When you think of a Tudor banquet an image may come to mind of a loud and riotous feast, Henry VIII at one end of the table gnawing on a large chicken leg, guests eating and drinking way too much and not a table manner in sight! As with many historical stereotypes the reality is somewhat different; banquets were actually quite formal occasions with rules that mirrored the class system and social etiquette of the day. They also provided the host with the perfect opportunity to show off their wealth and importance by serving their guests the most magnificent food, made from the most expensive ingredients and displayed, at times, in the most extravagant of ways.
Society was very hierarchical in Tudor times, people were not born equal, and this sentiment was echoed at the banquet table. The most important diners would have sat at the top table, which would have been raised up slightly on a platform called a dais and may have been adorned with a tablecloth. Those next in social status would have sat on one of the two tables either side of the top table, those next in status would sit at the next set of tables and so on. The food served at a banquet would also have been graded according to status so servants and those placed furthest away from the top table would not have expected to be offered the same lavish dishes as the ones given to the host of the banquet (such as a Lord or the King) and his immediate guests.
Food at a banquet was served at the table on large platters and guests helped themselves using a knife to cut off pieces of meat which they would have then eaten delicately with their fingers (forks were an Italian Renaissance idea that only became popular near the end of the 16th century). It was down to the way food was shared that a number of formal rules were developed that directed people on how they should behave at mealtimes. These were mainly concerned with being considerate to others and cleanliness, starting with the necessity to wash your hands before sitting down. If you were at the top table you would have washed your hands in a small bowl called a ewer which was brought to your table by a servant. Things considered bad manners at a banquet included putting old bones back on a shared plate, nose picking, ear scratching or blowing your nose – exactly the kinds of things that would be frowned upon today. Your behaviour at a banquet could and would be noticed so good table manners were vital if you wanted to succeed at the Tudor Court.
The most magnificent banquets were of course the ones hosted by the royal family. Henry VIII in particular is famed for his elaborate banquets; displaying a powerful dynastic image was everything to the Tudors and a banquet was the perfect opportunity for Henry to show off, this was especially true if there was a foreign monarch or dignitary present. France led the way when it came to banqueting, a Tudor cook would have been only too aware of their high standards and would have tried hard to provide a banquet with a similar level of luxury and content. A royal banquet would often be accompanied by a fair amount of pomp and ceremony too, especially if it proceeded a great event like a coronation, marriage or christening. The excerpt below is from a contemporary account of the coronation of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon in 1509. It was written by the Tudor chronicler Edward Hall.
When the ceremony was finished, the lords spiritual and temporal paid homage to the king and, with the queen’s permission, returned to Westminster Hall – each one beneath his canopy – where the lord marshal bearing his staff of office ushered all to their seats. Each noble and lord proceeded to his allotted place arranged earlier according to seniority. The nine-piece table being set with the king’s estate seated on the right and the queen’s estate on the left, the first course of the banquet was announced with a fanfare. At the sound the duke of Buckingham entered riding a huge charger covered with richly embroidered trappings, together with the lord steward mounted on a horse decked with cloth of gold. The two of them led in the banquet which was truly sumptuous, and as well as a great number of delicacies also included unusual heraldic devices and mottoes.
How can I describe the abundance of fine and delicate fare prepared for this magnificent and lordly feast, produced both abroad and in the many and various parts of this realm to which God has granted his bounty. Or indeed the exemplary execution of the service of the meal itself, the clean handling and distribution of the food and the efficient ordering of the courses, such that no person of any estate lacked for anything.
You could expect a great number of dishes to be served at a banquet, sometimes up to six courses. These courses were not served in the same way as today with one course being served up after another, instead, all the food would have been laid out on the table at once. An abundance of food meant that everyone could get to eat the foods they particularly enjoyed, it also ensured there was enough food left over for the servants who ate later.
There may also have been an elaborate centrepiece on the banquet table; perhaps to add a little theatrics or simply so the host could show off to his guests. A centrepiece might have been a pheasant or swan which had been “re-dressed” in its feathery skin so that it looked the same as it did in life, it may also have had it’s feet and beak gilded. There are also occasions where live birds like pigeons were added to pies so they flew out as the pie was cut; once the joke was over a real pie would then have been served to guests.
