Apr 012012

A cross-post from The Regency Redingote:

Earl Grey, that is.

In the last several months, I have read at least three novels set in the English Regency in which the characters are depicted drinking Earl Grey tea. Which was completely impossible, since Earl Grey tea was not introduced in England until the reign of William IV. The tea was named after King William’s Prime Minister, who had been instrumental in the abolition of slavery, the restriction of child labor and the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, which finally brought sweeping changes to the British electoral system.

The legend and the facts behind Earl Grey Tea …

Earl Grey tea is not a species of tea, but a blend. Originally, black tea from India and Ceylon was blended with the aromatic citrus oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot, a tart Seville orange/Pear lemon hybrid. This fragrant oil has a strong scent which was often used from the seventeenth century in perfumes and in flavoring snuff from the eighteenth century, well into the nineteenth century. But the use of bergamot oil was not applied to the flavoring of black tea until the third decade of the nineteenth century. It is now also used to flavor green and oolong teas, but that is a twentieth century development.

The namesake of Earl Grey tea was Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, Prime Minister of England from 1830 to 1834. He was a staunch Whig, as a young man an associate of Charles James Fox, one-time lover of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and father of her natural daughter, Eliza Courtney. He became the second earl in 1807, on the passing of his father, the first earl, and took his seat in the House of Lords. His most significant political achievements were the passage of the Reform Act and the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire.

There are several versions of the legend behind the origins of the recipe for Earl Grey tea. The most common one is that Charles, Earl Grey received the recipe as a diplomatic gift on a mission to China. According to another, while in China, he received the recipe from a Chinese mandarin out of gratitude when one of the earl’s men saved the mandarin’s son from drowning. There are two insurmountable impediments to the veracity of either story. First, Charles Grey never went to China and second, the Chinese were not drinkers of black tea, so no Chinese diplomat or grateful mandarin would have had a recipe which used black tea with which to gift Lord Grey.

There is another story that Lord Grey developed the recipe himself sometime around 1800, then in the 1830s he gave it to one of the partners of the tea merchants, Jacksons of Piccadilly. This seems to be the most suspect of all the stories about the origin of the tea. Lord Grey had never shown much interest in such things at any time in his life. And why, in the first year he became Prime Minister of England, would he feel the need to give a thirty year old tea recipe to a London tea merchant? It seems much more likely that Jacksons concocted this story to help to ensure strong sales for their new tea blend, as Lord Grey was a very popular prime minister in the year the new flavored tea was introduced.

Personally, I adore Earl Grey tea. In fact, it is practically the only tea I drink. Nor would I begrudge anyone, even a character in a Regency novel, their own moments of pleasure sipping a hot cup of Earl Grey. But those who lived in the Regency were denied this small pleasure since the Earl Grey tea blend had yet to be invented. So, dear authors, enjoy as many cups of Earl Grey as you like while you write your next Regency romance, but please, however much you are tempted, do not share it with your characters. Or, if you characters simply demand to be allowed their fair share of Earl Grey tea, then set your story in the Victorian era, when it was readily available.

© 2008 – 2012 Kathryn Kane, Kalligraph
Originally posted at The Regency Redingote
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.

  4 Responses to “The Regency had the Lord, but not the Tea”

  1. I’ve wondered about this, because I’ve come across sources that say the Italians were flavoring their tea with bergamot long before the Regency. I suspect the Indians were too–they have entire museums dedicated to tea, and document spicing teas since the Middle Ages–and if the practice was common in India then the men of John Company likely carried it back to England well before the Regency. If I DO bestow a cup of bergamot tea on my characters, I will be very careful not to call it Earl Grey–EVER.

    • I have found similar sources myself, so bergamot was certainly in use as a tea flavoring, but not yet dubbed “Earl Grey” until Jackson’s was looking to boost sales by trading on the name of a popular Prime Minister.

      Such flavored tea was quite possibly enjoyed in some circles during the Regency. One theory I have is that it could have been introduced by Lord Petersham. He collected both snuff and tea, and he is known to have spent hours experimenting with the creation of his own blends of both. Bergamot was a very popular flavoring for snuff during the Regency, so it seems more than plausible to me that he could have used it to flavor black tea. And, he was also known to bestow some of these special blends on those he liked, as Georgette Heyer had him do in Regency Buck, the very first Regency novel ever written. So, one of your characters might have been the beneficiary of his largesse and could serve “Lord Petersham’s Blend” to their guests so that they could enjoy the pleasures of bergamot-flavored tea and be period-appropriate at the same time. 😉


  2. Thank you for a very informative article. As a tea enthusiast, I greatly appreciate accuracy on this issue. There is a lot of incorrect informtion that floats around regarding tea (“high tea” being my favorite annoyance). Thank you for stemming the tide of misinformtion!

    • Thank you for such kind words from a fellow tea enthusiast!

      On the subject of “high tea,” I do agree with you, it is one of my pet peeves, too. But it sounds so elegant and civilized, not to mention delicious, that I can understand how it might be irresistible to some authors for a special scene. A pity they do not realize it is dinner. Here in the US a number of upscale hotels and restaurants offer “high tea” in the afternoon, and people flock to them, thinking it a most aristocratic experience. Oh, Sigh!!!



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