When you think of a Tudor banquet, you probably think of Henry VIII shouting from the head of the table, some mead in one hand and a huge chicken leg in the other – I know I do! But in fact table manners were actually quite strict at Tudor banquets and they were quite formal affairs. The rules at Tudor banquets mirrored the class system and social etiquette of the time. Tudor banquets were very extravagant affairs which gave the host an opportunity to show off their wealth and social status, by serving their guests the most superb food, made from the most expensive ingredients and displayed in the most extravagant way.
The most magnificent banquets were the ones hosted by the royal family. Henry VIII in particular is remembered for his elaborate banquets; he once put on a 10 course meal lasting 7 hours for a visiting guest! Banquets were important for the Tudors to display a powerful dynastic image, especially if there was a foreign monarch or dignitary visiting.
Society was very hierarchical in the Tudor times and everyone accepted that not all people were born equal. Seating at a Tudor banquet reflected this. The most important diners would have sat at the top table, which would have been raised on a platform and probably would have had a nice tablecloth. Those next in the social standing would have sat on one of the two tables either side of the top table. This would continue down the social ladder, with those next in status sitting at the next set of tables. Right at the bottom of the social ladder and furthest away from the king or host of the banquet would be the servants.
What did people eat at a banquet?
The food served at a banquet would also have been given out according to status. Servants and those placed furthest away from the top table would certainly not have had the same quality of food or lavish dishes as the diners at the top table.
Food at a banquet was served at the table on large platters and guests helped themselves. There would have been a great variety of dishes, including ingredients that had come from all over the world! There would have been expensive citrus fruits, almonds and olive oil from the Mediterranean, while other dishes would have been sweetened with sugar from Cyprus and seasoned with spices from China, Africa and India. Unlike the rest of the country the court had fresh meat which was slaughtered and roasted every day and this would make up many of the dishes served at banquets. Some common banquet foods were:
- Spit-roasted meat
- Grilled beavers’ tails
- Whale meat
- Internal organs
- Spiced fruitcake
- Wine and ale
- Boars’ heads
- Black pudding
- And even vegetables!
Sometimes more unusual food like eel or porpoise was even served at banquets!
There was always an elaborate centrepiece too! A centrepiece could have been a bird like a pheasant or swan which had been ‘re-dressed’ in its feathered skin, sometimes the feet and beak were gilded for extra extravagance. Sometimes an edible centrepiece would be made out of sugar. Other times, live birds were hidden in a pie centrepiece so when it was cut they flew out!
Bad table manners
There were many things that were considered bad manners at a banquet! These included: putting old bones back on a shared plate, nose picking, ear scratching or blowing your nose. Worst of all, your behaviour at a banquet would be noticed and remarked upon, so good table manners were very important if you wanted to go up in Tudor society!