Health and diet in Elizabethan England

The diet in England during the Elizabethan era (1558–1603), depended largely on social class. The rich ate meat and white bread, the poor ate dark bread. Everyone drank ale--water was often too impure to drink. Fruits and vegetables were seldom eaten. Rich spices were used by the wealthy to offset the smells of old salted meat.


Vegetables were food for the poor, as the rich considered food from the ground to be lowly. Meat and fish, meanwhile, were luxuries reserved for the rich, who could choose among venison, beef, pork, lamb, fowl, salmon, eel, and shellfish. While meat was the main component of the upper-class diet, they occasionally took vegetables such as turnips, carrots, and radishes and fruits such as apples, plums, and woodland strawberries. They also ate desserts such as pastries, tarts, cakes, and crystallized fruit, and syrup.[1]

Among the rich private hospitality was an important item in the budget. Entertaining a royal party for a few weeks could be ruinous to a nobleman. Inns existed for travellers but restaurants were not known.

Bread was a staple of the Elizabethan diet, and people of different statuses ate bread of different qualities. The upper classes ate fine white bread called manchet while the poor ate coarse bread of barley or rye.

Both the rich and the poor had imbalanced diets. The lack of vegetables and fruits in their diets caused a deficiency in vitamin C, sometimes resulting in scurvy.

Availability of food

Trade and industry flourished in the 16th century, making England more prosperous and improving the standard of living of the upper and middle classes. However, the lower classes did not benefit much and did not always have enough food. As the English population was fed by its own agricultural produce, a series of bad harvests in the 1590s caused widespread starvation and poverty. The success of the wool trading industry decreased attention on agriculture, resulting in further starvation of the lower classes. Cumbria, the poorest and most isolated part of England, suffered a six-year famine beginning in 1594. Diseases and natural disasters also contributed to the scarce food supply.[2]

In the 17th century the food supply improved. England had no food crises from 1650 to 1725, a period when France was unusually vulnerable to famines. Historians point out that oat and barley prices in England did not always increase following a failure of the wheat crop, but did do do in France.[3]


The population of London increased from 100,000 to 200,000 between the death of Mary Tudor in 1558 and the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Inflation was rapid and the wealth gap was wide. Men, women, and children begged in the cities, as the children only earned sixpence a week. With the growth of industry, many landlords decided to use their land for manufacturing purposes, displacing the farmers who lived and worked there. Despite the struggles of the lower class, the government tended to spend money on wars and exploration voyages instead of on welfare.


  1. Stephen Mennell, All manners of food: eating and taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the present (University of Illinois Press, 1996).
  2. Andrew B. Appleby, Famine in Tudor and Stuart England (Stanford University Press, 1978).
  3. Andrew B. Appleby, "Grain prices and subsistence crises in England and France, 1590–1740." Journal of Economic History 39#4 (1979): 865-887. in JSTOR

Further reading

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