Lady Ashcombe: A very merry Tudor Christmas
PUBLISHED: 17:02 16 November 2011 | UPDATED: 20:18 20 February 2013
Is roast peacock to be gracing the table at Sudeley Castle this Christmas?
A very merry Tudor Christmas by Lady Ashcombe
With everything Tudor being our focus for next year at Sudeley, I thought that it might be fun for a change to explore Tudor Christmas traditions and see if they could suggest an adaptation of our usual family ritual and fare, which quite frankly I am already yawning at the prospect of having to produce again. It is certainly true that the older one gets, the quicker Christmas seems to speed around the calendar, staring one in the face long before the actual event.
My researches found some fascinating facts, but how many could I surprise my family with... and get an enthusiastic reception?
A Tudor Christmas had a few customs that we in the 21st century might recognise but many that we would not! It was above all a time of feasting and celebration.
The turkey didnt arrive in Britain until 1519 and Henry VIII was among the first to enjoy it as part of a Christmas feast. However, it soon became popular, and large flocks of turkey used to walk from Norfolk to London. Otherwise the traditional meat was swan or goose. In fact, in 1588 Elizabeth I ordered every household to eat goose for their Christmas dinner as it was the first meal she had after the victory over the Spanish Armada and she believed this would be a fitting tribute to the victorious English sailors.
Unfortunately I tried serving goose to the family two Christmases ago and it was a unanimous disappointment.
Peacocks were also on the Tudor menu. But the tradition was to skin the bird first, then cook it before placing the roast bird back into its skin as a main table presentation. Therefore, on the table what would appear to be a stuffed and feathered peacock had in fact been thoroughly cooked.
As the peacocks at Sudeley are tame with names and are favourites of my grandchildren and our visitors, I dont think it would be a popular move to put them in the oven. Nor do I fancy the boars head which was another popular dinner table decoration, presented to diners garlanded in bay and rosemary.
Minst pyes were enjoyed during the 12 days of Tudor Christmas but unlike our mince pies theirs held religious significance and included 13 ingredients representing Christ and his apostles typically dried fruits, spices and mutton.
With all this feasting Christmas was also a time of rest and leisure. In the countryside work on the farms apart from caring for the animals ceased until Plough Monday, the Monday after Twelfth Night and in the homes spinning wheels were stilled and ceremonial flowers were placed on the wheel to prevent their use. Meanwhile Henry VIII introduced the Unlawful Games Act which banned all sports on Christmas Day except archery. Archery was made the exception as it was seen as essential to maintaining the countrys military strength. Later this was joined by leaping and vaulting which kept young men fit and strong.
We have an old archery set at Sudeley with a rather dilapidated target and a few mangy looking bows and arrows. However, I actually think I tried to raise an interest in these a few Christmases back with only modest success.
Altogether Tudor England was still manyyears away from Christmas cards, Christmas trees, Christmas turkey, Christmas crackers, Father Christmas in his red robe, Christmas stockings and piles of presents under the tree, the Queens Speech, the telly
I think I will give up the Tudor challenge. After all Christmas is for children and my grandchildren seem to look forward to a very close version of the above with No Changes!
Sudeley Castle reopens for the 2012 season on the April 1. Check the website for full details of the Queen Katherine Parr Quincentenary Festival which takes place throughout the 2012 season and includes Tudor Family Fun Days, literary and historical talks and events, visit www.sudeleycastle.co.ukor call 01242 602308.