Tudor Etiquette at Table
Updated: Sep 15
Tastes of History ran a workshop for the volunteers at Plas Mawr, an Elizabethan townhouse in Conwy, North Wales to teach something of food and dining in the Tudor period. From the many questions we fielded, it became evident that a précis of the etiquette expected at a wealthy Tudor table would be a valuable tool enabling volunteers to interact confidently with visitors. We hope, dear reader, that the following paragraphs prove as interesting to a wider audience.
Dressing the Table No feast could begin without the table being set. In a great hall, the tables and seating would have been arranged in a three-sided 'U' shape, with the base of the 'U' reserved for the lord, his family and his personal guests. The tables might have been covered with fine carpet or velvet cloths in the richest households but would be covered with linen. Very often three layers of linen were used: one cloth would be placed to hang on the diners' side of the table, one might be pleated and hung to cover the outside, and one cloth, often the most decorative, was laid along the top to conceal the table ends.
With the table cloths laid, the 'great salt' was placed prominently on the top-table. Being such a valuable seasoning, the lord, his family and honoured guests were seated 'above the salt' while all other, less fêted guests sat below. Depending on the wealth of the host, other salts and pepper boxes might be set down the tables as required. The table setting for each diner consisted of a trencher, bread, a napkin and, possibly, a knife and spoon. For most of the Tudor period, guests would have been expected to bring their own knife and spoon. If provided, the knife was laid to the right of the trencher, any bread to the left, and the napkin usually folded on top.
Originally a trencher was a flat round of bread used as a plate, upon which the food could be placed to eat. At the end of the meal, the trencher could be eaten, but was more frequently given as alms to the poor. By 1585 the trencher had been largely replaced by thick wooden boards or plates, with a central hollow to contain meat and gravy and a smaller hollow in one corner for the diner's own serving of salt. While middle class homes might have used wood or the more expensive pewter, the very wealthy used pewter for daily use and silverware during feasts. One of the signs of the economic prosperity of the century was the increased use of pewter across society. Unlike today, pottery was reserved for serving rather than for eating off. Any pottery shards found in a Tudor dining context are most likely to be from serving dishes.
Guests Arrive The strict social order of the Tudor world was reflected in the rigid, formal etiquette of feasting. Guests were led into the dining chamber in order of precedence to their assigned place. In a great hall, the most honoured position was to be seated at the right hand of the lord, while the lowliest was at the end of the table or tables to the lord's left. Remarkably, this arrangement echoes that of the wealthiest Roman dinner parties of more than a 1,000 years before.
Tudor etiquette demanded that hands were washed before a meal. This might have been done on the way into the hall, at the 'ewery board' where a ewer of water, a basin and towel would have been attended by a servant. Alternatively, servants might bring a ewer and basin to the seated guests for them to wash their hands. Even the servants, particularly the carver, were expected to be seen to wash their hands. Nevertheless, the ritual hand-washing in the dining chamber was largely symbolic as guests were expected to have washed thoroughly beforehand.
All men at the table ate with their hats on (unless they went hatless out of deference to a high-ranking member of their dinner party), and every well bred guest had a clean, white napkin on the left shoulder or wrist, upon which soiled fingers or knives could be wiped. The servants who attended the table were hatless, since they could not remove their hats (their hands being full) and they would not dream of attending upon their betters with their hats on. Conversation at the table was considered commendable, but riot and clamour was frowned upon.
A highly unusual narrative portrait of Sir Henry Unton (c. 1558-1596), commissioned by his widow, Dorothy née Wroughton (d. 1634) to posthumously commemorate her husband's life, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Unton is portrayed (right) at the heart of the composition, but surrounding him are scenes from his life and death. One frame in particular show him presiding over a banquet in which all the men except him are clearly wearing hats. Moreover, several male diners have a napkin draped over their left shoulder, but at least two of the women seated at table appear to have their napkin in their lap.
