Tudor women: what was life like?

The Tudor dynasty is famous for its women; namely the six wives of Henry VIII, the equally unlucky Jane Grey, and the sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, who wore the crown. But what of those lower down the social scale? What was life like for an ordinary woman in the Tudor period?

In her forthcoming book, historian Elizabeth Norton explores the seven ages of the Tudor woman, from childhood to old age, through the diverging examples of women such as Elizabeth Tudor, Henry VIII's sister who died in infancy; Cecily Burbage, Elizabeth's wet nurse; and Elizabeth Barton, a peasant girl who would be lauded as a prophetess. Their stories are interwoven with studies of topics ranging from Tudor toys to contraception to witchcraft.

Here, writing for History Extra, the author of The Lives Of Tudor Women reveals how women at all levels made their mark on society, commerce and in the home…

 

Birth

Conception and then birth were, of course, the first life stage for all Tudor women. They were also important events for adult women in the period, most of whom would have expected to become mothers. Pregnancy, however, was notoriously difficult to diagnose. Could a woman’s symptoms merely be “her natural sickness or store of water”, one contemporary medical text suggested? Alternatively, an increase in girth could be due to “some windy matter” and not an expected baby. Indeed, few physicians were prepared to confirm their diagnosis until the child actually began to stir in the womb. A mistake could be highly embarrassing for all concerned, and so for months women were left on tenterhooks.

Once pregnancy was established, however, a woman was advised to spend time in “good tempered air”. Even queens adapted their existing clothes, with extra panels added to their dresses. They could supplement this with more specific maternity wear, such as ‘self grow’ waistcoats, kirtles and gowns that could be let out as the wearer’s pregnancy advanced. More simply, a gown could first be unlaced, before more drastic changes were required.

Thoughts would then turn to the birth. For royalty, there was an elaborate ceremonial to follow, with the queen retiring to her chamber a month before the expected birth. Poorer women, too, made preparations, with birthing sheets sometimes passed down through families from mother to daughter.

Some women were taken entirely by surprise, however. Little Mary Cheese of Hounslow in Surrey was unfortunate enough to be born while her mother was out walking in town in March 1573. The birth was so sudden that Mary Cheese suffered a fatal head injury as she fell to the floor beneath her mother’s skirts.

Just over 80 years before, Queen Elizabeth of York gave birth to her fourth child – a daughter named Elizabeth – who was immediately handed to a wetnurse and a team of cradle rockers, who had been engaged in advance of the birth. Elizabeth was taken to the royal nursery where she, like all children, later spent her time at play. For wealthy children there were dolls, rattles, windmills and hobbyhorses, while the parents of poorer children fashioned more makeshift toys.

In spite of this fun, infancy was always a perilous time. Princess Elizabeth died in September 1495 at the age of three from unspecified causes. Many of her peers also failed to reach adulthood.

 

Education

Although the lawyer, scholar and chancellor Thomas More famously gave his daughters a fine education, most Tudor parents were less enlightened. The educationalist Richard Mulcaster, addressing the issue in the 1580s, was quick to assure his readers that he would speak of boys’ education first, since “naturally the male is more worthy”. Nonetheless, he did acknowledge that girls had some capacity to learn.

By the start of the 16th century, girls were commonly attending local schools along with their male peers. There was one such school in London between 1504 and 1515, which was run by an aged priest named William Barbour. Barbour took in 30 students of both sexes, teaching them both religious doctrine and “further learning”.  Many other such schools are also known. Even the very poorest girls in Norwich in the 1560s went to school, although their evenings were spent spinning to help support their families. No girls were permitted to attend university, but a handful attended grammar schools.

Most teenagers in the Tudor period were expected to leave home and enter service. For upper-class girls this would be the home of a social superior, who was expected to patronise them and help find them a husband. For those of lower or middling status, leaving home meant agreeing to a year’s service in exchange for wages and board. Most would be expected to carry out household or agricultural tasks.


A housewife with cooks, c1516. (INTERFOTO/Alamy Stock Photo)

Other girls were formally apprenticed to a master, such as Helen ap Richard, who arrived in Bristol in October 1542 to be taught for seven years by a seamstress. She was to work with her mistress in learning how to cut, fashion and fit clothes so that she too could earn her living. Many of the trades to which girls were apprenticed were feminine, such as housewifery. However, others learned more masculine trades, such as pin-making. Wives, too, were expected to participate in their husbands’ trades, while widows often took over the business. Katherine Fenkyll, the widow of a London draper, took on her husband’s trading business, while also rising to prominence in the Draper’s Company in the early 16th century.

Others took on a less respectable trade, with prostitution rife in the towns of Tudor England. The scale of such operations – which were often run by women – was variable. One winter’s evening in 1567, Mistress Cooe of Chelmsford in Essex was leaving church when she received word that her husband, Henry, had been seen entering the house of Mother Bowden nearby. Furious, the angry wife marched over to the house, where her husband fled via a back door. This left Mother Bowden, who had by then opened the front entrance, “and the harlot her [Bowden’s] daughter”, to face the wrath of Mrs Cooe. She beat Mother Bowden, before grabbing the younger woman by the hair and dragging her about the house. Both Henry Cooe and Mother Bowden were later charge with immorality by the parish officials.

