Royally Sweet: How Hot Beverages Became All the Rage in 18th Century Britain
Gareth Russell on Grace Tosier, The Woman Who Brought Chocolate to King George I's Court
“They wrote, and rallied, and rhymed, and sung, and said, and said nothing; they drank, and fought, and slept, and swore, and took snuff; they went to new plays on the first night [and] haunted the chocolate-houses.”
–Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub (1704)
Grace Tosier, like many of the celebrities who came after her, had a signature look: in her case, a wide-brimmed hat and a posy of in-season flowers pinned to the top and center of her bodice. Beginning in 1714 and lasting for the rest of the century, the Georgian Era, with its expanding press, produced recognizably modern celebrities, a cultural trend from which Grace was among the first to benefit.
Her outfits were reported in publications such as Tatler and the Gentleman’s Magazine, which presented her to Londoners with descriptions that blended the informational with the aspirational. Illustrations of her by the engraver John Faber Jr. were sold to fame enthusiasts in the capital. Faber based his engravings of Grace on a portrait of her by the artist Bartholomew Dandridge, who had painted her in a now-lost original that she made available to Faber. Unlike later eighteenth-century celebrities, such as Lady Emma Hamilton, who brilliantly harnessed the craze to market her own image to pamphleteers, fashion magazines, and artists, Grace did not profit directly from her fame. She did so indirectly by using it to augment footfall to her and her husband’s business.
Then as now, a connection to royalty proved commercially beneficial, too, and, when not running their drinking house, the Chocolate Box, Grace and her husband, Thomas Tosier, had their own bedroom and workspace at Hampton Court, at the invitation of King George I, who appointed Thomas as his personal chocolatier in 1717.
A private bedroom for a servant was still a rare luxury and thus a mark of status, as was the decision to separate the Tosiers from the rest of the palace kitchens by creating two small rooms from which they could work. Far from the heat and bustle of the main kitchens, the Chocolate Kitchens, whose location was restored in 2013, thanks to the discovery of an eighteenth-century map of Hampton Court, are situated off the cloisters of William III’s Fountain Court, where it is easy to imagine Grace, in her floppy hat, walking to and from her workplace.Although it had been known to Europeans for more than two centuries, chocolate’s popularity there proved slow burning.
The chocolate served at Hampton Court in the 1710s and 1720s was drunk rather than eaten. Although it had been known to Europeans for more than two centuries, chocolate’s popularity there proved slow burning. Flavored with vanilla or chili, it had been an elite Aztec, Mayan, and Olmec delicacy. The Spanish conquistadors initially mistook it for an aphrodisiac. Some of Charles II’s courtiers had regarded it as a hangover cure.
The teetotal Quakers promoted it as a social beverage in lieu of alcohol, while the women of the French aristocracy—most famously Louis XIV’s glamorous mistress Athénaïs de Montespan—helped turn it into a fashionable drink, a trend mimicked by the British court. Charles’s household receipts show that he began spending more on chocolate in 1669–70, around the time of his sister Minette’s extended visit. That the culture of drinking chocolate in England was still nascent is indicated by the eventual recruitment from abroad of the European Solomon de la Faya to serve as Charles II’s official chocolatier in 1682.
Solomon was probably, but not certainly, a member of the Jewish de la Faya family mentioned as living in Amsterdam in the late 1630s, where they are referred to in legal documents as Portuguese merchants. However, their ancestors, like all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity, had been expelled from Portugal in the 1490s.
We know frustratingly little about de la Faya, except to say with some confidence that he must have been very talented, first to be hired by Charles II and then to remain in post throughout the dynastic roulette that followed. He was still serving the Stuarts when Chocolate Kitchens were installed for the first time at Hampton Court, designed by Sir Christopher Wren per the request of William III and Mary II; the latter died before they were completed, while the former was known to enjoy a cup of drinking chocolate at breakfast with the Earl of Portland, another chocolate enthusiast.
From the court, the fashion for hot drinks spread to British cities, towns, and later villages. It was in this environment that Grace and Thomas first started in their profession, at a time when the hot drinks trade was a nascent, lucrative, yet controversial line of work. As the popularity of hot drinks expanded, coffee shops became almost as ubiquitous in late Stuart England as they are in the twenty-first century.
These establishments, sometimes called tea parlors or coffee taverns, became social hubs, particularly for supporters of radical politics; many of their meetings were held at coffeehouses, with the result that Charles II and James II both tried unsuccessfully to ban such places from trading.
When politics did not cause tension, health concerns did. Under Charles II, a pamphlet entitled The Women’s Petition Against Coffee had blamed coffee for causing impotence in London’s men, an assertion rebutted by a rival publication claiming that coffee, in fact, had many health benefits, including making “the erection more vigorous.” During James II’s reign, a physician published The Manner of Making of Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate, which reiterated the potential health advantages of these beverages, specifically that of chocolate “in a moderate quantity.”
