When you sit down to your Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners you may not realise it but you are about to enjoy dishes once presented and eaten at the court of Henry VIII and his queen, Katharine of Aragon.
In America, according to popular belief, the Thanksgiving Dinner celebrates the survival of the first year the Pilgrim Fathers and their families spent in their New World, but these brave souls were Puritan not Catholics, and definitely English.
Allegedly, the first thanksgiving meal took place at New Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 when a celebratory feast consisting of ninety or so members of the local Wampanoag tribe sat down with the surviving fifty or so passengers who had sailed from the Old World port of Plymouth on the Mayflower.[i]
The date is disputed by those living in Berkley Hundred, Virginia who claim their date of 1619 marks the first Thanksgiving.
There are records of a much earlier celebration when a group of Spanish explorers joined with the Seloy tribe of Florida in 1565 in a meal of salted port and garbanzo beans and gave thanks to God by celebrating Mass. However, these dates are all much later than the reign of Henry VIII (regnal dates 1509 – 1547), who is said to have enjoyed both roast turkey and sweet potato pie.
When Columbus sailed the ocean blue way back in 1492, little did he know that he was going to stumble on a massive new continent that had new flora and fauna that would revolutionise royal eating habits.
But why did Columbus even set sail and travel west, not knowing whether or not he might get to the edge of the world and fall off into a void? First of all let’s allay the idea about falling off the edge of the world.
The ancient Greeks knew that the world was not flat, but in the 15th century it was a popular belief and sailors are very superstitious. Columbus was attempting to find a new sea route to the land of Cathay and the Spice Islands and was convinced this lay to the west across the Atlantic.
The Portuguese were also intent on finding a route to these fabled lands and from 1450 up until 1498 there were various expeditions that sailed south in search of a route around Africa.
Remember these captains did not have the benefit of even the most basic of navigation aids, the sextant. It would not be until 1731 that John Hadley invented something called the octant that was a forerunner of the sextant. Both instruments were, and are used to define latitude, and not until 1761 when John Harrington invented the chronometer were navigators able to determine longitude. The courage of the first Spanish and Portuguese explorers can only be equated to that of the astronauts who took part in the post WW2 Space Race to the moon.
What was it that lured these plucky sailors into the unknown risking life and limb apart from the excitement of exploring the unknown? Simple – the promise of riches beyond anyone’s possible dreams.
Ever since Egyptians times there had been trade with the Far East via the land and maritime silk routes. Pepper from India has been found stuffed up the noses of various Egyptian mummies dating from the New Kingdom (c 1200 BC), demonstrating that pepper was part of the mummification process.
The Romans traded with India and their ships came up through the Red Sea bringing in pepper, spices and other luxury goods from the ports along the Malabar coast. We know this from the writings of the Greek historian, Strabo (64/63 BC – 24AD), the Greek physician, botanist and pharmacist Dioscorides (30 – 90 AD), the Roman historian Livy (59 BC -17AD) and author Pliny the Elder (23/24 – 79AD) and many others.
India produced a form of cinnamon, but the real money was in the trade of cloves that only grew on a few islands in the Maluku Sea and the most rare spice of all, nutmeg that only grew on one of a tiny group of ten islands known as the Banda Islands.
Arab merchants first traded with the merchant middle men on the west coast of the Indian sub-continent. Marine archaeological evidence shows they finally reached the Spice Islands and beyond in the 9th century.[ii] They did not come as conquerors, but as traders. However, if you were a local merchant and converted to Islam you might find you got better terms than if you did not convert, which is how Islam spread slowly (and peacefully) east. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch came in their ships in search of spices and with a missionary zeal that left a bloody trail in their wake.
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Seljik Turkish leader, Mehmet II (1432 – 1481) may have heralded the fall of the final bastion of the Roman empire, but it also meant the slow demise of the domination of the Italian republics of Venice and Genoa as the purveyors of luxury goods from the Far East. The Islamic Turks now held all the ports that brought in these items from both the land and maritime Silk Routes. Fed up with the high prices for spices, silk, porcelain and exotic curiosities demanded by the Venetian and Genoese merchants, the Portuguese took to the sea in order to find a route around Africa. This route had first been mooted by the Greek historian Herodotus (484 – 425 BC), but many thought the idea to be fallacious.