The food served at a Tudor banquet was indeed sumptuous and would have focused very much around meat, which in Tudor times was cooked on a spit over an open fire. Who ate what was of course dictated by your status in society so the diners on the top table could be offered roast venison whereas those way down the pecking order, servants and the like, may have been given “umble pie” made from the internal organs of the same deer. As you might have guessed, this is also where we get our term “to eat humble pie” which means to know your place. As vegetables were considered a food for the poor they were not eaten much by the wealthier members of society. In fact it was a common misconception of the time that raw vegetables could actually make you ill – how times have changed! New foods and spices were also being discovered and imported during the Tudor period, such as nutmeg and sugar from the New World. These ingredients were hugely expensive luxuries and gave rise to a number of new and unusual recipes that the nobility used to further demonstrate their wealth and status.
Sugar in particular became very popular with the wealthy classes during the middle ages. By the 16th century elaborate new ways of using sugar had been discovered so it could now be moulded into elaborate edible models which were sometimes used to create a striking centrepiece for the banquet. These models may have been created from marchpane, a Tudor version of marzipan, which was made from three main ingredients; almonds, sugar and rosewater. It wasn’t just the cost of the ingredients that made marchpane so expensive but also the amount of labour involved, the almonds needed to be shelled and finely ground and the sugar had to hacked off from a large crystallised rock and then pounded into a powder using a pestle and mortar. Satisfying a sweet tooth in Tudor times certainly required a lot of hard work!
To give you some idea of how lavish these banquets would have been, the following description is of a great feast given in 1455 by the Count of Anjou, third son of Louis II, King of Sicily. It was written by Legrand d’Aussy, a historian of French cookery. Although it’s slightly earlier than our Tudor period remember that the Tudors copied the extravagant banquets of the French Court and it would have been stories of feasts just like this one that would have reached the ears of the Tudor Court:
On the table was placed a centre-piece, which represented a green lawn, surrounded with large peacocks’ feathers and green branches, to which were tied violets and other sweet-smelling flowers. In the middle of this lawn a fortress was placed, covered with silver. This was hollow, and formed a sort of cage, in which several live birds were shut up, their tufts and feet being gilt. On its tower, which was gilt, three banners were placed, one bearing the arms of the count, the two others those of Mesdemoiselles de Châteaubrun and de Villequier, in whose honour the feast was given.
The first course consisted of a civet of hare, a quarter of stag which had been a night in salt, a stuffed chicken, and a loin of veal. The two last dishes were covered with a German sauce, with gilt sugar-plums, and pomegranate seeds…. At each end, outside the green lawn, was an enormous pie, surmounted with smaller pies, which formed a crown. The crust of the large ones was silvered all round and gilt at the top; each contained a whole roe-deer, a gosling, three capons, six chickens, ten pigeons, one young rabbit, and, no doubt to serve as seasoning or stuffing, a minced loin of veal, two pounds of fat, and twenty-six hard-boiled eggs, covered with saffron and flavoured with cloves.
For the three following courses there was a roe-deer, a pig, a sturgeon cooked in parsley and vinegar, and covered with powdered ginger; a kid, two goslings, twelve chickens, as many pigeons, six young rabbits, two herons, a leveret, a fat capon stuffed, four chickens covered with yolks of eggs and sprinkled with powder de Duc (spice), a wild boar, some wafers (darioles), and stars; a jelly, part white and part red, representing the crests of the three above mentioned persons; cream with Duc powder, covered with fennel seeds preserved in sugar; a white cream, cheese in slices, and strawberries; and, lastly, plums stewed in rose-water.
Besides these four courses, there was a fifth, entirely composed of the prepared wines then in vogue, and of preserves. These consisted of fruits and various sweet pastries. The pastries represented stags and swans, to the necks of which were suspended the arms of the Count of Anjou and those of the two young ladies.