Food in Tudor England

The story of the Tudor monarchs is as astounding as it was unexpected, but it was not the only one unfolding between 1485 and 1603. In cities, towns, and villages, families and communities lived their lives through times of great upheaval. In Tudor England: A History, Lucy Wooding lets their voices speak, exploring not just how monarchs ruled but also how men and women thought, wrote, lived, and died.

This extract from the book looks at the food that the Tudors ate, from sturgeon and quail at the table of Henry VIII to the trenchers of pottage of ordinary people.


Food was a central preoccupation of Tudor life: not just a source of nutri­tion, but a badge of status, a means of occupation, a major item of expend­iture and a symbol of the sacred.[1] In the first printed collection of statutes, published in 1485, the index contained categories for laws about cheese and butter, victuallers and wines.[2] Food and drink were common currency: rents paid in kind were often rendered as foodstuffs; payments to officials could be in the form of game; and offerings to patrons were frequently edible. Food could be a tool of diplomacy: visiting dignitaries were often presented with wine, sugar or marzipan on visits to towns, and Pope Leo X once gave Henry VIII a gift of 100 parmesan cheeses.[3] Fraternities were bound together by their feasts, and indeed the word ‘companion’ was under­stood to mean ‘bread sharer’ (from the Latin cum pane) in late medieval England.[4] Gifts of food reinforced social ties at every level, between neigh­bours in the village (where the ‘help ale’ was a way of assisting the poor) or between different urban groupings who paid tribute in traded goods, such as sugar loaves, wine or spices.[5]

Pieter Claesz, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bread and Pottage

Bread was the most important commodity for the poor, capable of carrying religious sanction through its association with the eucharist and biblical symbolism generally; the cost of grain was of vital political impor­tance, since grain shortages might result in riots.[6] During the good harvests of the later fifteenth century, barley bread had been replaced as a staple by wheaten bread, although commentators thought it worrying that labourers now expected this.[7] For the very poor who were short of flour, acorns could be ground up to use as a substitute, but this was a pitiful sign of indigence.[8] The poorer sort used thick slices of bread as trenchers, or plates, for the rest of their food, and bread was also customarily crumbled into pottage to thicken it. Pottage was the main daily dish for ordinary people: somewhere between porridge and thick soup, it contained cereals, pulses, herbs, vegetables and sometimes meat. In a collection of exercises for Latin translation, Vives provided a description of a cauldron suspended on a pot-hook over the fire; in it simmered a broth containing meat, cereal, rice and vegetables.[9]

Jan Victors, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The symbolism surrounding bread underlined the extent to which Tudor society could be dependent upon it. Harrison commented on town dwellers who could not grow their own grain: ‘for wheaten bread, they eat it when they can reach unto the price of it, contenting themselves in the meantime with bread made of oats or barley: a poor estate, God wot!’[10] The use of false weights and measures was one of the worst social crimes: a sermon from the 1550s warned gravely that ‘deceitfull weyghtes, and double measures’ were to be avoided as assiduously as the ‘sword of Satan’.[11] Urban authorities paid close attention to weights and measures: in Leicester in 1520, there were attempts to ‘set standards as of the quality of bread sold to the poor’, for the sake of ‘the comonwelth off the towne’.[12] Corrupt dealings were opposed on the grounds that they would cause suffering among the lowest orders of society: the lord mayor of York in 1555 went on a personal tour of the market, ordering one butcher with inflated prices to sell at a cost ‘reasonable to the poor’.[13] Hugh Plat, responding to the famines of the 1590s, called down the wrath of heaven upon those who raised their prices in times of dearth, and asked indignantly, ‘why should the rich men feast, when the poore are ready to famish?’[14]

Social Status

Social status, and social climbing, could be demonstrated by the food which people ate. The royal court made a point of consuming foodstuffs that were exotic, or rare, or only briefly in season: Henry VIII seems to have pioneered the breeding of pheasants, and rejoiced in sweet cherries, cucumbers, radishes and early peas.[15] Conspicuous consumption was a mark of the great household, although it was also used in alehouses and taverns.[16] Above all, the ability to provide hospitality was essential to any kind of social standing.[17] Andrew Borde warned those seeking to set up in a mansion house that they should be sure that they could muster the necessary lavish provision for household, friends and neighbours: it was madness, he argued, ‘to set up a great howse’ if you were ‘not able to kepe man nor mowse’.[18] The duty of hospitality had been a central obligation of the pre-Reformation clergy and a central part of monastic provision for the poor, so much so that it was enshrined in church law.[19] After the Reformation, it was still expected of anyone who kept a manor house, although it could sometimes indicate enduring Catholic loyalties, as with the Petre family of Ingatestone in Essex, whose account books indicate that during the winter of 1551–52 they fed the local poor every day.[20] Nor was it only the great who were expected to dispense hospitality. John Heritage, born in Warwickshire in 1470, spent most of his working life in Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire, and was a yeoman farmer, wool merchant, trader and moneylender. He grew up in a household of about sixteen, including his parents, seven siblings and servants. An inventory of 1495 shows that the kitchen could comfortably feed a large group of people, with three spits, an array of pots and pans, and ale brewed in the bakehouse; it also pictures the household gathered for meals at the long table in the hall, with John’s father at the head of the table in the only chair, and everyone else on benches. There was a linen tablecloth, pewter plates, and silver spoons for important occasions.[21]

