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.
The Banquet in the Pine Forest
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
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.
Still life with Peacock & Pie
Pieter Claesz c.1627
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. Continue reading
Jane Seymour by Holbein
Today in 1537 tragedy descended upon the Tudor house when Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, died of puerperal fever just 12 days after giving birth to their beloved son, Edward.
Jane had gone into labour on the 9th October but with 2 days having passed with still no sign of a baby a solemn procession was held through London to pray for her. The people’s prayers were soon answered and Edward was born at 2am on the 12th October to much jubilation from Henry. Antonia Fraser writes how Henry wept with joy as he held his newborn son and heir in his arms, having finally achieved his dream.
But what of Henry’s wife, Jane? Despite the long labour of 2 days and 3 nights Jane was very much alive and had recovered well enough to receive guests after Edwards sumptuous christening 3 days later. In later years rumours surfaced that Edward had been born by cesarean and that Henry had sacrificed his wife’s life for that of his unborn child by ordering that one be performed. However, if Jane had been well enough to receive visitors so soon after Edward’s birth this simply couldn’t have been the case.
Mary I c.1554
by Anthonis Mor van Dashorst
Today in 1553 Mary I was crowned Queen of England at Westminster Abbey by Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester. It was a particularly important day in history because Mary was England’s first queen regnant, meaning she was the first queen to rule England in her own right.
On the eve of her coronation Mary had left the Tower of London for her coronation procession, where she was escorted to the Palace of Westminster to prepare for the coronation. She was accompanied by earls, lords, gentlemen and ambassadors and had two carriages following her, one of which contained her half-sister Elizabeth and her former step-mother, Anne of Cleves.
At 11am on the day of her coronation Mary processed into the Abbey in an open litter. The barons of the Cinque Ports carried a brocade canopy over her, exactly as they had done at her father’s coronation back in 1509. She was dressed in traditional crimson velvet robes, as a male monarch would be, and wore her hair loose. A queen consort traditionally wore white and gold for a coronation but as Mary was going to be ruling in her own right it was important that she be crowned more like a king to help emphasise her power and authority. Being the first queen regnant meant Mary had no precedent to follow either so she basically had to set her own standards.
Walking before her in the procession to the Abbey were knights, gentlemen, Councillors and the Bishop of Winchester. The Earl of Arundel, Mary’s Great Master of the Household, carried the ball and sceptre, the Marquis of Winchester carried the orb and the elderly Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (who had just been released from the Tower) carried the crown. Mary was carried in her litter up to the coronation chair which was on a raised platform so everyone could see her. Continue reading
Arthur Prince of Wales c.1500. Believed to be the only contemporary portrait of Arthur, on display at Hever Castle
On 20th September 1486 Arthur, Prince of Wales was born at St Swithuns Priory in Winchester, the first child of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
Elizabeth, the daughter of Edward IV, had become pregnant very quickly after marrying Henry VII in January 1486 and the pregnancy was widely celebrated throughout England. Henry had married Elizabeth to unite the houses of Lancaster and York after years of conflict during the Wars of the Roses so a baby was just what was needed to cement that union as well as strengthen the new dynasty that Henry had established.
Henry was convinced the baby would be a boy and planned to name his new son Arthur after the legendary King Arthur of Camelot who Henry believed was his ancestor. Henry was convinced Arthur’s birth would herald in a new Golden Age for England like the one presided over by King Arthur and he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. To further emphasise the point Henry also decided the birth should take place at Winchester which was widely believed to be the capital of King Arthur’s Camelot.
Henry moved his Court to Winchester in early September in preparation for the upcoming birth. Not long after they arrived Elizabeth went into labour and gave birth to Arthur a month early. Despite being premature Arthur was a healthy baby. Elizabeth was not as fortunate and suffered with a fever soon after the birth but thankfully made a full recovery. Continue reading
Today in 1533 Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was christened at the Church of Observant Friars in Greenwich. There is a wonderful description of the christening celebrations in “Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 6: 1533″ that I want to share with you.
The account describes how, after Elizabeth’s birth 3 days earlier,
“The mayor, Sir Stephen Pecock, with his brethren and 40 of the chief citizens, were ordered to be at the christening on the Wednesday following ; on which day the mayor and council, in scarlet, with their collars, rowed to Greenwich, and the citizens went in another barge.”
It goes on to say
“All the walls between the King’s place and the Friars were hanged with arras, and the way strewed with rushes. The Friars’ church was also hanged with arras. The font, of silver, stood in the midst of the church three steps high, covered with a fine cloth, and surrounded by gentlewomen with aprons and towels about their necks, that no filth should come into it. Over it hung a crimson satin canopy fringed with gold, and round it was a rail covered with red say.