Tea, a beverage commonly associated with England, was first discovered around 3000 B.C. by a Chinese Emperor. In the mid 1500s Europeans first heard of tea, although at first they seemed to be hazy on its actual use, one even recommended that the leaves should be “boiled, salted, buttered and eaten”. The English navy was the last of the three powerful European countries (after Portugal and Dutch) to infringe upon the Chinese and East Indian trade routes (having been preoccupied with the throne of the Stuarts and the Cromwellian Civil War). In 1600 Elizabeth I established the John Company (which would later merge with the East India Company), in an effort to promote trade with Asia. The first tea samples arrived in England between 1652 and 1654, and the brew quickly became popular enough to replace ale as the national drink of England. When King Charles II married Catherine De Braganza, England acquired the territories of Tangier and Bombay, allowing for the John Company to sell tea from England’s own territories, rather than trading with other countries, allowing for lower prices on tea.

Until the early 1800s England only had two meals a day: breakfast (consisting of ale, bread and beef) and dinner (a large lengthy meal at the end of the day). This custom left Anna, Duchess of Bedford, with a “sinking” feeling at around five in the evening. She began inviting friends to visit, upon their arrival serving small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, sweets and tea. The practice soon caught on, becoming a very fashionable practice amongst English hostesses. In time two varieties of tea service evolved: “High Tea” and “Low Tea”. Low Tea, (called low because it was served in the later, lower, part of the afternoon and on lower tables, or tea tables) was focused primarily on conversation and common amongst the wealthy and aristocratic, including (besides tea) small gourmet pieces such as thin crust less sandwiches, pates, toasted breads with jams, scones and crumpets. High Tea (commonly served earlier in the day than Low Tea, and on higher tables), also known as Meat Tea, became the major meal in the middle and lower classes, was made up mostly of dinner items, such as roast beef, mashed potatoes, and peas, along with tea.

Tea has played a large role in the economical, political, and social heritage of the English. Economically, the John Company (with powers including those to acquire territory, coin money, form alliances, declare war and pass laws) became the largest most powerful monopoly in history, with most of its power established upon the importation of tea. Politically, a tax on tea played a role in beginning the American Revolution, which resulted in England losing a profitable colony. Another political occurrence very closely related to the tea trade was the Opium Wars, which took place because with all the money being taken out of England from tea, they needed to find something to trade rather than pay. The John Company found that very inexpensively they could grow opium crops in India and trade it to the Chinese, and because of its addictive nature, it would be in demand for lifetimes. Soon the Chinese military began the Opium war against the English (who fought for free trade, or their right to sell opium and keep their economy afloat without keeping tea costs artificially high). Most importantly to the heritage of the English and tea is its social aspect. Not only did it play a large role during the Victorian ages, but also it’s continued since then to be a part of the lives of the men and women in England. Providing them with their own unique ways of introducing people into their house, with their custom to offer who ever is visiting a cup of tea, a social interaction which will likely continue for many years to come.