Can’t Have Your Cake

Oh sure. So and so wants to have their cake and eat it too.

We’ve all heard the expression, but how does that make sense? What is so presumptuous about wanting to eat the cake you have bought, baked, or been gifted?



For starters, this is another phrase that was never uttered by Marie Antoinette.

This phrase traces back to a 1538 letter from Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk to Thomas Cromwell, key advisor to King Henry VIII.

‘The great sickness continues here, and I am banished by it from my two “starting holes,” Castellacre and Bongaye. I require you to send me, by this bearer, my will, which ye have sealed in a box. I must alter things therein, for my substance in money and plate is not so good now by 2,000l., “a man can not have his cake and eat his cake.” You thought you knew who would buy my manor of Walton, that was of the house of Lewes, at 40 years’ purchase; let me know his name and prick him to conclude for it. I am forced to sell much land for lack of money, and divers are on hand with me to buy, with whom I would not meddle if I might sell Walton after that price.’

The Duke’s quote was meant to signify that one cannot both eat a cake and still have said cake once one has finished eating. No best of both worlds here – eat the cake, cake is gone. More broadly: sometimes you have to make a hard-and-fast choice. Choose Option A, and Option B is no longer open to you.



Post-Cromwell, some historical figures reversed the expression to make it easier to understand. Author Jonathan Swift, for instance, gave the expression to character Lady Answerall in his 1738 ‘Polite Conversation’.

‘Col: Yes, Madam; but a Cup of Christmas Ale will soon wash it off.

Ld. Sparkish: Lady Smart, does not your Ladyship think, Mrs. Fade is mightily alter’d since her Marriage?

Lady Answ: Why, my Lord, she was handsome in her Time; but she cannot eat her Cake, and have her Cake: I hear she’s grown a mere Otomy.’


Fast forward to the 21st Century and we’re back to the Duke of Norfolk’s word ordering. Speakers real and reality-show proclaim that we can’t – or, with a New Age gleam: can – have our cakes and eat them too.


Header Photo: Diana Akhmetianova

Photo #2: Pablo Merchán Montes







French Toast?


Most Tempting Holiday Foods

Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton