Have Yourself a Tudor Little Christmas – All About Tudor Food

Following on from my hugely popular Saturnalia and medieval Christmas posts of recent years (both of which followed on from a post on Roman Street Food), I’m jumping forward again. This time, we go to those flamboyant and merry Tudors. Although we in England tend to associate Christmas with the Victorians, the Tudors certainly knew how to do it in style. Some of our most famous traditions come from the Tudors and not from the Victorians.

Hampton Court Palace entrance. Copyright MG Mason 2005 approx
Hampton Court Palace entrance. Copyright MG Mason 2005 approx

Tudor England was and remains an important time. The Hundred Years War ended in the mid 15th century with England its own realm. Yet the wars against the French led only to 30 years of lineage infighting called The War of the Roses. That ended in 1485 with the rise of Henry VII uniting the Yorkist and Lancastrian Houses by marrying Elizabeth of York. There were also great religious changes afoot. Arguably, the Catholic Church was no longer the powerful force – it no longer had the temporal power as other institutions (the crown, the marketplace) took hold. Martin Luther was born around this time and his actions would fundamentally change Christian Europe forever.

The First Carols

Henry VII was a shrewd man who left the English economy stronger than it had been since before the two wars that had blighted the country for generations. The country was largely at peace, with a strong sense of itself. It’s no great wonder that the early years of Henry VIII rule was one of great opulence with little expense spared by this nationalist and prolific builder. This is when we see the first Christmas Carols, although back then a carol was actually a dance and not a song. Some of their carols we still know today including the rather miserable Coventry Carol and While Shepherds Watched (although there is little written evidence until after The Glorious Revolution). They would have been familiar with the music of some of our oldest carols, if not the words.

Fasting At Advent

Christmas was still a deeply religious period and the lead up, rather like Lent, was a time of fasting before the feasting. Christmas Eve was the strictest time for fasting and work stopped for the entire 12 days – each day being a Saint’s Day. Meat was strictly banned along with most dairy (particularly and especially eggs and cheese).

What Did Tudor Folk Eat at Christmas?

Henry VIII oversaw a period of economic prosperity. He did like to waste money too, but his period on the throne is one marked with flamboyance. It’s no great wonder that the popular image we have of Henry is one of sumptuous feasts. It is said his favourite meat was swan but he was also partial to peacock. Not everybody could afford rich meats, but you may be surprised to learn that some of our most popular dishes in Britain today have their roots in Tudor England.

 The Five Bird Roast

A modern five bird roast. Copyright MG Mason 2016
A modern five bird roast. Copyright MG Mason 2016

Popular again today, but stuffing increasingly smaller birds inside the last was the mark of great extravagance for the Tudors. The highest born people could look forward to a meal of a pigeon inside a partridge inside a chicken inside a goose inside a turkey. It may or may not have been inside a pie. I can only imagine the size of that pie. Turkeys did not arrive in England until 1523, some 20 years after the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign. It became popular very quickly for the richest people.

Goose for Christmas Dinner

Goose – the choice of the affluent middle classes today seeking an alternative to the unimaginative turkey. We know from Charles Dickens that the poor ate goose as it was the only poultry they could afford. In Tudor England, goose was mostly beyond the financial capabilities of the poorest. We know that Elizabeth I decreed that in honour of the victory over The Spanish Armada that every household should eat goose that Christmas. Whether they did or were able to is another matter.

Wild Boar

Nothing quite says “Christmas” like a whole roasted pig. This has been a staple of feasting for many societies for thousands of years. Wild boar was like many of the meats here, largely for the wealthy. We knew the bronze and iron age peoples of north western Europe ate boar and so did the Romans.

Mince Pie & Christmas Pudding

My first ever Christmas Pudding Copyright MG Mason 2015
My first ever Christmas Pudding
Copyright MG Mason 2015

In the UK at least, mince pie and Christmas Pudding are a staple of dessert food of the season. Not everybody likes them, but with so many variations on the themes I think everybody will eventually find a version they like. Last year I made a Christmas Pudding with a recipe from Nigella Christmas cookbook and I made the same this year. Although I mentioned in my medieval Christmas post that the mince pie had its origins in the Middle Ages, it never really caught on until Tudor England when abundant spices and methods of drying fruits made it popular for most people. Originally, both the Christmas Pudding and the mince pie contained real meat.

I remember a documentary for around five years ago starring Sue Perkins in which she and a male presenter had a go at making some traditional Christmas Pudding with meat. They said that the spices and fruit flavours made it very difficult to tell that the finished product contained any meat. Ox tongue and other cheap cuts were preferred.

Did the Tudors Invent Boxing Day?

It is believed that the poor simply made do with what they had. If they were able to afford meat, they may have been incredibly inventive with it. They could have eaten a variation on ‘Umble Pie (a pie made with cheap meat cuts) and whatever fruits and spices they could afford. However, how Britain marks the day after Christmas Day may have its origins in Tudor England. The UK and the Commonwealth has a curious tradition of marking St Stephen’s Day differently than the rest of the world. We call it “Boxing Day”.

We believe that Boxing Day is the day that the masters of the estate gave a box of gifts including food to their servants – gifts they may never have been able to afford on meagre wages. It is known that Tudor Christmas feasts, particularly those of the crown and nobility produced much more food than the guests could consume. The idea was to produce too much so that the lord could give food to the poor the following day. In essence, charity became a status symbol and what better time than Christmas – a period of (then and now) extravagance?

Some Tudor Christmas Recipes

History Extra has some wonderful Tudor Christmas recipes. These are mouthwatering, and I particularly like the sound of the steamed asparagus in orange sauce.

A great slow cooker wassail recipe here. Wassail is a mulled punch with its roots in the medieval period.

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2 responses to “Have Yourself a Tudor Little Christmas – All About Tudor Food”

  1. Not sure about that definition of Boxing Day as it would only apply in the countryside. The Christmas Box was more often given to tradesman and shopkeepers that you saw all year around and was more of an Georgian thing (and I think came later than the day’s name). I prefer to think about how the day could have the most impact on the most people… You see, St. Stephen’s Day was also the traditional day that the medieval church poor box and later the King’s poor man’s boxes were distributed (in accordance with the Tudor Poor laws). In the cities this made Boxing Day a bigger celebration than Christmas as poor city/town folk (widows and orphans as well as registered beggars) would have received a good sum from the poor box (enough for new clothes and perhaps a large meal) which may have also lead to the Boxing Day sales as shops competed for the Poor pound that day.

    1. Cheers for the explanation, Chris. I wasn’t quite sure, and knew about the almshouses (I did my undergraduate dissertation on the Cistercians). It is a curious custom that the rich would want to outdo each other in showing their generosity like that (A bit like Hollywood starts making big showy announcements about their donations today 🙂 ) and wondered whether the general idea gave rise to the later Boxing Day traditions once the country severed from Rome?

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