History Podcasts

Elizabethan Trencher Plate

Elizabethan Trencher Plate


Mind your Manners – a look at late Medieval and Tudor mealtimes and The Banquet

Anyone who has ever seen an old film about the late Medieval/Tudor period can be forgiven for coming away with the idea that feasts were riotous chances to eat and drink far too much, as rowdily as possible. It would seem that everyone present tried to cram as much meat into their mouths as possible before hurling their bones at hungry dogs who prowled in the rushes on the floor. In fact, the only bit of this message that holds any truth at all are the rushes on the floor, and by Queen Elizabeth’s day rush matting which could be taken outside and shaken or swept was becoming far more fashionable.

During the Middle Ages (any time from roughly 1200-1450) it was usual for two or four people to share a portion of food, known as a ‘messe’. The shared bowl or trencher would be placed between them, and they would spear up small pieces of meat using the pointed ends of the knives that everyone, men and women, usually carried about them. Forks were a Renaissance Italian novelty that seem to have made a first appearance during the reign of King Henry VIII. However, everyone, rich or poor, would need a spoon (for pottage and sauces) and a knife to cut their food. Status was clearly indicated by the degree of decoration on these items, and wealthy people carried theirs in a decorated or embroidered pouch called a nef.

It was because of the way food was shared that polite society developed complex and formal rules about how diners should behave together at meal times, starting with the necessity of hand washing before sitting down – or in a ewer brought to the table for the purpose, if you were an important (top table) guest. Both men and women could be noticed for their courtly and genteel manner of eating, or criticised for their poor behaviour. Good table manners could sometimes lead to promotion, so it was important to learn the right way to behave. Most table manners were practical, concentrating on cleanliness and consideration for others who would be sharing the food.They were thought so important that they were both written down by hand and learned, and later were put into printed instruction books, in rhyming format which made them easier to learn. Below is a brief extract from the ‘Schoole of Vertue and Booke of Goode Nourture for Chyldren’ (published in 1577). Words are spelt as they sound, but the meaning is still fairly clear.

For rudness it is thy pottage to sup,

Or speak to any, his head in his cup.

They knife se be sharpe to cut fayre thy meate

Thy mouth not to ful when thou dost eat

Not smakynge thy lyppes,As commonly do hogges,

nor gnawynge the bones As it were dogges

Such rudenesse abhore, Such beastlynes flie,

At the table behave thyselfe manerly………..

Pyke not thy teeth at the table syttynge,

nor use at thy meate Over muche spytynge

this rudness of youth is to be abhordethy selfe manerly Behave at the borde.

[pottage = stew meat, fish or vegetables could be included. Thick pottage(standing mortrews) was solid enough to hold a spoon, runny soup needed a spoon. Sup in this context means slurp. Gnawynge =gnawing spytynge = spitting. Borde = while sitting at the table. They were usually trestle bases with a board over.

Although a meal in a large household might consist of two or three courses, some of which might involve several different dishes, not every guest or diner had everything offered to them. The food was graded according to the status of the diner. Thus, for instance, the top table and the two sides nearest to that might be offered roast venison, but those lower down, most likely members of the household, might be offered ‘umble pie’ made from the internal organs of the same deer. This is what has given us the term ‘eating humble pie’ i.e knowing one’s position or place.The servants and those placed well away from the top table would not expect to be offered the fancy dishes and elaborate spiced sauces made for the lord and his guests. Some dishes, such as chicken (which was a rare luxury food then) tended to be reserved for visiting clergy, as it was thought to be less likely to inflame their passions than eating red meat. (This belief was based on the belief that the body was composed of four humours). Up till the reign of Queen Mary there were dietary restrictions placed on clergy by the church. Fasting rules also applied to the laity but the wealthy who had money at their disposal found ways to circumvent the restrictions created by Lent, Advent and Friday fasting.

A writer of the time, describing a huge range of food offered at a feast given by the Earl of Northumberland, assures us that the reason for so much was to allow everyone to eat what they enjoyed, as well as ensuring enough food remained for the servants who had waited at table and ate later. Noble households could routinely expect to provide 100 or more meals at dinner time – an indication of the size of the household. Gentlemen ‘did not over eat, but were strictly moderate’ in their diet and habits, although variety and novelty were highly prized. This is why spices were so valued: they were not used, as common myth still supposes, to hide tainted food, but to give variety to an otherwise bland or predictable diet. As a footnote to good table manners, other things that were considered bad behaviour included putting chewed bones back on the shared plate, scratching out head lice, nose picking, ear scratching, blowing noses on the table-cloth (handkerchiefs or ‘muck minders’ were an Elizabethan novelty), and lastly the reminder that guests should always beware of allowing ‘guns blasting from your hinder parts’ which translates readily into modern English!

