Monday, 7 January 2013

Henry VIII's Jely Ypocras?

Some spices commonly used in the preparation of hippocras - starting in the left hand bottom corner and rotating clockwise - grains of paradise (referred to in the recipes quoted here as grains), galingale, long pepper and cubebs
I recently had an email enquiry from the Australian historian Rachel Grimmer concerning the use of jelly moulds in sixteenth century England at the time of Henry VIII. Of all English monarchs Henry is probably the first to come to mind when thinking of feasting and gastronomic excess, though bills of fare for specific meals at his court are rare. Neither Peter Brears in his excellent book on the food culture of Hampton Court All the Kings Cooks, nor Alison Simm in Food and Feast in Tudor England give any examples of Henrician menus. Nevertheless, a few 'ordinances of fares of the dietts to be served to the King's Highnesse' transcribed from a manuscript of 1526 were published in 1790 in one of my favourite sources on British royal domestic matters, the wonderful A Collection of Ordinances and Regulations for the Government of the Royal Household printed for the Society of Antiquaries. And jelly appears on the menu. In fact a jelly made with the spiced wine hippocras is featured at the beginning of the second course of a royal diet 'on a flesh day' served alongside cream of almonds. (Though some doubt has been raised about this because of the comma separating the words Jelly and Ipocras - please read Tudor Cook's very pertinent comment below). 

Jely ypocras seems to have been a royal favourite. It also occurs in an earlier bill of fare for a Henrician feast transcribed from a since lost manuscript in 1672 by the antiquarian Elias Ashmole in his magisterial History of the Noble Order of the Garter. Unlike the 'dietts' of 1526 this earlier meal was for a specific occasion and a very grand one too. In the second course of the dinner held as part of the Garter celebrations at St George's Hall, Windsor Castle on Sunday 29th May in 1520, 'jely ypocras' was again served to Henry XVIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon. As in the 1526 diet it is listed as the first dish in the second course.

How this jelly was presented to table is not indicated. Was it moulded, or served in glass or silver vessels? I don't suppose we will ever know. I have seen a number of carved wooden moulds (all continental) which date from the sixteenth century, but they are all carved in shallow relief and were probably used for printing marchpane paste and cotoniacs. But sophisticated methods of moulding jellies did exist at the Tudor court. A letter dated July 10th 1517, sent to Isabella d'Este, Marchesa of Mantua by Francesco Chieregato, the apostolic nuncio in England, describes a remarkable feast which Henry gave in honour of an embassy sent by the King of Spain. This extraordinary supper, which followed a magnificent pageant and joust, puts the 1520 garter feast and the rather domestic 1526 'dietts' firmly in the shade. Chieregato's comments at the end of his letter on the elegant manners at the English court belie the popular but mistaken image of Tudor dining as a boorish free-for-all. But note the fourth paragraph on the twenty different jellies served at the feast, 

' All the knights and jousters then assembled together, and having made a fine procession around the tiltyard, accompanied the King to the palace, where his Majesty had caused a sumptuous supper to be prepared. There were present the King, the two Queens, the Cardinal, all the aforesaid ambassadors, the Duke of Norfolk, the Marquis (of Dorset), and their ladies, together with other baronesses, in such numbers, that at table each man paired with a lady.

There was a buffet set out, 30 feet in length, and 20 feet high, with silver gilt vases, and vases of gold, worth vast treasure, none of which were touched. All the small platters used for the table-service, namely “seyphi,” dishes, basins, plates, saltcellars, and goblets were all of pure gold. The large vases were all of silver gilt, very costly and precious.

The guests remained at table for seven hours by the clock. All the viands placed before the King were borne by an elephant, or by lions, or panthers, or other animals, marvellously designed; and fresh representations were made constantly with music and instruments of divers sorts. The removal and replacing of dishes the whole time was incessant, the hall in every direction being full of fresh viands on their way to table. Every imaginable sort of meat known in the kingdom was served, and fish in like manner, even down to prawn pasties (fino alli gambari de pastelli); but the jellies (zeladie), of some 20 sorts perhaps, surpassed everything; they were made in the shape of castles and of animals of various descriptions, as beautiful and as admirable as can be imagined.

