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What did the crew eat on a 16th-century Tudor warship?

PortandTerminal.com, January 1, 2020

LONDON, ENGLAND – Napolean, amongst others, is credited with the saying that “An army moves on its stomach“. That’s no less true for the navy. The importance of forces being well-provisioned is paramount. Mutinies have started over less important issues than the crew not having enough to eat.

“Englishmen, and more especially seamen, love their bellies above anything else”

Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Admiralty, 1677

Life in 16th-century England was harsh and food was often scarce for the poor. That was not the case though for the King’s naval mariners who were well-fed for the times.

Painting by Hans Holbein of King Henry VIII
By the time Henry VIII died in 1547, the navy had been built up to more than 40 ships.

Thanks to the discovery of King Henry VIII’s warship “Mary Rose“, which sank in 1545 and was later raised in 1982, much is known about daily life onboard a Tudor warship.

The wreck of the Tudor warship the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545, is on display in Portsmouth, England

Unlike the voyages of discovery from the 16th-century which could last years and during which scurvy and starvation were real threats, military voyages naval were relatively short. That meant that there was often fresh meat, fish and fruit served on Tudor era warships. Evidence of plums, apples and cherries were found on the Mary Rose‘s wreck for example.

Weekly “victualling” allowances for staple food items for each crew member were generous:

  • Seven pounds of biscuits
  • Seven gallons of beer
  • Eight pounds of salt beef
  • 3/4 of a pound of fish
  • 3/4 of a pound of butter
  • 3/4 of a pound of cheese

One obvious question is why so much beer? Beer was provided because keeping drinking water fresh while at sea was difficult. Drinking beer instead of water solved that problem and likely raised few complaints from the crew who were happy to have it.

Pity the cook though on a Tudor warship. The ship’s galley was in the bottom deck of the vessel and was cramped, hot and smokey. The Mary Rose was usually crewed by 400 men. All, including the ship’s officers, had to be fed with food prepared in one small galley in the hold. Feeding them would have been a thankless task for the ship’s cooks.

Diagram of Tudor warship Mary Rose with the ship's galley circled in red
Mary Rose diagram with the ship’s galley circled in red

Most of the food served onboard was cooked in large iron cauldrons that were supported by iron bars over a fire-box placed on the deck of a massive brick galley in the hold of the ship. There was no chimney. The smoke was trapped in a box-like area above the ovens, where it could be used to flavour fish and meat.

Photo taken at the museum in Portsmouth, England of the Mary Rose's cooking ovens.
The stoves from the Mary Rose’s lower galley on display at the museum in Portsmouth, England. Meat and fish were boiled in large cauldrons set atop of them.

The crew was served using wooden plates and cutlery. Life for the officers would have been more refined. Fine pewter dishes, plates, tankards and spoons were found on the wreck of the Mary Rose, which likely were used to feed them.

All in all, life aboard a Tudor era warship offered a better-fed life than what was on offer onshore for most sailors. Learn more about the wreck of the Mary Rose by clicking here.

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