The new novel that I’m planning is set in the reign of Elizabeth I and I’ve begun to do some background reading into the period. It’s so easy to make mistakes when you’re describing the every day life of Tudor England and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by writing about some scullery maid peeling the potatoes in the kitchen whilst the stable lad leans against the door having a crafty smoke.
So I began by having a quick look on the internet to see what information was available and came across a useful looking site that told me, amongst other things, that “There were no forks in Tudor times. People ate with knives and their fingers or with spoons.”
Well everyone knows that’s true, don’t they? Every historic hall you visit these days is made ready for a school visit where pupils sit at trestle tables and learn about what the Tudors ate and how they ate it. The tables are set with platters, beakers, knives and spoons – and not a fork in sight.
But never willing to trust other people’s research I continued with my own. Wikipedia informed me that ‘Its (the fork’s) use was first described in English by Thomas Coryat in a volume of writings on his Italian travels (1611), but for many years it was viewed as an unmanly Italian affectation.’ The unmanliness of using forks has a long history and one well known example is the disapproval of Piers Gaveston, the friend and companion of Edward II, who in 1313 owned three silver forks for eating pears.
Wikipedia goes on to say that ‘It was not until the 18th century that the fork became commonly used in Great Britain’.
An article about the history of the table fork told me that ‘The earliest fork known to have been made in England is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It bears the crests of John Manners, 8th Earl of Rutland and his wife Frances, daughter of Edward Lord Montagu of Boughton [Bailey]. It is two-tined and squarish, made of silver, and bears the London hallmark for 1632-3 [Hayward].’
Well that all seemed fairly conclusive until I began to read an old book from my own shelf. It contained a quote from a historian named John de Brentford. In his ‘black-letter’ book published in 1602 he says: ‘The manners and customs of the inhabitants of Lancashire are similar to those of the neighbouring counties, except that the people eat with two pronged forks’.
What? Can that be true? And why did only Lancashire people use forks?
Well, Lancashire at the time was the centre of the illegal Catholic underground movement and many of the young sons of the wealthy families were sent to the Continent to receive a Roman Catholic education at the colleges of St Omer in Bruges and Liege, or at Douai in France. Was it there, I wonder, that they became used to eating with forks and brought them back when they returned home?
And more importantly, dare I portray the use of forks at table at Hoghton Tower in 1580?