Moderation did not win the public’s favor, though, and hot drinks continued to be a profitable trade when the Tosiers set up the Chocolate Box on a street called Chocolate Row in Greenwich, from where their fame as chocolatiers grew. Sometime after Solomon de la Faya’s death, and three years after Queen Anne’s, the post of King’s Chocolatier was awarded to the Tosiers—or, more specifically, to Thomas.
As the chocolatier in the couple, he prepared the King’s drinks, while Grace, who occasionally joined him at Hampton Court, utilized her considerable business acumen to increase the popularity and profitability of their shop. The Tosiers’ Chocolate Box expanded with an adjoining dance hall, and business boomed thanks to their association with the royal family. Grace cleverly emphasized the connections by hosting dances in honor of King George’s birthday, which, by happy coincidence, fell in the same week in May as Restoration Day, a holiday kept well into the eighteenth century to celebrate the anniversary of the monarchy’s return in 1660 and marked at court with balls and firework displays.
Grace’s soirées, hosted by “the Wife of The King’s Chocolate Maker,” were aimed at those who wished to mimic the lifestyle but did not quite make the cut to receive an invitation from the palace. The Tosiers’ parties were covered by journalists, who noted with approval how many “Persons of Quality” attended.
Both in their work at the palace and at the Chocolate Box, Grace and Thomas had to remain abreast of changing fashions when it came to refreshments. Almond milk, for instance, once mocked as something preferred by pretentious upper-class women or Catholics, was yielding precedence to dairy in chocolate and coffee. At various times, there were different fads for jasmine, mint, long pepper, orange zest, aniseed, chili, brandy, rosewater, pistachios, cardamom, cinnamon, wine, or port to be added to drinking chocolate.
Sugar was used to counteract the natural bitterness in chocolate, a factor that had contributed to its earlier unpopularity. King George’s late mother and her cousin had corresponded about the new mania for hot drinks, with the latter writing, “I can drink neither tea, nor chocolate, nor coffee; all this foreign stuff is repugnant to me: I find chocolate too sweet, coffee tastes like soot to me, and tea more like a medicine, in short, in this respect as in many others, I cannot be à la mode.”
The beans used in the Chocolate Kitchens were mostly imported from Jamaica, a former Spanish colony conquered by England during Oliver Cromwell’s rule. Chocolate was still being produced in relatively small quantities, certainly when compared with its mass production in the next century, or to sugar, some of which was also grown in Jamaica—nearly all of it harvested from plantations or settlements at which the workforce was enslaved.
Abolitionist and antislavery sentiment was active in Great Britain during the reign of George I, particularly among the Quaker congregations; it would not be until later in the century, however, that the mass mobilization of British abolitionists began. This would be due to the awareness raised by the best-selling memoir of Olaudah Equiano, a survivor of slavery who subsequently and successfully toured Britain and Ireland to promote his work, and also because the British press began to report more honestly and thoroughly on what was being done, and inflicted, in the colonies.
Revealingly, it was sugar that was then targeted by boycotts organized by antislavery activists. The fact that chocolate was not reflects both the economic power of sugar as a foundation of slavery and the small-scale production of chocolate until well into the reign of George III.
However, while broad support for abolitionism had not yet developed in Great Britain under George I, serious opposition to enslavement in Jamaica was coming to a boil; the year after George’s death, a mass antislavery uprising began, lasting for nearly a dozen years. Known later as the First Maroon War, it saw hundreds mobilize to escape their plantations to establish free communities in the Jamaican mountains. Before that war, conditions in Jamaica were almost completely undiscussed in British periodicals or journals.
Every morning, Thomas began preparing the King’s chocolate in the smaller of the two rooms. It was a stuffy place as he roasted the cacao beans over the grate. They were then taken to the table, where Thomas ground and cut the roasted beans until he had enough cacao nibs to take with him to the Chocolate Room, the larger and more comfortable of the two rooms.
There he crushed the nibs in a preheated grinder to produce enough chocolate, which was then mixed in a saucepan with whatever additives Thomas or the King had decided on for that day. All of these—the liqueurs and spices—were stored in the Chocolate Room for Thomas’s convenience. He would then decant a concoction far thicker than the modern equivalent of hot chocolate into a silver serving pot, which he placed on a tray with delicate porcelain cups. He carried it through the courtyard cloisters and upstairs to the King’s Apartments. There he served the drink to his awkward, temperamental sovereign, who spoke German better than he did English—which gave rise to the enduring yet inaccurate claim that King George could neither speak nor understand the language of his British subjects.
The expansion of the relatively free press that had helped make people like Grace Tosier famous also meant—to the shock of many tourists and visitors from elsewhere in Europe, where the presses were still typically tightly controlled by their governments—that even the royal family were not immune from “the lash of these satirical folks.”
George I, nicknamed “German George,” was also privately pilloried by his courtiers for his initial failure to grasp some of the nuances of English dining decorum. These errors were advertised when he continued the old custom of occasionally taking a meal publicly in Hampton Court’s Eating Room. The press, meanwhile, publicly guffawed at his difficulties in speaking English and went on subsequently to exaggerate them.Coffee shops became almost as ubiquitous in late Stuart England as they are in the twenty-first century.
