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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Veronica 6 days ago

Multi ethnicities are part of who and what we are. Like you, i don't deny mine; I celebrate them.

Veronica 6 days ago

I agree . A mixed cultural heritage is to be desired.

frankbeswick 7 days ago

It is better to be of mixed racial and cultural heritage than to be "pure." I have grandchild who gets British and Irish from her father and Angolan from her mother, from whom she also acquired Portuguese nationality. I am ahppy with this.

blackspanielgallery 7 days ago

Here there is insufficient English heritage to find English feasts, but the Le Réveillon de Noël will soon be served by several of the better chefs for the season. Here, there is a core of French heritage. I am quite a mixture, having both French and English roots, as well as German. In fact, I can trace some ancestors back to the Canary Islands. So, I am interested in a multitude of cultures, English among them.

frankbeswick 8 days ago

Sweetness was supplied for those who could afford it by honey. The monks had been great beekeepers, but beekeeping went into decline for a while during and after the Tudor period, when the monks were dispossessed. Some people also ate sweetmeats, the pancreases of slaughtered animals.

Common food among the poor was boiled umbles, which were the intestines of deer slaughtered for venison.Sometimes this was put into a cheap pie, hence the saying, eating humble pie.Pigs' trotters, which were a favourite in Lancashire, were also an occasional source of meat for the English poor.

You are completely right that our modern Christmas tradition is derived from the Victorian period.

Veronica 8 days ago

The Tudors were terrible monarchs. They knew their claim was very weak to say the least and were terrified and vicious. .

Fortunately, their line died out as none of Henry's three children had children so the Tudor line ended with Elizabeth 1st. Our present family are not descended from Henry 8th.

frankbeswick 8 days ago

Tudor England saw an increase in landlessness due to landlord's siezing common land and evicting the poor to make room for sheep, which led to St Thomas More declaring that the meat has inherited the Earth! The plight of the poor, whether dispossessed or not, was worsened by the dissolution of the monasteries, which prevented the monks from administering charity, as they had done throughout the supposedly backward mediaeval period. The English Reformation was a disaster for the poor, for Henry the Eighth also stole the assets of the religious craft guilds, which used to give benefits to their people, and his son closed the chantries which gave succour to elderly poor. Henry's ravaging of the north after the pilgrimage of grace caused great suffering. This thief, tyrant, adulterer, murderer and vandal was probably England's worst ever king.

When you speak of potage containing weeds, please note that weed means plant, and there are many edible weeds. Your mention of acorn bread is informative. The technique is to blanch the acorns for many hours to extract the unpalatble elements, and then crush them into a coarse flour, which can then be baked.

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