In short, the wealth and civilization of the world are here; and those who call the English barbarians appear to me to render themselves such. I here perceive very elegant manners, extreme decorum, and very great politeness; and amongst other things there is this most invincible King, whose acquirements and qualities are so many and excellent that I consider him to excel all who ever wore a crown; and blessed and happy may this country call itself in having as its lord so worthy and eminent a sovereign, whose sway is more bland and gentle than the greatest liberty under any other. After supper his Majesty and the chief ambassador from the Catholic King, together with other lords, danced with the ladies until daybreak.'*

The great Isabella d'Este, the recipient of Chieregato's letter had a real interest in this occasion, as her husband Francesco Gonzaga had gifted a magnificent horse to King Henry which was ridden at the joust. Feasting was an important element of life in the Gonzaga family and Isabella was well used to lavish banquets. Bartolommeo Sacchi (1412-1478), better known as Platina, author of the first printed cookery book had worked for Francesco's grandfather Ludovico II Gonzaga as tutor to his children. It is interesting to see how Cheiregato is trying to impress the marchesa with the scale of Henry's feast and to perhaps correct any stereotypical ideas she may have had about English food.

Isabella d'Este (1474-1539) by Titian
There were earlier examples of moulded jellies at the coronation feast of the eight year old Henry VI at Westminster Hall in 1429, including one in the form of a 'Gely party wryten and noted with Te Deum laudamus'. So the technology of making elaborate dishes of this kind had been around for at least a century before Henry's jellies in the form of castles and animals were borne to his table on the backs of elephants, panthers and lions.

Although there are recipes for plain hippocras in early sixteenth century cookery texts, a specific recipe for a jelly made with hippocras does not appear until the reign of Elizabeth I. It was published in A. W., A Book of Cookrye, Very Necessary For All Such As Delight Therin. (London: 1584) and is simply called jelly.

In case you find the black letter of the original difficult to read, here is a modern transcription.

To make Ielly.

Take Calves feete and fley them, and faire washe them, and set them on to seethe in faire licour, and faire scum them, and when they be tender sod, faire straine out the licour, and see your licour be verye cleere, and put your licour into a pot, if there be a pottle of it, put a pottle of claret wine unto it, and two pound Sugar, a quartern of sinamon, half a quartern of ginger, an ounce of Nutmegs, an ounce of grains, some long Pepper, a fewe Cloves whole, a few Coliander sads, a little salt, Isonglasse being faire washed and laid in water a day before, Turnsole being aired be the fier and dusted, and when they be wel sod, let it run through a bag, and put two whites of Egs in the bag.

One of the ingredients of A.W.'s recipe is turnsole, a dyestuff commonly used to colour jellies and other foods. It was chiefly made from the fruits of Chrozophora tinctoria, a type of spurge found in the Mediterranean. It appeared in commerce as a rag which you macerated in your jelly mixture in order to release its colour. Henry Lyte in his A niewe Herball or Historie of Plantes (London:1578) tells us that ‘they die and stayne old linnen cloutes and ragges into a purple colour wherewithall in this countrey, men use to colour gellies, wynes, fyne confeciones and comfittes.' More on turnsole and its applications in the kitchen in another post. 

Chrozophora tinctoria from Pierre Pomet, A Compleat History of Drugs (London: 1737)
Chrozophora tinctoria or turnsole. Be careful with this plant. Like other members of the Euphorbiaceae, it contains toxic glucosides. Put it in your jely ypocras at your peril.

From A Noble Book of Festes Royalle and Cokery (London: 1500)

* Brown, Rawdon et al. Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 2: 1509-1519 (London: 1867) 918.


