Happy Thanksgiving, Tudor Style

The classic image of Henry VIII is of this glaring, fat man clutching a turkey leg.  Am I right?  Perfect for Thanksgiving.  Unfortunately, Henry probably didn’t enjoy turkey very often – it is indigenous to North America (in fact – for this very reason – Benjamin Franklin lobbied for it to be the national bird instead of the bald eagle.)  It was introduced to England in the mid-sixteenth century, so Henry probably didn’t get to eat a lot of it before he died in 1547.

However, Henry could easily content himself with the vast array of other meats he could consume (and probably did).  Imagine this: Hampton Court Palace on a frosty November night.  The hall is decorated with eye-poppingly vivid tapestries, the ceiling painted in gold and red and blue, the fire at one end blazing, the windows sweating with the condensation of hundreds of people’s breaths.

Henry sits at a table on a little elevated platform.  Perhaps one of his wives is with him – perhaps not.  Perhaps one of his trusted advisors is with him (Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell) – perhaps not.  Perhaps one of the dukes of the realm – but then again, Henry had a habit of incarcerating his friends…

There might be a center piece on the table – something gaudy and symbolic.  A fortress or a cage of birds with gilded feet or a ship made entirely of sugar paste.  A peacock roasted and then refeathered or a replica of St. Paul’s Cathedral made of pies (usually meat pies, not fruit!)  Not necessarily the stereotypical roasted boar with the apple in its mouth.  These things were huge, surrounded by canes and flowers, often brightly painted, and frequently covered in gold or silver.  The plates were gold and silver gilt, as well, not only on the tables, but on the groaning “buffets” up against the wall.  And the goblets – sometimes studded with jewels or painted with scenes of chivalry. (an aside – Henry’s French contemporary, Francis I, had a cup that he liked to shock the ladies with – when the wine was drained from it, there was revealed a rather suggestive scene painted on the bottom.  That Francis, what a card).

Then came the food – up to 240 different dishes.  Take a minute.  Think about that.  This Thanksgiving, I’m making maybe six different dishes for dinner. I’ll be adding the requisite canned cranberry and some olives and pickles, so let’s bring that up to ten.  Two different pies.  So twelve things.  Now multiply by twenty, and serve maybe seven hundred guests.  My meal takes me two days to create.  Can you imagine?  The food preparation areas in Hampton Court Palace are huge, but on Twelfth Night in 1533, extra work space had to be set up in tents in the garden.  Holy Hell’s Kitchen, Batman.

Meat was plentiful.  Deer, boar, beef, pork, lamb, rabbit.  Dishes made from all those delicate inner bits we don’t see often in America anymore – kidneys, livers, brains, hearts – even udders.  Swan, peacock, guineafowl, goose, chicken, duck, pheasant.  Tiny songbirds.  Sometimes one stuffed inside another to make a kind of matroyshka doll of roast bird.  And fish – pike, herring, mackerel.  And bread!  Loaves and loaves of the stuff, all made from the finest flour because coarse flour was for lesser people.  And butter by the truckoad (if they’d had trucks).

Vegetables were the food of the poor, and therefore did not often grace the royal table.

Then came the sweets.  Spiced wafers, jellies formed into the crests of the attendant guests, sweetened cream, strawberries, cheeses, marzipan, sweet pastries, fruitcakes, gingerbreads coated in gold leaf and “subtleties” made almost entirely of sugar forming scenes from myths or romances.  Beautiful, but apparently hard on the teeth.  And fruit – sometimes enough for each guest to have ten oranges, an immense extravagance at the time.  And when Henry got bored, he amused himself by throwing sugar plums at his guests.

Which isn’t surprising, considering the amount of alcohol consumed.  Water was considered unhealthy – and considering the state of the Thames at the time this was unarguably true – so they drank ale and “small beer” (a low-alcohol, porridgy beverage) as a staples.  French and Rhenish wines almost as sweet as malmsey and sugared wines served with dessert.  And hippocras – wine mixed with honey and spices and believed to be an aphrodisiac.  Once the meal was over, the guests could totter off to bed with a posset made of sugared ale curdled with hot milk, eggs and grated biscuit.


So this year I am thankful.  I am thankful that I don’t have to cook for Henry VIII, but only for my forgiving and appreciative family.  And I am thankful I don’t have to subject myself or my guests to some of the less delicate of the Tudor delicacies.


Happy Holidays, everyone!

About Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is the author of GILT (Viking/Penguin May 2012), a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII, and TARNISH (June 2013), the story of a young Anne Boleyn. You can learn more about her www.katherinelongshore.com

10 thoughts on “Happy Thanksgiving, Tudor Style

  1. Faith Hough says:

    I just found this blog and I am so excited! It’s always good to know there are people who obsess over history and historical fiction as much as I do. 🙂
    And great post! I kinda went back and forth between my mouth watering and feeling sick to my stomach. Still…all things considered, Henry VIII’s table is one I’d try to keep away from if I lived in the 16th century!

  2. It always blows my mind a little when I think about how much food they ate back then/variety of dishes at a feast. Being a total food addict myself I would have been so overwhelmed and fallen into a food coma in no time

  3. Oh, I love this! So fascinating. I’m researching Victorian Christmas traditions for Cahill book 3 now!

  4. Ha! I love this. All that food. Just imagine.

  5. catwinters says:

    I love this post! I’ve been to Hampton Court Palace, and I remember it being massive enough to host the extravagant feasts you describe.

    My favorite line from this post: “And when Henry got bored, he amused himself by throwing sugar plums at his guests.” I’m thankful that, even though I may have complained about a difficult dinner guest or two, no one has ever thrown sugar plums at me!

  6. Jennifer McGowan says:

    Wow… It’s staggering how much food was created just for the entertainment of the king and the indulgence of his guests. I’d also encountered the “ale at breakfast” factoid and I couldn’t imagine hoisting a brew that early. But given the state of water at the time, it certainly makes sense! GREAT post!

  7. Thanks for your comments, everyone! I’m a food addict, too, Christa, so I love doing this kind of research!

  8. I love this post, too, and all the details. Some I knew and some I didn’t. If you don’t mind sharing, where do you find such details on food or clothing or furnishings of past eras? I adore history and want more!

  9. […] Food. But as you know from my Thanksgiving post, I don’t really want to try it […]

  10. […] conference.  And I certainly can’t picture Henry quietly eating scrambled eggs instead of his usual thirty dishes at dinner.  So as much as I love the historical bad boys, I’m very glad I married the Englishman I […]

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