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Meals were not just about eating. They were a display of the monarch’s power. Exotic foods demonstrated wealth, while seating arrangements reflected the court’s hierarchy
Courtiers often ate as much as 5000 calories a day!
By Henry’s reign, the price of fresh meat had fallen sufficiently so that when it was available, the average Tudor family could afford it. The century before, poorer families would have rarely enjoyed meat, eating a diet of stewed vegetables and pulses. But the norm for ‘average’ people was stored or preserved meat – the luxury of the court was fresh meat. Tudor courtiers enjoyed a much wide variety of food, with freshly, slaughtered, roasted meat every day and the luxury of being able to choose from a 'menu' of dishes.
Today we worry about the environmental cost of flying in unseasonal produce. In Tudor times using exotic ingredients from distant countries was a sign of status. The variety of food available at court was staggering. Royal diners ate citrus fruit, almonds and olive oil from the Mediterranean. Food was sweetened with sugar from Cyprus and seasoned with spices from China, Africa and India.
Only the King was given a fork, with which he ate sweet preserves. Forks were used to serve, cook and carve, but eating with them didn’t become popular until the 17th century.
Henry's food was prepared, in a private kitchen, under the direction of the Privy Master Cook, John Bricket. The King ate in his private rooms, away from the crowds but on more formal occasions he sat alone at a high covered table in his Presence Chamber, under the canopy of state. He chose from a huge buffet, sampling whatever took his fancy. Dishes included game, roasted or served in pies, lamb, venison and swan. For banquets, more unusual items, such as conga eel and porpoise could be on the menu. Sweet dishes were often served along with savoury.
Cheat Bread and Manchett, Beare and Ale Wyne, Flesh for Pottage (thick broth), Chines of Beef, Venison in Brew’z or mult’, Pestells of Reed Deere, Carpes of Young Veale in Arm’ farced, Custard garnished, or Fritters
Jelly, Ipocras, Creames of Almonds, Pheasant, Hern, Bitterne, Shovelard, Cocks, Plovers or Gulles, Larkes or Rabbits, Venison in fine past, Tarts, Fritter
Image: King Henry VIII, after Hans Holbein the Younger, National Portrait Gallery
Meals were served in the Great Hall or the Great Watching Chamber, twice a day at 10.00 and 16.00. Higher-ranking courtiers ate in the Great Watching Chamber; lesser ranks in the Great Hall. For the lowliest servants there was little choice but lots of it. Food was part of their wages for being at court. A daily menu for ‘Maides, Servants, Children of Offices, Porters and Skowerers’ lists 2 meals of ‘Bread, Ale, Beefe and Veale, or Mutton’
Each meal had two courses served in messes – big dishes that would be shared between four people. Diners used napkins to cover their laps. It was considered rude to finish everything at the table, not least because others depended on left overs known as 'manners'. These were distributed to the ‘deserving poor’ at the palace gates.
Table manners were very important and considered vital if entering polite society. Dutch writer Erasmus published a book in 1534 with a list of instructions, among them: 'Sit not down until you have washed. Don't shift your buttocks...sit neatly and still. In the Great Hall, diners would sit down under ‘Eavesdroppers’ – painted carved faces on the ceiling –reminding courtiers and servants that they shouldn’t gossip.