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Tudor Housewife

Tudor Housewife

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by Alison Sim

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The political and military history of the sixteenth century is well known, and much written about, but what of the thousands of women who have, for the most part, eluded the historian's pen? The Tudor Housewife aims to answer this question, providing a unique and accessible introduction to everyday life and responsibilities of women from all levels of society in the


The political and military history of the sixteenth century is well known, and much written about, but what of the thousands of women who have, for the most part, eluded the historian's pen? The Tudor Housewife aims to answer this question, providing a unique and accessible introduction to everyday life and responsibilities of women from all levels of society in the age of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. With chapters on marriage, childbirth, the upbringing of children, washing and cleaning, food and drink, the housewife as doctor, women and business, and women and religion, Alison Sim reveals how women were expected to manage businesses as well as the household accounts, take extensive personal interest in the moral welfare of their children, adminster medicine to their households and act as a helpmeet to their husbands in every aspect of life. This book unveils the powerful position of ordinary women in Tudor society and provides a captivating insight into their lives.

Editorial Reviews

A highly accessible discussion of the diverse aspects of the everyday life and responsibilities of women in the 16th century, including such topics as religion and marriage, childbirth and raising children, education, household duties, and the role women played in business. Fine b&w illustrations with a few in color. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

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The Tudor Housewife

By Alison Sim

The History Press

Copyright © 2010 Alison Sim
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-6830-3



The popular view of Tudor marriage is that people married very young indeed, and that the young couple had no say whatsoever in whom they married. In fact the age at which you could expect to marry, the amount of choice you had and even whether you could expect to marry at all varied enormously depending on your social background.

It is of course difficult to be sure of statistics at this time, but studies suggest that in Elizabethan and Stuart England the average age for women at their first marriage was twenty-six, and for men somewhere between twenty-seven and twenty-nine. As many as one in six people were still unmarried in their forties, meaning that they probably never married. Poorer people had to save up before they could marry, so that they could afford somewhere to live and the basics they needed to set up home with. In hard times, like those at the end of the sixteenth century when there was a run of bad harvests, this could be impossible. For this reason there was often a boom in marriages in prosperous years, such as the years 1598–1605, but a significant drop in bad ones, such as 1594–97.

Those who married youngest were from the wealthiest section of the population, in particular from the families with political ambitions. Royalty could find themselves betrothed, if not actually married, quite literally in their cradles. Henry VIII's eldest daughter, Princess Mary, was betrothed to the French Dauphin at the age of two, although the marriage never took place. There were also very few major land-owning families, so the number of suitable partners for children was fairly limited. Parents therefore tended to grab a good match, particularly for their son and heir, when it came along, even if the couple involved were very young.

The existence of wardship was another problem for major landowners. If one of them died leaving an heir who was under age, the wardship of the child was a piece of property. The owner of the wardship ran the estates until the heir came of age, and also chose the ward's marriage partner. Naturally parents feared that their heir might be forced to marry someone they would not have chosen themselves, and the best way to avoid this was to marry the heir at least as young as was reasonable. By Queen Elizabeth's time wardships were usually sold to relatives of the child so this became less of a problem, but the problem was always at the back of parents' minds.

The children of well-to-do families generally had less choice in whom they married than those lower down the social scale: Their parents had a much tighter control over them than poorer families had over their children. A girl simply had to have a dowry if she was to marry amongst the wealthier classes; if her father withheld this then she couldn't marry. Younger sons also rarely had wealth of their own, and even the heir to a fortune had no wealth until his father died, unless his father chose to give him an allowance of some kind.

The economics of marriage was not the only pressure on children to marry where their parents directed. Sixteenth-century children, and girls in particular, were very much brought up to obey, and to believe that it was their duty to their parents, and their whole families, to marry the person chosen for them. It would have taken a very strong-minded girl indeed to have refused to follow her parents' wishes. Girls who did refuse the partner offered could find themselves bullied by their parents. In the mid-fifteenth century Elizabeth Paston was badly beaten by her mother, who feared that she was looking at other men while her family were busy trying to arrange a match for her. Whether or not the mother's fears were justified we do not know, but certainly her relative Elizabeth Clare comments that Elizabeth was being beaten 'once or twice a week, sometimes twice in one day, and her head broken in two or three places'.

There was much more at stake when the child of a rich family married than when a poor one did. A marriage was not just the joining of two individuals, but of two whole families. The network of vital friends, relations and contacts that each family had now became open to the other family. It was for this reason that a wealthy family would happily consider marriage into a well-connected but badly-off family. It was not only the snob value of having aristocratic blood that the rich family was buying, but the contacts that the noble family would have, contacts which could lead to good jobs, good marriages and interesting business opportunites for the rest of the family. It was a disaster when one of your children made an unsuitable marriage because of the lost opportunity for advancement for the family, and because the unsuitable marriage partner would bring with them a network of friends and relations all hoping to gain from the marriage.

