all such as have their lodgings within the court shall give straight charge to the ministers and keepers of their chambers, that they do not cast, leave or lay any manner of dishes, platters, saucers, or broken meat, either in the said galleries, or at their chamber doors… and likewise to put the relics of their ale into another vessel… so that broken meat and drink be in no wise lost, cast away, or eaten with dogs, nor lie abroad in the galleries or courts, but may daily be saved for the relief of poor folks
– The Eltham Ordinances, 1526.
Considering the vast amount of food that was eaten at Tudor court, it comes as no surprise that there were plenty of leftovers. What might be a little surprising, however, is that it was actually considered pretty rude to finish everything on the table. So where did all of this extra food go?
Well, even a vastly wealthy setup like Tudor court knew better than to waste all that food for no reason. There was an abundance of fresh ingredients available to the wealthy classes, but this didn’t stop them from re-using as much as possible so as to avoid waste. High-ranking members of court, such as the king, would leave an amount of leftover food on their plates to be shared with people of a lower rank. These were known as “manners”.
Meanwhile, if a member of the royal household or of the Tudor court missed a meal – or just happened to want an extra meal – they could be served a selection of cold dishes which were served earlier on. This was called a “real supper”. This food could also be used as ingredients for the next meal, for example, leftover roast meats could be used in pies. Above all of these options, however, the most important use of leftovers was known as almsgiving.
For almsgiving, leftovers from the Great Watching Chamber, the Great Hall and Henry VIII’s personal table were gathered in a large basket known as a voider. This food was then distributed by the Almoner to the poor, who often could not afford enough food to feed themselves or their families. The various members of court who ate their meals in their own private lodgings were also expected to take any leftover food they had to the scullery for the same reason.
Anyone who failed to follow these regulations would be punished, with repeat offenders losing their lodgings, allowance, and the right to drink and eat at court. This was clearly considered to be a very important part of the royal court’s food-cycle, being a tradition which had been followed by royalty and monasteries alike for quite some time. Although it wasn’t quite as grand and spectacular as many other court traditions, it was also vital that the king showed a certain amount of piety and generosity towards those less fortunate.
Almsgiving was (reasonably) seen as the perfect way of ticking these boxes. The practice not only showed the king as a generous ruler, but also dealt with the issue of the vast amount of leftovers produced in court.