During the Tudor century many changes took place, but changes to ways of eating reflected all sorts of social change. During the reign of Henry VII lords still dined at a table on a raised platform or dais at the top of the hall while servants scurried backwards and forwards at the other end of the hall along a screens passage to kitchens that were usually some way away to minimise the risk of fire. Portions of food were taken from a shared dish and put on trenchers cut from thick slabs of heavy stale bread. These trenchers were not eaten at table but collected after use into baskets which were then distributed as alms to the poor, by which time the rich meat juices and gravy had soaked into the bread and softened it so that it was edible. During the 16th century wooden trenchers became more generally used – the vast numbers rescued from Henry VIII’s ship Mary Rose which sank in the Solent indicate that even common soldiers were using them. These wooden plates sometimes had a second small indentation in one corner which was designed to hold salt. Pottery also gained in popularity, and became proportionately cheaper and more affordable. people started to use individual beakers whereas earlier they would signal if they wanted a drink during a meal, which they took from a communal flagon before handing it back to the server.

Pewter is an alloy of tin, copper and a small amount of lead. It has a relatively low melting point and can easily be used in moulds. Once polished it can resemble silver, and at only 6d or 7d a pound in weight (a working man’s daily wage) it allowed people who were not so wealthy to build up an impressive display of what resembled silver plate. However, since pewter is a soft metal which scratches and damages easily, those who used it routinely would commonly still use a wooden platter in order to cut up meat before eating. The later Tudors took great pride in their mealtimes as it allowed them to show off their wealth and importance, not only in the fancy dishes or ‘kickshaws’ which used an abundance of exotic spices and food colourants, but in the wealth of plate: gold, silver or parcel gilt which was silver plated with gold. All these treasures, from bowls and dishes to candlesticks and toothpicks, were stored in court cupboards when not in use.

The use of an ever-expanding range of dishes meant more clearing away, a tedious and noisy end to mealtimes. Furthermore, many expensive delicacies were becoming more readily available to those who could afford them. Obviously these were not for everyone, so it became increasingly fashionable for those seated at the top table to withdraw at the end of a meal to another room where these luxuries could be enjoyed. During Queen Elizabeth’s reign ever more fanciful banqueting houses, both temporary and permanent, were being built, often on the rooftops of new houses which are now known as ‘prodigy houses’. Sweet oranges were imported from Portugal-their original name was ‘Portingal’. These were a vast improvement on those originally available, which resembled the Seville or bitter oranges used in marmalade, often rather dry and stringy, whose principle value was as a flavouring for sauces. Apricots, peaches and nectarines all started to be grown in this country during the reign of Henry VIII, who imported both the fruit and a trained gardener from France to look after them. Almonds and dried fruits had been imported into this country during the Middle Ages, but as a wealthy merchant class emerged, these premium imports arrived in ever greater quantities.

Sugar had been known to the Romans who considered that it had a value as a medicine but little culinary value as it sweetened without adding flavour. They preferred honey, and this had been the main means of sweetening since then. However, knights visiting the Middle East during the Crusades rediscovered sugar as it was used in the culinary traditions of the countries through which they travelled. Sugar came back to England with them, and a taste for it slowly grew amongst the wealthy. It was a fantastically expensive luxury during the Middle Ages: even wealthy households might only consume a pound in weight during an entire year. It arrived at the ports in rock hard cones of crystallised sugar which had to be hacked into smaller pieces before being laboriously ground to a powder in a pestle and mortar. Its uses in the Middle Ages were limited, but during the 16th century more and more elaborate means of working sugar were discovered. It became the basis for ‘suckets’ both wet and dry. These were variants on crystallised fruit and fruit pulps. It was discovered that adding gum tragacanth in a rosewater solution to the sugar created a mouldable dough which could be used to make more and more fanciful subtleties or edible models – including one of the Old St. Paul’s church which was presented to Queen Elizabeth.

Nowadays we think of a banquet as a full meal, but when banquets became fashionable during the reign of Elizabeth I the word applied only to a final concluding course of fruit, cakes, biscuits and sticky preserves all of which featured sugar in various degrees. The centrepiece of these sugar banquets would be a fabulous and decorative subtlety , often a marchpane, which was made from sugar, rosewater and almonds, which like the sugar, had to be pounded or ground to a powder before use. (See article ‘Marvellous Marchpane’ for more detailed instructions http://www.livinghistorytoday.com/?p=247 ). Around the same time that banquets became fashionable, forks, first mentioned as sucket forks double ended with spoons in the inventory for King Henry VIII, began to be more widely available. They were ideal for successfully spearing these sticky, sugary delights. However, it took time for them to become widely accepted and used, but as they did, so the need for pointed knives for picking up food waned, and the shape slowly evolved into the rounded end commonly used today. It would be something like 150 more years, however, before people began to expect cutlery to be provided for them. Well into the 17th century and even later, travellers routinely still carried their eating equipment with them.

