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Two people in medieval dress sitting, drinking and eating at a dinner table

10 weirdest etiquette rules from British history


Britain's Greatest Obsessions follows a host of top celebrities as they explore uniquely British preoccupations and passions in an attempt to find out what makes the British tick.

In the fifth episode, American comedian Reginald D Hunter takes a thought-provoking trip through history to examine the origins of the British class system. He is joined by etiquette expert William Hanson, who teaches Reginald the correct way to hold a teacup and what secrets his cutlery is giving away.

Etiquette, the rules and customs regarding acceptable behaviour, has been around in Britain for hundreds of years. Eight centuries ago, Daniel of Beccles wrote a famous book of manners titled Civilised Man, and even today there are rules of behaviour for everyday situations and formal occasions. Many of these rules are just as familiar now as they were centuries ago, especially when it comes to table manners. A 1609 book of etiquette told its readers not to put ‘thine Elbowes upon the table’, for example.

But many of the codes of conduct from Britain’s bygone days are not just out of date but are downright bizarre. Here we look at ten of the weirdest etiquette rules from British history.

1. Wipe your hands on the tablecloth!

In the Middle Ages, knights returning to England from the Crusades brought back the polite custom of wiping their hands on the tablecloth instead of licking their fingers. In Tudor and Stuart times, guests at well-heeled dinner parties would often sit with a cloth draped over their shoulders. During the meal, they would wipe their fingers, as well as their cutlery, on the cloth.

2. Bring your own cutlery!

The concept of a host providing each diner with their cutlery arrived late in Britain. For centuries people carried a small, pointy, personal knife. At home, in taverns, and during meals in someone else’s house, they would whip out the knife and use it to eat with. The knife was indispensable in the medieval and Tudor world. It would be used to cut, poke, stab, and tear food, though diners would also sometimes use spoons, bread and even their hands to eat with during a meal.

Well-to-do households were beginning to give guests cutlery in the latter half of the 17th century, but even in the time of George II, many dinner guests were still turning up with their own knives and spoons. Forks only really came into widespread use as eating utensils in Britain in the 18th century.

3. Use the tradesman’s entrance!

For many decades in Britain, it was considered almost unthinkable for someone who wasn’t a social caller to turn up to the front door of a ‘respectable’ home.

In the Victorian era and the early 20th century, people would get a surprising number of items delivered, such as coal, meat, milk, and fish. ‘Roundsmen’, who delivered items, had to go to an entrance at the side or rear door, as did the staff of the house when they were not accompanying guests. This was known as the ‘tradesman’s entrance’.

4. Don’t say sorry if you break a glass!

At a Victorian dinner party, if a guest were to drop a piece of cutlery, knock over some wine, or even smash a glass, it was considered a faux pas to apologise for the mistake. Or even to say anything at all!

The accident was essentially ignored, with the clumsy guest and the rest of the party letting it pass over in silence. Soft-footed servants would of course then come and stealthily clean it up.

5. No laughing!

For centuries, etiquette writers from Daniel of Beccles to the Earl of Chesterfield strongly advised men and women against laughter. It was considered impolite and vulgar to laugh uproariously, or even just to laugh in a noticeable way. Ideally, a laugh should be stifled, with the mouth shut and without the body shaking.

William Pitt the Elder, prime minister between 1766 and 1768, insisted that it was ‘better to smile than to laugh out loud’. This etiquette rule was probably intended for public occasions and formal dinner parties – chortling is quite a natural thing, even for upper-class Georgians!

6. Don’t forget anyone!

In Georgian England, ladies and gentlemen were expected to recognise and acknowledge anyone they encountered that they’d previously been introduced to. If they failed to do this, it was known as ‘cutting’. And cutting someone was a big deal. Ladies, if they had a good reason to, could get away with it more, but for a gentleman, cutting someone could lead to a considerable stain on their character.

If a woman met someone they knew in the street, they didn’t just have to engage them, but they had to walk and talk, too. Standing in the street chatting was a big no-no for a woman!

7. Be sure to spit on the floor!

In medieval and Tudor England, the disgusting habit of spitting was even more commonplace than it is today. Anne Boleyn, at her coronation banquet in 1533, had two ladies-in-waiting in attendance who were tasked with holding cloths up for her to spit into. This would have been seen as quite regal behaviour!

Medieval table manners dictated that spitting at or across the dining table was rude, but spitting on the floor wasn’t.

Daniel of Beccles said that burping was alright, but you had to look up at the ceiling as you did it. In the Middle Ages it was also common, and so presumably not considered rude, for diners to pick their noses at the table.

8. Don’t serve thirteen guests!

A tradition at British dinner parties was that it was bad luck to serve thirteen guests. If a party did have thirteen guests, many houses and establishments would have a dummy fourteenth guest. Napoleon even had a fourteenth diner on retainer to always avoid sitting down to a banquet with an unlucky number of guests.

Since the 1920s, the Savoy Hotel in London has seated a black wooden cat, named Kaspar, as the extra diner in its private dining rooms.

9. Remember the golden rule!

Daniel of Beccles stated that if at dinner, the lord’s wife made a pass at you, you should pretend to be ill. And, crucially, don’t tell the lord!

10. No cats!

Everyone loves dogs and cats – even at suppertime. There are ancient Greek vases that depict dogs and cats in dinner scenes with humans. One medieval manners manual reminded children to not stroke dogs and cats at the dinner table. By the 17th century, feline pets had been banished from the dining table altogether, with one rule book specifically telling readers not to bring cats to supper.

For centuries, though, from Ancient Rome to Victorian England (and probably even today for some people), having dogs at dinner was acceptable and even encouraged. Dogs lounging by the dining hall fire or sitting by the host’s feet, ready to gobble up scraps, was a familiar sight.

It wasn’t just dogs and cats that came to tea, though. Over four centuries earlier, Daniel of Beccles told his readers: ‘Don’t mount your horse in the hall.’ This perhaps implies that the horses of guests were sometimes brought inside the host’s house.