In Tudor England, maintaining the difference between ranks was so important to the concept of a well-ordered society that efforts were made to enshrine the distinctions between the classes in ‘sumptuary’ laws. These laws tried to control what you ate and wore, according to your position in the God-given hierarchy, which stretched from the king at the top, down through the numerous grades of nobility and clergy, to the gentry, yeomen and finally the labourers at the bottom of the heap.


Of course, for the poorest, sumptuary laws were not terribly relevant. Labourers would not often be able to afford more than pottage – the staple dish – and you could eat as much of that as your budget would allow. The rich ate pottage too, but instead of what was basically cabbage soup with some barley or oats – and a sniff of bacon if you were lucky – a nobleman’s pottage might contain almonds, ginger and saffron, as well as wine.

However, for aspiring courtiers who spent fortunes trying to outdo one other in lavish display, the sumptuary law was very relevant indeed. Failure to obey it could earn you a fine, as well as contempt for trying to ‘ape your betters’. In theory, even the nobles were supposed to limit the amount spent on food each year to about 10 per cent of their capital, although that was for their immediate family, and did not include the amount to be spent on the household.

The other rule to take into account was the strict observance of fasting on Fridays, Saturdays and, sometimes, Wednesdays too. Fasting did not mean going without food altogether, just eschewing flesh, and, in Lent, butter, eggs and dairy foods as well. Children, pregnant women and the elderly were not expected to fast, however, and it was possible to obtain a dispensation from fasting, but this was exceptional.

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was hauled before the King’s Council and severely reprimanded in 1543 for flagrantly eating meat during Lent. He was either deliberately risking an accusation of heresy (the reformed church being inclined to see fasting as superstitious), or he actively disliked fish.

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Pocket permitting, meat was replaced by an extraordinary array of fish and other seafoods, including seal and porpoise, the latter apparently a great favourite of Katharine of Aragon.

Monarchs, although strictly observing the rules of fasting, were, of course, unlimited in what they could eat, or provide for their guests and courtiers. On flesh days at Henry VIII’s court, a staggering range of meats and fowl would be enjoyed, including brawn, beef, mutton, bacon, goose, veal and lamb. Kid, hens, capons and peacocks also featured, as did cygnet, mallard, teal, woodcock, ousels, thrush, robins, cranes, bitterns, buzzards and venison of all sorts. Venison was the king of meats – not available to buy, it was hunted in the deer parks of the king and his nobles, and frequently given as a present. Henry VIII sent a hart to Anne Boleyn as a symbol of courtship.

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Four seasons

Seasonality was a major factor in 16th-century diets. For small-scale farmers, there was insufficient feed to keep livestock over winter, so the majority were slaughtered – traditionally on Martinmas (11 November), and as much of the meat as possible was preserved. But no matter how thrifty the housewife, eking out the meat of a single pig through the whole winter with a few onions and leeks must have been a hard task.

The wealthier landowners could keep more meat, slaughtering as needed. Game continued to be hunted throughout the winter by the wealthy, but poaching by the poor could mean hanging.

Estimates suggest the Tudor nobility’s diet was 80 per cent protein – one wonders how the digestive tract coped! Salads were eaten, often comprising a mixture of cooked and raw ingredients and including green vegetables such as leeks, onions, radishes and cabbage, as well as lettuce, chives, boiled carrots, flowers and herbs. They were dressed with oil, vinegar, and sometimes sugar.

Turnips, consumed during the 15th and early 16th century, later fell out of favour, becoming considered fit only for cattle. Fruit was enjoyed, but with no refrigeration it could only be consumed in season, or preserved. Mary I was particularly fond of pears, and Elizabeth of York and Jane Seymour were great lovers of cherries. Henry VIII’s new palaces were designed with plentiful orchards and fruit trees, including the new apricot trees, introduced in the 1540s. One of his last acts as king was to order new apple trees for his Privy Gardens.

Most households served three meals a day, although breakfast, if eaten at all, was not substantial: it consisted of bread, perhaps with butter and sage, washed down with a small ale. The main meal of the day was dinner. In the first half of the century, 10 or 11am was the dining hour, but by the 1580s and 1590s it was becoming more usual to eat at around 12pm. In the houses of the rich, the meal could easily last a couple of hours. On ordinary days in any home of the middle class or above, dinner was divided into two courses, each consisting of several different dishes.


A numbers game

The Sumptuary Law of 31 May 1517 dictated the number of dishes per meal: a cardinal could serve nine dishes, while dukes, marquises, bishops and earls could serve seven. Lower-ranking lords were permitted to serve only six, and the gentry class, with an income of £40–100 per annum, could serve three.

A dish contained a set amount of a particular item – for example, one swan, bustard or peacock (all reserved for the higher ranks of nobility), but four smaller fowl, or 12 very small birds, such as larks. To prevent the higher ranks feeling deprived if they went out to dinner, the host could serve the number of dishes and food appropriate to the highest-ranking guest. Additionally, weddings were exempt from the rules.

