During the Tudor period, the food a person ate was in direct correlation with their wealth and social status. Much like how designer clothes and expensive cars are today, food was a status symbol, and with feasting being a favourite Tudor pastime, hosting dinner parties was the ultimate way to impress. However, not all Tudors had the luxury of attending extravagant banquets and consuming decadent feasts. The Tudors were focused on social hierarchy, to the point where laws were introduced to separate the rich from the poor, and the food which was affordable to both classes was directly impacted as a result. Social status was arguably the most important part of how Tudors interacted with one another and how society was organised. This article explores the types of food and drink which would have been consumed in this period and how accessible it was for the different social classes to consume.
The first thing to consider is the availability of fresh local foods. In the sixteenth century, imported foods we are used to seeing today were very expensive, meaning a lot of food was grown locally and was subject to bad weather and poor harvests as a result. Seasonality was also a big factor in deciding what would have been eaten or presented on the dinner table, as the food people ate depended on what was in season and could be grown locally. The easiest way to think of it is that all Tudors, regardless of social status, ate similar foods, but it was the quality of food and what they added to them that was a distinguishing factor in how rich or poor a person or family was. For example, fresh food was very difficult to store due to lack of fridge-freezers and ice rooms, so preserving foods was common practice. Pickling or salting foods was a sure way to make them last longer, but one thing the poor lacked that the wealthier families didn’t was access to seasonings and spices. These could easily hide the taste of lower quality foods, and as spice was an exotic and expensive addition to a Tudor food store, it was easy to recognise the wealth of a family based on the spices they used, or didn’t.
Meat was an important part of the Tudor diet, irrespective of social status, and the Tudors ate much more meat than we do today. About 80% of the wealthiest Tudors’ diets was made up of protein and the variety of meats consumed was again linked to how rich you were. The wealthiest Tudors ate meats such as calves, pigs, badger, ox, as well as more expensive meats - swan, peacock and wild boar. Venison was held in high regard as it would have been hunted in deer parks owned by Kings and nobles and presented at impressive banquets. If meat was not eaten fresh, it was preserved either by smoking, salting or drying to improve flavour. Peasants also ate meat, but this would have usually been animals they raised on their small plots of land that they could eat straight away to ensure freshness. The common animals you could expect to see a poorer Tudor eat would likely have been pigs and chickens, as well as any rabbits they caught themselves or beef they bought from local markets. Not as exquisite as the swan and peacock richer Tudors were used to, however by the reign of Henry VIII, the price of meat had become low enough for poorer families to afford preserved meats.