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Monday, 20 December 2010

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Hampton Court: The Kitchens Part One


Like the Queen’s House at Greenwich, Hampton Court palace used to be filled with grace and favour apartments doled out to the great and the good (and the not so good when it came to royal mistresses) by the reigning monarch.

The celebrated Regency dandy, Beau Brummell, spent his childhood at Hampton Court in grace and favour lodgings within Fountain Court. In recent years the grace and favour apartments have reverted back to the palace upon their occupant’s death as will all in the fullness of time. I was told by a warder that only 4 such apartments now remain tenanted by residents, who have the added benefit of being able to live in such august surroundings rent free. Their loss is our gain. It means more and more of Hampton Court can be opened up to the general public. One of the chief beneficiaries has been the Tudor kitchens.

In the 18th century, the kitchens had been divided up both vertically and horizontally (the latter by the addition of a new floor level) to increase the number of grace and favour apartments available. Fortunately, it was possible in the latter half of the 20th century to remove the 18th century renovations and begin the process of restoring the kitchens into how they might have looked in Henry VIII’s time, when legend has it he once popped downstairs for a game of cards with the cooks. Legend does not relate whether or not the king won, but the pragmatic would have reasoned better to lose at a hand of cards than lose your head in every sense of the word.

Some reminders of the kitchens 18th century past have been retained in the Tudor kitchens. Thus an iron range has been incorporated into a Tudor fireplace. Nearby is the cavernous brick oven used for roasting meats on spits, indicating how the other oven would have looked without the 18th century additions.In this same part of the kitchens can be seen the remnants of the joists used to allow another to be built in the 18th century between the Tudor ceiling and original floor.
Tudor kitchen staff were predominantly male although Henry did have one woman on his payroll that made “subtleties.” These exotic edible creations, fashioned out of marzipan and often gilded with gold and silver leaf, would form dramatic centrepieces for the table. They were sculptured into a variety of forms including animals and ships. I saw an example of a part-gilded galleon made out of marzipan in the kitchens when I visited the palace a few weeks ago.


In the flesh larder the meat was prepared so it could be used in the kitchens. An actual whole deer and a brace of equally lifeless birds ready to be butchered used to be on display. Perhaps to appease the more squeamish, it has been altered to show animal joints and part of a wild boar’s carcass hanging from the wall instead. Given the (stage) blood stains on the wall, the floors looked suspiciously clean. I wonder if the butchers would have placed straw on the floor to mop up the blood just as contemporary executioners resorted to at beheadings.

Another room had a display of various graters and other kitchen utensils along with a table full of pies. Whether they had been cooked or were standing ready to be baked I cannot say as they, like most of the foodstuffs were, of necessity, made of plastic.

Off from the room containing the pies and the graters was a huge vat, which was being used to boil what looked to be cubes of meat to form a broth. The vat would be heated from fires lit below. By the vat and hanging from the wall were traditional wooden candle boxes. The Partridge gave me a similar box one birthday and it is now takes pride of place on the walls of the Grand Salon at Brimstone Butterfly Towers.

Unless they were close to rivers or the sea the average Tudor would only have eaten salted fish. By contrast, I imagine the barrels of plaice in the wet larder at Hampton Court would have been fresh rather than salted. In Catholic England, when eating flesh was banned by the Church on Fridays, the masses were obliged to consume fish instead. As is often the case, those of a religious bent proved to be quite ingenious when it came to interpreting the rules as they applied to themselves. Thus, in the medieval period it was decided that beaver was a fish and therefore could be eaten with a clear conscience on Fridays.

In a side room flagons of ale, baked fish and pies were set out on pewter plates waiting to be sent up the stairs to the Great Hall, which served as a glorified staff canteen for most of the time. Another chamber had three dressed peacocks on platters ready waiting to be carried to a feast.


Rows of highly polished pewter plates, cups are flagons are piled high in another room alongside table linen. In Tudor times napkins were draped over the shoulder as opposed to in their laps, allowing the diners to wipe their cutlery as well as their fingers on them as necessary.

A chair set in front of a table covered with parchment and coins suggests that whoever occupied this office in Tudor times would have been kept some form of accounts and a supply of money to pay either suppliers or staff.

Intriguing though the displays are what set the Tudor kitchens apart are the regular demonstrations given by an enthusiastic group of food historians, who recreate Tudor meals. I shall return to this subject anon.

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