Diet in Tudor England – Food (Part One)

Diet in Tudor England – Food (Part One)

Guest post by P. Deegan

The food available to the people in Britain, during the Tudor period, was far more limited than is available to modern people.  Refrigeration did not exist and some foodstuffs may have been imported but nowhere near on the scale of modern western imports. Now common items, such as bananas and mangoes, were not a part of their diet. Britain was self-sufficient in the Tudor period for all the basic foodstuffs commonly eaten in this period. However, this did leave the country open to famines in years when the weather was bad and ruined the harvests. There were at least two famines during the Tudor period: once during the 1550s during Mary I’s reign and once during the 1590’s during Elizabeth’s reign.

Yet some meats which are now no longer eaten were then a part of the diet of people in Tudor Britain.  These include (for the richer people in society) swan, porpoise, beaver and peacock. Venison (deer) was part of the diet of the upper classes and could be provided from a hunt.  One source (2) said that wild boar is thought to have become extinct in Britain in about the thirteenth century with both James VI of Scotland/I of England, and his son Charles I, unsuccessfully trying to reintroduce wild boar during the 17th century using animals from Europe.  However Anne Boleyn gave Henry a gift in January 1533 of an ‘exotic set of richly decorated Pyrenean boar spears’ and Alison Weir noted that gifts of wild boar had been made to Elizabeth of York so I am unsure of whether there is still wild boar in England at this point. Dishes called ‘puddings’ contained meat in this period.

Without refrigeration or canning, meat would be smoked, dried or salted to stop it going off after the animal had been killed and butchered into pieces. A lot of people might still have a bit of land where they could keep a chicken or a pig. Meat cannot have been a frequent part of the diet of the poorer classes as they could not have kept enough animals to have eaten meat every day and couldn’t afford to buy it every day either.  Bacon was the most commonly eaten meat for poor people.

Fish couldn’t be safely transported over distances without spoiling and so would be dried and salted for transporting to people outside the port towns. Fish was very important as due to religious custom, meat could not be eaten on Fridays. I remember this, being born a Catholic, even in the 20th century as meat would not be eaten on Friday so fish was always cooked on that day. It was a Christian practise during that period to abstain from flesh meat on a Friday to honour Christ who sacrificed his ‘flesh’ for mankind on that day through crucifixion.  In 1563 Elizabeth issued an act of Parliament that her subjects ate fish on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, which may have been based on religious practise but also boosted the country’s shipbuilding industry.

Kitchen Still-Life by Frans Snyders (1579–1657)

Two very common items in modern western diets, in both Britain and the USA, are the potato and the tomato but neither of these were widely available in Tudor England. Oddly enough the sweet potato, which has really only become more commonly available in modern England in the last 5-10 years, was originally introduced earlier into England than the vegetable that we now think of as the potato. The sweet potato had been brought back to Spain by Christopher Columbus and was introduced to England from Spain.  One source (1) claimed that Henry VIII liked spiced sweet potato pie. The white potato had been introduced into Europe (Spain) in the early 1500s, from South America, but the white potato is not thought to have been introduced to England until 1586 by returning colonists from the American colony of Virginia.  Sir Walter Raleigh planted them in his Irish estate of Youghall, near Cork, and John Gerard, who wrote a “herbal” in 1597, had some in his garden but it wasn’t a widely used foodstuff in Britain in this period. Even in the 17th century the potato was still considered “food for poor people”. John Gerard referred to the white potato as the “Potato of Virginia” to distinguish it from the more commonly available potato in England that we now call “sweet potato”.

Tomatoes originate in South America where the Aztecs called them “tomatl”. They were introduced into Europe in the 16th century and were small and yellow at that point. In England tomatoes were introduced in 1597 but they were not eaten and simply grown for decoration as the plant was thought to be poisonous.

