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. Continue reading