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In many ways, a Tudor Christmas was different from our own. Goose was the meat that was eaten at Christmas rather than (in Britain at least) turkey as it is nowadays. A nobleman was always taught how to carve the goose and to serve at table. And, in Britain, celebrations really only last over Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, but a Tudor Christmas was celebrated over 12 days.

King Henry VIII loved his lavish feasts. Peacock was cooked in the great kitchens at Hampton Court Palace before the meat was stuffed back into its feathers and displayed on the table in the dining room with its tail feathers spread out extravagantly. Tudor kitchens had two extremes of temperature - at Hampton Court Palace it would have been swelteringly hot near the great oven with meat roasting on a spit, but away from the oven it was so cold that snowflakes often fell.

In Tudor England, gifts were given on New Year's Day rather than Christmas Day, and you had to be careful to give Henry VIII something he liked - it had to be fit for a king. A golden chalice would have sufficed. You may have regretted it if you gave Henry something he didn't like - who gave the king what was carefully noted down. In 1539, Henry's 30th year of rule, it took a roll of paper 8.5ft long, closely written on both sides, to record the gifts he gave and received.

Henry VIII's worst Christmas was probably that of 1539/1540, when he married the German Anne of Cleves on Twelve Night, despite the fact that neither of them found each other remotely attractive!


Stuffed peacock, fake snow and lashings of dancing girls... Henry VIII had a VERY merry Christmas indeed!


By Hilary Mantel, author of the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, a novel about Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the court of Henry VIII
18th December 2009
Daily Mail

Five hundred years ago this Christmas, there was a new king on the throne of England. He was 18 years old, as handsome as a prince in a fairytale, sporty and over 6ft.

He spoke elegant French and Italian - and Latin, of course, like all educated people - wrote his own songs and sang them himself.

He was credited with a sweet nature and was in love with his wife. So, what would you give the young Henry VIII for Christmas? What was there left for him to want?


Toasting the revels: The court of Henry VIII, as depicted by the Italian artist Fortunino Matania

His ideal present would have been a baby boy. Henry was only the second Tudor king, so to make him feel secure he needed a son to succeed him.

The first Christmas of his reign, his wife Katharine of Aragon miscarried a baby girl, but by his second she was pregnant again - and this time, with a boy.

The future Henry IX was born early on New Year's Day. In London, bonfires were lit, bells pealed, wine flowed and the cannon at the Tower thundered out a welcome to the future king.

In the royal nurseries, there was a crimson draped cradle and the wet nurses were standing by.

But just weeks later, the little Prince died. Henry's best Christmas had turned to disaster.

But while he wrestled with his anguish, how were his subjects celebrating the year's greatest festival?

The pacing of a Tudor Christmas was very different to our own.

Celebrations lasted for 12 days but, king or commoner, you'd start the day hungry.


Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth I, was beheaded in 1536

When Henry wanted to divorce Katharine and marry Anne Boleyn, he broke away from Rome and set up his own Church, but he still kept the Roman Catholic rituals.

The weeks before Christmas were a time of fasting and on Christmas Eve you ate fish, not meat.

Luckily for carnivores, the Tudor definition of fish was elastic: you could eat a gull, because it tasted of its fishy diet.

We have a lot of mistaken ideas about how the Tudors ate. They didn't gnaw chicken greedily and throw bones on the floor, and there were no dogs fighting over scraps under trestle tables.

In a well-conducted house, the dogs - except for little spaniels - were exiled to kennels. Table manners were strict and refined.


Tricky to buy for: What Christmas present do you get for the king who has everything?

Knowing how to cut your bread and what to do with your napkin was an infallible social signal that separated a gentleman from an oik, and every young noble learned to serve at table and to carve.

We're sometimes told that the whole Tudor nation was vitamin deficient and never ate vegetables. But the fact is that because people grew their own, vegetables didn't figure in household accounts.

They were eaten, in season, with enthusiasm - Henry loved artichokes - and intricate layered salads were popular in richer households.

There would be no salads in the depth of winter, though, and potatoes had not yet come to England, but for the Christmas table there would be root vegetables, perhaps roasted with honey in the comforting way we enjoy them today.