Henry the Navigator (1394 – 1460) sponsored the Venetian captain Alvise Cadamosta (died c1483) to explore the west coast of Africa and in 1456, just three years after the fall of Constantinople, Cadamosta discovered the uninhabited Cape Verde archipelago. After Prince Henry’s death in 1460, it was not until March 1488 on the voyage of Bartolomeo Dias (1450 – 1500) that the Boesmans River in what is now known as Eastern Cape province of South Africa was reached, thus proving that Africa could be circumnavigated as stated by Herodotus.
And what about Columbus? He first approached King John II of Portugal (1455 – 1495), but the Portuguese king was not impressed by the Genoese captain’s arrogant attitude, so Columbus took his maps and set off for the Spanish court of Queen Isabella of Castile (1451 – 1504) and her husband, King Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452 – 1516). 1492 was a seminal year in the history of Spain as in the January the Moors were finally expelled from their last stronghold on the Iberian peninsula. In April the Spanish monarchs reached an agreement with Columbus and agreed to sponsor his voyage to discover a westerly route to Asia and what he could expect by way of financial reward. History tells that the contract was not honoured and the resulting law case by the Columbus family against the Spanish crown was not settled until the end of the 18th century.
In 1492 Columbus crossed the Atlantic and found a Caribbean paradise. He would make four voyages opening up a whole New World for exploration and colonisation.
On his return his incredible tales of the people and the islands inspired many others to go in search of these new lands.
The Venetian Giovanni Cabotto (c1450 – 1500), better known to English speakers as John Cabot, was sponsored by Henry VII and found Newfoundland c1497. His son, Sebastian (c1471 – 1557) served both the English and the Spanish crowns, leading English expeditions in 1504 and 1508 searching for the North West passage as a more direct route to Cathay .
Following Columbus’s discovery it was the Pope Alexander VI who decided who had dominion over these new lands and this was to be solely between the two then super powers of Spain and Portugal as set out in the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494
and the Treaty of Zaragoza of 1528.[iii] In short, under the 1494 treaty all lands along a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde archipelago would belong to Spain and all lands east of this, which took in a large lump of the bulge of south America and the whole of the west coast of Africa, would belong to Portugal. You will note that the nations making up the rest of Europe are left out of this Treaty completely.
The Portuguese explorer and aristocrat, Vasco da Gama, reached Calicut on the west coast of India in 1498, where he found the trading ports of this area just as described by Marco Polo in his Travels written at the end of the 13thcentury.
After the Portuguese explorer Magellan (1480 – 1521) had organised a Spanish fleet to explore the south Atlantic in 1519 and successfully circumnavigated the globe in 1522, another treaty was required. The Treaty of Zaragoza was signed in 1529, setting a meridian that divided the lands in the Pacific between the two maritime nations. These two nations dominated world exploration for the next century, but were to be challenged by the rising naval powers of England and Holland, but that’s another story.
To return to the traditional American Thanksgiving and British Christmas dinners you will find that two main items originated in Mexico or Central America.
The turkey had been domesticated by the ancient people of central America and over the centuries spread from Mexico right the way up to Maine.
This species of turkey is the meleagris gallopavo and the one probably encountered by the English Founding Fathers.
Gonzalez Fernándo de Oviedo Valdés (1478 – 1557) was an official serving in the early colonization of central America. We know that in 1513 Valdés was in Panama and during his time he observed the people, flora and fauna of the country. His Sumaria Historia General y Natural de las Indias describing the flora and fauna of the isthmus and surrounding lands was published in 1526, but his later more expanded version was not published until the 19th century. His Sumaria was translated into English, Italian and Latin.
