Diet in Tudor England – Drink (Part Two)
Guest post by P. Deegan
Now the most common soft drinks in Britain and the USA are coffee and tea. But neither coffee nor tea was introduced into Britain until the 17th century. The tea we currently drink is made from the plant called Camellia sinensis and was originally from China. Whether poorer people would boil up local water with locally growing herbs, such as chamomile or mint, to make cup of herbal tea is never touched on in the sources I have read. Wine however was imported into Britain throughout the Tudor period.
When it came to drink, it is commonly thought that nobody at this point drank water as their main beverage but drank “small” ale or beer instead as the water supplies could be so polluted, with sewage and industry waste, especially in heavily populated areas. The alcohol in small beer made it safer to drink than contaminated water. Certainly Elizabeth of York, the Queen Consort to Henry VII, wrote to Isabella of Castile that the water was not drinkable and that Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, should start drinking wine before she came to England.
However I did come across an article (4) that pointed out that a conduit had been built-in the thirteenth century to bring water from the Tyburn river into the city of London and in the fourteenth century it was officially forbidden to dump rubbish or dung in the river Thames (though how observed this law was cannot be known). Putting human waste into the Walbrook river was forbidden in the fifteenth century (it ran through London into the Thames). Water piped into the city had to be paid for. The rich may have had pipes installed into their houses, or at least pumps on their property, but the poor would buy buckets of water from ‘cobs’ or water carriers who (presumably) filled up at the pumps installed and took it round the poorer areas. In 1600 there were about 4000m water carriers in London alone. How much of this water was imbibed as a drink, as opposed to being used to make ale or for washing people and/or their clothes or in their trade, was not calculated. Baths may not have been common but washing hands must have been not uncommon. Anne Boleyn gave a table fountain to Henry, in January 1534, which dispensed rosewater (a product distilled from rose petals) for diners to rinse their hands at.
Milk was not really used for simply drinking as it was only available around the times the cows calved and was too useful in making cheese and butter for any to be left over for drinking.
The traditional English drink was actually ale and not beer. The difference being them was that ale, at this time, was brewed by creating a “wort” of sugars and proteins from a grain together with water (during the reign of Elizabeth the most common grain used was malted barley) then fermenting this wort with yeast – no boiling of the ingredients was involved in the process and herbs such as yarrow or heather could also be added. ‘Wort’ had originally been an Anglo-Saxon word for a ‘plant’. Beer had an additional ingredient to ale: hops. The beer wort would be boiled with hops during the beer making process. Hops were not imported into Britain until the fifteenth century: to Winchelsea around 1400. It is thought hops were first cultivated in Britain itself about 1520. Women would brew ale for their household. It has been calculated (11) that a household of five people would need 8.75 gallons (4.55 litres to a gallon so 40 litres) a week. Good ‘ale-wives’ could sell excess ale to other people on their premises which were called ale-houses.
Malting was a process for the newly harvested grain which allowed for longer term storage of the crop. The grain would be moistened and then allowed to sprout and grow, on a floor, for a few days whilst being turned regularly to disperse the heat generated by this process. Then the sprouted grain would be dried in large kilns.
Apparently the “mash” (the fermented wort) of the ale or beer was used for brewing more than once. The first brew would be quite a strong one, the second brew was an averagely strength and “small” ale or beer came from a third mash.
Ale would not keep long, a few days at most, but it had nutritional value as well as alcohol and hydration in it. The hops allowed for a longer life for beer as well as adding a bitter taste. In 1630 John Grove wrote (11):
WINE: I, generous wine, am for the Court
BEER: The City calls for Beer
ALE: But ale, bonny ale, like a lord of the soil in the Country shall domineer
Cider (fermented apple juice) and perry (fermented pear juice) were also common drinks in the parts of the country where the local harvests provided plenty of fruit for the brewing of these drinks. The Normans had a tradition of cider making and had introduced useful varieties into England for that purpose. In the 16th century apple orchards were extensively planted in Kent for cider.
Sack was an imported fortified sweet wine from Spain close to modern sherry.
The British capacity for drink was well-known. Edward VI introduced licensing for alehouses and Elizabeth I banned an extra strong beer called “double double beer”. Though the royal household itself, in 1593, got through 600,000 gallons of ale in a year.
Sources for Part One and Part Two:
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