Life in Tudor England (Part Two)

In the previous article in this series, Part One of Life in Tudor England, I covered: Tudor Women, Marriage, Childbirth, Fairs & Markets, Entertainment, Average Life and Food. If you missed out on that one it’s okay because each of these Tudor Life articles can stand alone – so you can really read them in any order.

If you’d like to LISTEN to part one you can do so here:

As I’ve stated before, my passion is really the people of Tudor court, not necessarily their everyday life. I love all the drama and crazy stories that we can retrieve from old letters and how they give us a glimpse into the personal lives of these amazing people. Understanding their everyday life IS very important to understand the entire person and it’s because of that (and your requests) that I have chosen to do this series.


When it comes to music in Tudor England it is easy to forget what an important role it took in everyday life. Henry VIII alone is attributed to over thirty compositions. He wasn’t only a composer, he sang, played the lute, virginals, organ and wind instruments including the recorder. He was also quite the dancer. In his younger years he was actually quite the catch.

Music of this era was influenced by current events, or personal experiences. Most of the Tudor household were musically inclined. It was important to Henry VIII that his children were as musically inclined as he was. His eldest child, Mary, could sing and play the lute and virginals. His second child, Elizabeth, was a little more like her father in the fact that she wrote some instrumental pieces and she also played the virginals. The King’s longed-for heir was no different – Edward also played the lute and virginals and possibly the viol which was a type of cello or violin.

For musical performances at court the presence of recorders, flutes, virginals and lutes were most common. Among the lower classes it was common for bagpipes and fiddles to be played.

During the thirty-eight year reign of Henry VIII both gentry and peerage became patrons of music, hiring musicians to play musics within their households. Music really became an integral part of Tudor life – with musicians hired to perform at colleges and for various events.


Masques were common during the reign of Henry VIII and developed out of English tradition. Disguised dancers would perform a piece which would draw the crowd into a dance.

‘During the reign of Henry VIII, courtiers began to take a greater role in the entertainment, often entering as the masquers or disguisers, and the entertainment began to include the “taking out” of nobility, the invitation to dance that was extended to nobility in the audience by the masqued entertainers. – Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, ‘History of the Masque Genre’

Henry VIII played an important role developing the genre – he often took part in the events, set designs and choreography. Henry enjoyed being part of the entertainment as well. We can look no further than Anne Boleyn’s first recorded appearance at Tudor court with Chateau Vert Pageant on Shrovetide Tuesday at York Place, which later would become Whitehall Palace.

A quote from Eric Ives’ biography on Anne Boleyn:

‘The theme of the opening tournament on 1 March was unrequited love, and this was continued when festivities reached a climax on the evening of Shrove Tuesday with a characteristically Burgundian pageant the assault on ‘the Chateau Vert’. There were eight court ladies involved, each cast as one of the qualities of the perfect mistress of chivalric tradition, Beauty, Honour, Perseverance, Kindness, Constancy, Bounty, Mercy and Pity – with Anne playing Perseverance and her sister Mary, Kindness. The King’s sister Mary led as Beauty, with the countess of Devonshire as Honour – two women who would be among Anne’s most implacable opponents – while of the other characters, Constancy was played by Jane Parker, soon to become Anne’s sister-in-law. They wore white satin, each with her character or ‘reason’picked out twenty-four times in yellow satin, and the headdresses were cauls of Venetian gold set off by Milan bonnets.’

Opposite the ladies were the eight male virtues – these virtues constituted the ‘ideal courtier’: Amoressness, Nobleness, Youth, Attendance, Loyalty, Pleasure, Gentleness and Liberty. Of course, Henry VIII played the lead role. A beautiful contrast to the ladies, the men wore caps and coats of cloth of gold and tinsel, with blue velvet buskins (knee-high boots) and ‘great mantle cloaks of blue satin’ – each had forty-two scrolls of yellow damask on which were pasted, in blue letters, the name of the role they were to play.

Masques, with their elaborate set designs, beautiful costumes and impressive stage mechanics were wonderful displays of majesty, power and wealth.


