When this year’s Christmas schedules were announced the Two documentary A Merry Tudor Christmas with Lucy Worsley stood out.
In the hour-long programme the examines the festive customs and traditions of Henry VIII.
As you can imagine many of the celebrations involved food but probably not quite the Christmas dishes you’re used to seeing on TV.
So intricate and long-forgotten were the recipes the show enlisted the help of food Dr Annie Gray. Alongside Hampton Court Palace chefs, she dishes from the period.
Not only do the and costs stack up but so do the hours days and weeks it takes to make the dishes. As for the food itself. Well it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
How times have changed. While we now treat ourselves to a chocolate advent calendar during December 500 years ago things were a little different.
Most of the English population were Catholic when Henry VIII took to the throne. And what rule did the Catholic church impose That the period of advent was a time for abstinence when you were not allowed meat or dairy.
Fasting lasted four weeks so by Christmas Eve people were more than a little peckish. The fast would officially break on Christmas Day then for 12 days there would be feasting. But for some the wait was too long.
“Some people would break their advent’s fast with Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve at midnight”, explains Dr Annie. However, the fasting period wasn’t as difficult for people with titles and money who added fish and other aquatic delights to their advent. “To be fair the fish dishes at the time were quite something. So if you were it wasn’t a time of hardship you just ate porpoise and beavers’ tail rather than beef and venison,” she says.
Most people were vegetarians – except at Christmas
“Around 80–90 percent of the population were probably involuntary vegetarians because they couldn’t afford meat,” says Dr Annie. “Because it was Christmas and a great big feast you’d want to have meat and – in the majority of cases if you were not a landowner or freeholder you would be an agricultural worker, so you have a lord and master and they would gift you some meat for Christmas.” This wasn’t a purely altruistic move though; tenants were expected to give their lord and master a gift too and they would probably be told exactly what it should be.
The dishes the average person made at Christmas weren’t that strange
After being gifted something like beef they would “have probably put it into a stew-like dish or they might have a piece of pie,” says Dr Annie. She adds “the Christmas feast would also have bread – everyone ate a phenomenal amount of bread at this time, and if you could you’d perhaps buy some gingerbread because ginger was relatively cheap as a spice.”
The same could not be said for the royals
Early on in the we see exactly what Henry VIII spent on the 12 days of Christmas in his first year on the throne: an eye-watering £7,000. To put that into context his father Henry VII spent £12,000 on the royal household for an entire year.
So to say Christmas feasting was excessive would be an understatement – and meat was a main component. The festive table would include swan, stuffed peacock, beef and turkey. But one showstopper highlighted the king’s power and prowess Having down a wild boar with his own spear the head would then be served up on Henry VIII’s Christmas dinner table. It was a trend for landowners that became problematic. “They kept going extinct in Britain because people them all the time and eating. So you had this constant conversation along the lines of all the boars, let’s reintroduce them so we have something a bit on our Christmas table.’”
Seriously, look away
“At that point you’d have to trim all the flesh from inside it. When we did this it took most of the day. Then we sewed the eyelids and openings which took an hour or two and then it became this big pinkish cushion cover.
“Then you’d chop up all the meat that’s been in the head in brine add more boar’s flesh, spices and nuts – really expensive ingredients that show prestige at the Court – and then you’d stuff the head.
“When we prepared this the boar’s head was so huge that there’s a picture of me with right down the snout and the ears are tickling my neck. I had pig’s all up my arm.”
The work didn’t end there though: “Once you’d stuffed it with itself you flipped the skin round sewed it up and swaddled it, then boiled it for 7 or 8 hours until it was done completely. Then you’d lift it out – which is virtually impossible because it weighs the same as a five-year-old child and it’s huge.
“After removing the you’d decorate it. That’s normally quite simple: you’d brush it with a bit of the reduced which by this time was sticky and gorgeous then brush it on the head so it glistened and had a beautiful colour.”