I've been looking for a picture showing Queen Elizabeth's black teeth. Not surprisingly, I failed, but the Dutchman Paul Hentzner saw them in 1598: "... her lips narrow and her teeth black (a defect the English seem subject to from their too great use of sugar) ..." (see When Oak Was New, p. 26.)
My quest was inspired by some late night browsing on TV during which I stumbled into a BBC program with a title something like Hidden Killers in the Elizabethan Home. I'm pleased to report that the show wasn't quite as tabloid as its title. It included an interview with an archeologist who specialized in skeletons and skulls (archeological osteology -- there's a career for you!). She showed three medieval skulls and three Elizabethan ones. The medieval skulls had all their teeth intact with no rot. The Elizabethan skulls had blackened teeth, missing teeth and damaged jaws where the tooth rot had infected the bone. Simply put, she said, there was no sugar in the medieval diet, but a lot of it, particularly among the upper classes, in the Elizabethan one. And to make matters worse, the Elizabethans weren't too smart about tooth brushing: They used a paste containing ground pumice which, of course, took all the enamel off and left them totally vulnerable to the ravages of sugar.
Sugar cane plantations were established in the Caribbean in the sixteenth century, and the English imported it by the boat load. Huge, artistic creations of sugar, called "subtleties"were served at the end of courses in the meal in the great hall -- the more sugar involved and the more elaborate the artwork, the greater the status and wealth of the host. Then the meals themselves often finished with a "banquet,"or, as we would call it today, "dessert,"which also included vast quantities of sugar in everything from candied plums to marzipan marvels. Indeed, the first English eating utensils, called "sucket forks,"were made for the banquet because the sugar concoctions were too sticky to eat by hand.
To make their sugar consumption even more prestigious, landowners built "banquet houses"in their grounds, to which they would lead their guests to eat dessert in a specially designed building with spectacular views. Bess of Hardwick built a banquet room in a turret on top of her house, taking her guests along a roof-top walkway -- a perilous adventure, you'd think, if they'd supped their wine with typical Elizabethan gusto!