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Episode 086: Tudor Food, Dining, and Sumptuary Laws

Episode 86 of the Renaissance English History Podcast was on food, meals, dining, and even early refrigeration in Tudor England. Listen below, or read the transcript, and check out the links for more information.

Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can shop at my online store filled with Tudor-inspired products like the popular Six Wives leggings!

Sumptuary Laws:

Sumptuary Laws under Henry VIII

Articles on Refrigeration:

Ancient Technology for Refrigeration..!

Elizabethan Snow recipe

Book Recommendation (These are Amazon Affiliate links – you pay the same price, but the podcast receives a commission – hooray!)
Terry Breverton’s A Tudor Kitchen

Alison Sim’s Food and Feast in Tudor England


Do you think because you are virtuous, that there shall be no more cakes and ale?
Shakespeare Othello: Act 2, Scene 3

Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. This is episode 86 – Tudor Food and Meals.

So first, admin. Guess what, you guys! I opened a shop. It’s not a real physical one, it’s an online one, and I’m curating products that are either directly Tudor (like the leggings featuring an imaginary dinner party of all six wives, or a series of mugs with gorgeous sketches of famous Tudor women and their quotes) or evoke Tudor themes, such as charm jewelry with crowns, and leather notebooks. You can check it out at shop.englandcast.com, and I hope you’ll find something lovely there for yourself.

I also need to thank my patrons. I have amazing patrons – thank you to Kathi, Juergen (that’s my daddy), Ashleigh, Kendra, Anne Boleyn (also known as Jessica), Elizabeth, Cynthia, Judy, Ian, Laura, Barbara, Char, Keeva, Amy, Allison, Joanne, Kathy, Christine, Annetta, Kandice, Rebecca from TudorsDynasty.com, Al, and Sandor. I love you guys. You’re awesome.

Finally, the Agora Podcast of the Month – it’s September, and it’s still Tiny Vampires, which is about science, disease, and blood sucking creatures. It’s a really fascinating science show, and I highly recommend it.  

Now, Food and dining. This is something I’ve been interested in a lot recently because it seems like, similarly to music, eating the food of a time period is one way to authentically experience that period. So a few months ago I did the Tudor Jumbles bake-along episode, and I wanted to revisit the food world this month with an episode on meals and food in general.

Tudor food, similar to the world of fashion which I talked about in an episode a few years ago, was guided by rules and sumptuary laws. This gave order and structure to society, and the rules were very important. Not only that, but we need to remember that there was no refrigeration, and so food preservation was another area that required a lot of effort. In some ways, the rules associated with food, such as fast days with religion, were linked very closely to the food cycles.

One really clear example of this was the fasting with no meat during Lent. Lent takes place in the runup to Easter, and this would have been a time when there was very little meat available anyway, so declaring it a time of fasting would have helped to alleviate any of the feelings of suffering during this period of hunger. During Lent people became almost vegan, as they also were forbidden from eating dairy foods, and eggs, too.

Another example of fasting helping to alleviate the problem of food was that every Friday, most Saturdays, and some Wednesdays were fast days when people could only eat fish. So that cut down on nearly 15% of the meat needed to feed the country.

Children, pregnant women, and the elderly were exempt from the fasting rules, and Katherine of Aragon received exemptions when she was sick, though she preferred not to take them since she was so devout. But the rule was expected to be obeyed, and some nobles received reprimands when they ate meat during fast days. The foods that people would eat during fast time would be seafood, but not just clams or cod like we might eat, but also more exotic foods like seal and porpoise.

Because of the lack of food preservation, most people ate things that could be made fresh. People did preserve fruits and vegetables in marmalades and “preserves” to last the winter, and meats could be salted or cooked and kept in a dough casing, called a coffin, which it would also be baked in later.

Small farmers would slaughter their animals before winter, since they likely wouldn’t have enough food to keep them over winter. The traditional time to slaughter was on November 11 at the feast of Martinmas. St. Martin was a Roman soldier and lived from 316-397. He decided to convert to Christianity and was imprisoned because he refused to fight. He became a monk, founded a monastery and became a bishop. At one point he tried to avoid  becoming the bishop by hiding in a goose pen in the monastery, but the geese barked, and he was discovered by people who carried him to the throne of the cathedral. The tradition started to eat geese at Martinmas in order to help him punish the geese. The 11 of November starts the Christmas cycle as it falls just about 40 days before Christmas, and this is when people would traditionally slaughter their animals. In England people would have blood puddings and freshly roasted meat.

As much of the meat as possible would be preserved for the winter. Wealthier landowners could afford to feed their animals, so they would have fresh meat longer. One of the major rules around food at this period was poaching. This was when poorer people would hunt meat that didn’t belong to them – either from royal hunting grounds, or from the land of wealthy nobility. We might think it would be easy to get away with poaching – after all, how could you tell one deer from another. But in towns where everyone knew everyone else, showing up with a fresh deer that you needed skinned would draw attention. Even if you were able to sneak it in at night, throughout the winter as you had meat and others didn’t, you could be suspected of poaching. And the penalty for poaching ranged from having your hand cut off, to death by hanging. So this was something that only the desperate would engage in.