They also had a field day with his unorthodox private life. There was no queen for the journalists to mock or for the Tosiers to serve. Years earlier, George had imprisoned his wife, Sophia-Dorothea of Celle, after discovering her affair with a Swedish nobleman, who disappeared around the time of Sophia-Dorothea’s incarceration and whose murdered remains, so rumor claimed, had been vindictively buried beneath her floorboards on her husband’s orders. While that seems unlikely, given the stench that would have arisen as the body decomposed, we have absolutely no idea what happened to Count von Königsmarck after he vanished in 1694.
Sophia-Dorothea spent the rest of her life under house arrest for adultery, a sin that her husband had been committing throughout their marriage. In the absence of a queen, life at Hampton Court was dominated by King George’s tall and very thin mistress, Melusine von der Schulenberg, and his half sister, the Countess of Leinster and Darlington, an illegitimate daughter of the King’s late father.
Nicknamed “the Maypole and the Elephant” on account of their contrasting weights, the two women vied for dominance over the early Georgian court. The Tosiers were wise enough to keep quiet about the rival socialites, especially since one of their palace colleagues, confectioner Charles Burroughs, was fired after he was overheard repeating the rumor that the Countess of Leinster was not only George I’s half sister but also his lover, thanks to her desperate bid to outmaneuver Melusine by seducing the King. Burroughs’s claim seems to have arisen from confusion over Lady Leinster’s relationship to King George. Legally, she was the daughter of Baron von Platen, her mother’s husband, and only people close to the Hanoverian court initially knew who her biological father had been. Since her status as George I’s illegitimate half sister was not publicized widely, many were confused about her favor with the King, who made her a countess twice over, prompting the inaccurate conclusion that they were lovers. The two explanations—the truth and the mistake—subsequently merged into the falsehood of an incestuous relationship.
Both women were detested by the Prince of Wales, another George, who had never forgiven his father for the brutal abuse of his mother. It was to be one of the great heartbreaks of the younger George’s life that he never fulfilled his dream of liberating his mother from her lifelong detention in the German castle of Ahlden—she died seven months before he became monarch.
Like his father the King, Prince George was an adulterer. Throughout the 1710s, he was having an affair with Henrietta Howard, future Countess of Suffolk. Unlike his father, the Prince enjoyed a good relationship with his wife, who knew all about her husband’s liaison with one of her ladies-in-waiting. Tall, beautiful, pale, and blonde with blue eyes, Caroline, Princess of Wales, was the cleverest among the new batch of royals—which, given the competition, was not a difficult accolade to secure. In stark contrast to her father-in-law, whose relatives knew and subjects suspected “would have had a better time” living in his homeland at his beloved Herrenhausen Palace and hunting lodges rather than inheriting “all his splendour in England,” Caroline emerged as one of the most popular members of the new British royal family.
There was a sense among her contemporaries that Caroline of Ansbach was always meant to wear a crown; as a teenager, she had been betrothed to the future Hapsburg Emperor Charles VI, an engagement that she broke off after months of studying for the requisite conversion to Catholicism. It was almost unheard-of for princesses to jettison a marriage plan, especially one to an emperor, and Caroline was widely applauded for the firm politeness she had shown in rejecting the imperial crown after remaining unconvinced by Catholic theology.
She was similarly admired for her intelligence and lack of pretension about her beauty. As the Dowager Duchess of Orléans put it, “Having been ugly all my life, I never enjoyed looking at my bear-cat-monkey face in the mirror, so it is no wonder that I do not do it very often. But to be young and beautiful and yet not enjoy looking into the mirror like the Princess of Ansbach, that is unusual indeed.”
Even at the French court, which still officially supported the claims of the Catholic Stuarts, Caroline’s reputation was sterling. The Dowager Duchess, whose son was regent of France for the young Louis XV, observed, “Everything I hear about the Princess of Wales makes me esteem and like her; she has noble and beautiful sentiments, and I feel much affection for her.”
Caroline, her husband, and their children resided at Hampton Court while the King made his return visits to his native German province of Hanover, during which they adhered to traditional court etiquette. The “Prince and Princess dine [publicly] every day at Hampton Court,” according to a courtier, “and all sorts of people have free admission to see them, even of the lowest sort of rank.” The Tosiers saw less of the Princess of Wales as feuds within the royal family intensified.
The King and his son loathed each other, resulting in longer and more frequent spells during which the Waleses were not welcome at court. Thomas Tosier died in 1733, and, the next year, Grace wedded a local brewer named Samuel Vancourt; such was the prestige, and recognizability, of her surname that she kept Tosier rather than take Vancourt. She died a wealthy woman in 1753, in her late eighties, just before drinking chocolate—and Hampton Court itself—fell out of fashion.
The Palace: From the Tudors to the Windsors, 500 Years of British History at Hampton Court by Gareth Russell is available from Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.