The Tudor sex guide

At the dawn of Henry VIII's reign, the church, the crown and medics each had views on acceptable forms of romantic activity. Lauren Johnson offers eight tips on navigating the Tudor period's sexual minefield...

(Photo By DEA/G DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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1) Don’t have sex on Wednesdays

The church had such strict rules about when, where and how people could have sex that, at first glance, it appears sexual activity was almost totally forbidden. Sex was not allowed on Wednesdays, Fridays or Sundays; throughout Lent, Advent and Pentecost; before major holy days; when a woman was menstruating, confined before pregnancy, for a month after childbirth and while she was breast-feeding; three days before taking communion; during daylight hours; naked; or in any position other than missionary.

In fact, any sexual act going against the ‘natural order’ – that is, for procreation – was legally classed as ‘sodomy’. This meant that a range of activity, from the lesser sins of wet dreams, masturbation and oral sex, through to the ‘abominable vices’ of incest, bestiality and homosexual acts, was condemned.

2) Only have sex within marriage

The only sexual activity permitted by the church was payment of your ‘marriage debt’: marital sex to produce a child. But the church had not altogether taken control of the ceremony of marriage – all that was required for a ‘wedding’ in 1509 was an exchange of vows between a man and woman in front of a witness, followed by consummation. One 15th-century couple got married by Beverley Gate in Hull while milking a cow. This rather nebulous arrangement sometimes led to unions later being rejected by one or other party, transforming legitimate payment of the marriage debt into illicit fornication.

Henry VIII’s friend Charles Brandon had a spectacularly unscrupulous track record on this score. He first ‘married’ the young gentlewoman Anne Browne in a ceremony dubious enough for him to repudiate her after she gave birth to his daughter. He then remarried Anne’s aunt, who was 20 years his senior, and spent two years stripping as much of the wealth from her estate as possible before annulling the union and taking up with Anne again. All legally acceptable.

3) Go forth and multiply (especially if you’re a king…)

For kings and queens, reproduction was seen not only as a moral duty but also as a dynastic imperative. Henry VIII knew how fragile this situation could be. His own mother, Elizabeth of York, had eight children (the last childbirth killed her) but only three of them were still alive in 1509. Henry himself was the sole surviving son. It was essential for the survival of the Tudor line that he and his new bride Catherine of Aragon (pictured right) produce a child – ideally a boy.

Unfortunately, all did not go well in the first few years of marriage. Catherine miscarried a daughter in January 1510 and had a hysterical pregnancy from which she emerged shame-faced in May 1510. A Prince of Wales born to her at New Year 1511 was dead within two months. Before Catherine and Henry’s first anniversary the royal councillors were already muttering darkly about the queen’s infertility – her own ambassador criticised her excessive fasting for causing irregular menstruation.

In cases of infertility women traditionally got the blame, but the enormously popular medical texts known as the Trotula held that “conception is impeded as much by the fault of the man as by the fault of the woman”. It suggested male potency could be remedied with a diet of generative foods like onions and parsnips, while female infertility, caused by an over-dry or slippery womb, required pessaries or fumigants.

4) Enjoy yourself…

The medical world had a different attitude to sex. Following the highly influential writings of the ancient Greeks Hippocrates and Galen, physicians believed too little sex could be bad for your health, and even endanger those around you. According to them, both sexes produced ‘seed’, the means by which new life was created, and good health required maintaining a balance of this in the body. If a man did not vent his seed he could be driven to depraved acts of sexual transgression: incest, bestiality and rape.

On the continent, cities such as Florence licensed brothels specifically to prevent men turning to homosexual acts to vent their seed. For women, “retention of seed” could lead to convulsions, fainting spells, breathing difficulty and even madness. The solution? “If the suffocation comes from a retention of the sperm,” wrote the 14th-century physician John of

Gaddesden, “the woman should get together and draw up a marriage contract with some man.” So the cure was sex. This dual-seed theory meant that to make a child both couples must vent their seed – that is, orgasm.