Another essential item that evolved alongside the banquet was a small flat wooden platter or banqueting plate. These were often made of beech or sycamore which could be cleaned, but left no taint on the delicately flavoured food. They were often served with an intensely decorated side uppermost, containing paintings of flowers, leaves, and often a motto or riddle. Since these were designed to compliment a guest’s learning, these were often in Latin or French.Examples of the sort of mottoes written in little scrolls include the following:

‘The rose is red, the leaf is green God save Elizabeth our Queen’ “Rosa Sans Spina’ (the motto chosen by the unfortunate Queen Catherine Howard, but here a compliment to Queen Elizabeth’s beauty and virtue) or a reminder of mortality such as ‘In life is death and life’, a simple riddle which reminds the reader that everlasting life awaits after death, making it less morbid than it seems.

It was turned over for actual use, which allowed the sticky plain side to be scrubbed clean afterwards. As the fashion for banquets declined during the 17th century and beyond these little flat plates, about 5 inches in diameter, had no practical use and very few survive. However, there is a complete set on display in the Museum of London, and another one in the kitchen of Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich.

As it became more customary than not for those of the top table to retire to a banqueting chamber at the conclusion of a meal, so it was inevitable that the family should increasingly look to enjoy their meals in peace and away from the extended household. New houses, such as that of Hardwick Hall, were built with summer and winter parlours, and the expectation that meals should be taken there whilst the servants ate together elsewhere. The hall became an increasingly formal reception area rather than the heart of the house or castle. After the disruptions of the civil war in the 17th century, new houses built after the restoration of King Charles were on more European lines, culminating in the Palladian styles favoured by the Georgians. Servants still had to mind their manners, but from now on it would be the hierarchy of senior servants that enforced this as they ate in the servants’ hall.


21st Century Renaissance Printmaker

I thought it would be a good idea to share some of the books which have been most helpful to me in the past few years. In the past decade, there has been an upsurge in the attention given to medieval, renaissance and early modern printmaking, with methods and techniques being re-examined, and collections still being reassessed and relabelled – something I suspect will be going on for a long time yet. And of course, some truly inspiring books have been published – in particular, the books by Parshall, Stijnman and Dackerman are wonderful for both their scholarly, and visual, content.

If the information in these books had have been more widely accessible in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, well, I would have been a very, very happy printmaker. However, I’m still more than happy to be making up for lost time, there is still so much more to explore and enjoy.

Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance and Baroque Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts

Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002

A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books

George Braziller Inc, New York, 2004, for the Library of Congress

British Museum Press, 1996

Jecmen, Gregory & Freyda Spira

Imperial Augsburg: Renaissance Prints and Drawings, 1475 – 1540

Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd, 2012

Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life

Yale University Press, 2011

The Renaissance Engravers: Fifteenth – And Sixteenth – Century Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts

Making Woodcuts and Wood Engravings: Lessons by a Modern Master

Dover Publications Inc, 2006

The Woodcut in Fifteenth-century Europe

Yale University Press, 2009

Parshall, Peter & Rainer Schoch, with Richard S. Field, Peter Schmidt, David Areford

The Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-century Woodcuts and Their Public

Yale University Press, 2005

Silver, Larry & Elizabeth Wyckoff, eds.

Grand Scale: Monumental Prints in the Age of Durer and Titian

Yale University Press, 2009

Engraving and Etching 1400-2000: A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes


Bone china first became popular in Europe, particularly during the Elizabethan era, hence the name, Elizabethan fine bone china. The Elizabethan era denotes the time period in which Elizabeth I, daughter to King Henry VIII, was queen of England. Elizabeth was a lover of the arts. The china was popular among people of wealth, whether royal, noble or rich merchants. Originally the porcelain china (bone china) was imported from China, particularly to the Ming dynasty however, the Europeans began producing it themselves.

Bone china is a particular porcelain, which is made from actual cattle bones or bone ash, called calcined cattle bone. It can be identified by its bright white color and strength.


Elizabethan Dining

The Elizabethan, like ourselves, generally ate three meals a day. The first was breakfast, which was eaten shortly after rising, but not before attending morning services (farmers wouldn't have time in the morning to attend services any day but Sunday, but pious townsmen, the gentry and their servants often did go to the chapel daily). Breakfast was a small, simple meal, generally consisting of cold foods, as the cook fires were just being lit as the breakfasters were rising. Leftovers, eggs, butter, bread and small beer were commonly taken with breakfast.

But, since breakfast was by definition eaten early, those who did not rise early did not eat it. Unless they were traveling or fond of the hunt, nobles generally did not rise early enough to eat breakfast, and dispensed with it in favor of a hearty mid-day meal. Working men and women however, who rose with the sun, seldom failed to fortify themselves against the day.