If you’ve ever watched the movie Footloose this next story will sound a bit familiar to you:

In June 1066 in Yorkshire, an alehouse keeper got into trouble for holding Sunday dances that were attracting over one hundred young people to dance to the music of a piper and drummer. The problem was a little different from Footloose as parishioners were more upset that these dances were happening on the Sabbath during church services.

Dancing was a popular pastime among all of England. As a courtier it was imperative to know all the dances in order to participate at court events. The King, Henry VIII, was a beautiful dancer and he often used his skills leaping ‘like a stag’ to show off his strong calf muscles. He had also been reported to dance until dawn.

Sometime around 1500 a man by the name of John Banys created a book in which he kept notes on twenty-six dances as well as thirteen pieces of music to dance to. The dances in his book are for two or three dancers. His notes don’t remark on steps or motions, more on the patterns that are made from the dancing in a group.

Sir Thomas Elyot’s, ‘Boke Named the Governour‘ he used dance as a means to teach moral virtue and also described how each step reflected and encouraged certain ‘noble qualities’ in the dancer. He goes on to say how every dance began with a respectful bow or curtsey and one would presume they end just as they began.

Tudor dances tended to be on the slower side and were more stately than the lower classes country dances, but not all of them as you see from these descriptions:

The Basse dances were noted for their formality with small gliding steps in which the feet remain close to the ground. The partners hold hands with multiple combinations of small bows and a series of walking steps completed by drawing the back foot up to the leading foot.

The Cornato dance was also for couples and was popular in the late 16th century (during the Elizabethan era). This dance originated in Italy as a folk dance with running steps, but looks more like hopping to me. It was performed with small, back-and-forth, springing steps, later subdued to stately glides. Each couple held hands to move forward and backward or dropped hands to face each other or turn.

The Pavane dance had basic movement, to music in 2/2 or 4/4 time and consisted of forward and backward steps; the dancers rose onto the balls of their feet and swayed from side to side. A column of couples circled the ballroom, and the dancers occasionally sang. The pavane was customarily followed by its after dance, the vigorous galliard.

The Galliard dance was a vigorous and fun 16th-century dance that would leave your sweaty, easily out of breath and possibly laughing. Its four hopping steps and one high leap permitted athletic gentlemen to show off for their partners (image Henry VIII showing off his calves). Performed as the after dance of the stately pavane, the galliard originated in 15th-century Italy. It was especially fashionable from c. 1530 to 1620 in France, Spain, and England. Queen Elizabeth is said to have practiced the Galliard as her morning exercise.


With all that dancing and lack of today’s standards of hygiene, one can imagine how the room smelled during these dances.
In another of Sir Thomas Elyot’s books, this one called, ‘The Castel of Helth‘he recommends that the morning routine should include a rub of the body with a coarse linen cloth, first softly and increasing to a much rougher rub which would cause the skin to swell and turn red. This was intended to draw out the body’s toxins through the open pores and then be carried away by the linen.

Members of court would generally smell sweet actually and they would do whatever they could to combat body odor. The most important layer of clothing was the layer that was touching the skin. This is the piece that was washed most frequently because it absorbed all the sweat and bodily fluids. These pieces of underwear were sometimes changed several times during the day to keep them clean and more pleasant smelling.

Historian Ruth Goodman tested this method of hygiene over a three-month period during her everyday life and nobody was the wiser. She wore a fine linen smock with a modern skirt and top over it. She also wore a pair of fine linen hose beneath a nice thick pair of woollen opaque tights. She changed the smock and hose daily and rubbed herself down with a linen cloth in the evening before bed. She did not shower or bath for the three-month period. She commented that she remained remarkably smell free – including her feet. Her skin stayed in good condition and she commented that her skin was better than usual, even after all the hard rubbing. So maybe court didn’t smell as badly as we had once believed.

What about their hair, right? Washing their hair was not as common as it is today. You see there were so many health hangups of the time that it was not done often because warm water would open pores and allow illness in. So hair was washed with cold herb-scented water when needed.
People of the Tudor era also wore perfumes, but not necessarily like the perfumes we use today. As an example, rosemary was believed to help with memory, while lavender was thought to calm and cool an overheated brain.

