[Elizabeth I is] in the sixty-fifth year of her age… her face oblong, fair, but wrinkled; her eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her nose a little hooked; her lips narrow and her teeth black (a fault the English seem to suffer from because of their great use of sugar); she wore false hair, and that red… she had in her ears two pearls, with very rich drops. Her bosom was uncovered, as all English ladies have it, till they marry, and she had on a necklace of exceeding fine jewels.
– Paul Hentzner
As Queen of England, Elizabeth I had perhaps the most access of anyone else when it comes to the luxurious foods that were available at the time. Food, to tudors, reflected the power and wealth of their country and was a good way of showing off status. One of Elizabeth’s favourite ingredients, sugar, was one of the favoured foods when it came to showing off.
As a general rule, the more elaborate or luxurious the dish, the more expensive the ingredients would be. These dishes also required a great deal of effort to make, so they were the perfect way of showing status. For the most part, food during Elizabeth’s reign was very similar to that of the previous ruler, but differences did exist in the form of foods from the “New World”. Sugar, for example, had been available during Henry’s reign, but it was now much more readily accessible to the English.
Sugar became a status ingredient. Honey was originally used as a natural sweetener but because sugar’s need to be imported made it a symbol of wealth, it grew in popularity. Sugar grows as a cane, but the product imported to England came in the form of a loaf. This means that it had been processed. The sugars which came with the highest status were the fine, white sugars which could easily be melted to form a liquid. Next came Canary or Barbary sugar. The sugars with the lowest status were the coarse brown sugars. These sugars required less rendering down, but tended to be more difficult to work with as a result. All the same, this sugar was still very expensive and couldn’t be accessed by everyone in the country.
Where sugar was most easily afforded, at court, the ingredient was used to produce highly elaborate dishes. By creating a malleable sugar-paste from egg, sugar and gelatine, chefs could produce sweets which were designed to look like savoury foods like walnuts, eggs and bacon. Another popular dish known as “leech” was produced by combining sugar, rosewater and milk and cutting the resulting product into cubes. Two of the most popular dishes, however, were gingerbread and ‘marchpane’, which explains their survival to this day. Marchpane was something like modern marzipan. It was made from sugar paste and almond, and was moulded into a variety of shapes and decorated as glamorous centrepieces. Meanwhile, gingerbread gained its status and favour from its use of both ginger and sugar, two very exotic ingredients.
With all of this in mind, it’ll come as no surprise that Elizabethan teeth suffered a great deal. Sugar was not only being consumed in large amounts through the popular desserts, but it was also used in medicine and even to clean teeth. This – unshockingly – didn’t serve to lessen the damage. We know for sure that Queen Elizabeth had a number of teeth removed due to their dreadful state. In fact, the pain of having teeth removed frightened the Queen so much that the Bishop of London ended up having one of his own teeth removed just to put her at ease.
Thanks to records from visitors to the court, we also know how bad Elizabeth’s teeth became in her later life. In 1597, for example, French ambassador Andre Hurault noted that the Queen’s face was “very aged… long and thin, and her teeth are very yellow and unequal”.