The mid-day meal, commonly called dinner, was eaten around eleven or twelve o'clock. The farmer would either have his dinner brought out to him as he worked in the field, or bring it out with him in a bag. The craftsman would close his shop and go upstairs to his lodgings, where his wife would have the meal waiting for him and his laborers and apprentices. For the gentry and nobility, the mid-day meal could be the beginning of a round of feasting that could last all day, or it could be a simple and unpretentious repast, depending upon the occasion and the temperament of the diner.

The final meal, eaten at the end of the working day (between 5:00 and 8:00 PM), would be supper. For the common man, this would often be the most elaborate of the day, though "elaborate" is an inappropriate adjective for the peasant's daily fare. However, unlike dinner, which would often be eaten in the fields, the evening meal would be eaten at home at the common table.

With us, the nobility, gentry and students do ordinarily go to dinner at eleven before noon, and to supper at five or between five and six at night, especially in London. The husbandmen dine also at high noon, as they call it, and sup at seven or eight.
Holinshed's Chronicles

The fare eaten at such meals would vary depending upon the wealth and rank of the diners. Common folk generally ate "white meats", which contained precious little meat, and consisted primarily of such things as milk, cheese, butter, eggs, breads and pottages (soups) - occasionally supplemented with locally caught fish, rabbits or birds. Bringing down larger game in the forest was poaching, and a very hazardous pastime.

The gentry and the well to do of the towns dined upon "brown meats", such as beef, venison, mutton and pork. The poor also ate a great many more greens than the rich, who insisted that their vegetables be elaborately prepared. All classes ate fish, not because they liked it (though many did) but because the law required that fish be consumed on Fridays and Saturdays, and other meats laid aside. This was a government mandated support for the fishing industry.

A momentary aside: the notion that they tried to improve spoiled meat with spices is, of course, nonsense. Spoiled meat makes you sick, and no amount of salt, pepper and cumin will change that. They seasoned their meat to make it taste good.

Though the peasant had ready access to beef, pork and other expensive meats (he raised them), he could not generally afford to keep much for his own use. His best stuff went to fill the bellies of the gentry and the townsmen, while the money gained from selling his best stuff paid his rent. It was a common-sense economic arrangement that suited well to the peasant's pragmatic view of the world. He could live perfectly well without all those fine delicacies, and a modern nutritionist would find more to praise in the peasant's simple (though dull), hearty fare than in the greasy and over-sweetened diet of his betters. The few animals he could afford to keep for private consumption he would save for special occasions.

Even when there was no special occasion, all social classes would put on the table as much food, in as many varieties, as was economically possible. Eating was one of the Elizabethan's principal amusements, and he or she made it as interesting as circumstances would allow. For the rich man, this meant countless dishes, some elaborately decorated and intended entirely for show, served according to an elaborate ritual by numberless servants and for the common huswif, this meant a daily challenge of trying to make the same old stuff seem new and different. All but the very poor however, brought to the table far more than they could eat, and their "broken meats" (leftovers), fed the servants and kept the destitute of the realm from starving to death.

Concerning their diet, in number of dishes and change of meat the nobility of England do exceed most, having all things that either may be bought for money or gotten for the season. Gentlemen and merchants feed very finely, and a poor man it is that dineth with one dish.
John Lyly, Euphenes and his England

Most meats were prepared by "seething" (boiling), and sugar and currents were used in truly prodigious quantities. Salting and pickling were also common practices, since there was no refrigeration to keep the meats from going bad. Meat and fish was generally eaten fairly soon after slaughtering for this reason, or were pickled to keep for the future (game meats were often aged for a few days or weeks however, to make them tender).

All social classes loved to feast. For the common man and woman, feasting was reserved for holidays or weddings. For the rich, every meal could be a feast. The feast would generally consist of two "courses". The first would be what we would call appetizers.

. I will now proceed to the setting forth of a banquet wherein you shall observe that marchpanes (marzipans) have the first place, the middle place, and the last place your preserved fruits shall be dished up first, your pastes next, your wet suckets (candied fruits) after them, then your dried suckets, then your marmalades and your goodinycakes (tarts), then your comfits of all kinds next your pears, apples, wardens baked, raw or roasted, and your oranges and lemons sliced and lastly your wafer cakes.
Gervaise Markham, The English Housewife

Gervaise goes on to describe two pages worth of dishes for the second course, preceded by the "grand sallat" (salad), the green sallat, the boiled sallat and smaller compound sallats. These are followed by "fricassees", "boiled meats", "roast meats", "cold baked meats" and "carbonadoes".

