Binge Drinking During the Tudor Dynasty (Guest Post)

Guest post written by Patrick Bailey 

The royal lineage of Tudor dynasty started with Henry VII in 1485 and ended with Elizabeth I in 1603. Lasting for 118 years. This dynasty was one of the most influential and greatest in Britain. But like all other historical stories surrounding the royal throne, not everything is all tea and biscuits. Speaking of tea and biscuits, you would be amazed by what the commoners, as well as royalties, drank during those times.

Living in England during the period of Tudor was not easy. With a high infant mortality rate of about 14%, reaching adulthood was already a high achievement, and with a life expectancy of only 35 years, reaching the age of 40 makes one considered as an old man or woman.

Life in England was also chaotic and violent. Due to poverty, crime rates were high. Some of the crimes they considered before were too ridiculous and preposterous. Being homeless and gossiping was considered an unlawful act. Although there were no police forces in the Tudor period, crimes were not left unpunished, and punishment was very severe.

The overall living condition was very harsh. Physical hygiene in the past was not the same as with our standards today. This mostly involved just wearing clean clothes and less of physically cleaning oneself especially when illnesses linked to sweating and open pores were on high alert. With their growing population, waste disposal was a problem. Manure of humans and animals alike were sitting in open sewers on their streets.

During the period of Tudor, water both provided life to humans and takes them away. Getting a fresh and clean supply of water was hard. Water sourced from wells, streams, or village pumps were so polluted that you could get an illness from drinking it.

Due to this, the residents of England often chose to drink alcohol instead of water. When you think about this now, it is a bit funny to think that alcohol is healthier than water, but unfortunately, it was the truth for that period. Drinking alcohol was so common that it became the new water in England. Milk was not an option since it was mostly used to make cheese and butter. Whether it’s the early morning and during breakfast, lunch, or dinner, alcoholic beverages were the only way to quench their thirst.

Alcoholic Beverages: An Alternative to Water

Drinking alcoholic beverages was more common than drinking water during the Tudor dynasty. Everyone was drinking alcohol, whether you were a royalty or a commoner. Even the Queen Consort of Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, advised Isabelle of Castile to let her daughter, Catherine of Aragon, get used to drinking wine before going to England.

Drinking also had its social segregation. Depending on their class and financial status, alcoholic beverages enjoyed by residents in England during the Tudor dynasty were an ale, beer, strong beer, wine, cider, or perry.

Ale was the traditional drink of the 15th century and half of the 16th century in England and Scotland. This commoner’s drink was produced from malted barley as well as water. The problem with ale is that it spoils easily. After fermenting ale, it is recommended to drink it as soon as possible to avoid it from spoiling.

After the end of the 16th century, ale was becoming to be replaced by a new alcoholic drink imported to the continent. Beer, much to the dismay of older people, replaced the traditional drink of Tudor period. Similar to ale, beer is produced from malted barley. However, hops were added to the beer. The addition of this extremely bitter and strong substance paved the way for alcohol preservation. Instead of lasting for just a few days, the people during the Tudor period could now enjoy and keep beer for a few weeks.

Strong beers also become popular in the Tudor period. Also known as dagger ale, mad dog, or dragon’s milk, when consumed, this beverage gives the user a quicker onset of alcohol effect.

Much like the culture today, the wine was generally consumed by those with who could afford it. The wines available in England at that time was of low quality, so members of the higher social classes that could afford wine imported them from countries such as Germany and France, where the temperature was right enough for grapes to grow. There were also instances where wine was imported from Spain and Portugal. The Eastern Mediterranean also brought sweet wine to England. These wines were often consumed warm or flavored with spices to disguise the spoilt taste.

Cider, which was produced from fermented apples, and perry, from fermented pear juice, were a popular beverage in the West Country and normally consumed by the poorer residents of England.

Alcohol Abuse in Tudor

If you think the high rates of alcohol use and abuse as well as the common scenery of drunkards on the streets of England is a modern event, then you are wrong. The prevalence of alcohol abuse in England dates back as early as the Tudor dynasty.

The problems with alcohol abuse were so bad that even Elizabeth I had to intervene and forbid the distribution and consumption of double-double beer, a very strong alcohol. This intervention, however, did not hinder her subjects. Despite social controls on alcohol consumption, her courtiers still consumed about 600,000 gallons of ale in 1593.

Drinking alcohol was a normal event during the Tudor dynasty. People would consume about an average of 17 pints per week. But as normal as it was, drinking was considered a crime during that period. Officials were always on alert for drunkards and kept an eye out for any signs of alcohol overindulgent. Those who were found to be walking around town drunk were forced to go through embarrassing punishment. There were even instances when people who wet their bed and thought to be guilty of alcohol abuse were punished. It was not only the poor that were punished. Even royalties and higher ranked social classes were given punishments. Drunkards were required to wear a hollowed-out beer barrel or sit and spend time in the stocks as punishments.

Diet in Tudor England – Drink (Part Two)

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.

*Click here if you missed Part One: Diet in Tudor England – Food*

Sources for Part One and Part Two:


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