status and power of the host.
One example of these heavily spiced dishes is Beef-y-stywyd, a meal which would have contained cloves, grains of paradise, onions, sage, saffron, salt, vinegar, parsley, cubebs, mace and cinnamon. To thicken the stew, bread would also be added, often serving the dual function of soaking up juices left at the bottom of bowls. This bread could have been Cheat (everyday bread made from wholemeal), Manchet (white rolls) or Maslin (course bread).
Salt and sugar were vital to meals at this time, as the could be used as both preservatives and seasoning. Salt was considered to be so important that the average Tudor would have consumed over three times today’s daily recommended intake.
Confusingly, there were even dishes placed on the table which were not intended for consumption. The more elaborate dishes were often referred to as ‘subtleties’, and were created from wax or almond paste and sugar. These pieces were not designed to be eaten, but to be admired during the meal. For example, a court feast held by Cardinal Wolsey in 1527 for the French ambassador is said to have included over a hundred subtleties in the second course alone. These pieces were designed to resemble animals, a chessboard, people and buildings.
‘The queen spends over 300,000 ducats a year on her table, for all the thirteen councellors eat in the palace, as well as the household officers, the master of the horse, the master of the household, the queen’s as well as our own – for we also have English officers and the wives of all these gentleman into the bargain. The queen’s ladies also eat by themselves in the palace, and their servants, as well as the guvernors and household officials. And then there are 200 men of the guard…’