Updated: Aug 15, 2021
The Elusive Cromwellian Biscuits
Cromwell's English Civil War took place between 1642 and 1651 – although the monarchy wasn't restored until 1660 with Charles II.
During this time, Greenwich Palace was used as a biscuit factory. Finding primary sources to back this up has proven difficult and taken us down many rabbit holes, searching for the crumbly truth.
Here's what we know so far:
Biscuits were not how we define them now. They weren't cosy coffee-dunking ginger biscuits or sandwiched with jam and covered in chocolate. When sources talk of biscuits from this time, they should be referring to the ship's biscuits or hardtack.
'Tack' was sailor slang for food. The 'hard' bit was added because the biscuits were, well, just so damn hard. The ship's biscuits were also known as dog biscuits, molar breakers, sheet iron, tooth dullers, and worm castles. So, when sources talk of Greenwich Palace being a biscuit factory, it's a bit misleading to our modern ears – Cromwell wasn't commissioning a supply of Custard Creams.
Hardtack had to last months at sea, which led to them being double or triple baked to make them even harder.
If you want to make some, all you need is:
1lb wholemeal flour (medium-coarse stone-ground flour)
Throw all of the above into a bowl, mix, let it stand for half an hour, then bake in a hot oven for around half an hour. For true authenticity, you could substitute the flower with powdered bone or pea flour, making them definite tooth dullers – just in case they weren't before.
If you prefer to eat a biscuit that doesn't send you on an emergency visit to the dentist, you could leave them out in the open air, as many sailors did in those days; this would up your protein intake at least, with weevils, biscuit beetles, and maggots.
After three months and twenty days at sea Ferdinand Magellan recorded, 'having in this time consumed all their Bisket and other victuals, they fell into such necessitie that they were inforced to eate the powder that remayned thereof, being now full of Wormes and stinking like Pisse, by reason of the salt water.' (J C Drummond and A Wilbraham (1958 ), The Englishman's Food, revised edition p. 134.)
Between 1653 and 1654, Greenwich Palace stopped making its molar breakers and became a prisoner of war camp during the First Anglo-Dutch war. It's likely that the manufacturing of ship's biscuits moved to the HM Victualling Yard in Deptford (and also known as Royal Victoria Victualling Yard), which was built for supplying the Royal Navy with victuals (food supplies).
If you'd like to find out more about Greenwich Palace, The Palace of Placentia and the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC), click here to take at look at the timeline.