In the 1532 book Valdés describes the Spanish turkey this being the ocellated turkey (meleagris ocellatus). The male is a spectacular bird with similar markings on its tail feathers to that of a male peacock. It is native to the Yucatan peninsula and what we now know as Guatemala. If you compare this turkey to the one found as far north as Maine you can see they are completely different from each other.
Considering that Valdés spent some years in Central America one can safely assume that he was capable of making a visual comparison and describing a bird that was as showy as a peacock, and was aware of the domesticated species enabling him make a comparison of the occelated turkey to a peacock. Just like the seeds of the butternut squash, the sweet potato and other new edible vegetables found in the New World, this Mexican domesticated bird was imported to Spain. It is also possible that one of Valdés ‘Spanish turkeys’, with its magnificent peacock like plumage, was sent as a gift to Henry VIII’s wife, Katharine of Aragon (1485 – 1536) by a member of the Spanish court.
When John Cabot’s son, Sebastian, returned to England in 1509 from his search for the North West Passage , he may have brought live specimens of the north American wild turkey (meleagris gallopavo) only to find his sponsor Henry VII, had died. Unfortunately the new king, Henry VIII, was not as keen as his father on exploration and after some time as the young king’s cartographer Cabot returned to Spain in 1521 where he became a member of the Council of the Indies.
Did Cabot presented the bird to the new king as a gift as an example of what might be found in the lands claimed for England? It is possible. Thanks to Charles Laughton’s portrayal of the king in the wildly inaccurate 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII, this monarch is rooted in our memories as a man of monstrous appetites who rips legs from roasted fowl and throws the bones over his shoulders (https://youtu.be/v4tOb9J7W2k). It is more likely the roasted bird was presented to the royal couple dressed with all its glorious feathers just as roasted peacocks were presented at banquets.
By the 17th century cooked turkeys were being immortalised in paint as in this 1627 image by the Dutch artist, Pieter Claesz (1597 – 1660) ‘Still life with Turkey Pie’
Note the Chinese bowl, and the expensive pepper and salt just beneath it. The rare nautilus shell has been set in gold. This is a complex painting that is not just a display of wealth and status, but also a statement of Dutch trade. There are deeper philosophical messages, but these are not for now.
Edward VI granted William Strickland the right to use a turkey as part of his coat of arms so there has to be a reason for Strickland being given the right to have a turkey as one of the family emblems on his coat of arms.
William Strickland (1530 – 1598) was the son of Roger Strickland of Marske (1510 – 1584). From these dates, it seems that William and his father were long lived, Roger living to the age of 74 and William to the age of 68. When it comes to turkeys, there is evidence these birds were being bred in England during Elizabethan times, but it is odd to credit Strickland with the introduction of the turkey to England when it is known that a turkey was eaten by Henry VIII. Strickland was only seventeen when Henry VIII died, and had yet to fulfil his potential as a navigator. Cabot is a more likely candidate for the introduction of the bird to his royal sponsor, but perhaps it was Strickland who was the first to breed them, thus making them a luxury item for the tables of the rich. Having served his constituency of Scarborough as an MP in 1559, 1563, 1571 and 1584 Strickland retired to his estates. What is apparent is more research is required into why Strickland was permitted the use of the bird in the Strickland coat of arms.
This is very much an American dish and not one that features on a traditional English Christmas menu. We Brits are addicted to white potatoes (another import from the New World allegedly, by Sir Walter Raleigh), preferably roasted in goose fat to make them crispy.
The first Spanish explorers returning to Spain brought seeds with them that would transform European culinary tastes. For example there is the humble butternut squash, a member of the bindweed family and is featured in les Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, which is another native to Central America. This link will allow you to explore the whole book of hours https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52500984v/f11.item. The Duchess of Brittany (1477 – 1514) was married to King Louis XII of France. How, or why, the butternut squash is featured in this book of hours is unknown, but it is the first visual example of a plant from the New World in an illuminated manuscript.[iv]
The sweet potato – a member of the bindweed family, is a tender root hailing from central and south America. It is thought to have been grown as a food crop for at least five thousand years and to have found its way to Europe with Columbus. In the 1520s the exchange of items from new Spanish lands included the sweet potato. While we believe that Henry gobbled up a very delicious spiced pie of sweet potato and quince, was it because he was being greedy? How it came to be found as one of the ingredients of Henry VIII’s favourite sweet pies is not that difficult to comprehend, considering there was clearly an exchange of all sorts of exotic goods between Spain and England.