Both courses would offer a pottage plus a selection of meats, custards, tarts, fritters and fruit. The first course tended to offer boiled meats, and the second, roasted or baked meats. For formal feasts, each course was heralded by the entrance of the ‘subtlety’. This was an extraordinary decorative art form, the creation of wonderful representations of castles, cathedrals, hunting scenes or similar, made of marzipan and spun sugar for the most important feasts, and of wax for lesser occasions.

In 1527, Cardinal Wolsey served a superlative feast for the French embassy, including subtleties of castles, of the church and spire of St Paul’s, of “beasts, birds, fowls of diverse kinds, personages… some fighting… some leaping… some dancing”, and a whole chess set of sugar paste, which the French delighted in so much it was boxed up and sent home with them.

At court, following the two main courses was a third, consisting of spiced wine, known as hippocras; sweetmeats, comfits of all kinds, and wafers. Wafers, forbidden to all but the highest ranks, were thin, crisp biscuits made by pressing flavoured batter between hot irons. This course, eaten standing, was known as the ‘void’, variously taken as meaning that the table had been cleared, or ‘voided’, or that the course was eaten in a smaller room, thus ‘voiding’ the hall.

Supper, eaten at around 4 or 5pm outside court circles, was a much simpler affair. Meanwhile at court there were again two courses, each made up of numerous dishes.

If this sounds like a huge amount of food, it is worth remembering that the lives of even the elite required far greater calorie intake than is necessary today: houses were extremely cold, with no carpets or curtains, and the only source of heat was a fire. Travel was on foot or horseback for most of the time, both of which require substantial amounts of energy. Hunting, hawking, dancing and archery are also energetic pastimes. Elizabeth I was famous for standing for hours, and walking long distances at a brisk pace with her ladies trailing behind her, complaining bitterly.


Social customs

In the medieval period, dining, like everything else, was a communal affair. Henry VII and Elizabeth of York frequently dined in public in the Great Hall, surrounded by the court. However, Henry VIII preferred to dine in his Presence Chamber – a half public, half private space – and frequently took supper in his private rooms with a few friends and his current wife. Elizabeth I followed this example, and, unless she was entertaining foreign dignitaries or was on progress, usually dined alone.

At dinner in the Great Hall, whether in one of the royal palaces or the castle of a nobleman, the highest-ranking people sat at the top table, raised on a dais, with other tables arranged at right angles. A strict order of hierarchy was adhered to, with the higher-ranking people sitting at the table to the right hand of the top table, on both sides, moving down to the lowest ranking present at the furthest end of the table to the left of the top table.

To make sure everyone was seated correctly, books of etiquette gave elaborate orders of precedence, even including instructions for the seating of the pope’s foster-parents – woe betide the hostess whose steward got it wrong!

Dining furniture consisted of trestles, which were stored when not in use. The highest-ranking person had a chair, but everyone else sat on benches. The table was covered with a cloth, and it was considered very poor manners to spill. The cost of clothes and the difficulty of laundering also added to the need to eat carefully.

Food was shared in a ‘mess’: a portion of each dish. At the top table, there was a mess between two (except the king and queen, who each had their own), but the lower ranks shared between four – two on either side of the table. Following her proxy marriage to James IV of Scotland, Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, shared a mess with her mother, Elizabeth of York, to demonstrate her new rank as a fellow queen. The highest-ranking person helped himself first.

As eating was communal, it was important to follow the strict rules of etiquette: these were elaborate, yet practical, as they prevented anyone touching food that would be eaten by someone else. Everyone brought his own knife and spoon to the meal – forks being considered a fancy, foreign notion. The requirement for a personal spoon is behind the custom of giving one as a christening gift.

The place setting was a trencher – made of silver, or even gold, for the king, then of lesser value material through to the standard ash, or, for the poorest, bread; together with a cup, a loaf of bread of appropriate quality (fine white for the lord, and coarse brown for lesser mortals). Among the upper classes a linen napkin was provided, which was draped over the left shoulder. Salt, being costly, was usually only seen on the top table.

For soft foods, the diner would spoon some of the serving onto his trencher, being careful not to leave his spoon in the dish. Before taking a helping of anything else, he would wipe his spoon clean with bread. He would eat the food by dipping his bread into it, rather than spooning it up, so none of his saliva could enter the communal bowl.


For meat, he would grasp the piece he wanted with the thumb and two fingers of his left hand, then sever it from the joint, using his knife in his right hand, again ensuring his fingers touched only his own portion. The food was lifted to the mouth in the thumb and fingers.

Dinner in larger households was in relays. Once the master, family and guests had dined, the servants ate what was left. At court, after the king and queen and courtiers had finished, the senior servants would take their places, followed by the junior servants, before the tables were dismantled and stored for the next meal. If any food were left, it was given to the poor.


Melita Thomas is the editor of Tudor Times. To find out more, visit

Discover more learning from week two of the HistoryExtra Academy Elizabethans course

Elizabethan daily life, with Professor Tracy Borman – watching time 15 mins

What did the Tudors wear? – listening time 36 mins

The dark side of Elizabethan England – reading time 9 mins

Hold your noses: the smells, sounds and sights of Elizabethan England – reading time 14 mins

10 ways to die in Elizabethan England – reading time 6 mins

Tudor childhood: from dodging death to nursery rhymes – listening time 44 mins

The missing Tudors: black people in 16th-century England – reading time 5 mins