In the 11th century, Muslim polymath Avicenna had written advice for men so they could spot the signs of approaching female orgasm, and, translated into Latin, his works proliferated in the 15th and early 16th centuries. If this sounds a little too good to be true, it probably is. As far as medical thought went, virtually any vaginal emission counted as seed, so while it might be good for a woman’s health to have sex, the onus still wasn’t really on her pleasure.

5) …but not too much!

The church was so prohibitive in its attitude towards sex because it feared that, even when undertaking sex for procreative or medical reasons, people still might enjoy it so much that they would be lured into vice. The 15th-century mystic Margery Kempe was so disturbed by the pleasure she took in her marital sex that she asked her husband to live chastely. She feared that they “had displeased God by their inordinate love and the great delectation they each had in using the other”.

To some thinkers, any sex at all was too much. The ancient philosopher Aristotle had warned that sex weakened the mind of reason, and John Fisher, bishop of Rochester in 1509, claimed that “filthy lust of the flesh” could be actively harmful to men: “Physicians say that a man taketh more hurt by the effusion of a little seed than by shedding of 10 times so much blood.”

6) Don’t use contraception

Contraception was condemned by the church and exception could only be made in rare cases when a woman’s life would be endangered by childbirth. Priestly manuals called penitentials were particularly anxious about the widespread use of coitus interruptus. Ministers were advised not to inquire too much into the specifics of their parishioners’ sex lives – ignorance was, it seems, bliss.

The contraceptive advice handed out by medical texts is at times so bizarre that it is hard to imagine anyone taking it in any case. One douche to inhibit fertility demanded opium poppy, egg whites, goose fat, honey and “the milk of a woman”.

The Trotula suggested that a woman could also prevent pregnancy by carrying the testicles of a castrated weasel in her bosom – which would certainly kill the mood.

7) Use prostitutes

Surprisingly, one of the sexual transgressions that the church winked at was prostitution. The fifth-century theologian St Augustine had argued that if a man was going to have sex for non-procreative reasons it was better to do so with a prostitute, who was already corrupted, than with his wife. Some towns officially sanctioned prostitution. In Southampton, Bawd of the Stews (a brothel-owner or pimp) was an official title. The city of Sandwich regulated “a house… for common women” where prostitutes plied their trade. Southwark, outside London, was a 16th-century red light district and its landlord, the bishop of

Winchester, personally owned two of the dozen brothels in the area. Even where towns punished prostitution, their clamp-downs seem to have been more financially than morally motivated. Fining prostitutes for failing to wear a mandatory striped hood to distinguish them from respectable citizens was a money spinner for local authorities. The fact the same names and locations appear repeatedly in the records suggests that either officials were bad at their jobs, or that efforts to curb prostitution were only ever half-hearted. Alice Dymmok of Great Yarmouth, for example, had near constant run-ins with authorities throughout Henry VII’s reign for everything from prostitution to keeping a “suspicious house”.

8) Ignore all the rules

Given how contradictory medical texts and church advice could be, it is hardly surprising that in reality Tudors enjoyed much more active sex lives than these strictures might suggest.

Court records reveal couples having sex on shop floors, on haystacks, in kitchens, back alleys and up against walls. One pair were even discovered “in a pit” beside St George’s Field in London. Adultery might be forbidden but there was plenty of it going on, which is perhaps unsurprising when arranged marriages were commonplace among the nobility and royalty. While Catherine of Aragon was confined for her first pregnancy, Henry VIII and his close friend William Compton were both romantically linked to the married Lady Anne Hastings. Compton’s relationship with

Anne remained so devoted that he left her some of his estate in his will of 1523 – but that didn’t stop him requesting burial alongside his wife.

The Spanish ambassador who reported the king’s dalliance did not condemn him, but instead Queen Catherine – for being “vexed” by the affair. “In this I think I understand my part,” he wrote, “being a married man, and having often treated with married people in similar matters.” Given that you were damned if you did and damned if you didn’t, many Tudors clearly found that sex was worth the risk.

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Lauren Johnson is an author and historian whose books include The Arrow of Sherwood (Pen & Sword Fiction, 2013).