Food is Power

Alice Coleman

The food a person ate was in direct correlation with their wealth and social status.

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.
Food is Power
Tudor pies on pewter plates at Hampton Court

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Food is Power
Henry VIII loved a Banquet

What would a royal banquet be without the addition of fruit and vegetables?

What would a royal banquet be without the addition of fruit and vegetables? In actual fact, during the Tudor period, vegetables were regarded as a poor person’s food and were therefore not seen in high regard by the nobles. Banquets were a symbol of wealth and having vegetables on the table would not have gone down particularly well. Fruit and vegetables were seasonal food, so things like parsnips, carrots and cabbage were common and eaten very quickly after being picked so they remained as fresh as possible. Fruits like pears, plums and cherries may be what you associate with typical Tudor cuisine and were eaten fresh or preserved in syrups. Wealthy households also would have grown herb gardens in order to add flavour - and therefore status - to a meal. Later on in the Tudor period, more exotic fruits and vegetables were beginning to arrive on royal banquet tables to affirm their status. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and peppers became popular amongst the richer classes and gave a wider variety of choice on feast days. One particular foodstuff which was a common staple amongst the poor was known as Pottage. This was essentially food cooked in a pot that was cheap and hearty, often containing cabbage, grains and leftover vegetables. Pottage was very much regarded as a poor person’s food, however the rich also consumed pottage but it would have contained added extras like almonds, saffron and ginger in order to once again create a clear division between the social. Bread was also a staple in the Tudor diet, but even this simple food was subjected to hierarchy. The bread differed in quality depended on how high up the social ladder you were. The highest quality white bread at the time, known as manchet, took longer to make and was regarded as the bread only nobles had access to. Lower quality bread, known as ‘Carter’s bread’ was made from maslin, a mixture of grains like rye and wheat. The poorest quality bread, known as ‘horse-corn’ or ‘horse-bread ', was made from ground-up beans and oats was usually fed to the horses, but the poorest people would also eat this bread, particularly if their wheat harvests failed. Although trade and industry were doing well in the sixteenth century and improving the standard of living for the upper and middle classes, the poor were affected by rising costs and not being able to access the foodstuffs which were becoming more common. If harvests failed, this had a disastrous effect on prices of bread and affordability of food for the poor.
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Moving onto what I would regard as the best part of a meal – dessert! During the earlier part of the Tudor period, sugar was extremely rare and expensive, so honey was used more commonly as a sweetener. Desserts such as gingerbread and preserved fruits were therefore more widely seen. Due to the expense and rarity of sugar, luxurious sweet treats such as marzipan centrepieces were a more frequent sight at rich banquets as opposed to poor tables. Often, impressive sugared centrepieces would be shaped into structures like castles or hunting scenes, showcasing the wealth of a banquet’s host. You may have been told in history lessons about how the Tudors drank alcoholic beverages regardless of what time of day it was, but there is a reason for that. Put simply, water was not fit for consumption. It was dirty, contaminated, and with no available filtration systems in place, it was undrinkable - unless you didn’t mind the risk of getting seriously ill or even dying. Therefore, everyone usually drank ale or mead, and the rich also consumed wine which was sometimes served warm and spiced to add extra indulgence. The ale was consumed by men, women and children as it was usually made without hops so therefore wasn’t particularly alcoholic. It’s clear to see from the depictions and differences in the food that was consumed by the rich and the poor that there was a very obvious distinction between the classes during the Tudor period, and that food was an important part of how this division was laid out. The available foods, amounts served during a meal, and how they were presented were all controlled in what were called Sumptuary Laws. These laws regulated what people were allowed to eat based on their position in the social structure. Tudor feasts were common in upper class social circles, but even these were subject to social hierarchy. Feasts were a way for the nobility to display how wealthy they were and the influences they had. Therefore, aspects such as silverware, seating arrangements and even the number of dishes served to an individual factored into the hierarchy. For example, cardinals could be served 9 dishes where a Duke or Bishop could be served 7 dishes. There was an understanding that not just food, but the quantity of food you were given was linked directly to your rank in the social constructs of Tudor society. It was also considered rude to finish everything at the table, as the ‘deserving poor’ depended on the leftovers that would be handed out after the banquet had ended. It is clear from exploring the food and drink that was available to consume in the Tudor period that a hierarchy existed throughout all channels of society. This divide between the rich and the poor was evident not just in the clothes they wore, the places they lived or the work they did, but also in the food they ate. In the Tudor period, the food you consumed carried with it a symbol of power, and this was used as a way to determine your place in the social hierarchy.
Food is Power
Queen Elizabeth I another Tudor Monarch
Food is Power

Alice Coleman

I’m Alice, I have a BA (Hons) degree in History and an MA in the History of Britain and the First World War. I’ve always had an interest in food history, with my BA dissertation focusing on Victorian nutrition and my MA dissertation focusing on food production during the First World War. My aim on my Instagram page is to combine my interest of history, food and baking and recreate recipes from the past!
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