Life in Tudor England (Part One)
There are things that we take for granted because we’ve always had them. For instance: Plumbing, running water, cars, the internet, smartphones and the list goes on and on. Some of us even grew up without some of today’s luxuries and we survived just fine, but in Tudor England life was much more dangerous than it is now – imagine not having vaccines and dying from Smallpox; Imagine not having a flushing toilet or a shower; Imagine not having a microwave!! I’m sure that people in England at this time had a good life – they didn’t really have anything like we have today to compare it to.
The reality of the lives of Tudor women varied due to their social ranks, their marital status, where they lived and even their religious affiliations. Regardless of all the aforementioned things all women were discriminated against due to their gender – this is something that to some extent still rings true today. Here are some things that the modern-day woman takes for granted:
- In Tudor England, women could not hold public office.
- Women could not vote
- Women were barred from attending grammar schools and universities.
- Women could not be stage actors – their male counterparts would play the roles of women in their plays.
However, women of noble birth could receive a formal education when their families paid for tutors – those who were not of noble birth were often educated by either their mother or a parish priest.
Tudor women often found themselves defined by their husbands and were generally categorized as maids, wives and widows – if they deviated from the social norm they would often be called a ‘shrew’, ‘scold’, ‘whore’or even a ‘witch’.
A woman’s virtue was her most prized possession. In the Elizabethan era, women began to really venture into print – sharing their thoughts and criticisms. This was not seen as compatible with the standard of women having modesty and being considered virtuous.
Punishment for Women Who Behaved Poorly
I found information about punishment of women in an article by Kelli Marshal in a magazine called, ‘The Week‘- here are some examples:
‘Neighbors often dealt with shrews themselves to evade the law, and yes, being a scold was illegal. The community would stage a charivari (shiv–uh-ree), also known as “rough music,” a skimmington, and carting. Clanging pots and pans, townspeople would gather in the streets, their “music” drawing attention to the offending scold, who often rode backwards on a horse or mule. She faced the wrong way to symbolize the transgressive reversal of gender roles.’
‘Elizabethan women who spoke their minds or sounded off too loudly were also punished via a form of waterboarding. A cucking or ducking stool featured a long wooden beam with a chair attached to one end. The beam was mounted to a seesaw, allowing the shackled scold to be dunked repeatedly in the water. The action would supposedly cool her off.’
The Scold’s Bridle
‘A third device used to control women and their speech during Shakespeare’s day was the scold’s bridle, or brank. Resembling a horse’s bridle, this contraption was basically just a metal cage placed over the scold’s head. A plate inserted into the woman’s mouth forced down her tongue to prevent her from speaking.
Like women who suffered through charivari and cucking stools, women squeezed into the branks were usually paraded through town. In fact, some scold’s bridles, like the one above, included ropes or chains so the husband could lead her through the village or she him. Some branks featured decorative elements like paint, feathers, or a bell to alert others of her impending presence. Furthermore, some of the mouthpieces contained spikes, to ensure the woman’s tongue was really tamed.’
Once married it was imperative for a Tudor bride to produce a male heir for her husband (especially if they were of a noble family). But let’s be honest, sometimes the woman would be pregnant prior to the wedding.
Nowadays, we can take an at home pregnancy test to find out if we are pregnant – In Tudor times women didn’t have that luxury. If a woman missed her period she could assume she was with child, but could not truly confirm it until she felt the child move inside her. This was referred to as the quickening.
The quickening generally happened around the fourth month of pregnancy. By then the woman should have already experienced: tender breasts, cravings and quite possible a swollen stomach.
*Interesting side note: Up until the 19th century, or the 1800s, the quickening was believed to be the point at which the child received its soul.
Historian, Dr. Susan Walters Schmid points out that in the 16th century pregnancy was not as dangerous as modern writers have portrayed. She states that in England, there was about a 1% chance of a woman dying during each of her pregnancies and a 5-7% chance that she would die from pregnancy in her lifetime. This is quite different from what we have been led to believe. With that being said, pregnancy in Tudor England was not taken lightly.
