Five General Rules every child should get to grips with before approaching Tudor England

  1. The inequality was real:

The Tudors rigidly believed in a social hierarchy where everyone knew their place. To question it was to possibly cause the break down of society and was an extremely dangerous thing to do.

At the very bottom of the Tudor social order where the ‘vagrants’ and the ‘sturdy beggars’ – the homeless and those without employment. Above them were labourers then merchants and yeomen (a fancy Tudor word for wealthy farmers). Then we have the elites – the gentry (your Sirs and Ladies) and the nobility (Dukes, Counts, Earls) and on top of course the King or Queen placed there by God. This was the divine order. Society was held together by the idea of reciprocity – that the poor would respect and bow to those better than themselves and in turn the wealthy would look after the poor particularly in times of hardship or famine. When the wealthy were seen to not be living up to this expectation rebellions (such as Kett’s rebellion in 1549) might be triggered. It might suprise you to know though that even when Tudor people did rebel on mass they often remained very deferential – they wouldn’t call for the overthrowing of the monarch or the elites but instead would often come up with lists of small grievances to be dealt with by the monarch.

Attitudes towards poverty and homelessness were extremely harsh in the Tudor period. The poor were divided into the ‘deserving poor’ (e.g. those with disabilities or illnesses that made work impossible) and the ‘undeserving poor’ (e.g. those who might ‘choose’ to beg instead of honest work or who had ruined themselves through gambling or drink). The deserving poor would receive charity and licenses to beg whilst undeserving poor would be treated extremely harshly – by the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth they could be whipped, maimed and homeless vagrants were forced out of towns.

2. Names, spellings and places were not standardised:

Standardised spelling (e.g. one way of spelling objects/places/names) did not exist until the era of Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century. For instance you may have heard that the man William Shakespeare himself never wrote his surname the same way twice. This can make studying the Tudor era confusing. It definitely makes reading a Tudor source in it’s original language difficult.

If you are reading a source in the original sixteenth century language it is a good idea to read it aloud to try and get a jist of what is being said as people wrote phonetically and this could mean that spellings changed in different areas of the British Isles.

You will also have to get used to the idea that particularly at the court as people’s careers and influence progressed they literally collected titles (different names that they would be known by). For instance Edward Seymour (brother of Jane Seymour and uncle to Edward VI) was known in his lifetime as Viscount Beauchamp, the Earl of Hertford, Duke of Somerset and the Lord Protector. You might therefore see him called Seymour, Hertford, Somerset or the Lord Protector in a book or textbook depending on what era of his life a historian is discussing. It’s a good idea to jot these down in a list as you study so you can put the different titles to a name!

Similarly despite Henry VIII marrying three Catherines you will see very different spellings – Katharine, Kathryn and Catherine/Katherine (let’s not even get started on the fact that Henry VIII sometimes called them Kate/Kat/Kitty).

3. Who run the world? Men:

The 1500s were not a place for Beyonce. As a result of theology, the story of Adam and Eve and ancient medical beliefs the world of the early modern era was patriarchal (run by men). Women had no political or legal standing – in fact when a woman was married her possessions and her being became the property of her husband. Women and men lived in different worlds (the theory of separate spheres). A man could lead a life in the ‘public’ sphere – run a business, discuss politics, earn a living whilst a woman should live a life in the ‘domestic’ sphere running the house and raising children. Of course not all women and men fitted perfectly into this model – poor and merchant class women may have been involved in the running of the family business but this was the largely accepted norm.

Alongside the idea of ‘seperate spheres’ also came beliefs about the differences between the body and intellect of men and women. Under the ancient theory of the four humours it was believed that women’s bodies were inferior and unfinished – their humours running cold and wet versus the perfect male hot and dry. It was believed that a woman’s womb could regularly detatch from the body and ‘wander’ to her brain causing emotion, melancholy and hysteria (the word literally coming from the greek for womb). Meanwhile it was believed that women also suffered periods as they couldn’t burn off excess blood like men. The medical deficiencies of a woman’s body were believed to make her intellectually inferior, prone to sin and vice and in need of the control of man to keep her chaste and decent. Meanwhile in what is known as the ‘sexual double standard’ the idea of a man (particularly a noble or royal) having a mistress was just part of accepted every day life.

The idea of separate spheres would make the lives of Queens Mary and Elizabeth extremely difficult as even the role of Queen was heavily gendered. A King would be expected to lead the ‘public’ life and lead the army in a time of war as warrior whilst the Queen provided charity and bore children. Mary and Elizabeth would both need find their own solutions to that problem.

4. Privacy? What is that?

Many students (and adults too if I’m at an event at a museum) ask me just how on earth we know so much about the Tudors and one reason we do is that they just had no concept of privacy. There are even academic books on the fact that the concept didn’t exist until the modern era! Imagine that. Living your life with zero privacy around family, friends or servants constantly.

It might seem crazy, but there was a real logic to this. There are two main reasons for the lack of privacy; first being lifestyle and second that the Tudors lived in a very religious and moralistic era. In a time before a proper police force people spied on and policed each other. Gossip held real power – what you said you had seen or heard mattered. In fact the executions of both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard relied upon the hearsay of what courtiers had claimed to have seen and heard.

To come back to lifestyle one reason why we know so much particularly about the Tudor family and court life is the way the court and household worked. Firstly the court consisted of hundreds or thousands of people living cheek by jowl. Secondly the day to day tasks of life that we take for granted (eating, dressing, going to the toilet) were heavily ritualised and would involve a number of people. For instance you may have heard that one of the most sort after posts at court was the Groom of the Stool – literally being the man who helped the king go to the toilet! The complex layers of clothing worn in the era by the nobility (all laced and put together with pins) would also mean that you would need numerous people to help you get dressed and undressed. You can get an idea of how complex dress was by checking out my friend Gina’s page where she shows her historical costuming here.

5. Sheep! The greatest animal and biggest problem of the Tudor era?

Finally, believe it or not sheep were massively important to the Tudor era. I might argue they were one of the most important things in the Tudor world.

The wool trade was a massive industry. English merchants imported wool cloth abroad to places such as Antwerp were it was finished and dyed. The trade was so important that to this day if you take a tour of the Houses of Parliament you will see that the House of Commons still feature a bale of wool known as the ‘wool sack’ that was used to standardise measure of it. In perhaps one of the most famous images of the Renaissance – the Arnolfini portrait – Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini’s wife is portrayed in a dress made of dyed English wool.

A decrease in access to the markets in Antwerp could cause depressions that saw thousands lose their income. Meanwhile whole villages were evicted to make room for the gentry to raise large flocks. The writer (and head-chopped-off-victim of Henry VIII) Sir Thomas More called sheep ‘the devourers of men’ because of the problems they caused the poor. The increase in profits surrounding wool across the era would inadvertently cause poverty, depression and social disorder but if you are studying the Tudors at A-Level or GCSE you will probably hear more about that from your teachers!