Turkey was introduced to England in the 1520s, but it was not a Christmas food - it was regarded as nutritious for invalids.

Goose was the popular Christmas meat, and the gilded, decorated head and forequarters of a boar were a fine display of a kitchen's skill.

Joints of meat were often cooked in thick pastry cases to keep them moist, and the pastry was then discarded. To get a rich golden sheen on your meat, you could paint it with saffron and melted butter.

The most spectacular centrepiece at a rich man's table was a young peacock, cooked and then re-inserted into its skin and feathers, the glowing tail spread and its neck stretched upright on a wire frame.

The Tudors liked food that looked like fun and this was certainly something they liked to exploit at Christmas time.

You wanted to give your guests a surprise, so only part of what came to table had to be edible.

There are no eye-witnesses to 'four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie', but a cold pie crust popped at the last minute over live birds would be the kind of joke that Tudor diners liked.

You might very well leave the table tipsy. Drinks were potent and sweet, and included mead, mulled wine and 'lamb's wool' - hot, sweetened and spiced ale, served with apples bobbing in a bowl.

If you were wealthy, your cakes would be decorated with marzipan, and after dinner there would be nuts, thin and delicate wafers, and sweets made with aniseed and ginger to help digestion.

Behind the scenes, there was a fully staffed kitchen working at full stretch.

When we talk about roasting meat, we are actually baking it in an oven. Then, meat was spit-roasted.

In a great Tudor kitchen there were two distinct climates: searing heat near the vast hearth and freezing cold elsewhere. At Hampton Court, snowflakes were sometimes seen floating in the air.

Tudor kitchen equipment looks like weaponry, the fiercely spiked spits as long as pikes.

Brute strength was needed, so kitchen duties were men's work, though Henry VIII employed a woman who was a maker of 'subtleties'.

These were coloured, gilded figures made of sugar paste: emperors and saints, wild beasts, ships at sea, cathedrals.

This was conspicuous consumption - sugar was expensive. The subtleties were made more for the wonder of looking at them than the pleasure of eating them.

Where would you begin eating a model of St Paul's - that would be old St Paul's, of course, which had a steeple?


The old St Paul's Cathedral was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666

Like us, the Tudor family at Christmas enjoyed bringing the outside inside.

There were fewer types of conifer then, so the winter landscape was bleak and holly was one of the few evergreens you could find.

Since pagan times, holly has been seen as a magical tree, and just a sprig of it indoors was meant to keep evil spirits away.


Unhappy New Year: Henry VIII regretted marrying Anne of Cleves

Those were cold years, when the Thames sometimes froze, but families must have been as sentimental about snow as we are, because they simulated it by dusting holly branches with flour.

Would a 16th-century Christmas smell sweet? If we could time-travel, we would recognise the resin, clove and baked fruit scents of winter.

We think of the Tudors as a grimy lot, but Henry was a fastidious man who had bathrooms in his palaces.

An odiferous courtier wouldn't have found favour. But running water was a luxury, heating a house was labour intensive and it's a sobering thought that, at Christmas or through the year, even a king or queen didn't have the physical comforts (heat, water and light) that the poorest household today takes for granted.

If you were rich, you might use beeswax candles rather than smelly tallow (a rendered form of beef or mutton fat), but as the days shortened you still spent a lot of time in the dark.

It was that long winter darkness Christmas was designed to dispel, so it became a time of joy and games - when monarch, courtiers and laymen alike could throw off constraint and even change identities.

A court Christmas would include elaborate 'disguisings', when courtiers dressed up as King Arthur's knights or masked 'strangers' in exotic costume.

These spectacles were planned well in advance and were expensive to mount, with elaborate scenery, but any substantial household, in town or country, might have a visit from a travelling troupe of jugglers, dancers or acrobats.


Hampton Court Palace in Richmond upon Thames in south west London, was built in 1514 for Cardinal Wolsey, a favourite of King Henry VIII. In 1529, Wolsey fell out of favour with Henry, and Henry took possession of the palace. It was lived in by the Royal Family until the 18th Century.

Ordinary life, for those who worked for a living, couldn't be suspended for the 12 days. If there were cows to be milked or sheep to be watched, the routine would have to carry on, as it does for farmers today.

