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The Tudor Christmas and the Trencher

Tudor Trencher

Tudor Trencher

In 1526 the Eltham Ordinances were written at Eltham Palace. These were rules and regulations monitoring food purchases, storage and distribution of food across all the palaces.

The Eltham Ordinances also laid down instructions for court ceremony, for example how the food was presented and the manner in which it had to be taken to the table. The rules were put forward by the Lord Steward, who was chosen by the nobility and had great power and influence. He was also in charge of fuel supply, domestic services and the regulation of the entire estate.

At Christmas in 1526, about 600 courtiers were entitled to eat in the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace. This group was made up of guards, grooms and general court servants. Henry VIII ate in his private lodgings and only ate with the majority of the court on celebratory or state occasions. Where you ate; which was the Great Watching Chamber, the Great Hall, the kitchens or in private lodgings on the grounds depended on your rank. The Lord Chamberlain granted permission for dining arrangements, writing the plan called the Bouche de Court, which gave an allowance to each named person for two meals a day (at 10am and 4pm) and allowed the daily ration of bread, wine, beer, candles and firewood.

Two seatings were required to seat all of the people, who would have been served two courses. 

To see how the food was distributed from the courtyard to the table look here. (Courtyard to Table)

I am always interested in what the most common of men did.

At the Tutor Court the food was brought into the Great Hall in “messes.” (a dish shared between four people) The food was served up by the most senior man at the table. For the lowest ranking members at a table the food was served onto a chunk of course brown bread with a slight indentation, called a trencher. What is important to note is that the bread was not eaten, just what was placed on the bread. After the meal, the used trenchers, with the soppings from the meal, were given to the poor to eat.

Leftovers from Henry VIII’s table, the Great Watching Chamber, and the Great Hall were collected in a ‘voider’ (a large basket) and would be distributed to the poor by the Almoner. Those who ate in their own rooms were to take their leftovers to the scullery for the same purpose.  The Eltham Ordinances, states: “all such as have their lodgings within the court shall give straight charge to the ministers and keepers of their chambers, that they do not cast, leave or lay in any manner of dishes, platters, saucers, or broken meat, either in the galleries or at their chamber door……. and likewise to put the relics of their ale into another vessel, so that broken meat or drink be in no way cast away or eaten by dogs, nor lie in the galleries or courts, but may be daily saved for the relief of poor folks.” Anyone who disobeyed this rule was punished and on the third offense, any who failed to give their leftovers to the Almoner would forfeit their allowance, lodging and “Bouche de Court” (the permission to eat and drink at court)

As eating was communal, it was important to follow the strict rules of etiquette: these were elaborate, yet practical, as they prevented anyone touching food that would be eaten by someone else. Everyone brought his own knife and spoon to the meal. The requirement for a personal spoon is behind the custom of giving one as a christening gift.

The Waissail Cup

The Wassail Cup

A final festive feature, celebrated during the Tudor Christmas was the Wassail Cup. This was a richly ornamented cup which would be paraded through the great hall, and drunk from by all present as they took part in a call-and-response ritual – the drinker would shout ‘wassail’ and the collective response was ‘drink hail’. The drink in the Wassail bowls was often a warmed alcohol, such as mulled cider, sweetened and spiced. The bowl shown above even has its own whistle to alert the kitchen that more drink was needed.

These were the Rules of Etiquette at the Tudor table.

Sit not down until you have washed.

Undo your belt a little if it will make you more comfortable; because doing this during the meal is bad manners.

When you wipe your hands clean, put good thoughts forward in your mind, for it doesn’t do to come to dinner sad, and thus make others sad.

Once you sit place your hands neatly on the table; not on your trencher, and not around your belly.

Don’t shift your buttocks left and right as if to let off some blast. Sit neatly and still.

Any gobbit that cannot be taken easily with the hand, take it on your trencher.

Don’t wipe your fingers on your clothes; use the napkin or the ‘board cloth’.

If someone is ill mannered by ignorance, let it pass rather than point it out.

Good rules to follow even now, I’d say.

Tomorrow, we’ll learn what happened to the Trencher in Queen Elizabeth’s rule! See you then!

2 Responses to “The Tudor Christmas and the Trencher”

  1. Sherry Felix

    That was fun to read. I love history. It is still a custom to serve mulled whine at Christmas. To bad no one says wassail any more.

    Reply

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