Keeping Up Appearances: Tudor Style

Guest article written by Wendy J. Dunn

There is one thing I rediscover over and over in my research of the Tudors: “The past is another country; they do things differently there”(Hartley 1997, p.5). Yes – the people of the past lived very differently to us. As a writer, I am fascinated by these differences and use them to enrich my storytelling. I am particularly fascinated by the daily life of my Tudor people. This involves an adventure of research. Learning about Tudor hygiene was one such adventure – one I thought I would share with you here.

When the time approached for Katherine of Aragon to come to England to marry Prince Arthur, the eldest son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth wrote to Isabel of Castile, Katherine of Aragon’s mother, advising her to ensure Katherine was used to drinking English wine before arriving in England. Elizabeth told Isabel that water in England ‘is not drinkable, and even if it were, the climate would not allow the drinking of it'(Rubin, 2004, p. 389). English ale or wine was considered far safer to drink than water obtained by the people of this period from natural sources, too often polluted by human excrement. Around 1520, a shocked Erasmus described English floors of the chambers where people ate their meals as ‘usually of clay, strewed with rushes under which lie unmolested an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle, excrements of dogs and cats, and everything nasty'(Hibbert 1987, p. 5). It is possible to read historical snippets like this and assume living in Tudor times entailed a lack of interest in good hygiene. But despite the primitive hygiene methods of Tudor England, people of the time did what they could to keep themselves and their homes clean.

Whilst it is true that ‘immersion bathing’ was not a daily or even weekly happening in these times, the upper and middle classes had baths – usually a wooden tub – in their homes and used them. Bath water was made more fragrant with additions of fennel and bay; endive and fennel were used for footbaths (Emerson 1996) and gave a temporary relief from bad body odour, a possible reason for Henry VIII’s aversion to Anne of Cleves. Poor people tended to wash their bodies in what nature provided, rivers, ponds and the like.

Tudor era bathing

The court of Henry VIII developed into something very different to that of his father, Henry VII. Henry VIII enjoyed spending the wealth he inherited from his father on the trappings of wealth and the finer things in life; his reign saw a building program that fitted his view of himself as a modern prince. As modern times for this prince fell in the renaissance period, Henry VIII’s palaces became places designed for beauty. Another powerful influence on the King was that of his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Katherine grew up in her mother’s kingdom of Castile. The Christian monarchs of Castile had long integrated many of the traditions held dear by their Moor rivals – one of these traditions included a love of bathing.

Katherine of Aragon was a child when her mother and father, Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, finally took Granada from its Islamic rulers and added the Alhambra to their list of royal palaces. Katherine knew this exquisite palace as one of her many homes. Its man made streams and fountains and thermal baths, modelled in the Roman style, formed an important part of her early life experience.

As new arrivals to the English court, the ladies of Katherine of Aragon, and no doubt the sixteen-year-old Katherine, were shocked by seeing men relieving their bladders in public places (Emerson 1996). The huge fireplaces of the times were a popular choice for men to urinate in. Such behaviour was no longer acceptable by the end of the Tudor dynasty. In 1573, Thomas Tusser wrote in his ‘Five hundreth Goode Pointes of Husbandrie:

Some make the chimnie chamber pot to smell like Filthie stink,
Yet who so bold,
so soone to say,
fough, how These houses stink? (Hibbert 1987, p. 201).

Katherine of Aragon’s marriage to Henry VIII marked the beginning of a real cultural change at the English court. The ‘pissing areas’ allotted for members of the court of Henry VII were phased out through building more garderobes in the chambers of the palaces. By example and new, stricter guidelines for the behaviour of those at court, Katherine and Henry steadily steered England’s nobility and England to a time for higher standards of cleanliness.

Like her father, Elizabeth I, too, was known for her high standards, and had an aversion to strong smells and uncleanliness. She was known to have regular baths, her favourite palaces possessing luxurious, beautifully designed bathrooms, with running water. She even took a portable bath with her on her progresses.