This elaborate setting is for the banquet of a wealthy man. For a more humble feast which "any goodman may keep in his family for the entertainment of his true and worthy friends. "., Markham recommends only sixteen dishes:

. first, a shield of brawn (pressed pork) with mustard secondly, a boiled capon thirdly, a boiled piece of beef fourthly, a chine of beef roasted fifthly, a neat's tongue roasted sixthly, a pig roasted seventhly, chewets baked eighthly, a goose roasted ninthly, a swan roasted tenthly, a turkey roasted the eleventh, a haunch of venison roasted the twelfth, a pasty of venison the thirteenth, a kid with a pudding in the belly the fourteenth, an olive pie the fifteenth, a couple of capons the sixteenth, a custard.

He goes on to advise the addition of sallats, quelquechoses (inventive sweets), fricassees etc, making perhaps "no less than two and thirty dishes". This would be a wedding or Christmas feast. For the daily meal he would have to be content with somewhat fewer of the above delicacies.

It was not the habit of the Elizabethan to gorge himself on each dish, but to taste liberally of all the dishes that suited him, taking a little bit from each dish as it passed him, in the manner of a buffet or smørgasbord.

In a civilized household, at some point before the meal, the hands would be washed, often in water sweetened with roses or rosemary.

In nearly every home, the meal would begin with the saying of Grace. If there was a clergyman present, he would offer the blessing or if a guest was known for his piety or learning, he might be called upon to give thanks. Often, the eldest son would be called upon, or failing all that, the master of the house would take upon him the task of conveying the thanks of the assembled company to the Almighty either ex tempor or according to a memorized formula.

O Lord, which giv'st thy creatures for our food,
Herbs, beasts, birds, fish, and other gifts of thine,
Bless thee thy gifts, that they may do us good,
And we may live, to praise thy name divine.
And when the time is come this life to end:
Vouchsafe our souls to heaven may ascend.

With the saying of Grace, the company would begin to eat. If a man had servants, they would pass from guest to guest, with each dish, and the guests would help themselves to as much from each plate as they liked. Even in gentry households, the fingers were generally used for plucking out the tasty morsels from the dishes, the sign of good manners being that you did not return to the dish anything you had touched. If no servants were available, the women and children of the house would serve the dishes, sitting down to eat after all the men and guests had taken what they wanted.

All men at the table ate with their hats on (unless they went hatless out of deference to a high-ranking member of their dinner party), and every well bred guest had a clean, white napkin on the left shoulder or wrist, upon which soiled fingers or knives could be wiped. The servants who attended the table were hatless, since they could not remove their hats (their hands being full) and they would not dream of attending upon their betters with their hats on. Conversation at the table was considered commendable, but riot and clamor was frowned upon.

During the meal, numerous healths would be pledged (the term "toast" was not used). The pledging of healths would often reach ridiculous extremes, and would continue long after the food had been carried away ending only after the entire company was too cup-shot to continue. The meal, interspersed with healths, could go on for several hours.

With their meals, the diners, unless they were under doctor's orders to do otherwise, would drink only alcoholic beverages. Beer and Ale were the most popular drinks, but wine in its many forms was also very popular among those who could afford it. Wholesome and drinkable water was, contrary to popular belief, usually available (that's what wells were for), but it was something you drank to sustain you on a hot day and not a thing to be consumed at table if you had the means to supply proper drink.

The diners would eat off of plates suitable to the wealth of the hosts. The commonality generally ate off of wooden trenchers and bowls for everyday meals, but might have pewter plates for special occasions. The wealthier would have pewter for daily use and silver for special occasions. Common folk generally drank out of crockery, wood or leather, with pewter cups being a valued luxury. The better sort drank out of pewter or silver cups, and the very wealthy had glass goblets for the best company.

When a guest came to supper, he or she would bring utensils along. The host was not expected to supply them. The rich would have a beautifully made and adorned knife and spoon (and occasionally a fork) carried in an ornamental case. The poor man often went about with his spoon in his hat or his pocket, and his knife on his belt. Common folks did not eat with forks.

After the meal or between courses, the rich would often be entertained by musicians, singers, masquers or players. All social classes would often enliven an evening by dancing and providing their own entertainment. Elizabethans were a musical lot and it was a dull company indeed that did not contain a sufficient supply of capable (or at least enthusiastic) musicians and singers.

The feast was the prime Elizabethan social occasion. There could be no celebration without at least one, and it was the opportunity for the Elizabethan man and woman to enjoy that which was most dear to them: pastime with good company.

Author: Walter Nelson
Publisher: Walter Nelson
Date of First Publication: Oct 27 2012
Date of Last Update: March 29th 2014


Plates for a Fine Tea Party

Plates for a Fine Tea Party


Elizabethan Trencher Plate - History

Marchpane or Marzipan

The 16th century was a fast-paced and fascinating time for the whole of Europe.

Improvements in design of ships meant they could travel further and faster, resulting in the circumnavigation of the world. Queen Elizabeth granted Sir Walter Raleigh a Royal Charter, which authorized him to explore and colonize any “remote, heathen and barbarous countries, not actually possessed by any Christian prince, or inhabited by Christian people, in exchange for a portion of the wealth found there.” This shifted the balance of power from the East and allowed the English to grow and source foods for themselves in their colonies.