Joachim Beuckelaer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Subtle distinctions were made between fare that was good and generous, and that which was luxurious, which was of questionable morality. Here again, degrees of social status were important: those who lived in a manner inappro­priate to their station in life could be censured. The Privy Council was concerned in 1596 by the ‘increase of luxury in London’ and urged better regu­lation of ‘both public assemblies and private diett’, although this should be set against the background of famine that year.[22] There were also health consid­erations. Fresh fruit and vegetables could be viewed with suspicion. ‘It is wryten in the lyf of saynt Benet that a religious woman with a gredenes, receyved a wycked spiryte in etynge [eating] of letuse in the gardeyn’, recorded Thomas Betson of Syon.[23] William Harrison liked the fact that exotic plants could be brought from the New World to decorate the gardens of the rich, but he thought it the height of folly to actually eat such strange things as mushrooms and aubergines. The oddity of foreigners was also characterized by what they ate. Dutch immigrants or merchants were called ‘butter-tubs’ or ‘butter-mouths’, whilst people looked askance at Turks on account of their extreme fasting.[24] Nonetheless, by the end of the century, foreign cookery books were being translated into English. Epulario or the Italian Banquet, published in 1598, may have been the first to introduce the English to the idea of cooked cheese.[25]

Food and Politics

The giving and consumption of food underlines an important political point about Tudor England: namely, that the most important relationships were always understood as having a personal element. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, advising his son Robert on the rules of political life, told him how to maintain a friendship with anyone eminent: ‘Compliment him often with many, yet small, gifts, and of little charge. And if thou hast cause to bestow any great gratuity, let it be something which may be daily in sight.’[26] The Lisle family in Calais maintained their links with Henry VIII by sending everything from boar’s head to sturgeon, as well as the quails that Jane Seymour craved while pregnant.[27] Their envoy in London could begin a letter by announcing that ‘I presented the King with the cherries in my lady’s name, which he was very glad of, and thanks you and her both for them.’[28] The Lisles adopted a particularly familiar tone in their exchanges to underline the point that they really were family: Arthur, Lord Lisle, was Elizabeth of York’s illegitimate brother. Thomas Cromwell’s accounts record the rewards dispensed to those who brought gifts such as arti­chokes, quinces and porpoise; and Robert Dudley responded to tributes, including a brace of puffins from the earl of Derby.[29] The rarity of certain foodstuffs, or the fact that – like cherries – they were only briefly in season, heightened the value of the gift.

Water and Beer

Fresh water was not widely available, particularly in an urban setting, and the Tudors consumed enormous quantities of beer. Manual workers, sailors and soldiers were assumed to need 4 quarts (over 4 litres) of beer for their daily allowance.[30] There was little concern over alcohol consump­tion, although Thomas Elyot did observe the longevity of the Cornish, who drank mostly water, and commented that men and women brought up on milk and butter were a lot healthier than those who drank ale and wine.[31] Pregnant women necessarily drank a fair amount of alcohol, which may have contributed to late miscarriages; but they were advised to avoid strong drink.[32] Ale, beer and cider, like milk, were mostly produced at home, or close to home.[33] Wine was believed to have health-giving properties, and Elyot recalled the opinion of Plato that it ‘norysheth and comforteth, as well all the body, as the spirites of man’. He thought that God ‘dyd ordeyne it for mankynde, as a remedy agaynstd the incommodi­ties of aege, that thereby they shulde seme to retourne unto youth and forgette hevynes’, but advised that ‘yonge men shoulde drynke lyttell wyne, for it shall make them prone to fury, and to lecherye’.[34]

Fasting

Fasting was a regular part of Tudor life, both before and after the Reformation. In the pre-Reformation period, everyone abstained from meat and dairy on Wednesdays and Fridays, on the eve of important saints’ days, and throughout Advent and Lent. One of Protestantism’s attractions was that it dispensed with these requirements. However, the threat to the fishing trade was such that Friday fasting was hastily restored during Edward VI’s reign – although it remained unpopular, as the attempts to regulate butchers’ sales on fast days indicate.[35] In later Protestant culture, it became common to mark times of mourning, or special intercession, with fast days. Public fasts might be held in parish, town or by the nation at large in response to a particular crisis, whilst the godly might keep private fasts, accompanied by prayer and almsgiving, in pursuit of greater personal sanctity.[36] The response to the terrible famines of the 1590s, after three consecutive harvests had failed, was to declare public fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays – with the pious objective of showing penitence to a providential God for the sins that had merited such punishment, and with the practical objective of giving the food saved to the starving poor. The Council interpreted God’s displeasure as a response to the ‘excesse in dyett’ and ‘nedeles waste and ryotous consumpcion’ prevalent throughout the kingdom.[37] In more private fashion, many dedicated Protestants resumed the medieval practice of fasting the night before receiving communion.[38]

