Christmas food for the Tudor rich and poor

by Veronica

When we see images of 16th Century Tudor Christmas feasts, it is easy to assume that everyone in England was celebrating in this way. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It was fascinating to go a Tudor Christmas event today. The house was decked with greenery, holly, mistletoe as befitting a Tudor house at Christmas. There was no Christmas tree of course. That was a Victorian innovation into Britain.

The best thing for me though was seeing the Christmas meals which would have been eaten by the different ranks in society.

Poverty in England was probably at its height in Tudor times. The poor people were reduced to eating bread made out of acorns and pottage, a vegetable or weed soup. Times were very harsh for the poor in 16th Century.

British social history at its finest, today gave a real feeling for the people, the plight of the many and the pampering of the few.

The wealthy man's feast

walnuts dipped in gold leaf
walnuts dipped in gold leaf

What's on the table?

Above you will see one of the dishes at the feast of a wealthy family.... walnuts dipped in gold leaf. In the background you will see dried fruits and bread shapes.

Below you will see a sweet dish covered in dried fruits and decorated with rosemary sprigs. There was little protein at the table and many sweet dishes.

Queen Elizabeth 1st, 1558 - 1603, Henry 8th's daughter by Anne Boleyn, was well known for her sweet diet ... and very bad teeth and skin.

the rich man's table
the rich man's table

12th night cake

As the title suggests this was traditionally eaten in wealthy homes on 12th night, 5th January. It was eaten more in 18th Century Georgian times though than Tudor.

It is a traditional fruit cake but the difference was that a bean and a pea were hidden in each half of the cake. The people who had a slice containing the pea and the bean were the King and Queen of the party for the evening.

12th night cake
12th night cake

The higher ranking servants

The higher ranking servants and guests not invited to the higher table would eat a different, cheaper feast. It was still more food than most would generally eat.

In the picture below you will see black pudding/ blood sausage, red cabbage, barley, baked apple.

Mutton, rye bread and pastries containing animal offal would also have been on the table. There was more protein e.g. eggs - and very little sweet dishes.

Ther are some healthy looking things at this table
Ther are some healthy looking things at this table
middle ranks food
middle ranks food

The poor man's feast

In Tudor times, it was regarded very lowly  not to give hospitality to the poor and beggars at Christmas time.

The poor would have been given a meal if they called at the big house . They would have eaten with the  lower or lowest servants.

Looking at the pictures below you will see that the poor would have had a huge plate of vegetables -  e.g. sprouts, cabbage, turnips, swedes,  eggs,  brown bread, herbs and onions. There were no sugary treats.

By our modern standards, the meal with the vegetables and no sugar would have been the healthier option.

lots of vegetables
lots of vegetables
and more veg !
and more veg !
poor man's feast
poor man's feast

Do you think the Tudor poor had a healthier diet than the Tudor rich ?

To conclude

Our modern Christmas celebration is shaped more by the Victorian influence than the Tudor as I noticed in a previous article.

I was fascinated by today's visit and the very visual display of social differences even so far back, was a stark reminder of how people lived and endured centuries ago in England.

Updated: 12/03/2017, Veronica
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DerdriuMarriner on 03/10/2022

Please excuse me for putting a somewhat related, somewhat unrelated comment here.

Elsewhere, and the computer is about to go down, so I can't check it, I asked about the practice of rush-ing (= putting rushes on floors) in regard to the film The Last Duel, which is set in the late 14th century.

You and Frank discussed the possibility of wizzley-ing an article on rushes. I never got back to that article to say that I think it's a great idea. I hope big brother ;-D or little sister ;-D writes such an article.

Oops, here goes the computer!

Veronica on 01/07/2022

Rush bearing ( Reed floors ) is discussed here

Veronica on 01/07/2022

Happy New Year Derdriu, dear friend,
This is possibly my most favourite place locally to visit. It is the highlight of my Christmas but has been shut for Covid 19 for the last two Christmas times

Regarding your questions
The English way of celebrating Christmas seems generally from Victorian times and follows Victoria's German husband's, Prince Albert's traditions. The tree idea is Germanic.

This harks back however to Iron Age Britons' traditions of burning a tree at Yule ( midwinter ). The remnant of this celebration is a Yule log, a delicious chocolate concoction. I made one for Christmas Eve and made sure my beloved friend/ big brother Frank got a large slice. He had to be quick because our Irish nephews in law would have eaten it all!

Middle English folk would have had reed flooring. I shall add a link to " rush " bearing i.e. reeds below for your information.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/07/2022

Veronica, Belated wishes to you and your family and to your brother Frank and his family for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year 2022!
So many -- if not all ;-D -- of your articles I go back to. This is among my favorites, what with the images so clear that I feel everything's on my table.

Previously, I meant to ask you why was it that Victorian Englanders decided upon the full tree as opposed to branches here and there? Was it a tradition that they saw somewhere else, what with lands overseas here, there, everywhere?

Also, somewhat related, somewhat not, what was it that Englanders used to put on their floors? Was it reeds?

Veronica on 10/19/2018

Yes indeed and these things would be made into a thick stew - pottage … a link to the French name for soup potage

Veronica on 10/19/2018

No ; fish cheeks were the left overs in Norfolk given to the fisherman's children before being thrown away.

frankbeswick on 10/19/2018

Some vegetables used by the ordinary folk are now out of use. Fat hen and good King Henry are hedgerow plants in Britain, but are now not part of our diet, though they are relatives of spinach. Ground elder, chickweed,dandelion [not the stem], dock and nettles also provided food, along with several others Dandelion roots could be made into a drink, if you got enough. In Spring hawthorn leaves were sometimes eaten. Charlock was picked as a kind of cheap mustard. A Tudor forager who knew what to pick could find some nourishing pickings.

frankbeswick on 10/19/2018

Interesting! Fish heads were and are considered a delicacy, and the cheeks were thought to be the best part of the head. Even today my Portuguese daughter-in-law cooks fish heads and expresses puzzlement that the British do not eat such a delicacy.

Another nourishing part of a fish is the eye, which is rich in vitamin C.

Veronica on 10/19/2018

Thank you. It was a very informative day out which suits me just fine.
My husband's ancestors were North sea fishermen and used to give their children cod cheeks which were left over when the fish was filleted and sold . Now, I see cod cheeks on fine restaurants menus.

katiem2 on 10/19/2018

Tudor poor ate far healthier than the rich. My daughter and I were talking about just such a topic last night over dinner. Those living in fishing areas were made to eat lobster all the time as it was considered a poor mans food. Yes, while the rich ate chicken, the poor ate lobster. Children were embarrassed to take lobster sandwiches to school for lunch. Hence the famous line of a politician, "A chicken in every pot" Great article, your adventure sounds splendid.

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