John Gerard (1545 – 1612) was a herbalist writing in the latter part of the 16th century. He noted that the vines of the sweet potato flourished in England until the onset of winter ‘at which time they perished and rotted.’ Clearly these plants were frost tender, unlike the white potatoes found in Virginia that, according to legend, were introduced into England by Sir Walter Raleigh later in the century.
Gerard’s Herbal is a mine of information and he goes on to describe various ways the sweet potato can be enjoyed. One way is to bury the tuber in the ashes and to roast it. He does warn that eating them might cause wind, but by roasting them “they do lose much of their windinesse, especially being eaten sopped [soaked] in wine.” Another way of serving is to ‘boile them with prunes’, or to dress the roasted tubers in ‘oile, vinegar and salt, every man according to his owne taste and liking”. It is evident Gerard thinks these are generally a delicious and versatile root because not only can it be eaten, but ‘howsoever they be dressed, they comfort, nourish and strengthen the bodie, procure bodily lust and that with greedinesse.”
How the tuber came to be described as an aphrodisiac has to be because of its shape! Today we forget that Tudor medical science was based on the writings of the Greek physician, Galen (129 – 200/16 AD) whose ideas were predicated on the four humours as proposed by that other Greek medical man, Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC). It was believed that what you ate would affect your health, therefore logically, you ate things that were purported to aid whatever it was that needed a bit of help. As the world opened up and new animals and flora were discovered, this provided a greater diversity for the everyday diet. For instance, the Spanish were introduced to tomatoes (originally known as love apples) and the various members of the capsicum family including the hot and fiery varieties of chilli. Examples of all of these plants were brought back to Spain and grown successfully. From Spain they spread around the Mediterranean.
Since Gerard documents how the sweet potato was thought to ‘procure bodily lust’ suggests that Henry may have found a culinary way to boost his libido. Was the effect of lustiness just because of the shape of the sweet potato? Perhaps the aphrodisiac qualities of this tuber were enhanced by the addition of other ingredients?
The earliest receipt (the old fashioned term for recipe) for this dish found is in a book by Thomas Dawson, published in 1586. Titled The Good Huswife’s Jewell, Dawson describes how this receipt will “make a tarte that is a courage to a man or woman’. You might think ‘courage’ an odd word to use bearing in mind the tarte’s alleged aphrodisiac qualities. Today, the word ‘passion’ might be thought to be a better description, but the word ‘passion’ in the late medieval and early modern period would more specifically be understood as referring to the sufferings of Christ. It is not until much later that ‘passion’ begins to be associated with sexual love, hence the use of the word ‘courage’, being associated with the heart. Henry’s used ‘Sir Coeur Loyale’ as his pseudonym when he jousted in the early days of his reign, being is an expression of Henry’s loyalty and love for his lady wife, Katharine of Aragon.
Dawson’s main ingredients are quince, burdock root and a potato. Burdock is a long thin edible root; edible quince is quite round and the sweet potato, which much shorter than the burdock root, has a greater girth. Dates are also added and Gerard is keen to tell us that these come from Africa, Egypt, Palestine and Syria and that ‘cunning confectioners and cooks can make nourishing medicines [from certain types of date] that procure lust of the bodie very mightily”. So far, yes, these ingredients do suggest this receipt was put together to ‘procure bodily lust’ and to give both men, and women ‘courage’ in the older concept of the meaning.
Apart from the fruits and spices, Dawson calls for the ‘braynes of three or four cocke sparrows’. These birds were sacred to the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite apparently because of the birds’ lustiness. As a man educated in all the classical tales no doubt Henry knew this, which was why he was keen to gobble up his sweet pie in order to take on the physical attributes of the lusty sparrow![v]
Then there are the expensive ingredients from the other side of the world. All of these come from that part of the world that Columbus and the Portuguese were so desperate to find.
