Unsurprisingly, food played an extremely important role in the every-day life of Tudor England. Food not only provided nutrition and sustenance, but in the Tudor period, it also helped define social hierarchy. By examining the table and food in homes during this era, historians could easily ascertain as to what economic and social sphere the family belonged to. The food available, the amount served during a meal, and the way it was presented were all regulated by the Tudor government in what were known as Sumptuary Laws. While the food and drink of the Tudor Era have made an impact on the current cuisine of England, the most lasting influence of the diets of the Tudor population has been the rigid social hierarchy it helped enforce. Through the food a Tudor English family ate, one could reasonably assume how much land they owned, what region they lived in, and their socioeconomic status at the time.
The most obvious way food manifested itself as a distinguisher between the rich and poor was through the decadence of Tudor feasts. Tudor feasts were a common occurrence for the upper class of society, as it presented an opportunity for the nobility to display the extent of their wealth and influence. At these feasts, everything from the seating arrangements, to the silverware, to the amount of dishes served was dictated by social hierarchy. The closer a guest sat to the head of the table, the higher status in society he held. Additionally, only the highest of the nobility could use ornate dishes and silverware during their feasts. At the most prestigious of these feasts, one could expect delicacies such as quail, swan, peacock, and woodcock. Other staples of the most elaborate meals included pig’s stomach filled with ground pork and coated with almonds to appear as a hedgehog, and the cockentrice, which was made by sewing together the rear of a pig with the top half of a chicken, which was then paraded around the hall. The customs practiced throughout the dining hall were so important to the upper class that there were many etiquette books written about where to sit the patrons, as well as laws passed to set limits on the amount of dishes that were allowed to be served.
These Sumptuary laws strictly defined the food and etiquette of the nobility’s feasts. Cardinals received the highest designation; they were granted up to nine dishes per meal. Following the cardinals, dukes, archbishops, and earls were allowed seven. This order of consumption was defined by yearly income and title, ensuring that the wealthiest and most influential figures always had the most to eat. Feasting and the decadent meals that accompanied it were such a large part of high society that many lords kept a strict budget on how much they were allowed to spend per year on the festivities. Usually, this meant that one would spend around ten percent of his property value per year on food for his own consumption. Combine that with the amount spent on food for guests, and it is clear that the Tudor upper class spent a hefty sum of money on food.
The world of banquet halls filled with garnished meats and many servants was a common occurrence for the Tudor upper classes, however for most of Tudor England this world was utterly foreign. The most obvious difference between the food consumed by the wealthy and the commoners was the lack of diversity in the dishes. For the upper class, it was no problem to import meats, spices, and fowl. However, for the common Tudor family, the only food that could be consumed was that which they could produce, or whatever livestock they could raise. This meant a heavy emphasis on bread and pottage, which was made by boiling vegetables, usually cabbage, together with grains. While the commoners were subsiding on grains, vegetables, and the limited amount of food they produced on their property, the nobility was able to import spices, exotic meats, and sugar from across Europe and the rest of the world. Although the wealthy ate pottage as well, it was often made using meat stock and occasionally oysters, which would almost never be found on the plate of a commoner. As most families at this time lived in poor conditions, it severely limited their diets to only what could be found in their own region. As a result, meat was rarely found in the commoner household, and vegetables and bread were most often consumed instead. While the feasts of the upper class reflected their lavish and expensive tastes, the meals of the Tudor commoners also reflected their lifestyle of barely making ends meet, and was consequently bland and unappealing.
Today, many of the same foods that were consumed during Tudor times seem to have gone by the wayside in English cuisine. Pottage, the staple food of Tudor times, has all but disappeared from the English diet. Additionally, the consumption of a wide range of fowl, such as peacock and quail, has also seen a sharp decline in popularity. Reasons for this change in eating habits can be attributed to globalization, as well as modern technologies such as the freezer. This eliminated the stark regionalization of English diets during the Tudor period. Cornish pasties, Yorkshire pudding, and fish and chips are no longer just limited to their places of origin, and have become staples of the diets of Englishmen throughout the country. Today, the common English diet is also clearly influenced by many of the Crown’s former colonies; curry from India is a very popular dish, as are hamburgers and hotdogs from America, and various Caribbean foods.
This is not to say that there are no holdovers from the diets of Tudor England through modern times. Roasted meats, pies, tarts, and sweetmeats all remain popular food items in England today. The most lasting effect of Tudor cuisine, however, is the social hierarchy it helped implement. The amount of food one could serve and consume, as well as the amount of guests he could entertain, defined where he stood within the sphere of the Tudor hierarchy. While English politics have significantly changed since the Tudor Period, the decadence and elaborate meals the upper class of England have enjoyed have not been so effected, as even today, the cuisine of the high society in England remains drastically different than that of the lower and middle classes.
Alison Sim, Food and Feast in Tudor England (Stroud: Sutton, 2005), 12–24.
John A. Wagner and Susan Walter Schmidt, Encyclopedia of Tudor England (ABC-CLIO, 2011), 466-468
“Tudor Dining: A Guide to Food and Status in the 16th Century”, HistoryExtra. http://www.historyextra.com/feature/tudors/tudor-dining-guide-food-and-status-16th-century