Even with the small percentage of deaths from childbirth, it is believed that most Tudor women would have known someone who had died this way.
Miscarriage was a common occurrence of the time. About half of all pregnancies resulted in miscarriage – this would have undoubtedly been a stressful time once the woman discovered she was with child.
In today’s world, a mother is instructed to take prenatal vitamins, to eat healthy, to avoid raw meats and a list of other harmful food items. Tudor women were instructed to restrain from physical activities, to abstain from sex, eat well and to use herbal remedies when needed.
The sex of the child could not have been determined by an ultrasound, however, some consulted with an astrologer to discover the sex of their child. As we know from the birth of Elizabeth Tudor to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, astrologers were often wrong.
It was also believed in the Tudor era that birthmarks and birth defects were caused by the woman witnessing (or being involved in) a traumatic event. Nowadays, some truly believe that a birthmark is something left over from a past life, or even a mark to signify how you had died. Both are interesting theories.
While women of noble birth would receive a more formal education they would not experience childbirth that was much different from their counterparts. As a woman’s due date approached the woman would choose women she wanted near her for childbirth – men very rarely (if at all) were allowed in the room. If the woman lived in a town or village she may have been able to have a trained midwife present for the birth – while the country woman would have had a woman who was experienced in childbirth.
*Interesting side note: Male midwives were not allowed into the birthing chamber until the following century.
When the time had arrived the woman’s bed would have been stripped and made with clean linens – she would also have clean shift to wear. Often fresh air was seen as harmful to the mother and child so the windows would be closed and the curtains drawn. This was meant to create a warm and comfortable environment for the child that was similar to that of the mother’s womb.
When was in full labor and it was time to push, her position would vary. Sometimes a birthing stool would be used – if you haven’t seen a birthing stool it essentially a chair with a large opening in the middle to allow the midwife (or woman delivery the child) to catch the child. Other than the birthing stool the position were very similar to what we experience today – propped up in a bed and other positions to help the process. I’ll spare you all the details.
Immediately after the birth the child would be washed and wrapped while the mother was taken care of by other women present. If a midwife was present and the child appeared to be of poor health and deemed to not live long, the midwife would baptize the child right there.
Historian Dr. Susan Walters Schmid admits that most of what is known about 16th century childbirth is ‘inferred from a small number of sources and information we have for slightly later times’. This is mainly because the women who were involved in the process would rarely read or write. On rare occasion you can find something written in a diary or letter.
Marriage was an important milestone because it signified adulthood for the bride and groom.
The average age of the average Tudor man entering marriage is a bit higher than you may imagine – 27, while his female counterpart would have been about 24 years old.
The upper class was a bit younger (by a few years) when they entered into wedlock. In addition, anyone marrying under the age of 21 required permission from their parent or guardian to marry. Most parents among the peerage and gentry arranged their children’s marriages.
The brides parents were also expected to provide a dowry. If you’re unfamiliar with dowries, they were money and sometimes land/property that was given to the husband upon marriage to their daughter.
Prior to a wedding the marriage banns were announced at the parish church on three consecutive Sundays. This occurred to allow time prior to the ceremony to uncover any impediments to the marriage. Sometimes it would be discovered that the couple were too closely related and so the wedding would not occur.
The actual ceremony is much like today’s with an exchange of rings, and instead of a marriage license the marriage was marked in the parish registry.
Fairs & Markets
Fairs and markets in Tudor England allowed both citizens and producers to come together to buy and sell goods.
Fairs were either annual or bi-annual events and they brought in both buyers and sellers from larger areas than say a market did. The products offered at Fairs would have been things such as: Sheep, horses, cattle, leather and cloth. It wasn’t just purchasing and selling items that occurred at fairs but there was also entertainment, unlike fairs of today with carnival rides and deliciously fattening foods, there would have been jugglers, fire-eaters, tumblers and other types of entertainment.
Markets on the other hand were more frequent than fairs, happening weekly and all over England. At the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign there were over 750 towns in England that held markets. It was at these markets that citizens could purchase necessary supplies like produce, fish, grain and other products.