One food staple, for all classes of people in Britain, was bread. Like many things in society, the type of bread eaten depended on your wealth and status. Commonly available bread for the poor was made of rye and wheat and called ‘Carter’s bread’. More prosperous people could eat ‘ravel’ or ‘Yeoman’s bread’ which was made of wholemeal flour whilst the richest ate ‘manchet’ which was made of white wheat flour. This may sound a little strange as we know that wholemeal bread is better for your health than white bread but, without dentists, the finer and softer bread would be kinder to worn teeth than wholemeal bread and as it took more work to produce it, it was more expensive.

Dairy products, butter and cheese, were also widely eaten. Wensleydale cheese had first been produced by Cistercian monks in the twelfth century and cheddar has been made in Somerset for more than 800 years.

Vegetables and fruit were eaten by everybody though raw vegetables and fruit were viewed as potentially harmful and often cooked or preserved.  Hazelnuts and walnuts were also grown.

The Well-stocked Kitchen, Joachim Bueckelaer, 1566

Common vegetables grown were beans, peas, carrots, parsnips, peascod (peas in a pod), cabbages, cauliflower, leeks and onions. There are a number of wild growing herbs that are also edible, such as ‘Good King Henry’ or ‘Poor Man’s Asparagus’. This herb’s name is not from any English king but from elves in Anglo—Saxon tales.  The carrot for much of the Tudor period was a purple root vegetable as the sweeter orange version was only developed by Dutch growers in the late 16th century.  The same Latin name, Pastinaca, was used for both parsnips and carrots until botanical labelling became more developed and precise and the plants obtained their own Latin names.

Fruits easily grown in Britain at this time included apples, pears, plums, cherries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries.  Pomegranates were known in England,

Sugar was imported but it was very expensive indeed and honey was a more usual sweetener.  Marchpanes were a popular dessert or sweet at court and were made of pulverised blanched almonds with sugar, and a little rosewater, which was then baked and iced with sugar and rosewater. Queen Elizabeth I had a marchpane model of St. Pauls brought out to her at one feast. Another popular dessert was syllabub (or “solybubbe” in 1537) which is now cream whipped with wine. The traditional way of making syllabub was to put a sweet alcoholic drink, like cider in a bowl with some spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, and then milk straight from the cow into the bowl. An alternative method was to pour warm milk into the mix from a height and the end result was closer to a drink than a mousse.

During the medieval period it had not been common to start the day with breakfast. There was a meal called “dinner” at about 10.30 to 11 in the morning and then a meal called “supper” about 5 hours later Breakfast was a privilege extended to certain people, such as the sick and the old, or to travellers for practical reasons. Yet in the sixteenth century this practise of starting the day with a meal became far more common. Andrew Boorde in his Dietary of Health (1542) stated that “a labourer may eat three times a day [ie including breakfast] but that two meals are adequate for a rest man” (25). For ordinary people bread (and butter if available) and ale was a common breakfast whilst those involved in the harvest might have bread, cheese and ale.  The later meal for poorer people was often pottage which was a mix of grains, water and vegetables with meat scraps if any were available.

The full bibliography for these two articles can be found at the end of part two.

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9 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Interesting article. Recent digs at the Tower garbage dumps have unearthed banana peels. So we know that at least some Tudors ate bananas.

  2. We ate Bulgar: Boiled whole wheat cornels with milk and sugar until about 1955. That is when we gave up the cow in the back yard….chickens too. We moved to town where my mother managed a village Hotel with 2 floor and about 25 rooms. She cared for a dentist who had diabetes and she managed to save my teeth by his expertise. She also learned the skill of Dental Assistant and later got a state job at a reform school. All because she cooked on the farm for 6 children husband and farm laborers. From the most humble labor the future is sometimes derived. DCR

  3. Wonderfully informative article on how people of all classes ate during the Tudor era. I was really suprised that the carrot back then was a purple root vegatable until the 16th century when the sweeter orange one came about.

  4. I am totally fascinated by the Tudor era of English history. I have never been to England but I have put that as one of my bucket list wishes.

    Thank you for the article on foods of that time, AMAZING

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