Service With the saying of Grace, the company would begin to eat. The dishes were brought in and laid in a very precise order on the table; presentation was imperative. The high table was clearly served first, followed by the rest of the diners. Dishes requiring carving might be carried to a sideboard arrayed for that purpose. A feast in a large household might consist of two or three courses, some of which might involve several different dishes. Unlike today where all diners can expect to get a portion of everything, not every dish would be within reach of every Tudor diner. Instead guests were expect to pick the things they liked best from the 'mess' that was within reach of them. A 'mess' is a set of dishes usually containing several bite-sized portions to be shared between 2 to 4 people . The strict social order of Tudor dining meant that the further one was sat from the high table, the fewer dishes would have been in each 'mess'.
In the wealthiest of households, servants would pass from guest to guest allowing each to help themselves from each dish to as much as they liked. In middle-ranking houses, where if no male servants were available, then women and children of the house would serve the dishes, only sitting down to eat after all the men and guests had taken what they wanted.
For the most part, guests were expected to arrive with their own knife and spoon as the host was not expected to provide them. The rich would have a beautifully made and adorned knife and spoon (and occasionally a fork) carried in an ornamental case. The poor man often went about with his spoon in his hat or his pocket, and a knife on his belt.
Forks did exist, but these were generally two-tined and used for carving meat, not for individual dining. Delicate little forks did become fashionable, however, amongst the highest classes for eating the sweetmeats and candied fruits, or 'suckets', served at banquet. Even so, forks were not used at table and did not become popular until much later in the 17th-century.
Instead the point of one's knife was used to spear and transfer food from the 'mess' onto the diner's trencher or plate. Even in wealthy households, fingers were generally used for taking the tasty morsels from trencher to mouth. A sign of good manners was that one did not return to a dish anything that had been touched. Fingers, or the knife, would be wiped clean on the diner's napkin as required.
First Course Slow cooked soups and pottages, usually made from beef, oatmeal and peas, were served first. It was believed that as they were also wet it prevented them from catching on the bottom of the stomach were the heat of the body was the greatest. Bread would accompany soups and pottage. This should be in smaller pieces, not hunks of bread, that could be put into the soup or pottage to soak up the liquid. Although seen as a strong food, bread was also thought to permit the 'agglutination' of the pottage, that is to help break it down and convert it into juice. Once consumed the Tudor diner could be confident they had lined their stomach ready for the next course.
Starting at the lowest end of the table and working toward the high table, after each course the serving plates and dishes were removed, together with any broken bread and crumbs. There might be entertainments, entremets, before the next course began. Ale or Wine? Now might be a good time to take a refreshing drink. Unless under a doctor's orders to do otherwise, diners would drink only alcoholic beverages. Beer and ale were the most common, but wine in its many forms was very popular among those who could afford it. Contrary to popular belief, most people had access to clean, fresh water - after all, that is what wells were for. Yet, water was not something diners imbibed at table if more fitting drink were to hand. Water was better suited to sustaining thirsty Tudors on a hot day.
Flagons of wine or ale and drinking cups were kept on a cupboard, a table or sideboard on which cups, plates and so on were displayed. Such vessels were often kept cool in a tub of water. When the diner wished a drink they would call for a servant to attend with a cup. After drinking heartily, the diner handed the cup back to the servant, who rinsed it and returned it to the cupboard.
In the later Tudor period individual beakers became evermore popular. The general population drank from wooden, earthenware or leather cups, while the nobility used pewter for daily use and silver on special occasions. The extremely rich would have shown their wealth by using expensive glassware.
Second Course The next course would be meat. If there were several dishes of meat upon the table, then boiled meat would be eaten first again due to cooking times and the heats of the meats within the stomach. Subject to more intense heat in its first cooking, roast meats were believed more ready for digestion and so were always the main course and never a starter.
After the meal, or between courses, the rich would often be entertained by musicians, singers, masquers or players. All social classes would often enliven an evening by dancing and providing their own entertainment. The Tudors were a musical lot and it would be a dull company indeed that did not contain a sufficient supply of capable (or at least enthusiastic) musicians and singers.
