Thursday, February 2, 2023

Elizabeth I at Table

 by Sandra Byrd

"Queen Elizabeth was an intellectual," Colin Spencer tells us in his book British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History, "highly civilised, and greatly disdained soporific indulgence in huge banquets and orgies of drinking. The menu for her dinner on 17 November 1576, a date that marked the eighteenth anniversary of her succession, was not a special one... A first course of choice of beef, mutton, veal, swan or goose, capon, conies, fruit, custard and fritters, manchet (the best white bread made up in small loaves) ale and wine.  Second course provided lamb or kid, herons or pheasants, cocks or godwits, chickens, pigeons, larks, tart butter and fritters."

Although this may seem like quite a bit of food to us, historian Eric Ives tells us in The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn that at a feast held at the 1532 Field of the Cloth of Gold celebrated by Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, there were 170 dishes.  As can be seen by the regularly increasing size of Henry's armor (his waist measured 52" at the end of his reign!) these dishes were not only presented to display his wealth but were regularly indulged in. Elizabeth, on the other hand, wore her small rings clear through to the end of her reign.

She cared, too, that her friends ate well for their health. Toward the end of his life, the queen teased her favorite Robert Dudley about his girth. Author Anne Somerset, in her biography, Elizabeth I, says the queen "chaffed him that he should cut his daily meat consumption to 'two ounces of flesh ... and for his drink the twentieth part of a pint of wine.'"

If the Queen herself indulged immoderately in any course it was sweets.  She was known to prefer syllabubs: sweetened wine or cider blended with milk and sugar and whipped into a light, sweet foam, as well as marchpane, an almond paste candy most often known to us as marzipan. Tradition tells us that Elizabeth had bad teeth and that for a while, women attempted to blacken their teeth cosmetically to fit in with her royal appearance.

Elizabeth's sparse eating habits likely contributed to her long life, but her sweet tooth may have brought about her end.  Biographer Alison Plowden says, "The immediate physical cause of the queen's last illness seems to have been a streptococcal throat infection, possibly connected with dental sepsis."

Spencer says, "Elizabeth was keen to bolster the fishing industry by making sure that people consumed fish in Lent and on fast days, because her fleet partly depended on the availability of the fisherman and their craft."  According to author Richard Balkwill in Food and Feasts in Tudor Times, the fish the queen ate so often of would have been kept fresh by being wrapped in cool seaweed and stored in a wet larder at Hampton Court Palace.  England's first sushi?
Hampton Court Kitchens

By the end of the Tudor era, food choices for all were not so much predicated by religious calendars and royal decree as by the wealth of the individual. Author Spencer writes, "It was now becoming possible for individuals to rise in the world, and if you had money, you flaunted it." Sumptuary laws were flouted, and "nothing could stop the gentry from flaunting their riches in food and clothing."  Which meant, of course, black teeth properly earned for the well-to-do of any rank.


The author of more than fifty books, Sandra’s work has received many awards, nominations, and accolades, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and multiple starred reviews and Best Book selections from Library Journal. Other awards include the Historical Novel Society’s Editor’s Choice award, two Christy Awards finalists, a Bookpage Top Pick for Romance, and inclusion on Booklist’s Top Ten Inspirational Books of the Year list.

As an editor and an in-demand writing coach, Sandra is passionate about helping writers develop their talents and has mentored hundreds of writers at all stages of their writing careers. 

A dedicated foodie, Sandra cooks through the topic and location of every book she writes. In addition, she collects vintage glass and serve ware in her free time, loves long walks with her husband, and Sunday Suppers with her growing family. 

Find the Tudor Ladies in Waiting series here.


  1. Fascinating post, Sandra! I had heard of Elizabeth's sweet tooth; she apparently was hooked on lollies called suckets. Which contributed greatly to her rotten teeth.

  2. Not that is this is Dental Hygiene Week or anything, but I too am interested in how the Elizabethans cared for their teeth. Their Anglo-Saxon antecedents used gently chewed birch twigs and such things to clean their teeth, and I'm wondering what types of things (if any) Elizabeth would have used. And of course earlier people did not have that ol demon, sugar, to contend with..natural sweeteners were few and far between. Sue, do you know if Elizabeth would have had a brush or anything similar in her toilette cabinet?

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