Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

How Men and Women Lived Four Hundred Years Ago

Henry VIII and Francis I


It is always easier to grasp the great movements of history when the figures moving across the ever-shifting scenes appear as real men and women; when we can picture to ourselves their dress and their food, their manners and their customs, the houses in which they lived, and the work in which they were employed. Thus, and thus only can we live again in the ages that are past.

It is four hundred and thirty years since the first Tudor began to reign. The period, known to history as the Tudor period, begins with Henry VII in 1485 and ends with Queen Elizabeth in 1603. During this interval a whole family reigned in turn, Henry VII, his son Henry VIII, and his three grandchildren Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth.

What was life in England like during these five reigns? We must first imagine a country without many of those modern comforts which to-day we look upon as necessaries. To begin with, there were no trains, no motors, no cabs, no steamers or bicycles. Thus people had to ride on horseback or walk or row on the rivers to get from one place to another. There was no electric light or gas; so the Tudors had either to go to bed with the sun, or work by means of candles and lamps. There were no pavements or shops till Elizabeth's reign; the people bought and sold on market-days in the open market or made what they needed at home.

There were no libraries; books were expensive even for the rich; many of the poor people were taught by the religious orders and the clergy were largely recruited from the ranks of the labouring classes. There were no letters or newspapers or post-offices or pillar-boxes. Letters and messages were carried from place to place by men on horseback, and no telegraph or telephone wires disfigured the country.

Then again they had no tea or coffee to drink. All the people (from monarch to peasant) drank beer; they drank beer for breakfast, beer for dinner and beer for supper at six. They had no potatoes, no cabbages, cauliflowers, carrots or lettuces; they had no strawberries or rhubarb, no currants or lemons. Neither had they tobacco to smoke, or soap to wash with, or pencils to write with, or pianos to play.

And yet, without these things, which play so large a part in our lives to-day, it was a "Merrie England" in the days of the Tudors, except when insurrections and religious persecution brought misery to many homes. The monarchs delighted in the rich display of pomp, in royal journeys through the land, in tournaments, and in Christmas revels, when England rang with mirth from end to end. "Sports and fooleries, feasts and frolics, games and revels filled the joyous days from All Hallows' Eve to the Feast of Pentecost."

The beating of drums, the shrill blast of trumpets, the ringing of many bells were as music in their ears. And when we read that the musicians of Queen Elizabeth's household included eighteen trumpeters, seven violinists, six men who played flutes and six who played sackbuts, we feel there must have been some want of refinement in this matter.

But the people were light-hearted. Dancing was a very favourite amusement; every one danced, from the kings and queens to the milkmaids; even grown men and women danced round the May-pole every May Day.

They had not learnt to take pity on the suffering in those early days; so they saw no horrors in their favourite amusement of bear-baiting, and the pain of animals filled them with no pity. They were familiar with public executions, which were performed by the local butcher on market-days, and they could look at martyrs burning at the stake without shrinking. It was an age when different religious opinions were not tolerated, an age of torture by the horrible rack and thumbscrew, an age of human agony unrelieved by sympathy. "This is how we punish traitors in England," Queen Elizabeth once informed a stranger, who had counted three hundred heads hanging piked on London Bridge.

[Illustration] from Tudors and Stuarts by M. B. Synge


To impress their subjects with a due respect for their power, the Tudor sovereigns spent enormous sums of money on display. Their clothes were magnificent, with their costly splendour and brightness of colour. No King of England ever rivaled Henry VIII's magnificence at the Field of the Cloth of, Gold. No monarch, ever surpassed Queen Elizabeth in the splendour and glory of her yearly progresses, or journeys, through the home counties from country house to country house.

This extravagance in dress was copied; by the nobles of England. The gorgeous clothes of Wolsey rivaled those of his king. He wore crimson silks and satins, a tippet of costly sables, red silk gloves, a scarlet hat, and silver gilt shoes inlaid with pearls and diamonds! Men in those Tudor times were as particular about their dress as women. Their wardrobes were full of furs, frills, ruffs and feathers; they wore doublets, or stuffed garments, of gold-coloured cloth, coats of crimson satin, long hose, fur-lined hoods, rings, brooches, chains, jewelled caps and broad-toed shoes with Tudor ribbon roses on the instep. A pointed beard and a large ruff marked the courtier of the sixteenth century. Ruffs were also worn by women during the reign of Elizabeth—their whole dress was stiff and unnatural. They wore large round petticoats stiffened with whalebone, so large round the hips that a sort of table was formed on which the arms could rest, while the upper part of the figure was squeezed into a stiff pointed bodice with low neck and full sleeves. Equally elaborate were the head-dresses of the Tudor ladies, for they all wore wigs and dyed their hair in imitation of the queen.

Montacute mansion


Neither were their houses and palaces less elaborate. Hampton Court, built by Wolsey and given by him to Henry VIII, was typical of Tudor glory, containing rich tapestries, cushions embroidered with gold and silver, counterpanes lined with ermine. At Whitehall, famous for its library, books were bound in velvet studded with precious stones and clasped with clasps of gold. There was no simplicity anywhere.