Perfume was a more natural source than the combination of chemicals we use in present day: A posy of violets – or a small linen bag filled with lavender flowers, or the smoke of herbs burnt on the fire were more common.

The one you probably recognize the most is Rose Oil – this was also used as a body perfume at Henry VIII’s court.


While using Rose Oil showed your societal ranking so did your clothing. Clothing was an important indicator of your social class. Those working in the general labor sector like shepherds and laborers were not allowed to wear any cloth that was imported.

Henry VIII’s first Act of Parliament contained sumptuary laws. This meant that certain fabrics and colors were confined to only the royal family. The Acts of Apparel stipulated that only royals could wear the color purple.

Here is part of the act from 1509: Sumptuary laws were passed during Henry VIII’s first Parliament to preserve rank and ensure no subject dressed above their rank – these laws were passed and prohibited anyone below the rank of Knight of the Garter with the exception of certain Lords, Judges and those of the king’s council and the Mayor of London to wear velvet in their gown and doublet, or satin or damask in his gown or coat. Others with the title of Earl or higher could wear sable fur. With that being said, other furs could be worn by lower ranks. Here are some of the specifics:

Be it ordained by the Authority of this present Parliament that no person of what estate condition or degree, that he be, use in his apparel any cloth of gold of Purple color, or silk of Purple color, but only the King the Queen the King’s Mother the King’s children the King’s brothers and sisters.

No man under a Duke may use in any apparel of his body or upon his Horses any cloth of gold of tissue

no man under the degree of an Earl may wear in his apparel any Sables

no man under the degree of a Baron use in his apparel of his body or of his Horses any cloth of gold or cloth of silver of tinselled satin nor no other silk or cloth mixed or embroidered with gold or silver

no man under the degree of a Knight of the Garter wear in his gown or coat or any other his apparel any velvet of the colour of crimson or blue

And Council and Mayors of the City of London for the time being, use or wear any velvet in their gowns or riding coats or furs of Martron in their apparel

There were also certain clauses that prohibited the wearing of foreign wools and furs, which protected local businesses and trade.


In the 16th century there was an unprecedented revolution in dress – first the introduction of sleeves, which would now be made of a different material and color than the gown itself. This opened up many options for sleeve changes with the same dress, offering a way to change your look without changing the dress. The sleeves themselves varied in style. Some were full and puffy while others may have been padded and quilted or slashed with a tighter fit. There was also the option of a more square-necked dress at this time that was more of a short-waisted style which made the stomacher look more formal.

I love to look at portraits from this era – especially portraits of noble or aristocratic women. When we look at portraits of the wives of Henry VIII we see some of the most beautiful dresses of the early to mid-16th century. At this time the length of a woman’s gown marked her rank. If you were a countess, baroness or a lady of a lower rank you would be ranked by the length of your train. The amount of embroidery on the dress and petticoat also denoted the status of the woman.


Small triangular pieces called stomachers were pinned across the front of the bodice and covered from the neckline (in some cases) to the waist. Not all stomachers were pinned, some were tied. Stomachers were an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe. This piece of fabric could be changed out at the same time as the sleeves to completely change the look of a dress. While many stomachers were made to blend seamlessly with a dress, others were made to compliment the dress with a contrasting patterns or color.

Women’s Shoes

The plainest type of shoe available was made of wood but was covered in velvet or leather. These shoes were stitched and fastened with buckles and broad-headed, ornamental screws or nails. There were also pantoffles (pan-toffle) and chopines. A pantoffle (pan-toffle) was like a slipper – a chopine was built with a high platform to protect the wearers feet and dress from the mud, animal entrails and fecal matter that was common in city streets at the time.

In modern-day we have things like sweatpants, leggings, yoga pants and free-flowing dresses for comfort – this was not a luxury of 16th century England. Clothing was not made for comfort, and makes me wonder if wearing a shift to bed was like a women in modern-day removing her bra after a long day. Ladies, you know what I’m saying. Ahhhhhh.