Manners at Table Throughout the Tudor period 15th-century manners were applied. At court, good manners could, at times, lead to promotion and thus it was important to know how to behave. Surviving works, like the 'Babees Boke' and various 'Bokes of Nurture', tell a consistent story of what was expected:
Keep your hands and nails clean.
Keep your knife clean and sharp.
Cut your meat into small pieces and do not hack it into great gobbets.
Cut your bread with your knife, and do not tear it in great hunks.
Do not overfill a spoon with soup or pottage, and definitely do not spill it on the tablecloth.
Do not slurp your soup or pottage.
Do not leave your spoon in the communal dish when you are done.
Never put meat into the salt cellar. Keeping the salt cellar clean was especially important. Diners were instructed to take a little salt on the tip of clean knife and put it on their food. Spilled, dirty salt would never be put back in the cellar.
Do not return chewed bones to the shared central plate.
Do not throw your bones on the floor, but put them in a 'voiding' bowl. The popular image of Henry VIII throwing bones over his shoulder, or feeding them to his dogs, would mortify Tudor sensibilities. Bones were not wasted; they were kept for later use, given to servants or the poor to make stock.
Keep the tablecloth as clean as possible.
If food is dropped on the floor, pick it up but do not eat it.
Empty and wipe your mouth before drinking. French sources recommend that when you are given a drink, either drink it all or dispose of any that is left. The English sources seem to indicate that it is rude to drink the whole thing.
Do not stuff your mouth, pick your teeth, make rude noises, scratch yourself, blow on your food, spit in the washing basin or across the table, spit up food into your dish, talk with your mouth full, or fall asleep at the table.
Do not put your elbows on the table, which was a sensible precaution against an accident when one considers the table was typically a board laid on top of trestles.
Do not stroke cats and dogs at the table. Indeed, an order was made that dogs were not allowed in the dining hall in case they stole from the alms tubs or annoyed the guests with their barking and fighting.
Your Health During the meal, numerous 'healths' would be pledged (the term 'toast' was not used). The pledging of 'healths' quite often reached ridiculous extremes, and might continue long after the food had been carried away ending only after the entire company was too 'cup-shot' to continue. Any meal interspersed with such 'healths' could last for several hours. The feast would end with everyone washing their hands again and a final saying of Grace. The servants removed the dishes, the linens, and the boards from the trestles to put the tables away.
Tudor Banqueting After the meal, diners in the early Tudor periods would have stood and drunk sweet wine and spices while the table was cleared, or 'voided'. Interestingly, the 'voide' would not be replaced with the more familiar 'dessert' until much later in the 17th-century. In the interim, to avoid the noise and disturbance of clearing away, it became increasingly popular for the top table to withdraw to another room where special luxuries, or banquettes, could be enjoyed. Today we think of banquets as a full meal, but when banqueting became fashionable in Elizabeth I's reign, the word applied only to a final course of fruit, cakes, biscuits and sticky preserves, all of which featured sugar in varying degrees. The centrepiece of any sugar banquet would be of decorative marchpane, itself made from sugar, rosewater and almonds. As mentioned earlier, over time the double-ended fork and spoon combination, known as sucket forks, which were ideal for spearing sticky, sugary delights, gained widespread use. Nowadays few Britons sit down to a feast (or banquet) without a fork being present.
The Tudor feast was first and foremost a social occasion. No celebration would be complete without one, and it was the opportunity for Tudors to enjoy that which seems most dear to them: passing time in good company. Your health!
1. Circa AD 1300 the noun 'mess' meant 'a supply or provision of food for one meal'. The word in English is derived from the Old French mes meaning a 'portion of food' or a 'course at dinner'. This sense is itself derived from Late Latin missus for a 'course at dinner' (in the literal sense it meant 'a placing', for example, on a table). The notion that a 'mess' meant 'a communal eating place' (especially a military one) is attested by the 1530s. This is a development from the earlier 15th-century sense of 'a company of persons eating together at the same table', originally a group of four.