The Tudor Kitchen


Few people today can even think of England's Henry VIII without conjuring up images of turkey legs and vast feasts. Historically, this image is not far from the actual truth. Once Henry took over Hampton Court from his former minister Cardinal Woolsey , the king installed a staff of nearly 1600 people to cater to his kingly whims. Foremost among these was the process of feeding the King and his court..

The King's kitchen employed nearly 300 people to cover all facets of feeding the chubby monarch. The kitchen itself consisted of 52 rooms which covered 36,000 square feet! This staff and kitchen was responsible for serving two meals a day to the king and his court which could number around 1000 people for important events.

The Tudor diet consisted of seventy-five percent meat. Important courtiers could expect four to five such dishes at dinner. On a feast day the number of meat dishes could reach as high as ten. The kitchens served until the Interregnum when Cromwell closed the facility. At that time, and for the future as well, servants lost their right to be fed at the king's table and were put on wages instead.

The kitchen complex had 15 offices and a separate gatehouse through which all the supplies for the court were brought. A long narrow courtyard known as Fish Court was the center of the food production. Each door from it led to a different office of the kitchen. The staff carried out their duties downstairs while their sleeping quarters were upstairs.

In the western court the Spicery was filled with exotic spices imported from the Orient and mainland Europe, as well as a herb garden. The Royal Kitchen even featured a of-the-line which was responsible for procuring and transporting the necessary spices from the Orient to England.

The office of the Spicery was also responsible for huge quantities of fruit produced in the palace gardens and orchards. In the same courtyard the Chandlery housed linens and wax for candles and tapers. All linens used on the great tables were made by spinners and weavers who worked in the kitchens. The Coal House provided an alternative source of heat to the wood fires most commonly used by the Tudor cooks. Wood fires were favored in the colder months and coal in the warmer months. Royal woodsmen were charged with wood production and Royal miners dug and transported the coal to the court. The Confectionery yielded delicate sweet dishes which were reserved for the more important members of the court (about 10% of the total number present). Both sweet and savory pies were brought forth from the four ovens of the Pastry House where the largest of 10 ovens measured nine feet in diameter. The Boiling room was divided into two parts. The first part was a butchery where the livestock was brought inside to be slaughters. Next-door meat stock, obtained from the sections not hung for seasoning, were used slowly one of two 76-gallon copper pots.

Hampton Court was served from three larders. Meat was stored in the flesh larder. There venison from the Royal Parks was hung for seasoning for as long as six weeks before consumption. Meat was also supplied from the palace's own pheasant yard (managed by a fowler from Italy) and rabbit warren. The Wet Larder or Fish Larder was the most important. Religious practice decreed that meat must not be eaten during the forty days of Lent, nor on any Friday and sometimes not on Wednesdays. Saltwater fish caught from the coastal regions were packed in barrels with seaweed, shipped to Hampton Court and stored in the larder. Fresh water fish were stocked in the palace's Pond Garden and harvested as needed. Nuts and other dry good were kept in the Dry Larder.

At the east end of the complex stood the Great Kitchen with its six great fireplaces which could each roast a spitted cow or two sheep. The food assembled in the Great Kitchen was under the supervision of the Master Cook who directed twelve other cooks and another two dozen assistants. At the end of the kitchen food platters were passed out through hatches to the Dressers in the Serving Place.

The Dressers were two small rooms where special dishes were dressed and garnished before their presentation upstairs by a staff of artists. One can easily imagine the preparations that went on in this area. In the first Dresser, peacock skins (feathers included) were replaced on roasted carcasses. In the second, creations of marzipan are painted and gilded with real gold and served as dessert. Servants attired in special uniforms (made by kitchen staff in their free time) for each occasion then transported the dishes upstairs to either the Great Hall or the Great Watching Chamber where Henry entertained his guests.

The Tudor Court consumed about 300 barrels of ale a year and nearly an equal amount of wine coming mainly from family lands in Burgundy and the Rhinelands. In 1536 Henry had the Great Wine Cellar reconstructed and vaulted with brick and stone to provide security. Wine and ale for the King and Queen were then kept in the Privy Cellar. The majority of the ale (around 600,000 gallons each year) was stored in the Great Cellar. The door to the Great Cellar had two locks on the door. For added security, two different officials, the Master Cook and the Steward of the Cellar, held the keys.

A surviving list reveals the quantity of meat cooked in the royal kitchens in one year: 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs and 53 wild boars. But this was dwarfed by the nearly 300,000 loaves of bread produced in the palace ovens. Certainly such a "spread" of foods contributed to the girth of the monarch.