Peter Brears: Meet Leeds’s own food historian

Peter Brears.
Peter Brears.
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Ever wondered why Henry VIII piled on the pounds? Leeds food historian Peter Brears has the answers. Grant Woodward reports.

FANCY tucking into a three-course meal of smothered rabbit, roast swan and garnished custard, followed by peacock with ginger sauce, buttered worts and a succade of lemon peels?

If not, it’s probably just as well you weren’t around in Tudor times, when that little lot added up to a banquet fit for a king.

But while tastes may have changed a bit since the 16th century, that hasn’t put a stop to our ongoing fascination with the eating habits of our ancestors.

Films and television series have delighted in depicting it as an age of glorious over-indulgence, complete with overflowing flagons of ale and chicken drumstick-wielding monarchs.

But according to Leeds food historian Peter Brears, the reality was very different.

“There was the great blockbuster of the 1930s starring Charles Laughton called The Private Life of Henry VIII and the image of gross extravagance that it presented is still the image a lot of people have got.

“It’s one of belching, farting, throwing food around and having busty wenches leaning over you all the time. It was the same in the more recent Shakespeare in Love and TV series The Tudors.

“An entire industry has built up around the re-enactment of these sumptuous Tudor banquets, but unfortunately it’s all rather inaccurate.”

By raiding the archives, Peter was able to build up a more realistic picture of the dining habits of the likes of Henry VIII and his court, findings which form part of his book All The King’s Cooks, an updated version of which is out at the start of next month.

His research saw him spend a week every year at Hampton Court, Henry’s former stomping ground, getting a feel for the job of master cook to the king.

The position was a demanding one, with up to 1,200 guests to cater for and all manner of weird and wonderful delicacies to prepare.

“The kitchens at Hampton Court were the biggest and most efficient factory in Europe until the development of the cotton mills,” he says.

“They were highly regulated and hugely efficient, with admin offices so senior staff could visually supervise everything that was going on around them. You couldn’t steal a sausage without being spotted.”

Quality control was taken extremely seriously, with instructions set out for everything from how to serve custard (cut into one-inch squares) to how to carve a hen (cut off legs, then wings, mince wings, sprinkle with wine or ale).

An enormous amount of effort went into even the smallest detail.

The napkins used to dislodge the crumbs from Henry’s beard were made of the finest linen, fringed with gold and woven with ornate images of hunting, the king’s favourite pastime.

Wine was served from flagons whose handles were in the shape of dolphins, fastened to the backs of a woman and a man holding a cluster of grapes in his hand.

Mealtimes themselves were heralded with the arrival of trumpeters and drummers who would blast away on their instruments for a full half-hour.

And on state occasions the first course was accompanied by a procession including the monarch’s sergeant at arms, Lord Chamberlain and Treasurer.

Mealtimes were also very different to today. Lunch was served at ten o’clock in the morning with dinner at four in the afternoon.

“The whole thing was unchangeable,” says Peter, a former director of museums for Leeds from Headingley.

“With all those people to feed you couldn’t suddenly say, ‘We’ll have dinner at six instead’. So this meant Henry would go hunting, come back at eight o’clock at night and for everyone with him dinner was gone, hard luck.

“But he had his own private kitchen beneath his chamber which not only provided some nice underfloor heating but meant he could call for anything at any time.”

Far from the image of popular myth, serving the king was an extraordinarily complicated process that was full of ceremony.

“It was in the regulations that you had to know by glance what he wanted without him actually telling you,” says Peter.

“If his glance told you he wanted a drink of wine you would kneel down in front of his table, take the lid off, pour a few drops into the lid, sip that to test it, then wipe the brim with a napkin, pass it to him, he would take a swig, pass it back and you would put the cover back on.

That would happen for every swig.

“To prepare meat, the head of the household would lead in the carver who would kneel along with the head waiter, known as a sewerd.

“The carver would cut specified pieces of meat which he would pass to the sewerd and the bloke who brought through the particular dish for them to test it.

“That dish would then be carved into mouth-sized pieces so the king only had to pick them up and put them in his mouth.

“There would be 20 dishes coming through and everyone’s got to know what they think he likes.”

And they ate foods we wouldn’t consider eating today. It wasn’t unusual to find the likes of swan, peacock and porpoise on the menu.

“It was a much wilder environ-ment, there were open commons and a lot more wetlands which meant lots of bittens (a heron-like bird), ducks and rabbits.

“There was lots of peacock because until turkey came along it was the best bird around, with a taste somewhere between chicken and pheasant.”

While not much is known about Henry’s specific tastes, Peter says he ate according to the advice of his physicians, who told him fresh fruits and salads were bad for him.

“The health handbooks of the day said they would make him sick. It sounds crazy but when you think that fruit could have been picked by people who didn’t have the most sanitary habits, then come into contact with raw meats, it wasn’t bad advice, particularly as the water to clean it with wouldn’t have been the best quality.

“Having said that, it probably did have health effects on Henry. Put it this way, he certainly wouldn’t have got much Vitamin C.”

* Peter Brears’ All The King’s Cooks is published on June 2.

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