History Lesson: Dining In the Age of Henry VIII

Henry VIII
Henry VIII

Dining during the time of Henry VIII often conjures up images of food-stained doublets straining over wobbling bellies, plump chicken legs held in greasy hands, and cowering serving wenches with their trays of mead and ale, praying silently that theirs will not be the next head to roll.  In this context, it can be difficult to imagine any art involved in the evening.

But how far removed from this picture was dining at the Tudor Court?  It may come as some surprise that reality was somewhat different. Dining in the age of Henry VIII was a serious business, and an extremely expensive one. The kitchens of Hampton Court, the best known and most luxurious of Henry VIII’s residences, were responsible for feeding over 600 people, twice a day, with an annual provision of 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs and 53 wild boar, according to the records held by the Historic Royal Palaces. The majority of this meat would have been roasted over a spit, and is one purported origin for the great Sunday Roast enjoyed across Britain even today.  Roasting was by far the most expensive way to eat any kind of animal; only the super-rich could afford fresh, rather than salted or dried meat. It required constant turning over a flame for the duration of an entire day, which not only meant the hire of a ‘spit-boy’ to do the job, but huge amount of fuel wasted. And to think, these roasts were not reserved just for Sundays, but were on the menu at nearly every meal. The only exception to this might have been Friday, when the church forbade the consumption of flesh, leaving the kitchens reliant on huge quantities of fish, served alongside the Tudor delicacy, Grilled Beaver Tails. Apparently beavers counted, rather conveniently, as fish.


Meat roasting on a spit
Meat roasting on a spit

Another dish that is still eaten all over Britain today has its origins in the Tudor period: Black Pudding.  The word ‘pudding’ derives from the technique of using an animal gut to contain a foodstuff while cooking it, such as with sausage meat.  Black Pudding, however, saw the filling of a length of pig’s intestine with the animal’s boiled, congealed blood, and then fried, or roasted.  The internal organs were also regarded as delicacies, with lungs, spleen, and even udders considered fit for a king and served preserved in brine or vinegar.

Not all dishes at Henry VIII’s court were quite so stomach turning however, as the 1500’s saw the introduction of many exotic fruits and spices to England.  Oranges and lemons were imported from Europe and nutmeg, cloves, ginger and saffron were imported from the East, and used liberally in sauces and garnishes.  Indeed, these spices were crucial components in one of Britain’s best-loved Christmas traditions, the Mince Pie.  Originally shaped like a crib, they contained 13 different ingredients, to represent Jesus and his apostles, including raisins, currants and prunes, and the spices saffron, cloves, mace and black pepper.  They also contained mutton, to represent the shepherds.

The kitchens of the Tudor courts were also known for the incredible displays they created in the banquet rooms; marzipan and colored jellies were used to make edible sculptures of animals, castles, trees and people called ‘subtleties’, and roasted meat dishes were often served in their original ‘dressing’, such as a Roast Peacock presented with all its feathers, or Roast Boar with the animal’s head taking centre stage in the middle of the table.


Still Life with Peacock and Pie - Pieter Claesz, c. 1627
Still Life with Peacock and Pie – Pieter Claesz, c. 1627

The impression of dining in the Tudor court is therefore one of impressive variety and creativity, as opposed to the sloppy and gluttonous version presented by popular culture.  Supplying the Palaces with meals was a sophisticated and industrial sized production, reaching across Europe and the Far East for produce, and dependent on the constant work of hundreds of servants and cooks to deliver each culinary experience.  It seems even the picture of chicken bones flying through the air to land at the mouths of hungry dogs is incorrect too; a guide to table etiquette published in 1577 strictly prohibits the throwing of bones on the floor.  They were to be placed in a ‘voider’, a dish placed on the table strictly for the purpose, as to allow a dog under the table was considered seriously bad manners.