Perhaps the item that gained popularity most rapidly was sugar. Sugar had been used in Henry VIII’s kitchens, but the expansion of the world allowed this precious ingredient to be more readily accessible.

Sugar was a high-status ingredient it was more expensive than honey (which had long been used as a natural sweetener) because of the requirement for it to be imported. Sugar grows as a cane, but would be imported in a ‘loaf’ form. The highest grade of these sugars were the fine, white sugars which could easily be melted into a liquid and came from Madeira next came Barbary or Canary sugar and finally a coarser, brown sugar which required less rendering down but was, as a result, more difficult to work with. However, even this coarse sugar was expensive this was not an ingredient which all in Elizabethan England would have had access to, but Elizabeth did and it became her favorite food.

Last time we learned about the Tudor trencher. How did that change in Elizabethan times?

The word trencher comes from the French ‘tranche’, meaning slice. In the late Middle Ages, a slice of bread acted as a plate, however by the 16th century this was replaced by painted wood or metal alternatives.

We also learned about the different levels of the seating plan, when one was allowed to eat at Court. The food was better, more plentiful and beautifully presented when you were chosen to sit and eat in a more prestigious hall. Queen Elizabeth added one more level of eating to the Court, The Banquet. This is not the banquet style of eating as we know today where the food is placed around the room on various tables and you move about picking what you choose to eat. This Banqueting consisted of a selection of some of the favored quests, who would take another meal in another room, or sometimes outdoors in a miniature pavilion. Only the guests of the highest status were invited.

During the banquet, a trencher would be placed in front of each guest. A delicacy would be presented on the unpainted side, which might include finely made sweet-meats, exotic spices, sugar confectionery, ornate marchpane sculptures or sweet gingerbread. These expensive ingredients and delicacies made a clear statement of wealth, status and power, and the trencher they were served on had to reflect this. Once the food was consumed the diner would turn the trencher over to find painted and gilded images and texts biblical texts, moral texts or humorous sayings. These could be read aloud and discussed amongst the guests. They were intended to provoke discussion, and encourage story-telling, much like a Christmas cracker or fortune cookie today.

Sugared Lemons

At court sugar was used in elaborate dishes. Sweets made from sugar paste (made from a mix of egg, sugar and gelatin) were made. A popular dish was ‘ Leech,’ made of milk, sugar and rosewater and then cut into single bites. The popular treats were marchpane and gingerbread. Marchpane was made from almond and sugar paste and could be moulded into various shapes and elaborately decorated. Gingerbread required ginger, an exotic ingredient, along with a good dose of sugar. Fruit pies were made and sweetened with sugar and thickened with almond milk. Cheesecakes, custards and puddings were made. Sweets were flavored with nutmeg, mace, cloves, anise, coriander, rose water, almond or saffron. All this was available because England owned the sea!

Eating all this refined sugar, rather than sweetening with honey or fruit, had a big impact on the Queen and her court, who were eating lavish sugar desserts and cleaning their teeth with sugar, by rubbing their teeth with sugar paste, as sugar was also seen as having medicinal properties.

Queen Elizabeth had such rotted, black teeth that she had to have some of her teeth removed. She was so fearful of pain that the Bishop of London volunteered to have one of his teeth pulled, as an example!

We have no such thing as Christmas crackers in the US, so for a Christmas party and using the trencher idea, why not try this? When neighbors or relatives come into the house, they could pick a slip of paper out of a hat with questions such as “What was your favorite Christmas food when you were a child?” “When did your family open gifts?” “Did you ever visit Santa at a department store?” “What is your favorite Christmas song or carol?” “Do you prefer to stay home or travel to visit friends/family at Christmas?” “What was the most memorable gift you received?” “Did your family make Christmas cookies? If so, what kind were your favorites?” And on and on! Ask that they not unfold the paper until dessert! Then, each person could take a turn to read the question and answer it. The conversations would go on and on! What fun for Christmas and a way to continue on with a very old tradition! Enjoy!


"Court" from French meaning short, cupboards, also called buffet cupboards, were the antique ancestors of dressers and sideboards and were used to display plates, flaggons, cans, cups, beakers, and other manner of plate, and also as service tables.


Elizabethan Court Cupboard

Court cupboards resembled 2 or 3 tier stands and had plain posts as rear supports. At the front heavily carved, inlaid, and turned bulbs with Ionic capitals connected the shelves together.

The production of court cupboards in the cities ceased from around 1660 due to dramatic decline in popularity, although as always, country furniture craftsmen continued to snub their noses at town fashions and laboured on.