The thing I hear the most from my social media followers is that they – or you – want to hear more about everyday Tudor life. This is not a specialty of mine as I tend to look closer at personal relationships and how they intertwine in the story of Tudor history.
Now the ‘average’person in England essentially worked from sunrise to sunset. They were occupied in trade, in agriculture/farming or produced some type of product. Then there were landowners – because not everyone owned their own land, remember. If you were a landowner in Tudor England you served in some aspect in government, you were responsible for running your estates and a multitude of other responsibilities – some responsibilities were, of course, delegated.
As with today we all have to find time to do something other than work. This was much the same in the 16th century.
Hunting was a very popular pastime for those of the peerage and gentry…and of course of the royals as well. The wealthy were the ones who were lucky enough to hunt deer. If you were say the keeper of a forest for the king you had to get a license from him before you could hunt the deer within the forest. On the flip side yeoman farmer were allowed to hunt foxes, while the poor could only hunt rabbits and hares. Quite a difference in diet, eh?
There was also a wide selection of outdoor activities – such as football, or soccer depending on what part of the world you live in. Football in Tudor England was different from today. The teams were made of as many people who wanted to play and the goals were A MILE APART. Another big difference is that the participants could not only kick the ball but also pick it up and throw it! I read somewhere once that when Native Americans played Lacrosse that sometimes their goals were six miles apart – participants would really need to have built up some endurance. Imagine the amount of calories you would burn!?
There were other outdoor activities as well – some of the upper class also played archery and fencing. There was also games called: blindman’s bluff and hoodman’s blind. Ever heard of them? Yeah, me neither. These games are described as having one person blind-folded and that person must either identify, or catch, the people who are touching or hitting them. Sounds like a miserable version of tag if you ask me.
The was also a game called bowls – this was a game that was very similar to what we now know as bowling, with ten-pins and a ball.
A sport that we know Henry VIII excelled at was tennis. If you ever watched The Tudors TV series you’ll remember the scenes where Henry would play tennis with his friends while others watched on. Tennis is believed to be one of the oldest sports that uses a racquet. Again, if you watched The Tudors you’ll recall how the game was played indoors, but much like today had a net that the players would hit the ball over. In Tudor England the participants were also allowed to bounce the ball of the walls (sounds like racquetball to me) and would score points when they got the leather ball in a goal that was high on the wall. Now this sounds like an interesting version of tennis – I want to go play now!
The lower classes could enjoy things like wrestling, swimming (if they knew how to) and horseback riding.
In the Elizabethan era billiards was introduced and became a popular pastime of the upper-class. This was also the time when theater became a source of entertainment – have you heard of a guy called Shakespeare? Thought so.
It wasn’t all outdoor activities – there was plenty to do inside as well, such as a friendly game of chess, checkers, dice and of course card games. Most of these indoor games also included gambling, something we know that Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Queen Mary I greatly enjoyed.
While this wasn’t necessarily a list of activities or entertainment for the lower classes it gives you a sense of how Tudor England let loose.
I forgot to mention some of the more scandalous entertainment from Tudor England – something that today we would very much frown upon:
Bear-Baiting: This just sounds horrible to watch but was considered appropriate entertainment for the time – a bear would be chained to a post and it was within a ring. Then a bunch of dogs were allowed inside the ring to try to kill the bear. Gah! No thanks – I’ll pass. But Henry VIII and Elizabeth both enjoyed the sport. There was apparently a ring at Whitehall so they could watch from the palace. It truly was a different time.
Cock-Fighting is considered an ancient spectator sport with origins in India, China and Persia as well as other Eastern civilizations. It was introduced to Ancient Greece sometime around 524 BC. It consisted of putting two cocks, or rooster together in a ring. By instinct the two will fight to the death for dominance.
*And on an interesting side note – It was important to the Tudor government that English people spent most of their time working. A law was passed in 1512 that banned ordinary people from a whole range of games including tennis, dice, cards, bowls and skittles.