Sugar, an incredibly expensive condiment made from sugar cane, the distribution of which was dominated by the Venetian and Genoese merchants. Sugar had originated in the Far East and taken centuries to come to Europe, but did so via the maritime trade routes dominated by the Arab traders. It was not until a very clever German called Andreas Sigismund Marggraf devised a way of extracting sucrose from beets in 1747 producing a product that was much cheaper than the sugar produced from cane.
Rosewater – hugely expensive and again emanating from the Arab world. The expensive spices of cinnamon, ginger, cloves and most expensive and rarer than of all three being mace, are required, and all comes via the Arab merchants.[vi] Unfortunately Dawson does not give us a clue as to how much of each item to add to the mixture. The cost of these ingredients would certainly make it a dish for special occasions, and certainly one that would be fit for a king.
The arrival of Vasco da Gama at the major trading ports on the Indian Malabar coast in May 1498 was to break the millennia long Arab monopoly of the spice and luxury goods trade. In the Mediterranean it brought about the demise of the distribution monopolies held by Venice and Genoa of the luxury goods from the fabled East.
Together with the arrival of new and exciting plants and birds to Spain and the Portuguese bringing luxury goods and spices from the Far East, it is no wonder that the English court benefited, thanks to our close association with both nations.
Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon had been married for twenty four years by the time they were divorced in 1533, which gives a good span of time for luxury items from Spain to become a regular import to England. After his divorce and the English climate being a difficult one for growing sweet potatoes, perhaps Henry had to find another source. History is not clear on this point so perhaps he had to forgo this particular delicacy altogether. The same may apply to turkeys until the English had a solid foot in the more northerly states and were able to bring the less showy, but more prolific mealgris gallopavo to England where they thrived probably thanks to the endeavours of William Strickland.
As for Dawson’s ‘receipt’, perhaps you would like to give it a go. In order to spare the poor sparrow, if you are going to follow Dawson’s instructions as closely as possible, perhaps you could substitute bone marrow for the bird ‘braynes’.
To make a tarte that is a courage to a man or woman.
Take two Quinces, and two or three Burre rootes and a Potaton and scrape your rootes and put them into a quart of wine and let them boyle till they bee tender, and put in an ounce of Dates and when they be boyled tender, Draw them through a strainer, wine and all, and then put in the yolkes of eight egges, and the braynes of three of foure cocke sparrows, and straine them into the other, and a little Rose Water, and seeth them all with suger, Cinamon and Gynger, and Cloves and mace, and put in a little sweet butter, and set it upon a chafing dish of coles between two platters, and so let it boyle till it be something bigge.
If the spelling and instructions are all a bit difficult to follow then try this modern interpretation. Burdock root can be sourced from the internet, but if you cannot get burdock, you can substitute parsnip or carrot. Just a word of warning: if this pie does what Dawson suggests it might, perhaps it is best only served to the adults.
1 large sweet potato
2 roots of burdock, parsnip or carrot (your choice)
2 quince. You can substitute apple if you are unable to obtain quinces
1oz of pitted dates
1 quart sweet red wine
1tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground mace or nutmeg. Don’t be tempted to put in more nutmeg as it can have hallucinogenic properties if taken in excess
4 eggs, beaten
½ cup of sugar
1 tsp rosewater, but add more if you fancy it.
1 tbsp butter
A single pie crust. Dawson has the mixture placed in a chafing dish with no mention of pastry, but this could prove messy. I would use either a sweet rich French pastry, or simple shortcrust and bake the pastry blind.
- Set your oven at 350F
- Peel and cut the sweet potato, quinces and your chosen root into 1” chunks and put them in a saucepan together with the wine and dates. Bring to the boil and then reduce the heat and simmer until all the solid ingredients are soft and the wine has reduced almost to nothing.