Insight: The History of Wooden Panelling Part 1

The Tudor period can be seen as a turning point in British domestic architecture. Fashionable building gradually moved away from the styles and tastes of medieval building towards more sophisticated structures with classicised decoration. The discovery of the new world, and adventurous sea captains, spread wealth to new areas of society i.e the middle class and merchant sailors. This, combined with the invention of printing by William Caxton in 1477, helped spread the knowledge and fashion of oak panelling in the Renaissance movement from Italy through western Europe to Britain.

During the Tudor period the number of country estates and manor houses increased dramatically, not just built by the nobility but also by smaller land owners and prosperous merchants. With peace more or less established, homes became about comfort, not fortification, and early Tudor homes represented the first vernacular style of house building in this country.

The type of panelling in this period comprised of thin boards let into grooves in solid timber uprights and cross members. The boards were generally of oak, measuring no more than 24 inches square and split as thin as possible. Carved decoration was popular early in the 16th century a linenfold pattern was fashionable.

Linenfold Panelling example

Linenfold Panelling example

The new nobility many of which had profited from the dissolution of the monasteries, continued their house-building on a scale of increasing magnificence. Although national building traditions were too deeply rooted suddenly to be discarded, a departure from medieval methods was inevitable and a distinctive character was imparted to the early oak panelling design in Renaissance architecture of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

The different foreign influences which contributed to this change can be traced directly from Italy decorative detail executed by Italians in Henry VIII’s reign had a distinct delicacy and refinement sadly lost in later work. This direct influence from Italy was short lived. By the time of Elizabeth’s accession, the change of religion and lack of employment under Edward VI or Mary had driven Italians from the country. In their place came craftsmen from Germany and the Low Countries.

John Thorpe, Robert Huntingdon Smithson and Thomas Holt were English oak wall panelling designers whose names are associated with the greater Elizabethan and Jacobean houses. They encouraged symmetrical oak panel designs, together with elevation distinguished by strong horizontal line and applied classic “Orders”. Elaboration of oak panelling details had seldom been carried further than in Elizabethan and Jacobean houses, and gateways, balustrades and even rain-water heads were singled out for display.

The 16th century established its own standard of stateliness and dignity, as well as of comfort and it required that walls, fireplaces, ceilings and staircases should be ornately treated. In oak panelling, the Linenfold gave way to plain panelling in a variety of rectangular shapes, surrounded by mouldings usually “mitred” at the angles. When a richer effect was desired, carved pilasters and friezes and the characteristic strapwork ornament were introduced. Intricate patterns sometimes filled the panels and some use was made of inlaid woods of different colours.

Typical 16th century panelling in jointed and pegged framing at Dunham Massey

Typical 16th century panelling in jointed and pegged framing at Dunham Massey


Salt & Pepper

In the UK and many north European countries we season our food primarily with salt and pepper. When we sit down to lunch or dinner, at home or at a restaurant, and usually before we even reach for the knife and fork we’ll probably season our meal with salt and pepper. Have you ever wondered why we do this? When did salt and pepper become so popular?

Let’s start with salt, which according to historical records, was first used in China. In around 450 B.C. a man named Yi Dun started the process of making salt of boiling brine in iron pans until all that remained was a highly sought-after substance: salt. This process spread through Europe about a thousand years later, thanks to the Roman Empire.

Salt was a huge commodity and Roman soldiers were paid partly in salt and their salarium gave way to today’s word for “salary.” The word “salad” also originated from “salt,” and began with the early Romans salting their leafy greens and vegetables. Throughout history salt has been used as a powerful tool to allow governmental monopoly and special taxes. Salt taxes long supported British monarchs and thousands of people were imprisoned for smuggling salt.

Salt was prized primarily because its use on food draws out moisture which can cause the growth of bacteria and food that could be preserved was highly valuable. It is believed that the Egyptians were the first civilization to preserve fish and meat with salt. This method was employed when food was shipped over, and fishermen in Medieval Europe would salt cod caught off North America’s Grand Banks, preserving them for sale at home. Contrary to popular belief, salt was not used to disguise the taste of rotting meat as it was too expensive a product to waste on such things.

In Britain, salt was first used to flavour food during the Iron Age when boiling meat in pits lined with stones or wood became popular, a practice unique to this country and Ireland. Because this procedure extracted all the natural salts from the meat, diners started to use salt as a seasoning. Cereals, which had only been introduced relatively recently, had also become central to the diet of this time and so salt was craved. Salt mining was such an important industry that early British towns clustered around salt springs. In fact, the “wich” suffix in English place names like Middlewich and Norwich is associated with areas where salt working was a common practice – and some continue to be to this day.

