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Etiquette of Afternoon Tea

From Cup to Cup: A Short Historical Timeline of Afternoon Tea Drinking

The tradition of afternoon tea as a meal and social occasion has been around since the early 1800s, thanks to Ann Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford. However, the origin of tea-drinking can be traced to the 1640 . Although tea drinking has become inextricably linked with Englishness, indeed there is nothing less British than a cup of tea, given that tea is made from plants grown in China, India or Africa and usually sweetened by sugar from the Caribbean. It is in fact one of the extraordinary ironies of the British national identity.


Catherine Braganza
the Tea-Drinking Queen

Potuguese and Dutch traders began importing tea from China to Europe in the early 1600's. However, it didn't arrive on British shores until the early 1660's. Initially tea in Europe was found only in apothecary shops and was an expensive commodity. In 1662, Charles II of England married Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza, who introduced tea to the English court. Both were confirmed tea drinkers, and they quickly helped spread tea culture to the upper echelons of society.   Consuming tea became associated with royalty and the upper class. Even though the Chinese were finding tea delicious by the mid-seventeenth century, the teas brought to Europe from Asia were of inferior quality and taste, and most Europeans did not know how to brew them to extract the sweetest flavours. Thanks to Catherine of Braganza, she sought out the best teas available and taught the English ladies how to brew tea that was quite pleasurable to drink. Tea was taken green, without milk or sugar from handleless china bowls of blue and white porcelain. Her influence began to change attitudes to alcohol in an age when ladies as well as gentlemen, at all times of the day, stupefied their brains with ale and wine for the want of the more refined substitutes fo tea. Tea was taken green, without milk or sugar from handleless china bowls of blue and white porcelain, hot water poured onto the leaves from red-brown stoneware pots.

Catherine Braganza tea drinking queen of England
Anne Russell portrait drinking tea at Woburn Abbey

With Anne Russell, tea became an afternoon meal and social event.


It is said that Anne Russell pioneered the idea of afternoon tea as a meal and a social event in 1840.  Luncheon was a light meal taken around noon and dinner wasn’t served until 8 o’clock at night leaving a long gap between lunch and dinner. The Duchess would become rather peckish around four o'clock in the afternoon and asked that tea, bread and butter and cake be brought to her bedchamber. The afternoon snack gave her a much-needed energy boost and kept her energised until dinner. It soon became a popular pastime within her circle of friends, and the gatherings came out of the bedchamber and were moved to the drawing room and conservatories of the British aristocracy. As it gained in favour, so did it in respectability.

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