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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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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