Life in Tudor England was not easy. A large number of the residents lived in the country with a large percentage of people living in small villages. They made their living by farming and selling goods at markets or to others. And the average life expectancy would around 35 years old.
When we think about all the modern conveniences that we have today like: plumbing, running water, CLEAN water, motor vehicles, electricity (the list goes on) – the comforts we take for granted would have been well appreciated in Tudor England.
People often drank ale (different from beer because of how it was made) because water was collected from pumps, wells and streams and was usually contaminated. Hell, they used to dump sewage in the Thames and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to drink that water.
Milk was not really used for simply drinking as it was only available around the times the cows calved and was too useful in making cheese and butter for any to be left over for drinking.
The first flushing toilet wasn’t introduced in England until Sir John Harrington invented it in the Elizabethan Era – this is why today some still refer to it as the ‘john’. The toilet, or toilet room was often called a privy or the privy chamber. The setup was generally a piece of wood over a hole. Similar to an outhouse maybe. In castles the excrement would just run down the side of the building into a pile and then some poor soul was responsible to cart it off to someplace else. Weird thought, but I wonder if they used it as fertilizer – much like farmers of today use animal excrement on their fields as fertilizer.
Have you ever wondered what they wiped their bum with? If you were the King of England you would have your Groom of the Stool wipe you with a cloth and dispose of everything for you. A prized position at Tudor court because it brought you so close to the King that you could ask for favors. IF you by chance were not the King of England then you would wipe with lamb’s wool – but if that wasn’t available to you then you could use leaves and moss in its place.
In Tudor England the people ate a lot of fresh food. They didn’t have refrigerators or freezers to store food like we do today. They were able to preserve some of it with salt, but I’m not sure how long it would have lasted before going bad.
Meals were eaten with fingers as forks were not common place at the time – they existed but weren’t being used, however they did have knives and spoons.
Animals were kept year-round for the sole purpose of having meat available when you needed it and the meat would be fresh! A large majority (possibly around 75%) of the wealthy had a diet made of meet – oxen, deer, calves, pigs, badgers and wild boar would have made a large portion of their diets. If you were Henry VIII you might have even all of the previously listed items in one Supper.
They also ate birds like: Peacocks, chickens, pheasant, crane, chicken and even pigeons.
Bread was an important staple in Tudor England with it being eaten at most meals. If you were wealthy you would eat white bread made of wholemeal flour, but if you were poor your bread would be made from rye or even ground acorns.
As we know fruits and vegetables are important to diets to prevent scurvy and other diseases. In England they made sure to get in some beans, peas, carrots, parsnips, peascod (peas in a pod), cabbages, cauliflower, leeks and onions (potatoes didn’t come to England until the late 16th century) or fruits that were in season like: apples, pears, cherries and plums. They could preserve some of the fruit in syrup to make that last through the winter months.
Fish was commonplace near rivers and coastal towns for a source of protein. They would eat freshwater fish like: salmon, eels, pike, perch, trout and sturgeon. Every Friday it was required that people ate Fish on Friday (not just Lent like nowadays), so it was an important staple to their diet.
Poor people ate a lot of pottage – it was an herb-flavored soup sometimes made of peas, milk, egg yolk parsley and breadcrumbs and was flavored with saffron and ginger. While others have said it was a mix of grains, water and vegetables with meat scraps. It was often served with bread made from rye or ground acorns.
Chicken was also a staple for the lower classes as they were more affordable to raise and then eat. If they could afford it they would buy meat from one of the weekly markets. They could also hunt hares and rabbits.
So that is just a few examples of what Tudor life in England was like. I have many more categories to discuss on this topic so this will be at least a two-part series, if not three.
Continue to Part Two HERE.
Wagner, John A, Walters Schmid, Susan; Encyclopedia of Tudor England [3 volumes],ABC-CLIO; Pck edition (December 9, 2011),ISBN-10: 1598842986, ISBN-13: 978-1598842982
History Podcast childbirth in Tudor England Tudor drink Tudor entertainment Tudor food tudor marriages tudor women
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