Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsThe Tudors tend to get split into two halves, the time of Henry VIII and time of his more famous daughter, Elizabeth I. And you could say that the food doesn't change very much at all. Medieval food is, in fact, very similar to Tudor food. Tudor food is very similar to Stuart food. It's much later that there's a food revolution in this country. But what does happen is there's a complete change in society, and little subtle things mean everything gets slightly better.

Skip to 0 minutes and 36 secondsIf you talked to the court of Henry VIII, everything here is about England and how good your country is, the best of produce, how you're able to bring things here to make England fantastic because you are king of the best country in the world, obviously. Under Elizabeth, there's a lot more expansion. The whole world has been through a renaissance, a rebirth. They're discovering so many new things in art and science. There is a change in ship design that means trading vessels can go further, faster. And that's exactly what happens, not just here, but all of the main countries of Europe. And so we almost start a race around the world to see what we can find.

Skip to 1 minute and 15 secondsIf you spoke to an Elizabethan, they're more likely to say not, 'look what I have', it's more 'look what I've been able to bring to my country from all over the world'. If you asked Henrician Tudor where do spices come from, well, Venice. Because the Arab trade went into Venice. The Venetian merchants traded with the rest of Europe. Ask an Elizabethan and they can probably name the countries their ships have visited all around Africa, all around the Malabar coast of India, as far as China, and of course, a whole new continent of America. One of the biggest changes is sugar. Sugar has been a luxury right through the Middle Ages. It comes from Persia.

Skip to 1 minute and 57 secondsIt was mostly processed around that area. By the early Tudor's, someone set up a sugar processing plant over in Antwerp. By the end of the Elizabethan era we, like many other nations, have found countries where we can grow our own sugar. We don't have to buy it off the Persians anymore. We can grow it in the West Indies. The price just plummets. We have our own sugar processing factories in Bristol and then London. It's coming into the country. More and more people can eat like kings. And the same for all different spices, all the different produce. The more you can bring into the country, the more other people benefit from it.

Skip to 2 minutes and 35 secondsOne of the things that makes Elizabethan banqueting rather interesting is the banqueting trencher. When we sit down for a Christmas meal with a load of people we don't know, once everyone's pulled that cracker and told a dreadful joke, we've all started talking. The banqueting trencher, it's beautiful, but it also has a little joke or a political message or something rude in the middle. And we're all supposed to read it out to each other and it gets everybody talking. Once you've enjoyed your beautifully painted banqueting trencher, you flip it over to the plain side and use this to select from a buffet of wonderful sweets all the things that you're going to eat.

Skip to 3 minutes and 14 secondsLuckily for us, these were so precious that a number of sets from the Elizabethan era still survive.

Impact of expansion on Elizabethan eating

The 16th century was a fascinating and fast-changing period, not just in Tudor England but for the whole of Europe and the known world. The dramatic expansion which followed the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492 had an impact on many things, not least the way that the Elizabethan court ate.

Improvements in design in the 16th century meant that ships could travel further and faster. This resulted in new levels of exploration. It was a period that saw the first circumnavigations of the world, firstly by Ferdinand Magellan in 1517 and then by Francis Drake between 1577 and 1580. It was also an area that links our two main characters for this week: Elizabeth and Sir Walter Ralegh.

In 1584, the Queen granted Ralegh a Royal Charter, which authorised him to explore and colonise any ‘remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countries, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian Prince, or inhabited by Christian People’, in exchange for a portion of the wealth found there of course. We will come back to Ralegh later in this week.

Europe’s new discoveries started to shift the balance of power from the East to the West. Prior to the exploration of the Americas, exotic foods were being sourced from the East and brought to England via trade routes through Antwerp or Venice. Now they could be grown and sourced by the English themselves: but what effect did opening this nautical gateway to the East and the New World have on Elizabethan England and its eating habits? Marc Meltonville explains further in this video.

Marc Meltonville

Marc will be answering your questions on Wednesday 15 November between 13.00 - 14.00 (GMT) on this Step. If you would like Marc to respond to one of your questions, please post them in the comment section below before then. Don’t worry if you miss the session for any reason – you can see Marc’s replies in his comment feed looking at his profile page.


If you would like to read more about this topic, previous learners shared this link about Elizabethan expansion which you might find of interest:

History of ships on Britannica website.

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This video is from the free online course:

A History of Royal Food and Feasting

University of Reading