Guest Author Gillian Bagwell on Tudor Banquets and Sugar as Art

I'm pleased to welcome author Gillian Bagwell back to Scandalous Women. I've had the pleasure of meeting Gillian and getting to know her at the Historical Novel Society conferences over the past three years.  Not only is she a fabulous writer but she is also one of the funniest women that I have ever met.  And a talented actress to boot! Her new book VENUS IN WINTER is about one of the most fascinating women of the Elizabethan era, Bess of Hardwick which was just published last week.  I urge everyone to go out and buy a copy to learn more about this fascinating woman.

Sugar was introduced to England in the middle ages, and was originally used medicinally, to treat coughs and colds. It was also believed to help digestion and began to be served at the end of grand feasts, frequently in the form of candied aniseeds.

Brandenburg Gate in Sugar
By the Tudor era, sugar was cheaper than it had been, but still expensive. In 1547, a pound of sugar cost ninepence, about one and a half times the daily pay of a skilled laborer such as a shipwright. As sugar was thus a status symbol, creating confectionary  became a skill that even wealthy ladies were proud to have. Since sumptuary laws decreed how much people were permitted to spend on food, providing a bounty of expensive sugary delicacies was a way to show off wealth.

Banqueting House, Studley Royal Park

By the mid-sixteenth century, elaborate meals were being concluded with "banquets," a whole course of sweets and spiced wine that might only be served to the important guests at the top table. Spices were also expensive, and were also considered to have medicinal purposes and aid digestion.
Since meals in noble households were usually served on trestle tables that were broken down afterward, banquets were frequently served in a different place than the main meal, and it became fashionable to have elaborate "banqueting houses" for this purpose, sometimes on the roof or a little distance from the house near a river or pond, where the guests could enjoy the view and fresh air.

Gibside Banqueting House
This dessert course might include candied fruit, jellies, thick marmalade, comfits  (sugar-covered seeds, spices, or fruits) , sweet wafers and biscuits, and gingerbread and other cakes. Sugar paste and marzipan were also colored and formed into elaborate and fanciful items, such as eggs that broke open to reveal yellow yolks, strips of bacon, or fruit and nuts. Wood, pewter, or stone molds could be homemade, or purchased ready-made. 

Sugar or marzipan might also be used to create "subtleties," or decorations for the tables. These could be buildings, images of saints, or statues of the guests of honor. A recipe book of the time gives instructions for molding sugar paste into "Rabbets, Pigeons, or any other little birde or beaste." Cardinal Wolsey's 1527 feast in honor of the French ambassadors featured sugar castles, St. Paul's Cathedral, animals, birds, a chessboard with chess pieces, and little human figures fighting with swords and crossbows, dancing, and jousting.  This kind of sugarwork required a lot of skill and careful handling.

Sugar paste could be colored with flowers, spices, or other vegetable matter. Saffron produced a yellow color, cinnamon and ginger various shades of brown, young wheat or barley blades made green, and carrots could produce blood red.

Sometimes the banquet was served on glass-like plates, cups, and other dishes molded from sugar  paste, "wherewith you may furnish a table [and] when you have done, eate them up. A pleasante thing for them that sit at the table." These dishes might be elaborately painted with flowers, scenes, or "grotesques," the fanciful representations of human figures or faces or animals intertwined with foliage and flowers that was very popular in Tudor England.  Sometimes guests were encouraged to take the edible tableware home.

The Tudors considered some of the sugary luxuries that were commonly servced at banquets to have aphrodisiac properties, and perhaps they did, especially in combination with the vast amounts of wine consumed. Some of the sweetmeats were provocatively named. "Kissing comfits" were popular, and breast-shaped "Spanish paps" made of sweetened cream might titillate the guests at a sumptous banquet. Even the Cardinal d'Este decorated his table with sugar representations of Cupid, Venus, and Bacchus.

It was probably inevitable that all this excess sometimes led to disaster. At a 1606  feast at Hatfield House, the Danish King Christian IV rose to dance in a masque but fell down and was carried to bed, "which was not a little defiled" by the "wine, cream, jelly, cakes, spices, and other good matters" on his clothes. The pageant went on, but other performers had also eaten and drunk too much, and the performance faltered to an end while the ladies playing Hope and Faith "were both sick in the lower hall."

Gillian Bagwell's novel about Bess of Hardwick, VENUS IN WINTER, was released on July 2. To find links to Gillian's other posts related to the book, please follow her on Twitter @gillianbagwell, on Facebook,, or visit her website,


Gillian Bagwell said…
Thanks for hosting me, Elizabeth!
Anita Davison said…
Fascinating post, Gillian. Love the Brandenburg gate subtlety-and again I just love the cover of your latest novel-sumptuous!
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