The diet of the Tudor nobility was up to 80% protein, and they would eat between 1 to 2 kilos of meat a day. The wealthy nobles ate upwards of 4000 calories a day, but we also need to remember that this was a period when you walked or rode your horse everywhere, and in the winter you didn’t have good heating, so you would burn a lot more calories than we do.

Most of the vegetables that were eaten were cooked, and even here we see more ideas around class. Vegetables grown below ground like carrots were seen as appropriate for the poorer people to eat, while vegetables grown above ground were for wealthier people. Of course this could also be helpful for the poor people, as carrots, onions, and other below-ground veggies were easier to keep for a long time. Anyone who has ever forgotten about a bag of onions in the pantry and found them three months later can attest to that. Or maybe that’s just me.

Sugar was a great craze at this period. Use of sugar goes back to medieval times, but during the Tudor period it became really widespread, and Elizabeth I used to add sugar to everything, including her salads. Her teeth were rotten because of the sugar she ate, and the fact that often her teeth were brushed with honey, exacerbating the problem. It was a fad at court to walk around with blackened teeth, even if your teeth were great, because that meant you had the money for sugar, too, which cost about 6 times the price of honey. Elizabeth had lost so many teeth that her words were often difficult to understand.

Fruit was popular in season, and throughout this period the new developments in trade meant that new fruits were enjoyed more often. Oranges and pomegranates would come from Spain, made especially popular by Katherine of Aragon for those who could afford such luxuries, and apricots were brand new in England, introduced in the 1540’s. Interestingly, the Spanish word for Pomegranate is Granada, like the city where Katherine’s home, the Alhambra, is. Again, you could only have fruit in season because of lack of preservation, but people did their best to try to preserve fruits in marmalades to eat in the winter.

Most people ate three meals a day, though breakfast was very small. It would be bread with butter, and some ale. Remember that people didn’t drink water during this time period, thinking that it was dirty. It likely was very dirty considering there was no sewage, and everything would just run right into the water supply, including butchered animal parts. So people drank watered down beer or ale, and the nobility would drink wine. People might drink up to 6 pints of beer a day, though of course it was much weaker than our beer today.


The main dining period was dinner, which would be served between 10 and 11 am in the early Tudor period, though that was getting later and later, and by the 1580’s, it was at noon. The meal could easily last several hours for the nobility and wealthy. It was divided into two courses, each with several dishes.

So let’s talk now about the sumptuary laws. Sumptuary laws were rules that dictated how you could live, and they maintained the difference and distinction between the ranks. They were becoming more important in the 16th century because of the rise of the middle class. Suddenly new men like Thomas Wolsey and Cromwell were advancing on the power of their brains, and there was a strong reaction to that from the nobles. Also, with the ideas of the Reformation spreading, stressing a personal relationship with the divine rather than one through a church hierarchy, it may have seemed as if the old order was falling apart. And so, a rise in sumptuary laws that dictated everything from the kinds of fabrics each class could wear, the colors they could wear, and then also the food they could eat.

The people who were mostly affected by the sumptuary laws were the wealthy courtiers who tried to outdo each other in showing off. If you disobeyed the law you could be punished with a fine. Nobles were meant to limit the amount they spent on food to 10% of their incoming money, though that was only for the immediate family and did not extend to servants. There were also rules about how many courses you could have at each meal, and how many dishes in each course. Also, what types of meats were allowed to be served.

In 1517 Parliament passed a series of Sumptuary laws designed to “limit the escessive fares” of the nobility. Among their rules, they spelled out the kinds of meats and number of dishes per meal that each class could serve. Cardinals could serve nine dishes. Dukes, Earls, and bishops could serve seven. Lower lords could have six, and the gentry could serve three. Each dish was made up of a set amount of a particular item – one swan or peacock, or four smaller birds, or 12 very small birds. Weddings were exempt from the rules, and if a host was having someone of a higher rank over for dinner, he could serve the appropriate dishes for that higher ranked guest.


The most basic Tudor food eaten by the poorest food was pottage. This was pretty much a soup made from vegetable or chicken stock, with some barley or oats. Poor people would be lucky to be able to put some meat in, but noble people would also add in nuts, and spices, and wine. Monarchs and nobles would eat a huge variety of meats including beef, mutton, goose, peacocks, robins, buzzards, and deer. 

“Importing foods from the Mediterranean added an exotic element to the extravaganza of royal feasts but, was a real statement of wealth and power. Mediterranean staples like citrus fruit, olives, artichokes and almonds would have added glamour to the Tudor table and would have enhanced the King’s status. However, one of the most prominent imports were spices.”


So there we have it – a basic intro to Tudor food. I usually do a book recommendation at the end, and there are so many great books, including one by Terry Breverton called The Tudor Kitchen. But I also want to draw your attention to a free FutureLearn online course called A History Of Royal Food and Feasting, which is put on by the University of Reading. So you can check that out as well. Links for everything are at Englandcast.com. Thanks so much for listening! Next week I am starting a series on the English Reformation because we’re coming up on the 500th anniversary of the 95 theses. So there will be a lot of information coming your way in October. Remember to check out the website for links to become a patron, to check out the super cool Six Wives leggings in my shop, or to get a full archive of all the shows. I’ll talk with you again next week. Cheers! 

Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can shop at my online store filled with Tudor-inspired products like the popular Six Wives leggings!