While most associate tea time with England, the practice of tea drinking actually began in France nearly twenty-two years before tea was even introduced in England. King Charles II, who ruled England in the seventeenth century, brought with him a Portuguese bride and a firm tea drinking tradition. As the king and queen were tea drinkers, a novelty in England at the time, the tradition immediately became popular among the wealthy.
Tea replaced ale as the official beverage in England in very short order. When Queen Anne, a successor to King Charles II, chose tea over ale for her morning drink, she set a new standard in all of England. Also during the eighteenth century, tea became the customary drink with an evening meal to satisfy the hunger and thirst of those working during the Industrial Revolution.
High tea was introduced to England in the eighteenth century. Traditionally only two meals were eaten in most households - breakfast and dinner. Dinner was served late in the evening. However, when workers came home from the more industrialized labors, they were more than ready for a full serving of breads, meat, cheeses and such. These were served on a high table along with tea much like a dinner. Thus, the late afternoon meal was called high tea. Today, high tea is mistakenly identified as a formal tea in the afternoon along with pastries, but those delicacies would never have been found in a true high tea - they wouldn't be hearty enough.
Anna Maria Stanhope, the Duchess of Bedford, is credited with having begun afternoon teatime. Once a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, Anne began to suffer a "sinking feeling" in her stomach around four o'clock in the afternoon as the noon meal had become skimpier. To help her make it from the noon meal to the late formal dinner, Anne first asked servants to sneak in a pot of tea and bread.
Later, as she became more comfortable with her late afternoon meal, Anne began asking friends to join her in her rooms at Belvoir Castle around five o'clock in the afternoon. She followed the traditional European tea service format and served a collection of small cakes, bread and butter sandwiches, sweets and tea.
When she returned to London, the Duchess had enjoyed her summer treat so much that she continued the practice by inviting friends to visit for "tea and a walk in the fields." Other noblewoman soon took up the practice of serving a light afternoon meal and the true teatime was born.
Because the teatime of nobles is a more casual affair than the high tea of workers, it was termed "low tea." This is because the tea and delicacies were served from low tables such as a coffee or end table rather than on a high dining table. Low tea was regularly enjoyed by the wealthy for centuries. Dinner was served late in the evening and was a truly formal affair. Today, many of the fine tea houses in North America serving "high tea" are in fact serving in the authentic style of "low tea."