In the lower ranks there was much more freedom of choice, as parents had little or nothing to leave their children and so had little hold over them. On the other hand, a poor girl stood a chance of never being able to afford to marry, or of being deserted by her husband if times became really hard.

Marriage was above all a business arrangement, and the choice of partner always began by finding out how much money the family had, and with a discussion around the financial matters. How much the bride's dowry was to be and how and when it was to be paid was usually the first question. Thoughts about the compatibility of the couple often came second. Existing records of marriage negotiations often sound more like the buying and selling of some commodity, such as wool or wine, to the modern reader, than the arranging of a marriage. Parents even sometimes specified in their wills whom their children should marry. In 1533 Robert Burdon, a Northamptonshire gentleman, stated in his will the agreement he had already made with Roger Knollys, saying that his eldest son was to marry Knollys's eldest daughter 'at or before the age of nineteen'. If Burdon's eldest son died, then the second son was to marry Knollys's daughter, and if Knollys's daughter died then one of her younger sisters would take her place. Obviously the compatibility of the couple was not as important as the joining of the two families.

The abuses in the arrangement of marriages were evident to many observers at the time. A large number of books giving advice on how to enjoy a good marriage were published towards the end of the century, among them a pamphlet called Tell Trothes New Yeares Gift. 'Tell-Troth' is a character who is supposed to tell the truth about everything he sees. The whole pamphlet is about jealousy in marriage and has harsh words to say about marriages which are arranged purely to enhance a family's social standing without any consideration of the compatibility of the couple:

The first course (of jealousy) ... is a constrained love when as parentes do by compulsion coople two bodies, neither respectinge the joyning of their hartes, nor having any care of the continuance of their welfare, but more regarding the linkinge of wealth and money together, than of love with honesty: will force affection without liking, and cause love with jelosie. For either they marry their children in their infancy, when they are not able to know what love is, or else match them with unequality, joyning burning Summer with kea-cold winter, their daughters of twentye years olde or under with rich cormorants of threescore or upwards. Whereby, either the dislike that growes with yeares of discretion engendereth disloyalty in the one, or the knowledge of the other disability leades him to jealosie.

The sad thing was that women were the ones who fared the worst in an unhappy marriage. Once a woman married, everything she possessed became the husband's property. It would have been very difficult indeed for her to leave him as she lost all rights to be supported by her husband's property (even if it had once been hers) if she left him to live in adultery.

All this suggests that marriage was a terrible burden on Tudor people, but of course things were not as black as they may first appear. Under the Catholic Church virginity had been seen as the highest and most blessed state, a fact which the new Protestant writers violently disagreed with. According to them, marriage was a gift from God, not a second-best state. Forcing a child into a marriage where it could not be happy was not only unkind, but also brought the holy state of matrimony into disrepute. A great many books were published in the sixteenth century on this very subject, books which also go on to give advice on how to have a successful marriage, how to bring up well-behaved children and so forth. They afford the reader a good idea of what the Tudors expected from marriage.

One thought that runs clearly though all the books is that a successful marriage is founded on love. 'Love' of course can mean many different things, but the Tudors mistrusted passionate love, feeling that hot love soon cooled. Many of the passionate love affairs in Shakespeare's plays led to the death of the lovers. The best marriages were those made thoughtfully and carefully, but with consideration to the couple's compatibility as well as to the business arrangements.

Richard Jones's An Heptameron of Civil Discourses is a guide to a successful marriage. It takes the form of a set of dialogues between the well-bred inhabitants of an Italian palace. The seven discourses cover everything from the difference between the married and single life, to the 'inconveniences of over loftye and too base love', the problem with that being that 'spannyels and curres hardly live together without snarling'. It is a mixture of lofty theory and practical advice. A couple should have similar religious views, for example, 'for if thyr love be not grafted in theyyr soules, it is like theyre marriage will be insymed with defects of the body.' It is definitely the role of the husband to rule his household, and that of his wife to see his orders carried out, but a good marriage cannot be built without the consent of both partners: 'The office of free choice, is the roote or foundation of marriage, which comforteth onely in the satisfaction of fancie, so where the fancie is not pleased, all the perfections of the world cannot force love, and where the fancie delighteth, many defects are perfected or tolerated among the marryed.'

Given this feeling, many parents were happy to see their child marry someone they were fond of, provided they came from a suitable family. John Paston III certainly was in love with his wife Margery Brewsbefore they married, and their affection for each other played a large part in bringing the marriage about. John and Sabine Johnson certainly were fond of each other before they married. As early as 1466, Thomas Rokes and Thomas Stronor agreed upon a marriage between their two children but the agreement was to be void if the children disagreed when the boy was fourteen and the girl thirteen. Affection was therefore not always seen as unimportant, but that did not mean that the practical business side of marriage would be forgotten.

As soon as a suitable marriage partner had been found, it was time to begin negotiations. These could be very complicated and drawn out, and often fell through because large sums of money were involved. The contracts could be quite complex, as it was not a simple fact of paying the bride's dowry to the husband. The bride had to be supported by her husband's property for the rest of her life, even if he died some years before her.

