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Comparing the diet at the Tower with food at court

Sir Walter Ralegh lived in relative comfort when imprisoned in the Tower, but what did he eat when he was a prisoner, and how did this compare to the food he was missing at court? Contemporaneous records focus on Ralegh’s works rather than on his daily intake, but we can piece together a picture from records and accounts of other prisoners to see what was being eaten at the Tower, and how this compared to the diet at court.

We do know that Ralegh spent at least £208 a year on food and other comforts (roughly equivalent to £20,000 today), and was able to grow his own exotic herbs (including tobacco) within the confines of the Tower, although these were more likely to be for his cordial and remedies than for his table. He was also able to dine with the Lieutenant of the Tower on occasion. But what sorts of foods might he have been eating?

In Step 2.12 we saw that the Earl of Northumberland, imprisoned at a similar time to Ralegh, was able to have his food ‘brought and prepared to his own specifications,’ and it is also recorded that he purchased new kitchen utensils during his stay at the Tower for boiling beef and fish and for roasting quinces. He also bought a cockle pan. However, his living expenses amounted to far more than Ralegh’s, at £1400 per annum (or a whopping £140,000 today). Two other peers were imprisoned with Ralegh, and it is recorded that they each had an allowance of £516, and when instructions for their upkeep were later delivered, their allowance of servants each included a cook.

We have records of Thomas Overbury, imprisoned in 1613, eating tarts and jellies sent to him by his friend Viscount Rochester. The Duchess of Somerset, who was imprisoned in 1551, lunched on mutton stewed with potage, boiled beef and mutton, roast veal, roast capon and two rabbits. For dinner she again ate mutton with potage (obviously a favourite dish) along with sliced beef, roast mutton, two rabbits and a dozen larks, all washed down with either beer or wine. She was not the only prisoner with access to alcohol as Ralegh is recorded as having bottles of beer and ale passed through his window by a waterman!

John Gerard, whose imprisonment at the Tower was harsher than Ralegh’s, provided a less enticing account of his food at the Tower:

“The food was provided at the Queen’s expense, and it was plentiful – every day they gave me six small rolls of very good bread.”

High-status prisoners could clearly eat well within the Tower walls, but how did this compare to the food they were missing at court? We have an excellent record from William Harrison who recorded his ‘Description of Elizabethan England’ in 1577, and captures what was being experienced outside the confines of the Tower:

“In number of dishes and change of meat the nobility of England (whose cooks are for the most part musical-headed Frenchmen and strangers) do most exceed, sith there is no day in manner that passeth over their heads wherein they have not only beef, mutton, veal, lamb, kid, pork, cony, capon, pig, or so many of these as the season yieldeth, but also some portion of the red or fallow deer, beside great variety of fish and wild fowl, and thereto sundry other delicates wherein the sweet hand of the seafaring Portugal is not wanting”.

In 1560, Robert Dudley a favourite of Elizabeth I’s (she called him ‘Sweet Robin’), threw a large banquet in her honour. His household accounts record that turkeys and a pineapple were served, both relatively new ingredients to England, alongside a plethora of meat, poultry, and of course, sugar. Records may exaggerate but it is recorded that there were cakes and other sweets that comprised almost 86 lbs of sugar.

Much of the food being eaten by the Elizabethan nobility was similar to that eaten by Henry VIII’s court, but now it was an even more excessive, decadent display of wealth. Elizabeth had a point to prove, and the hospitality of her court reflected her power as queen.

‘I also sent to ask Lord Burleigh, who is the principal minister, whether it was true, as I had been informed, that the Queen was feasting the ambassadors so splendidly that it was believed they would delay their departure as long as possible, in order to enjoy such a welcome.’ (a letter from Bernardino de Mendoza to the Spanish King, London 2 June 1581).

‘It is no marvel therefore that our tables are oftentimes more plentifully garnished than those of other nations.’ (William Harrison, 1577).

To put this into context, while Ralegh had £208 a year to spend on his food allowance, the cost for food and drink in Elizabeth’s palaces cost over £80,000 of the then currency, which today would amount to over £8 million. Even more staggering is that £3000 (£300,000 today) of this was for Elizabeth’s privy table alone. However, this cost does not even include special occasions and feasts, for example Elizabeth hosted Christmas at Hampton Court in 1576, at an additional cost.

Each day wagons loaded with provisions would arrive at the palace, and records show huge mountains of butter, eggs, milk, cheese were brought in, along with almost 20 different types of fish, the finest beers and wines, and ‘every sort’ of poultry and game including venison, hares, rabbits and partridges.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Elizabethan court without mention of sugar. In prison Thomas Overbury had access to jellies and tarts, but this was nothing in contrast to the quantity and workmanship of the sugar being served at court:

‘…jellies of all colours, mixed with a variety in the representation of sundry flowers, herbs, trees, forms of beasts, fish, fowls, and fruits, and thereunto marchpane wrought with no small curiosity, tarts of divers hues, and sundry denominations, conserves of old fruits, foreign and home-bred, suckets, codinacs, marmalades, marchpane, sugar-bread, gingerbread, florentines, wild fowls, venison of all sorts, and sundry outlandish confections, altogether seasoned with sugar.’ (William Harrison, 1577)

So the foods being eaten by high-status prisoners in the Tower were similar to those eaten at court but on a much, much smaller scale. Meat, sugar, beer and wine were all on the menu, if you could afford it. However, these prisoners had suddenly gone from having access to every food they could wish for, to having enough to sustain themselves. Although the conditions seem comfortable to us, their change in circumstance from court must have been extreme.

In the next Step, we ask you to describe what you think Sir Walter Ralegh might have chosen to eat for his final meal. Would he have been able to request some sugar subtleties from court?

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This article is from the free online course:

A History of Royal Food and Feasting

University of Reading