Tudor kitchen nightmares
Large quantities of bread and ale were produced at Sutton House to sustain the Sadleirs’ household, and leftovers would have been sold to local people, probably from the Cellar. The Tudor Kitchen still stands on the east side of the house, originally the service wing. Here, servants of all ages would have worked in cramped, hot and unhygienic conditions for long hours, cooking and cleaning for the family. After a hard day’s work, some servants would even sleep on mats or cots on the kitchen floor.
The upper crust:
Bread was considered a staple food for Tudor society and would accompany most meals. The quality of the bread eaten would depend on your social rank; affluent Tudors like Ralph and his family enjoyed “Wastel”, which was a white bread made from finely milled flour, whereas poorer Tudors would eat “Clapbread” made from barley or oats.
On the topic of class, it is said that the term “the upper crust” can be traced back to Tudor England. Bread ovens would burn the base of loaves, which would have to be cut off horizontally, leaving the evenly cooked bread for the masters of the house and the burnt crusts for servants.
Communal bread ovens were available to those who didn’t have bread ovens in their homes. At Sutton House, it is thought that the space to the right of the kitchen fireplace would have housed a bread oven, making it easier for the servants to produce bread for the household and to sell the leftovers out of the West Cellar.
Dark and dangerous:
Tudor Kitchens could be extremely dangerous places to work. Can you imagine cooking on an open fire with no proper ventilation? No extractor fans, or even a window to air out your cooking mishaps? At Sutton House, it is believed that the original fireplace stretched the whole length of the North Wall, so you can imagine the risk posed.
The “windows” in the Tudor Kitchen would have been small openings high on the walls, allowing very little air or light in. Servants would have to conduct their work by very poor light, that could prove dangerous when working with knives.
Staff would have to work in these sweltering conditions daily; the task of keeping the fire alive was integral. The “spit boy” was responsible for both stoking the fire and keeping the spit spinning to ensure meat cooked properly. He would be awarded with two small ales with his daily food allowance, as opposed to one, in recognition of this essential work.
Tudor towns were dangerous places to live. They were overcrowded and unhygienic, and streets were filled with litter and sewage. Rats thrived in these conditions. While Sutton House was a rural escape from the bustling city, rich houses were not immune to the risks that rats posed. Servants would have stored bread and flour off the ground to keep rats out.
The Black Death, which spread throughout Europe some 200 years before Sutton House was built, is said to have been caused by fleas living on black rats which arrived in England from merchant ships. Servants in Tudor kitchens would be particularly vulnerable to disease from rats, as not only did they work there, but they slept in the kitchen as well! Sutton House was no exception.
As well as disease, rats presented further risk for domestic staff. Ratsbane, a kind of arsenic used for killing rats, is also lethal to humans, and could easily be mistaken for flour by servants.
The Tudor kitchen pictured above might seem tranquil and calm now, but it would have been a very different story in the 16th century.