The Tudors were well known for their feasting. But during the time of Lent, it was a different matter entirely. Gone were the feasts and in their place was reflection.
Traditionally in Tudor times, Lent consisted of a forty day period of fasting, starting with Ash Wednesday and ending with Easter. It consisted of abstaining from eating meat, anything that came from an animal such as milk and eggs, or even some root vegetables (due to being seen as too much of the earth). Often, substitutes such as almond milk for dairy milk would be used instead. The forty day time period is thought to represent the length of time Jesus spent in the desert.
Lent would be started with Shrovetide (known better as Shrove Tuesday) and Ash Wednesday. Rather than simply be relegated to Tuesday as it is nowadays, Shrovetide was a two-day feasting event in which people would use up their staple larder ingredients, such as eggs, milk, flour and sugar for food, usually pancakes. On Ash Wednesday, people would visit Church and churchgoers would have a cross drawn in ash and oil on their forehead (hence the name).
It was common for people to offer high-class fish such as trout to their guests. Fish was one of the few meats that people could eat during Lent, and in fact there were other religious fish days throughout the year (also known as “lean” days). There was also a class divide with regard to the fish eaten, with the higher classes eating trout and the lower classes eating cheaper fish such as salted fish and stockfish. For instance, Carew Manor in Carshalton was able to show off the wealth of its then owner with its trout pond. Religious fish days were cancelled with Edward VI ascended to the throne, since they were associated highly with the Roman Catholic Church, but would be brought back in 1548.
Fasting was taken particularly seriously, especially once Henry VIII passed away. In fact, there were spies that would relay information, resulting in people caught breaking fasting rules receiving fines or even imprisonment. Not everyone had to take part in this tradition though. Pregnant women, soldiers of the garrison, children and elderly people were not expected to fast due to health concerns.
On Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, Henry VIII would have “received discipline” early in the day to remind himself of Jesus’ suffering, mainly via a light wafting over his clothes with a device. He would then head over to Whitehall Chapel, where he would kneel on a cushion “on the right syde of the chappell” and, once the Gospel was read, would prepare to wash the feet of the poor and distribute alms and food to them.
The Good Friday church service, which took place near the end of Lent, would be a sombre affair, just like nowadays – after all, Good Friday is a memorial day for the death of Christ. In Elizabethan England in particular, an Easter sepulchre was created to represent the tomb of Christ. Niches in church walls, whether they be wooden or stone, would be filled with an image of Jesus, as well as bread to represent his body, and then sealed. For the finishing touch, lit candles would be placed outside.
Another Good Friday tradition in Henry’s time was “creeping to the cross”, in which the king would shuffle on his hands and knees towards a cross at the altar in the chapel. Once he finally reached it, he would then lean forward and kiss the cross held by a priest. It seems that Henry wasn’t too fond of this tradition himself, as he banned it in 1546. He would also bless “cramp rings” – a ritual that involved him kneeling and praying above platefuls of rings, which would then be distributed to sick men and women surrounding the court.
To cap it all off, Tudors would celebrate with Easter, the celebration of Jesus’ return to Earth…but not always. During the Tudor period, there were many Easter traditions that were suppressed, such as Palm Sunday, crawling to the cross on Good Friday or even, during Elizabeth I’s reign, hot cross buns! The only tradition that was properly celebrated was the exchange of eggs – since eggs weren’t supposed to be consumed during Lent, receiving one on Easter Sunday was a special treat. In fact, Henry VIII once received a special egg from the Pope in a silver case (before their falling out, that is). However, during Edward VI’s reign and when the Protestant Church came to power, Easter eggs were abolished due to being seen as a symbol of the previous Catholic Church’s excesses.
This Easter, Whitehall is putting on a variety of activities. Come along to play some Tudor games or take part on our special Spring trail over the holidays. Look at our Eventbrite page for more details.
Imogen Easton, Whitehall Historic House Volunteer
- Gilbert, Lauren. “Lenten Fare in English History.” English Historical Fiction Authors, 27 Mar. 2015, https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2015/03/lenten-fare-in-english-history.html
- “Tudor Easter traditions.” Hampshire Cultural Trust, 3 Apr. 2021, https://www.cultureoncall.com/tudor-easter-traditions/
- “Henry VIII’s Easter at Whitehall, 1539.” Love British History, 6 Apr. 2020, https://www.lovebritishhistory.co.uk/2020/04/henry-viiis-easter-at-whitehall-1539.html
- “The celebration of Lent and Easter in Elizabethan England.” Back In The Day Of…, 5 Apr. 2020, https://backinthedayof.co.uk/the-celebration-of-lent-and-easter-in-elizabethan-England