- Either press everything through a sieve, or for ease use a food processor and run it until you have a smooth pulp that has cooled slightly. Add the butter, spices, sugar, rosewater and mix until the butter is all melted and then add the eggs, making sure the mixture is not too hot otherwise the eggs will scramble.
- Pour the mixture into the prepared pastry shell and cook until the custard is set in the middle. The mixture should puff up, but this will not last and as the pie cools the filling will settle during the cooling process.
- Serve with cream, or custard, but that is purely up to you.
[i] Artist: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863 – 1930). Painter of American history paintings.
[ii] In addition to archaeological paintings on the walls of ancient Egypt depicting lemons that originates from south East Asia, a wreck of a 9thcentury Arab dhow was found of Belitung island in 1999 with its cargo of Chinese porcelain complete, thus providing artefacts traded by Arab merchants in the Far East prior to the first millennium.
[iii] The 1494 Treaty of Torsedillas assumed a flat world. Not until 1522 with the return of the fleet of Ferdinand Magellan was it proved to the dissenters that the world was a globe, adding to the confusion as to just where the dividing line between those land claimed by Portugal and Spain lay. It was not until the Treaty of Zaragoza in 1529 was this resolved.
[iv] This book of hours was painted between 1503 and 1508by the French court artist Jean Bourdichon (1457/59 – 1521). It is complete and the most superb example of late medieval/early modern French illuminated manuscripts.
[v] Sadly the sparrow is now in deep decline in the UK due to habitat loss and use of pesticides to kill off bugs and caterpillars, the birds’ main food source in the breeding season.
[vi] Mace is the outer covering of the nutmeg.
Sources & Further Reading.
Dawson, Thomas: The Good Huswife’s Jewell: 1568
Gerard, John; The Herball or General Historie of Plantes; 1597 (this book is dedicated to Sir William Cecil)
Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book 1604
The Boke of Cokery, 1500: printer & publisher Richard Pynson (1449 – 1529)
The Form of Curie : John Rylands Library, 14th century.
Taillevant (1315 – 1395) : chef to Charles V of France who prepared sumptuous royal banquets. https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/26567/pg26567-images.html
Apicius – De re culinaria Roman cookery recipes from the 1st c AD. Single surviving manuscript comes from 8th century. Printed version 1st in Milan (1498); 2nd Venice in 1500.
Gonzalez Fernándo de Oviedo Valdés; Sumaria Historia General y Natural de las Indias; 1532.
Les Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne; BnF Ms Lat 9474, Paris. Illuminator Jean Bourdichon (1457/59 – 1521). https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b52500984v/f11.item
Austin, D.F. (1988) The Taxonomy, Evolution and Genetic Diversity of Sweet Potatoes and Related Wild Species. In: Gregory, P., Ed., Exploration, Maintenance and Utilization of Sweet Potato Genetic Resources, Report of the 1st Sweet Potato Planning Conference 1987, International Potato Center, Lima, 27-59.
Brown, Stephen R; The Merchant Kings : When Companies Ruled the World; Thomas Dunne Books; 2010.
Buchanan, David: Taste, Memory : Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavours & Why They Matter. Chelsea Green Publishing Company; 2012.
Crowley, Roger; Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire; Faber & Faber, London; 2016.
Dalby, Andrew; Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices; British Museum Press; 2000.
Frankopan, Peter; The Silk Routes; A New History of the World: Bloomsbury Paperbacks; 2016.
Robinson, RW; Squash & Pumpkin, Horticultural Sciences Dept., New York State, Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva, New York. September 2015.
Russell, Peter; Prince Henry (the Navigator). A Life (Nota Bene); Yale University Press; 2011
1933 Film: The Private Life of Henry VIII; Director Alexander Korda; London Films Production Ltd. It is still under copyright in the UK until 2026. Charles Laughton won Best Actor and the film was nominated for Best Film at the Oscars. It was the first non-American film to win any Oscar and was a box office hit.
A version of this article appeared on QueenAnneboleyn.com last year.