“The Lives of Ordinary Tudor Women” by Elizabeth Norton

Sketch of a 16th-Century English Woman with Children Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger
Sketch of a 16th-Century English Woman with Children
Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger

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The Lives of Ordinary Tudor Women

by Elizabeth Norton

The Tudor age is often seen as an age of queens, with the six wives of Henry VIII and reigns of Mary and Elizabeth coming to characterise their respective periods. However, the vast majority of women ranked far below royalty. They were far below the nobility even, with their links to court and claims of kinship with the ruling dynasty. Seldom told, their stories can be just as dynamic as those of their social betters.

The early lives of most Tudor women were roughly similar, regardless of rank. All babies were swaddled at birth and all were baptised. They were weaned in the same way, with their mother or nurse carefully chewing food for their toothless mouths. There were toys, too, to suit all parental purses. Even the most destitute children could fashion a plaything from animal bones, scraps of cloth or wood, while children of all social levels played games and mimicked their elders in their play.

Margaret More Roper, daughter of Sir Thomas More, was an example of an intelligent, highly educated Tudor Era woman. Artist: Section of 1593 Copy of Holbein Original
Margaret More Roper, daughter of Sir Thomas More, was an example of an intelligent, highly educated Tudor Era woman.
Artist: Section of 1593 Copy of Holbein Original

With female education becoming fashionable, a surprisingly high number of Tudor girls were able to attend school. It was not, of course, thought necessary to teach them Latin and Greek, or other subjects taught to boys at the new Grammar schools since (as one contemporary educationalist put it) ‘naturally the male is more worthy’. Nonetheless, a little reading, writing and accountancy could not hurt a girl and a great many were sent to local free schools to learn alongside their male peers. Even the very poorest families in Norwich in the 1560s sent their daughters to school, although older girls – from about the age of nine – were pulled out of their lessons to help support the family with spinning and other work.

Childhood for Tudor children ended in the early teens when almost everyone, from the highest and lowest, left home for the first time. While aristocratic and gentle girls could expect to be sent to serve a social superior, for poorer girls this usually meant a term of domestic service. Contracts were verbal and of one year’s duration, with neither the employer nor the employee permitted to end them early. The master would undertake to pay a wage, as well as provide board and lodging, while the servant performed domestic, farm or business tasks.

Occasionally girls were actually formally apprenticed, although in much smaller numbers than boys. In Tudor Bristol, many girls were apprenticed to learn housewifery, although there are examples of girls being apprenticed to male pinmakers or mercers. Women, too, could take over a family business when their husband died, or in some places start up their own business as a ‘femme sole’. Then, they could take their own apprentices, securing their admission to the prestigious livery companies which would not admit even the most successful women traders.

Woodcut of Tudor Era Woman Spinning Wool
Woodcut of Tudor Era Woman Spinning Wool

For most girls, service was brought to an end by marriage. At all social levels it was expected that there should be some love or, at least, a liking between the young couple, with poorer women usually more free to choose than their social superiors. Men were also advised to choose carefully, with contemporaries advising them to meet with their prospective mother-in-law to observe her behaviour, in the expectation that her daughter would follow her conduct. Men were cautioned to seek out meek and demure wives, skilled in sewing, spinning, knitting and keeping bashfully out of the way when strangers came to call. There was less guidance for women, although they were advised to avoid the ‘crocodile tears’ of young men. A woman’s reputation, once lost, could never be repaired and they must ensure that they were safely promised before they consented to consummate their relationships.

In the absence of reliable contraception, most wives soon became mothers, with women expected to do the bulk of the child rearing. At the same time wives were expected to have a good knowledge of cookery and household medicine making, as well as the skills to assist their husband in his business. Given the fact that women lived longer than men on average (in the Tudor period and now), most women could expect to be widowed at least once. Subsequent marriages were not uncommon, although sexual intercourse after the menopause was frowned on by the church – there was, after all, no prospect of a child.

A Rare Tudor Era Portrait of an Aged Elizabeth, Regina Artist: Unknown
A Rare Tudor Era Portrait of an Aged Elizabeth, Regina
Artist: Unknown

Much is made of Elizabeth I’s concerns over her ageing and fading appearance, with sources claiming that mirrors were removed at court to stop the queen seeing herself as she truly was. However, old age was immeasurably harder for the queen’s poorer subjects. With no prospect of retirement, the elderly were usually forced to work until they were physically incapable. At the same time, aged women were viewed with suspicion. The author of the wildly popular Women’s Secrets, for one, believed that all women were toxic and that they could poison babies with one glance.

It was only a small step from this position to view the elderly as potential witches, with such unfortunate women always vulnerable to allegations of witchcraft. Poor Alice Samuel had only to visit her neighbour in Warboys in Huntingdonshire in 1589 to find herself accused of bewitching the household’s daughters. When one girl pointed to her and said ‘Grandmother, look where the old witch sits’, the die was cast. Poor Alice Samuel was later hanged for this supposed crime. Wealthier women were less vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, but they did occur. Old age must have seemed a poor reward for surviving all the dangers of Tudor life.

Tudor women lived lives as varied as those of Tudor men, with social status and wealth particularly important in defining their daily activities. The idea that life could be divided into seven ages was a popular one in Tudor England, but very few women made it to their seventh age. Infancy, childbirth, accident and disease carried off most women long before they reached old age. It is perhaps no surprise therefore that, when questioned, many of the poor women of Norwich in the 1560s exaggerated their age, claiming to have reached the age of 100. They probably hoped for a place in one of the town’s charitable institutions – comfortable places to see out their final years.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Norton
Elizabeth Norton

Elizabeth Norton is a British historian that researches and writes primarily of the women contributing to English medieval history. With MA degrees in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and a MA degree in European Archaeology from Oxford, Elizabeth certainly is multi-talented and highly gifted. Elizabeth completed her doctoral research at King’s College, London where she researched the Blount family of Shropshire. Elizabeth also researched and released a non-fiction book focusing on the remarkable life of Elfrida, England’s first crowned queen, further broadening her expertise of England’s most remarkable female historical figures. For more information, visit Elizabeth’s website at ELIZABETH NORTON.

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. The author of "Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

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