Salt remained the foodstuff of the rich during Tudor and Elizabethan times and its presence on the dining table was an indication of the highest social standing. Butlers were given very specific instructions on how to serve salt, usually in the ‘great salt’, a receptacle that also served as an adornment and would be made of silver or silver gilt. To ‘sit above the salt’ was a sign of social prestige according to food writer and historian Clarissa Dickson Wright. She tells us that the great salt was mainly placed on the table for show in wealthy households and less important diners would be given the trencher salts, which were individual plates made of wood or metal.

Salt was involved in such historic events as the building of the Erie Canal, the French Revolution and the drive for India’s independence from British colonial rule. French kings developed a salt monopoly by selling exclusive rights to produce it to a favored few who exploited that right to the point where the scarcity of salt was a major contributing cause of the French Revolution. In recent years, the promotion of free trade through the World Trade Organization has led to abolition of many national monopolies, for example, in Taiwan.

Salt was, and still is, a great source of superstition in Europe, with the belief that that spilling salt is an evil omen. A likely explanation of this is that Judas Iscariot spilled the salt at the Last Supper and in fact Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, depicts Judas Iscariot having knocked over a salt-cellar. However, this may not be the real explanation, as salt was once viewed as a symbol of trust and friendship and so to spill salt was seen as a rejection of these values and a person who did so would be seen as untrustworthy.

Pepper is salt’s more exotic cousin. Black pepper originated in Kerala, India and has been exported from South Asia for about 4,000 years. Pepper was essential seasoning in India (it was often referred to as “black gold”) and was of great value as a traditional medicine, featuring in early medicinal documents such as the Susrutha Samhita. Like salt, pepper was a rare and expensive commodity: the Romans traded in it and peppercorns have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. It is said that Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun each demanded from Rome a ransom of more than a ton of pepper when they besieged the city in the fifth century.

Pepper was popular in ancient Greece and Rome for its medicinal properties and long pepper was believed to reduce phlegm and increase semen. It wasn’t long before Romans who could afford started to use it to season their food and Apicius’ De re coquinaria, a third-century cookbook, includes pepper in many of its recipes. Long pepper’s high status also laid the ground for other pungent spices, like black pepper which is generally what we use today. Other types of pepper imported included Ethiopian pepper (Grains of Paradise) and Cubeb pepper, a type of long pepper from China.

In the early days, Arabia had a huge monopoly over trade routes and this continued into medieval times, while Italian states like Venice and Genoa also controlled the shipping lines once the spice reached the Mediterranean meaning that they could charge extortionate prices. As the rest of Europe tired of being out of pocket, explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Sir Francis Drake went out to establish their own routes and as it became more readily available, it became cheaper and ordinary people were able to afford it. Regional cuisines began incorporating pepper into their foods alongside native spices and herbs which resulted in typical spice blends such as garam masala in India, ras el hanout in Morocco, quatre épices in France and Cajun and jerk blends in the Americas.

Pepper was so valuable that a Guild of Pepperers was established in the UK in 1180 and was responsible for maintaining standards for the purity of spices and for the setting of certain weights and measures. Peppercorns were very expensive and were accepted in lieu of money in dowries, taxes and rent, often known as the peppercorn rent, the meaning of which is today very different as it now refers to a very small payment. In Germany there are records of whole towns paying rent with peppercorns.

In big (and wealthy) households, imported pepper was pounded in a pestle and mortar before it was served at the table. As with salt, it is debatable whether pepper was actually used to disguise the flavour of rancid meat as many rich people could afford fresh food, although poorer people may have used it for this purpose once extensive cultivation and trade made it affordable. The Victorian British working classes bought pepper in large quantities, usually in ground form, although it was seen to be dangerous and newspapers of the time were full of scandal stories of pepper being adulterated with other additives.

Yes, pepper wasn’t always so popular. During the Middle Ages and once again in the Renaissance period, pepper was associated with melancholy, and some opted to use sweeter, more sanguine spices. But with the development of modern French cuisine during the Enlightenment, pepper once again became popular as Francois Pierre de la Varenne, France’s first celebrity chef, encouraged readers to season their food with it, alongside a new companion, salt. It would appear that this pairing was favoured as pepper was considered the only spice that complemented salt and that the two did not overpower the true taste of food. In Britain, this practice was quickly adopted and we have followed it ever since.

So does everyone love salt and pepper as much as us Brits? Obviously, the French are fans but it’s noticeable when holidaying in Europe’s warmer climes that salt and pepper aren’t really used as much. On the Mediterranean, oil and vinegar are more commonly used although black pepper is a staple for Italian dining. In fact, until a few decades ago most Britons consumed ground pepper but the surge of cheap holidays and the influx of Italian restaurants in the UK during the 1970s might be responsible for our preference for grinders filled with black peppercorns. In China and Japan, as we all know, oyster and soy sauce is more typically available and in South America bottles of tabasco-style sauce (sometimes called ‘chile’) is prevalent. As world food becomes ever popular here in the UK, we may not use as much salt and pepper as we may once have but there is still a place for it at the table

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