Growing Vegetables to Feed the Poor

In 1599, in a decade that had seen the death rate rise to over 50 per cent above average, Richard Gardiner of Shrewsbury published Profitable Instructions for the Manuring, Sowing and Planting of Kitchen Gardens very Profitable for the Commonweal and Greatly for the Help and Comfort of Poor People.[39] He recorded with pride how, with less than 4 acres of land, he had grown hundreds of cabbages and carrots to sustain the poor people of his town in the last dearth: ‘there were many hundreds of people well refreshed thereby, for the space of twentie daies when bread was wanting amongst the poore in the pinch or fewe daies before Harvest’.[40] He left his book, with detailed instructions on the growing of vegetables, as a last word, hoping to benefit the town he had cherished and defended: ‘now in my olde age, or last dayes, I would willinglie take my last farewell with some good instructions to pleasure the generall number’. His love of gardening was indissolubly linked to his love for his town and its community, and his duty to God, and he wrote his book in order ‘that God may be glorified in his good gifts, the generall number the better comforted, and the poore the better releeved with Garden stuffe’.[41] Even the growing of cabbages could be a way to strengthen society, in soul as well as body.


Lucy Wooding is the Langford fellow and tutor in history at Lincoln College, Oxford. She is an expert on Reformation England and its politics, religion, and culture and the author of Henry VIII.


Tudor England
A History

Lucy Wooding

‘[Wooding] writes clear, elegant, purposeful narrative. . . . Anecdote and oddity leap off every page, often slyly juxtaposed. . . . This wide-ranging and punchy book approaches Tudor history from the ground up. It’s a classic in the making.’—Dan Jones, The Times

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Notes

1. Craig Muldrew, Food, Energy and the Creation of Industriousness (Cambridge, 2011).

2. Nova Statuta (1485), STC 9264.

3. Margaret Pelling, The Common Lot: Sickness, medical occupations and the urban poor in early modern England (London, 1998), 41; Lucy Wooding, Henry VIII (second edition, Abingdon, 2015), 72.

4. Gervase Rosser, ‘Going to the fraternity feast: Commensality and social relations in late medieval England’, JBS 33 (1994), 431.

5. Felicity Heal, ‘Food gifts, the household and the politics of exchange in early modern England’, P&P 199 (2008), 41–70.

6. Paul S. Lloyd, Food and Identity in England, 1540–1640: Eating to impress (London, 2015), 41.

7. Joan Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England: Phases, fads, fashions 1500–1760 (London, 2007), 3.

8. Lloyd, Food and Identity, 37, 41.

9. Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England, 9, 25.

10. William Harrison, The Description of England, ed. G. Edelen (Washington, DC, and London, 1994), 216.

11. St Augustine, Twelve Sermons (1553), STC 923, Sig. Cviv–Cviir.

12. Quoted in Andy Wood, Faith, Hope and Charity: English neighbourhoods, 1500–1640 (Cambridge, 2020), 55.

13. David M. Palliser, Tudor York (Oxford, 1979), 63.

14. Plat, Sundrie new and artificall remedies, Sig. A3r.

15. Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England, 20–22.

16. Peter Clark, The English Alehouse (London, 1983); Martha Carlin, ‘“What say you to a piece of beef and mustard”: The evolution of public dining in medieval and Tudor London’, HLQ 71 (2008), 199–217.

17. Felicity Heal, Hospitality in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1990).

18. Andrew Borde, Hereafter foloweth a compendyous regyment or a dyetary of helthe (1542), STC 3378.5, Sig. Ciiiv.

19. Heal, Hospitality, 5.

20. ibid., 68–69.

21. Christopher Dyer, A Country Merchant 1495–1520: Trading and farming at the end of the middle ages (Oxford, 2012), 27.

22. Lloyd, Food and Identity, 24.

23. Thomas Betson, The Syon Abbey Herbal: The last monastic herbal in England, c. AD 1517, ed. John Adams and Forbes Stuart (London, 2015).

24. Pelling, The Common Lot, 47.

25. Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England, 32–33.

26. Desiderata Curiosa: or, A Collection of Divers Scarce and Curious Pieces, Relating Chiefly to Matters of English History, ed. Francis Peck, 2 vols (London, 1779), I, 49; cited in Heal, ‘Food gifts’, 67.

27. Lisle Letters, III, 500; IV, 144–45.

28. ibid., III, 395.

29. Heal, ‘Food gifts’, 66.

30. Lloyd, Food and Identity, 41–43.

31. Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England, 13; Thomas Elyot, The Castell of Helth (1539), STC 7643, fos. 33v–34r.

32. Pollock, ‘Embarking on a rough passage’, 50, 54.

33. Lloyd, Food and Identity, 78–79.

34. Elyot, The Castell of Helth, fos. 34v–35r.

35. Lloyd, Food and Identity, 41.

36. Alec Ryrie, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford, 2013), 195–99.

37. APC, XXVI, 384.

38. Ryrie, Being Protestant, 341–44.

39. Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England, 34.

40. Richard Gardiner, Profitable Instructions for the Manuring, Sowing and Planting of Kitchen Gardens, STC 11570.5 (1599), Sig. D2v.

41. ibid. Sig. A2r–v.

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