In the Middle Ages, common law allowed a widow one-third of her husband's property after he died, but by the sixteenth century this arrangement had largely been replaced by a jointure. This was a holding of land which would be held jointly by husband and wife, and after the husband's death, should he die first, by his widow alone. The chief advantage was that it avoided lengthy disputes as to exactly where a widow's income was to come from. The negotiations as to dowry and jointure were often complicated so it was not surprising that projected marriages often came to nothing.

It wasn't only the wealthy who drew up marriage settlements. Endowments were often paid in money, as even a girl from quite a humble background would hope to have been able to save something, however little, to bring into marriage with her. However, the agreement could be paid in goods and services instead. In 1567 the widow Grace Bab promised her daughter twenty nobles in money, a bed, two brazen crocks, two pans, half a dozen pewter vessels and clothes for her wedding. In 1593 a man of Tedburn St Mary in Devon seems to have given his son-in-law the crops from an acre of ground for a set term, bearing the cost of ploughing, sowing and harvesting himself.

If the woman held land and the man did not it could be the man who had the jointure settled on him rather than the other way round. In 1595 John Dashepener of Littlehampton in Devon offered Elinor Blatchford £20 with marriage to his brother Michael plus the ploughing of their land for as long as he lived with them. Assuming that the negotiations were successful, the wedding could then actually take place. The extent of the celebrations depended very much on the finances of the families involved, but the basics of the ceremony were the same for them all.

Tudor brides wore the best clothes they had for their wedding, rather than the white dresses most brides wear today. The ceremony would start with the couple being brought in a procession to the church. Traditionally the vows were exchanged outside the door, where they could be seen, but in the prayer book of Edward VI the vows are to be made in the body of the church. It was at this point that the bride was formally endowed with the land that would be hers after her husband's death. As a token of the marriage the groom would give the bride a ring, which was placed on the fourth finger of the left hand, just like a modern wedding ring. The ring, however, was not necessarily a plain gold band, but could be as grand or as humble as the couple.

If the marriage vows were exchanged outside the church the couple would go inside for the blessing. After the service was over drink would be served in the church, an important symbol of the friendship between the two families. Even the poorest couples tried to afford this. In 1503 the London smith Lewys Mone got married, his bride being so poor that the only dowry she brought with her was an anvil. She wore borrowed clothes for the ceremony but the couple still had wine served in the church after the service and had dinner at his lodgings.

The ceremony was usually followed by a feast at the home of either the bride or groom, but usually that of the bride. The festivities surrounding a wealthy marriage could go on for days, and no expense was spared to delight and impress the guests. The marriage of Lady Frances Howard and the Earl of Somerset, which took place in 1617, was celebrated with an elaborate masque written by Thomas Campion which was performed in the Banqueting Room at Whitehall Palace. Families who could not aspire to such things still put on the best show that they could and saw that a suitable number and quality of favours, such as gloves, were distributed to the guests. The Tudors were always status-conscious, and the wedding festivities not only demonstrated the wealth of the families concerned but also showed the esteem in which the two families held each other. It was not a good idea to start the marriage off on the wrong foot by stinting on the hospitality.

Not all marriages were celebrated so publicly. In theory, the banns were supposed to be called three times in church before the marriage, at a time when a large number of people would be present. If the couple lived in different parishes, then the banns were to be called in both parishes 'and the Curate of thone parish shall not solemnize matrimonie betwixt them, without a certificate of the bannes beeyng thrise asked from the Curate of thother parishe', warns the First Prayer Book of Edward VI. In practice, it does not seem to have been very difficult to marry secretly if you chose. Certainly even the grandest in the land did so if they thought there would be opposition to their choice. Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn secretly at Whitehall Palace, realizing that the marriage was hardly likely to be popular.

Even clandestine marriages were usually witnessed. Sir William Plumpton married secretly in about 1450 but was careful to have a few witnesses, who were able to remember years later that the bride wore red and Sir William green checks. He was trying to keep his second marriage secret from his first wife's family but he still wanted the validity of his new marriage to be beyond reproach.


Excerpted from The Tudor Housewife by Alison Sim. Copyright © 2010 Alison Sim. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alison Sim is a specialist in medieval and Tudor history. her previous books include Food and Feast in Tudor England and Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England.

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The Tudor Housewife 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fun and easy to read. I could not put it down. Well researched and documented. I will read again and again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If the 16th century is your history obsession... actually even if it's not, this book is fascinating. This is not a television series featuring the lavish lifestyles of the aristocrats and the wealthy. This book presents life, in all it's little details, as most of the women lived it during during this time period. The author gives answers to many of the questions you may have about the 1500s and discusses some you may have never even thought of. This is a balanced account of life for a woman of this time period showing the good, the bad, the pretty, the ugly and sometimes the funny. Well written, easy to read and very enjoyable.