  1. Ivan,

    are you sure about the reference in the Diet lists?
    To me it's clear, not only in the 1790 version, but in both C16 and C17 (LS 5/178 & E 36/231 at TNA) versions of it that there is a comma between the words 'Jelly' and 'Ipocras' which I would always read as referring to two separate dishes. Although the 1790 version is confused in many of the details that it combines together from disparate documents and the references it uses, the comma is not one of these "errors".

    No doubting the lack of comma in the 1672 page and I can certainly see that the recipes for Jely and Ipocras share many commonalities, but for me I would always have presumed that in the case of the Diet lists that they were two different dishes.


  2. I look forward to your turnsole post. I have always wondered how the plant (or root) was used.

    The meal description was revelatory. Who knew they were doing jelly molds so long ago? Hippocras jelly would be terribly good. Thanks for another brilliant piece.

  3. I am sure you are right Richard and the comma has always bothered me. Peter Brears in 'Jellies and their Moulds' has also interpreted the second course entry in the Eltham Ordinances in the same way as I have here -'as stated in the Eltham Ordinances of 1526, King Henry and Queen Catherine's second course at dinner always commenced with a jelly hippocras costing 8d as its pottage.' p.65. We are probably both wrong. The occurrence of a jely ypocras as the first dish after the soteltie in the 1520 garter feast persuaded me that there was a pattern of serving this dish at the onset of the second course. It could be that Ashmole ommited a comma in his transcription and no such dish existed. But it is interesting that a recipe is given in the later sixteenth century which is definitely a jelly version of hippocras.

  4. yet another to add to the list of "things to check out" and yet more grist to the mill.

    Still, without the vagaries of the odd comma here and there life wouldn't be half as interesting would it?

    Love the details that the Chieregato letter gives, but are you certain that it's jellies and not subtelties that are being described?

    Apologies for being picky


  5. Being picky is what it is all about. No need to apologise. I started my blog in the hope that I would get a critical conversation going between other researchers in this field.

    As far as Chieregato's original Italian text is concerned, he uses the plural zeladie. This definitely means jellies. In John Florio's Italian/English dictionary, Queen Anna's World of Words (London: 1611) the author defines zeladína as a synonym for gelatína. In his earlier 1598 edition of the book, he includes the verb zelare, which he says means the same as gelare,' to freeze' or more importantly 'to congeal'. He tells us that gelata or gelatina at this period meant 'the meate gellie'.

    There has been a great deal of confusion recently among modern Italian readers of a 1570 Bartolommeo Scappi recipe to make a 'gelo' with sour cherries. Many have assumed incorrectly that this is an early recipe for gelato - ice cream. But it is nothing more than a jam like fruit jelly - see my posting on the subject -

    I assume the animals that Chieragato mentions as bearing the food were almost certainly trionfi or sotelties and not real specimens. It would have been amazing if they were the real McCoy. Why don't you strike a deal with Regent's Park Zoo and have a go at this at Hampton Court next Christmas?

  6. yes, I had to re-read the part with the animals in....just in case. Given the problems in getting real food into the Gt Hall and Watching Chamber I can only imagine the grief that would ensue from suggesting panthers and lions, let alone an elephant!?!
    I suppose the question is were the animals supporting dishes or were they the dishes in themselves?
    As you say, it shows just how sophisticated the reign of Henry actually was in comparison to the perception that people have.

    Thanks for the dictionary ref's, very handy and clarifying...though at the same time confusing as if it were subtelties then I think we'd all have a reasonable idea of how they would have been constructed or 'could' have been constructed at least, jellies throws it all into the air again....lots more to look for...moulds, images, descriptions...excellent

  7. I'm stuck on the first sentence, in which you mention a Henry XVIII. I'm pretty sure we haven't gotten that far, unless I've stumbled into a Joan Aiken-esque alternate-history world.

    1. Thanks Graham. That X was invisible to me.

  8. Do you have any ideas as to what (and how) such sophisticated molds might be made of then? Beaten metal? Ceramic? Very curious about this! Quite a fascinating piece!