I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
King Henry VIII had a huge court of advisers, attendants, gentlemen of the privy chamber, and various other hangers-on, all of whom had to be fed twice a day. Satisfying the appetites of hundreds of courtiers required a vast complex of kitchens and staff. All of this was fitting for a man known as a “consumer of food and women.”
Hampton Court Kitchens
According to the National Archives “One measure of greatness at that time (Henry’s reign) was the number of people that surrounded you, the more people, the more important you were. When Henry stayed at Hampton Court he was attended by nearly 1,000 people.”
So, feeding that mob required a very big kitchen and a staff of about 200, all of whom also had to be given meals.
A Spanish visitor noted “There are usually eighteen kitchens in full blast and they seem veritable hells, such is the stir and bustle in them ... there is plenty of beer here, and they drink more than would fill the Valladolid river.”
The Great Kitchen boasted six open fireplaces churning out heat while roasting pigs and haunches of venison on spits. Boys had the least appealing job of all; they had to sit beside the infernos turning the spits.
The heat was so fierce that they took to removing their clothes and this displeased the monarch. He issued an order that the urchins had to stop being “naked, or in garments of such vileness as they do now, nor lie in the nights and days in the kitchen or ground by the fireside.”
An idea of the heat generated is given by food journalist Kathryn McGowan “It is estimated that six to eight tons of seasoned oak was burned in the kitchen fireplaces each day during King Henry’s time.”
In addition to the roasting room there were 50 smaller rooms for dealing with fish, making pastry, or pickling and bottling.
Dining at Hampton Court
Henry VIII preferred to dine in his private rooms with his closest courtiers; lesser beings ate elsewhere. Under the direction of the all-powerful Lord Steward, what was eaten, and where it was eaten were subject to rules.
The first meal of the day was served at about 10 a.m. and the second at 4 p.m. Such were the numbers of staff who attended to the king's every whim that two sittings were required. The likes of grooms and guards were fed in the Great Hall and they got two courses.
The next level in the pecking order got their grub in the Great Watching Hall. Courtiers and their wives had better quality food and more choices.
Alexander Barclay was a poet who took his meals with the lads in the Great Hall. However, he got a glimpse of the more succulent fare heading for the Great Watching Hall and was moved to write “… to see such dishes and smell the sweet odour, and nothing to taste, is utter displeasure.”
Henry VIII used food as a way of demonstrating his power. While ordinary folk had to get by with pottage, a soup made with whatever could be found, Henry liked to put his guests in awe of the extravagance of his banquets.
There might be as many as 14 courses and the show stopper was the use of spices. Cloves, cinnamon, pepper, and other condiments were so exorbitantly expensive that only the very richest people could afford them. A sprinkling of mace or nutmeg on food said to the consumer “bow down before the great majesty of your monarch.”
Each course was preceded by the introduction of a “subtlety.” This might be a castle built of marzipan, or a fantastical beast made out of spun sugar and wax. These were not to be eaten but simply to impress.
Spit-roasted meat was central to the meal. On ordinary days, this was likely pork or mutton. On special occasions, peacocks, herons, egrets, and swans would be served up. (Even today, it is against the law in England to eat swan meat unless given special permission by the Queen). Or, there were geese, mallards, rabbits, capons, and hares.
On Fridays whales and porpoise, a favourite of Catherine of Aragon, might be the blue plate specials. Eels, cod, herring, crabs, trout, salmon, and every other aquatic beast were added to the king’s larder.
If it had feathers, feet, or fins it was going to end up on Henry’s table.
Deer, oxen, and calves were part of the meat-heavy diet. Vegetables were regarded as peasant food but they did make an appearance at Henry’s feasts, although the king himself hardly ever ate them. As noted by the University of Reading “Cabbage, peas, broad beans, leeks, and onions were all served up to Tudor diners.”
Vast quantities of beer and wine accompanied every meal. “Historians estimate that 600,000 gallons of ale (enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool) and around 75,000 gallons of wine (enough to fill 1,500 bathtubs) were drunk every year at Hampton Court Palace” (How Stuff Works).
Thomas Starkey, described as a Tudor political theorist, visited Hampton Court and wrote, “And if they [the nobles and many of their servants] do not have 20 varied meat dishes at dinner and supper, they consider themselves slighted.”
Sugar was a very scarce commodity so desserts in the form of cakes and pies were not usually part of the Tudor diet, although fruit was.
- Efforts were made to impose the distinctions between ranks in Tudor society by law. So-called “sumptuary” laws tried to establish what people at various levels were allowed to eat. For those at the bottom of the heap, the sumptuary laws had little relevance; they could not afford to eat anything but swill. But, higher up the ladder, the laws were important. Melita Thomas, the editor of Tudor Times, explains that “Failure to obey it (sumptuary law) 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 percent of their capital, although that was for their immediate family, and did not include the amount to be spent on the household.”
- Shortly after Henry shuffled off this mortal coil in 1547, a record was made of the provisions needed to feed the household of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, for a year: 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs, and 53 wild boars.
- It has been estimated that 80 percent of the diet of Tudor nobility came from meat protein.
- Cardinal Wolsey acquired the Hampton Court Palace in 1514 and embarked on a massive expansion program. However, the cardinal fell out of favour with the king when he refused to allow Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Henry fired Wolsey, set up his own church separate from Rome, and married Anne Boleyn. He also simply confiscated Hampton Court from Cardinal Wolsey. That way he avoided realtor fees.
- “The Private Lives of the Tudors.” Tracy Borman, Hodder and Stoughton, 2016.
- “Henry VIII’s Kitchens.” Historic Royal Places, undated.
- “Henry VIII Court Rules.” The National Archives, undated.
- “Henry’s House of Fun: The Oddball Stories Behind Hampton Court as it Turns 500.” Matthew Dennison, The Express, May 4, 2015.
- “Dining at Hampton Court.” University of Reading, undated.
- “In the Kitchens of King Henry VIII.” Kathryn McGowan, Comestibles, August 17, 2010.
- “12 Items at a Feast of Henry VIII.” How Stuff Works, undated.
- “What Was on the Menu?” University of Reading, undated.
- “Tudor Dining: a Guide to Food and Status in the 16th Century.” Melita Thomas, BBC History Magazine, undated.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Raja Kumar on February 11, 2020:
Interesting read. Wish to read more such articles. Thank you
Skyla guzman on December 02, 2019:
Wow so cool