But in a Christmas life merchant's house, the pressure of business would relax.

There was no escaping church-going, but parishes put on plays. If we could see the birth of Jesus re-enacted by school-age Londoners in Tudor times - tiny angels with their yellow knitted wigs slipping over their eyes, woolly-backed sheep blundering into each other - we'd recognise the origins of the primary school nativity play.


King of passion: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays Henry and Natalie Dormer his doomed wife Anne Boleyn in The Tudors

In those days, religion wasn't just about the Christmas message of harmony, it was about the prospect of burning in hell; little devils with sooty faces would dart around the crib - an unlikely feature of today's nativity plays.

The greatest difference between a Tudor and modern Christmas is the exchange of gifts.

In Tudor times, no gifts were given until New Year's Day. And don't think the Tudor equivalent of a pair of socks would have sufficed for His Majesty.

For Henry, it was size that mattered - and the bigger the better. On January 1, a procession of noblemen handed gifts to the king - and a sharp-eyed senior courtier would note down who gave what.

You couldn't go wrong with a big, heavy gold chalice - with luck, the king would give you something of equivalent value.

One gift he rejected came from Katharine of Aragon in 1532; he had recently separated from her, pending divorce.


Anne Boleyn about to be beheaded, 1536

She sent him a gold cup, but he returned it and told her never to contact him again.

By 1539, Henry's 30th year of rule, it took a roll of paper 8.5ft long, closely written on both sides, to record the gifts he gave and received.

Henry's worst Christmas may have been 1539/1540. By then, he'd executed his second wife Anne Boleyn, had a son with Jane Seymour (the future Edward VI) and, after the death of Jane Seymour, was a widower wanting a fourth wife.


Jane Seymour was the third wife of Henry VIII and she was the mother of....


....the future King Edward VI, the son and heir Henry desperately wanted

On New Year's Day, he went to Rochester to meet his future bride, Anne of Cleves, who had just arrived in England.

To suit the festive season, he went in disguise. Anne - who had never seen her future husband in her life - was watching bull-baiting (one of the blood sports of which the Tudors were fond) from a window.

No doubt she'd been told the King of England was handsome. When an obese man in a silly outfit burst in and tried to kiss her, she pulled away from him and went on watching the bull-baiting.

The king's face darkened. Christmas was well and truly over, as far as he was concerned.

Henry had taken against Anne, but to send her back would have caused an international scandal.

Grumbling and protesting, he married her on Twelfth Night, but the following morning the bride was still a virgin. No one else saw much wrong with her looks, and his courtiers must have wondered, in the matter-of fact way of the time, why Henry didn't just have sex with her and be done with it.

For most Tudors, love wasn't a necessity in a marriage. Henry was different: he was a romantic. He wanted to love his wife - however temporarily - and he couldn't see anything in Anne to even like.

In summer 1540, he jettisoned her, giving her a huge divorce settlement.


Historic venue: The Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace where many Tudor celebrations took place

By the following Christmas, he was doting on a teenage bride, Catherine Howard, a little toy wife whom he heaped with sables and diamonds, and looped with a rope of 200 pearls.

His former wife joined in the celebrations, presenting Henry with a pair of fine horses with purple velvet trappings.

Long after Henry had limped off to bed, the new queen and the former queen stayed up dancing.

One fault Henry had found with Anne was that she was unmusical, in a time and place where music was central to celebrations.

Whether you were the king or a shepherd boy, it was a great gift to be able to sing or play an instrument.

Carols were sung in houses and in the street, rather than church. They were not necessarily religious and went along with reckless drinking and dancing.

Then, as now, there was a lawless, unchristian element to the end-of-year celebrations.

For the Tudors, as for us, Christmas wasn't Christmas without excess. A medieval legend tells how on Christmas night, 12 dancers joined hands and began profane, bawdy carolling round a church and churchyard.

The priest called out to stop, but they went on dancing. So he put a curse on them, condemning them to dance for the next 12 months.

Theirs was - gruesome thought - a Christmas that never stopped.

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Last edited by Blackleaf; Dec 20th, 2009 at 12:05 PM..