 

Love and marriage

Most Tudor women expected to marry, and girls were expected to retain their virginity until their wedding night.

Jane Singleton from Halsall in Lancashire thought that she had done everything right when a young gentleman came courting. She arranged for a local man to go with her to the church one afternoon in 1558, to witness her marriage. The couple stood together at the altar as her suitor took Jane by the hand, telling her that “I Gilbert take thee Jane to be my wedded wife and thereto I plight thee my troth”. She replied in similar fashion, before the couple spent the night together.

To Jane’s dismay, however, her husband promptly abandoned her, so she was forced to petition the church courts at Chester for them to uphold the marriage. Technically, the pair did not even need to plight their troths in church, since all that was required for a valid marriage in the Tudor period was a mutual promise to wed and consummation. Jane was, however, lucky to have a witness.

Marriage was considerably less informal higher up the social scale. Marriages of the nobility and gentry were approached like business arrangements, with the two families haggling over the terms. Sir William Locke, a prominent London Alderman and merchant, insisted on seeing the account books of one prospective son-in-law, Anthony Hickman, only being content to allow him to wed his daughter, Rose, when he proved to be worth £1,000.

And for a girl such as Elizabeth Howard, who was the daughter of the Earl of Surrey, it was essential that she maintained or even furthered her social position, as well as obtaining financial security. In the last years of the 15th century, when Elizabeth was approaching 20, her parents arranged a marriage for her with young Thomas Boleyn. This was a solid, respectable match, with Thomas’s father agreeing to settle a number of manors on Elizabeth as her jointure. In return, her father provided a dowry.

Tudor women were expected to support their husbands in their businesses or work, run their households and bear children. Domestic skills were essential. One contemporary writer considered that a woman who could not cook was a woman who had broken her marriage vows: “She may love and obey, but she cannot serve and keep him with that true duty which is ever expected”. Not all were content to remain in a domestic sphere, however. With Henry VIII’s Reformation and the religious changes that it wrought, some women spoke out against the authorities regarding their faith.

Anne Askew, a gentlewoman who left her husband and children to preach the gospel, was burned towards the end of Henry VIII’s reign, while her friend – the equally outspoken Joan Bocher – was one of only two Protestants to be burned for heresy under the Protestant Edward VI.

During his reign the king’s Catholic half-sister, Princess Mary, considered her religion so under threat that she came close to fleeing England. Then during her own reign a few years later, Princess Mary burned both men and women for heresy. These included Cicely Ormes, who was inspired to become a martyr while watching the burning of two Protestants in Norwich in 1557.


Mary I, c1553. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This 32-year-old wife of a weaver was “a very simple woman” who could not even write her name. She was, however, troubled by her earlier recantation of her Protestant beliefs. As she watched the burnings, she suddenly cried out that “she would pledge them of the same cup that they drank on”, before being arrested. She was burned on 23 September 1557, on a stake still black with soot from the earlier execution she had witnessed.

Others had less stomach for martyrdom. The Protestant Rose Hickman, whose father had so carefully scrutinised her fiancé’s account books, went into voluntarily exile in Antwerp during Mary’s reign. She and her husband selected that Catholic city primarily to ensure that they could still carry out their lucrative merchant trading business. The future Elizabeth I, too, agreed to attend mass during her half-sister’s reign, although she infuriated the queen by declaring that her stomach hurt throughout the service.

 

Old age

Death could come suddenly in Tudor England, while old age seemed a poor reward for the survivors. This was particularly the case for old women. One wildly popular text cautioned readers to keep such crones away from infants, since they could “poison the eyes of children lying in their cradles by their glance”. All women, readers were told, were “entirely venomous”, but menstrual blood at least served to dilute these evil humours. With the menopause, the poison was left to stew fetid in the body, with the worst toxins escaping malignantly through wrinkled eyes.

Such women were also vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, such as elderly Alice Samuel of Warboys in Huntingdonshire, who was accused of bewitching the five daughters of her next-door neighbour in 1589. Nothing that Alice could do could clear her name, with her every look or utterance raising suspicion among the town authorities. She was eventually hanged.

Many elderly women faced extreme financial hardship, with no prospect of retirement. In Norwich in 1570 an 80-year-old widow named Elizabeth Menson was described as “a lame woman of one hand”, perhaps having suffered a stroke, but was still able to eke out a living with her spinning. She could also wind wool for money with one hand. For those who could not work, there was always charity, with a number of institutions, such as St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London being reopened in the period for the care of the aged and infirm.

Even Elizabeth I, whose wealth and status protected her from the hardships of old age, rued the passing of time, attempting to hold on to her youthful looks with cosmetics, wigs and ever-more elaborate clothing. It had some effect, according to one visitor to her court in 1602: “Even in her old age she did not look ugly, when seen from a distance”. Nonetheless, Elizabeth I was a great survivor. The Tudor dynasty ended with her – a woman – in 1603.

Elizabeth Norton is a historian of the queens of England and the Tudor period. She is the author of biographies of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr, and of England's Queens: The Biography.

Her forthcoming book, The Lives Of Tudor Women, will be published by Head of Zeus on 3 November 2016.

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