Cold conditions do not encourage anyone to wash, let alone the Tudors who faced freezing winters in draughty, hard to keep warm chambers. Some people of the time believed that full bathing was unhealthy and could lead to death – which explains the horror of her court when Elizabeth insisted on bathing during her life and death battle with small pox in 1562. Plumbing in houses – if it did exist – was primitive, though most homes of the well-to-do provided a type of inside toilet. Using the same principle found in castles, a narrow, cell-like room was situated against the outer wall of a house. Found inside this room – called, amongst other things, the ‘jakes’ or garderobe – was a seat with a hole, placed over an internal shaft. The shaft was angled in such a way that human waste went down to an outside cesspool (Emerson 1996, p.54). Toilet paper was unknown in the Tudor period. Paper was a precious commodity for the Tudors – so they used salt water and sticks with sponges or mosses placed at their tops, while royals used the softest lamb wool and cloths (Emerson 1996, p. 54).

The monarch’s Privy Chamber is thought to come by its name because of its proximity to the royal ‘privy’, a ‘little room’ that contained a ‘close stool’, a boxed seat containing a fitted chamber pot. When Elizabeth I ventured out into her kingdom on one of her progresses, she took not only her portable bath but also her ‘portable’ loo, a closed stool, covered with lush, red velvet, befitting her royal rank. Her father also liked velvet covered closed stools. His chamber pot or ‘jordan’ was enclosed in a close- stool covered with black velvet, ribbons, fringe and a few glint-headed nails – two thousand to be exact (Hibbert 1987, p. 200).

To be attendant to this very necessary royal function was considered one of the important roles of the bedchamber. The maids who took care of the cloths Elizabeth used during menstruation were in the position of being bribed by not only foreign dignitaries, but also men part of Elizabeth’s Privy Council. Cecil kept very informed about this very intimate part of Elizabeth’s life; the knowledge she functioned like a normal woman made him confident she could provide the country with an heir (Weir 1999).

What I believe people did in between baths to keep clean was ‘sponge’ their bodies. It is also possible that they used similar methods to the Victorians in regards to some of their clothes – using vinegar or lemon juice as a sponging method to help neutralize any obvious smells. Linen shifts worn under rich gowns went along way to protect outer clothes from the damage of body sweat, plus had an added bonus that they could be changed and washed frequently.

The Tudors tried their best to keep their teeth clean by using tooth-picks and a cloth to polish them – though they often put honey into teeth cleaning preparations, not realizing that this caused teeth decay. By the end of her reign, foreign ambassadors commented on the yellowness or blackness of Elizabeth’s few remaining teeth (Weir 1999). Throughout her life, Elizabeth enjoyed sugared sweets; the Tudors believed eating such things solved the problem of bad breath, as well as chewing mint leaves and aniseed.

The Tudors suspected dirt was linked to disease, believing infection was ‘transmitted through bad air or foul smells'(Weir 2004, p. 54). People even designed their houses with this in mind, thinking ‘the south wind doth corrupt and make for vapours’, while the east wind was ‘temperate, fryske and fragraunt’ (Hibbert 1987, p. 195).

The Tudor habit of using their fireplaces as chamber pots was not likely one ever found at Elizabeth’s court. Despite the fact she could swear, spit and swill beer with the best of them, men were very respectful of her as their queen, and a virgin one at that. One of her courtiers was so embarrassed he had farted in her presence he chose self-exile for seven years. On his return, Elizabeth remarked with an amused glint: ‘My lord, I had forgot the fart’ (Weir 1999, p. 257).


Alison Weir 2001, Henry VIII, King and Court, Ballantine Books, NY.
Kathy Lynn Emerson, 1996. The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Renaissance England (Writer’s Guides to Everyday Life). Writer’s Digest Books.
Hartley, L.P. and D. Brooks-Davies 1997, The Go-Between, Penguin Books, London.
Christopher Hibbert 1987, The English, Paladin
Alison Weir 1999, Elizabeth the Queen, Ballantine Books, NY.
Antonia Fraser 1998, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Arrow books
Nancy Rubin 2004, Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen, USA.

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9 Comments Leave a comment

  1. One thing…”mensuration” is a term for the music notation of that time. I believe the term you wanted was “menstruation.” 🙂

    • LOL! Thank you for your eagle eyes, Dawn. Yes – two words with very similar spelling but very different meanings. Big smile. Let me attempt an deliberate pun! This is what happen when you research a period.

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