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History of Vegetarianism
Food in England Since 1066 -- A Vegetarian Evolution?
Part 2: The Ages of Shakespeare and Milton


By the mid 16th century the corruption of the monasteries seemed to be complete:

Erasmus, while deploring what he took to be the excesses of Martin Luther, unfavourably compared "contemptible friars" with "itinerant mountebanks" and roundly condemned the greedy monks, "gorging the carcase to the point of bursting", while scrupulously observing "a lot of silly ceremonies and paltry traditional rules".
[G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History, 1946]

Presumably not the traditional rule about vegetarianism. On the estates of country houses there was progress in the supply of fresh fruit:

In orchards there were to be found nearly all the fruit trees which grow in England today, although there were far more cherry trees in the sixteenth century than there are now, cherries being a favourite fruit with all the classes at that time. Six hundred cherry trees, "at 6d the hundred", were once ordered for the great orchard at Hampton Court.
[Elizabeth Burton, The Early Tudors at Home, 1485-1558, 1976]

The consumption of meat by the rich and powerful had continued from early medieval times, but with a glimmer of improvement:

Meat and bread remained the principal foods, the "gentilitie" eating wheaten bread, in Rev. Harrison's words, though "their household or poor neighbours in some shires [were] forced to content themselves with rye or barley [and] in times of dearth many with bread made out of beans, peason or oats and some acorns among." Vegetables were still not often served with meat, although sometimes used in cooking it -- chickens were boiled with leeks -- and often used for making pottage. Salads, however, seem to have been popular; and dishes of cucumber, peas, olives and artichokes were more often seen than they had been in the past. The potato, encountered in America by the invading Spaniards -- there were at least 220 varieties in Peru -- was introduced into England during the second half of the century; but, while grown in private gardens, potatoes were not yet considered by farmers to be a worthwhile commercial crop. Cheese, except for soft or cream cheese which was frequently used in cooking, was now less often eaten by the rich than by the poor who seem to have enjoyed large quantities of both hard cheese, which was made of skimmed milk and became harder the longer it was kept, and of green cheese, a fresh curd cheese commonly flavoured with herbs.
[Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th century, 1981]

But there some odd ideas about healthy eating and drinking:

Ingateston was unusual in having both a drinking water tap in the yard and a piped supply of "sweet" spring water in the house. Yet, in compliance with Andrew Boorde's advice that water was "not wholesome by itself for an Englishman", the staff drank beer instead, consuming about eight pints of small beer each, at a cost of 1d the gallon.
[F. G. Emmison, Tudor Food and Pastimes, 1964]

The attitude towards animals still had a long way to go:

Dogs were still used to turn kitchen spits by running round in "dog wheels" and were trained to the task by having hot coals placed beneath their paws to keep them on the move. Cats were still cruelly used. They were hung up in baskets to be used as targets at country fairs; they were stuffed alive into effigies and placed on bonfires so that their cries could add to the horror of the scene; they were thrown out of garret windows with bladders fastened to them to see how far they could fly. At Ely Cathedral there was "a great noise and disturbance near the choir" one New Year's day when a man roasted a live cat on a spit before a large and noisy crowd.

Man's "charter of dominion over the creatures", as Thomas Fuller called it, was taken to provide an excuse for cruel sports. However bloodthirstily executed, hunting was "yet without guilt". In Henry VIII's day it was common practice to have several hundred deer rounded up and then to loose the hounds upon them in a wholesale massacre; and after the slaughter of a deer it was customary for ladies to wash their hands in the blood in the belief that it would make them white. James I was far from unusual in appearing insanely vindictive as he hunted down the quarry, riding after the hounds at a wild gallop and dismounting eagerly to cut the stag's throat as soon as it had been brought down. Then he would rip its belly open, put his hands and sometimes his feet inside and daub his companions with blood. Like so many of his contemporaries -- who according to Fynes Morrison, took more delight in hunting than the people of any other nation -- the king not only hunted stags with frenzied enthusiasm, not only killed hares and caught larks, pursued game with hawks and cormorants, he loved to see cocks fighting and bears and bulls being baited to death. To watch bears baited he had a special pit made and once matched a lion with a bear which was to be punished for killing a child, but the lion refused to fight and the bear had to be baited to death by dogs instead.
[Elizabeth Burton, The Early Tudors at Home, 1976]

By the mid 17th century the idea of meat being a necessity, rather than a luxury seems to have spread to the lower classes:

A worker who had a little land around his cottage and rights on the common might live without fear of hunger. Indeed, Gregory King estimated that half the poor who were in work ate meat every day, the other half at least twice a week, and even the unemployed might do so once a week. But for those who had no land to help feed hungry children life was hard, particularly in years of dearth such as that of 1659 and in those years of rising prices between 1693 and 1699 when the cost of bread doubled. Soon afterwards prices began to fall again; and by 1701 a chicken could be bought for 2d in Yorkshire, but even thiswas a price beyond the reach of many.

