Were there any leftovers?
With the amount of food on offer at the Tudor court it’s not surprising that there were leftovers. In fact it was considered rude to finish everything at the table. But even this hugely wealthy Court, which could afford fresh ingredients throughout the year, would not waste food unnecessarily. The 16th century was not a throw-away society; everything could be re-used, including food.
Henry VIII and high ranking courtiers would leave leftover food on their plate, known as ‘manners’, which were shared among the lower orders. If a member of the court or household missed dining or wished for an additional meal outside dining hours they might enjoy a contemporary form of ‘room service’ of cold dishes which were sometimes referred to as a ‘real supper’ and might well be made up of the dishes served earlier. Alternatively, some leftovers might be used in dishes for the next meal, or on the next day: for example meats which had been roasted on the spit could be used in more complex dishes such as pies, meaning they could be served again but in a different guise. However, perhaps the most important re-use of leftovers was almsgiving.
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. Evidence of these collections can be found in the Eltham Ordinances, a series of regulations for the royal household produced in 1526, which 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 any manner of dishes, platters, saucers, or broken meat, either in the said galleries, or at their chamber doors… and likewise to put the relics of their ale into another vessel… so that broken meat and drink be in no wise lost, cast away, or eaten with dogs, nor lie abroad in the galleries or courts, but may daily be saved for the relief of poor folks’.
Anyone who disobeyed this rule was punished, and on the third offence, any who failed to give their leftovers over to the Almoner would forfeit their allowance, lodging and ‘bouche of court’ (the permission to eat and drink at court).
Clearly this was an important part of the food-cycle of a royal court and it was a tradition which had long been upheld by royalty and, before the Dissolution, by monasteries as well. While it did not have the same level of spectacle and showmanship as a great feast, kingship also required a show of charity and piety. Almsgiving was a favoured way of doing this as it not only ‘ticked the boxes’ socially, politically and spiritually, it also provided a practical way to re-use leftovers from the court. This was not only ‘good press’ but part of an expected tradition. In having alms collected for distribution to the poor Henry VIII’s court followed in the footsteps of his royal predecessors, such as Henry III and Edward I. This highlighted another essential aspect of kingship – not the king as powerful ‘head of state’, but as charitable ‘servant of the people’.
© University of Reading and Historic Royal Palaces