For men, it was of great public importance for men to be dressed well. A man’s outfit signified is place in society – even more so than women. Laws restricted a man’s rights to wear certain fabric and colours to those within particular social strata so thoughtless dressing could land a man in legal trouble – Ruth Goodman

Tudor Men’s Hats

While styles of hats varied, common amongst the commoners of the time were the ‘flat caps’which had been in use for much of the Tudor reign. These might be made of wool, felt, or leather, and could be lined with linen. Amongst the nobility, tall hats similar to a modern top hat, but featuring a tapering crown, or an arched brim hat might be popular amongst both men and women. Italian style ‘bonnet’hats also were popular during the period, and any of these hats could be made of a fine fabric over a frame of linen stiffened with gum. Leather was also a popular material for the construction of fashionable hats. – Tudor Shoppe

Tudor Men’s Shoes

Tudor men’s legs were covered with hose, which had become two separate pieces. Upper stocks covered the top half of the leg, while lower stocks covered the bottom. The differentiation between the two pieces is particularly clear in Henry?s portrait. The emphasis on width is continued all the way down to the shoes, called duckbill shoes. Duckbill shoes were flat and square in front, made of leather, and could be slashed for decoration. ? The Fashion Historian

Washing Clothes

When we think about all the pieces that go into the ladies gowns one has to wonder – how does it all get clean? And how often?

The outer garments belonging to the wealthy could not easily be washed. They would have to be brushed and also be aired out. One had to be careful especially with the garments that had delicate embroidery. Often these items were worn or used until they were to the point of looking unpleasant or no longer fashionable and then the salvageable parts were kept while the rest was discarded.

The soap available to wash clothes with was not friendly to the finer fabrics such as silk, velvet and brocades, however, it could be used for linens – the clothing worn closest to the skin.

If an article of clothing had stains, it would be soaked in a tub of lye. ‘Sometimes the clothes were layered up, balanced on sticks, in a large barrel ( a buck tub) and the buck was patiently poured through them a number of times. This is a possible origin of the term ‘passing the buck’.

Once it had been soaked in the lye then the actual process of washing began to remove the lye from the cloth. These items were generally taken to the nearest water source, whether it be a river or stream and they would bat them with wooden poles called washing bats.

It the linens were not white enough human urine was used as a bleaching agent – sounds disgusting, I know, but it was definitely effective.

Quote from ‘Washday Blues: how did they keep clean?’on the website Living History Today: (

‘Some soap was made at home or by itinerant soap makers. It involved boiling animal fat, most usually mutton, in vats of lye. When the mixture had reduced and started to harden it was either shaped by hand or poured into wetted moulds to dry and harden properly. The process was smelly, messy and potentially dangerous and produced a harsh, caustic alkaline soap. Sometimes the mixture would be reboiled more than once and be sieved and pressed before scents were added if the mixture was for personal use. In 1524 it was recorded as costing 1d per pound and soap makers could be fined for selling their soap ‘too wet’ so that it weighed more. Country folk boiled up saponaria or soapwort to give a frothy and slightly greasy feeling cleansing lather which, when in bloom produces a delicate scent.

After the washing was complete then came…obviously the drying, but they didn’t have electric dryers like we have today. It appears that clothes were spread on bushes or laid out in communal drying fields. In Southampton during the reign of Queen Elizabeth a man had a hand chopped off for stealing clothes from a communal field. The removal of his hand shows the value that clothing had.


So, what did we learn from this part in the series?

We learned that music played an important role in Tudor life, as well as dancing. We learned that people, especially those at Tudor court maybe didn’t smell as bad as we once believed…and we learned a bit about clothing and how to clean it.

Further Reading:

Goodman, Ruth, How to Be a Tudor
Johnson, Sarah E, ‘Masques’Encyclopedia of Tudor England
Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn

Cox, Noel; Tudor Sumptuary Laws and Academical Dress: An Act Against Wearing of Costly Apparel 1509 and an Act for Reformation of Excess in Apparel 1533 (Transactions of the Burgon Society, Vol. 6, pp. 15-43, 2006)


History of the Masque Genre – Helen L. Hull, Meg F. Pearson, and Erin A . (definition of the dances)

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