Efforts were made to improve farming methods and so bring food prices down. The Royal Society, founded in 1662, established an agricultural committee to conduct experiments and carry out research; and this committee advocated the growing of potatoes and of crops to feed animals during the winter months, the use of clover and sainfoin to convert arable land temporarily into pasture, and more efficient watering, manuring and fertilizing. Experts visited Holland to see how the Dutch had converted waterlogged land into profitable farms. At the same time certain practising farmers were turning to new crops and new methods on their own land. Colonel Robert Walpole began growing turnips as cattle fodder on his estate in East Anglia in 1673."

Perhaps if they had grown food for people instead of cattle the price of bread might not have doubled! The influence of the puritans brought back some of the religious fervour which may have existed in the monasteries, but the "dominion over the creatures' now seemed to be taken for granted:

In 1654 cock-fighting was prohibited, not so much because it was cruel as because it was "commonly accompanied with gaming, drinking and swearing". For six months horse racing was abolished and it was even considered a crime, in certain circumstances to play football.
[L. O. Pike, A History of Crime in England, 1873]

Meals were still mainly of meat, with some fruit and vegetables creeping in:

At one of his dinner parties in 1663 Samuel Pepys and his guests sat down to "a great" dinner "most neatly dressed by [his] only mayde". "We had a Fricasse of rabbets and chicken," he recorded proudly, "a leg of mutton boiled -- three carps to a dish -- a great side dish of lamb -- a dish roasted pigeons -- a dish of four lobsters -- three tarts -- a lampry pie, a most rare pie -- a dish of anchovies -- good wine of several sorts; and all things mighty and noble to my great content." Some months later he had Lord Montagu's two daughters and niece to a dinner: "and very merry we were with our pasty, very well baked -- and a good dish of roasted chicken -- pease -- lobsters -- strawberries.

In grand house a meal might consist of three or more courses in the French manner with a final course of sweetmeats, tarts, pies and fruit; but the middle classes generally contented themselves with two courses, most if not all the dishes in each course being placed on the table at once, and sweet dishes and puddings sometimes being served with the first course as well as the second.
[The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews, 1970-83]

Some of the limitations of a totally meat diet were also becoming apparent:

Meat remained the staple diet of all those who could afford it, joints being generally preferred to minced meat, offal and made dishes. The meat was not of high quality since it was not until the 18th century that improved strains of beef-cattle and sheep were developed; and since they had no means of refrigeration, butchers could not allow their carcases to hang long enough to make them tender. Also, for much of the year fresh meat was difficult to obtain, as cattle were slaughtered in the autumn, there being no means of feeding them during the winter months. So meat still had to be preserved in brine or powdered with salt; and huge amounts of salted beef were eaten. The daily allowance for common seamen was 2lbs. It was a diet that, with few or no fresh vegetables, often led to skin diseases. Housewives were instructed in cookery books how to get rid of the salty flavour of the meat, but many relished the taste, as they did of other strongly preserved foods. Strong Stilton cheese was served with a spoon for scooping up the maggots.
[The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews, 1970-83]

Samuel Pepys was typical of some odd ideas about fruit and vegetables:

Vegetables are not so often mentioned by Pepys, yet he does make passing references to cabbage, peas, asparagus, onions and cucumber, and to salads in which, though he does not say so, flowers and herbs were tossed with the lettuce, radish and cucumber, though not tomatoes which Pepys never mentions: they had originated from Mexico, but, since they were considered chill to the stomach, and a possible cause of gout and cancer, they were not to become popular in England until the beginning of the twentieth century. Many vegetables were improved strains introduced from Holland, but the poor had little opportunity of eating these, confining themselves largely to the cheaper root vegetables which did not then include Virginian potatoes. Potatoes, in fact, were not often seen until the nineteenth century, despite the commendations of such advocates as Adam Smith who, as Fernand Braudel has noted, deplored the English disdain of a crop which had apparently proved its value as a food in Ireland. Usually grown for export, if grown at all, potatoes were widely suspected to be a cause of flatulence and even leprosy.
[Jane Grigson, The Vegetable Book, 1978; Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life, 1981]

and:

Most fruits were too expensive for the poor, the growing season being short and several varieties, apricots, melons and peaches, for example, being very limited in supply since they were grown under glass or in the sheltered gardens of the well-to-do. Oranges, however, were imported in large quantities.

Like many of his contemporaries, Pepys distrusted fresh fruit, believing it to be bad for the stomach, and he usually ate it cooked. He was, however, persuaded one day in 1669 to drink some fresh orange juice at the house of his cousin, Thomas Strudwick, a confectioner and provision merchant. "Here," he recorded, "which I never did before, I drank a glass, of a pint I believe, at one draught, of the juice of Oranges of whose peel they make comfits; and here they drink the juice as wine, with sugar, and it is very fine drink; but it being new, I was doubtful whether it might not do me hurt." Apprehensive though he was, Pepys did occasionally eat fruit "off the tree" and in his diary mentions apricots and peaches, cherries, figs, grapes, melons, mulberries, pears, apples, strawberries, prunes as well as a barrel of lemons which he received as a present. Pepys, in common with most men of his time, distrusted water as a drink, believing that, even if fresh, it was bad for the health. Pepys drank wine and beer, sometimes mixed together. He frequently drank too much, complained of a hangover, was advised to drink less for the sake of his health and his memory."
[The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Latham and Matthews, 1970-83]