Large four-post beds were a feature of the age; these were made with massive pillars bearing a weight of heavy curtains edged with gold and silver lace. Small panes of glass were now used for the first time for the windows of the Tudor palaces. Gardens too were laid out in front of the palaces—gardens with stately terraces, broad flights of steps, vases and fountains and yew hedges cut into strange shapes A great improvement which now became common was the use of chimneys to carry off the smoke. As much care was bestowed on the chimneys and gables as on the rest of the building, so as to ensure a pleasing effect.

[Illustration] from Tudors and Stuarts by M. B. Synge


Yet with all their luxuries and their wealth, and in spite of the picturesque gables and carved gateways of their houses, it is strange to find a great want of refinement in the daily lives of the Tudors. They had no carpets in their rooms and their floors were covered with rushes or earth only changed once or twice a year! It is true, fresh rushes were often strewn over the old ones, but the smell in hot weather was almost unbearable and a perfumer was called in to sweeten the air. There was dirt everywhere: the streets were never cleaned; refuse and mud lay about in heaps. The early Tudors seldom washed, they had no baths; they ate with their knives and their fingers before forks came into use, though it is true that a basin of water was handed round during meal-times to take the grease from their fingers.

With all their want of cleanliness and sanitation, it is hardly surprising to hear of frequent outbreaks of plague and "sweating sickness." For the first time in history, it occurred to Tudor doctors to isolate patients to prevent infection—that is, to keep sick people apart to prevent the sickness from spreading. They gave orders that the door of an infected house should be marked with a wisp, which later became a cross with the words: Lord have mercy upon us." A member from the plague-stricken house had to carry a white rod for forty days, and the penalty for concealment was death. Small-pox was very common during this period, both among rich and poor. Elizabeth herself had it and her dwarf lover, a French duke, was badly marked with it.

Now this picture of social life in England four hundred years ago has been mostly about the monarchs and nobility of the realm. For very little was written in the Tudor period about the poor people. During the early part of the time their lives were very miserable, their wages very low. In country districts we are told "they were scarce able to live and pay their rents at the proper days without selling of a cow or a horse."

Christmas Festivities


The monasteries had looked after the poor up to the end of the fifteenth century, but with their destruction by Henry VIII all alms and relief were stopped. The result was that beggars "increased mightily," until they became a trouble to society. At last Parliament had to deal with those who had been reduced to poverty, and in the reign of Elizabeth some important Poor Laws were passed concerning the ever increasing band of paupers.

But there was also the yeoman or farmer class, who were employers of labour. These played an important part in the nation, before the rise of the wealthier traders of the middle classes, towards the end of our period. The farmers lived for the most part in houses of timber and wattled plaster—their rooms had no chimneys, they slept on straw covered with a coarse coverlet or on a mattress of flock with a bolster of chaff. They dined off wooden plates and ate with wooden spoons. Their bread was made of barley or rye, sometimes of peas, beans and oats, for only the rich could afford wheaten bread.

We hear of the farmers' wives as patterns of industry. Not only did they spin cloth from the wool and linen from the flax produced on the farm, but they had to measure out the corn to be ground. The poultry, pigs and cows were under their charge, and they looked after the brewing and baking. The farmer's wife grew herbs to lay on the floors and herbs for medicines, while she might even be required to make hay, to drive the plough and to sell butter and fowls at market.

Then we must remember that for a great part of the year salt meat had to be eaten, for there was no food for the cattle in winter-time. So the farmers' wives had a busy time curing and salting their animals in the autumn.

But towards the end of our period, all the conditions of life in England improved. The spirit of adventure that took Elizabethan sailors to foreign lands also helped trade. Ships sailed forth from London, Southampton, and Bristol, laden with woollen goods made in England, and returned from the Mediterranean ports laden with silks, oils, wines, Turkey carpets, and spices. So fast did England's foreign trade grow, that after a time London became quite an important commercial centre.

At last the Royal Exchange in the City was built by Sir Thomas Gresham and opened in state by Queen Elizabeth. It was a great brick building, roofed in slate, with galleries all round containing shops, where all this foreign produce could be bought and sold. Here various new things were seen for the first time in England. Here, amongst other things, were turkeys, tobacco, potatoes, apricots and currants, beside Venetian silks and Turkey carpets, damasks, serges and stockings.

Thus merchants grew rich and prosperous and we get the beginnings of that commercial activity which was to raise England to such a proud position as the greatest commercial centre of the world at a later date.

Compton Wynyates


It is hard to realize how difficult it was to get from place to place in those days. The merchant could only transport his wares by water or by packing them on the backs of horses. The roads were almost impassable in winter and bad weather with mud and standing water. Thus every place became more or less self-contained, and had little trade with other places. As we have seen, men grew their own hay and corn, they bred their own sheep and oxen. Women milked the cows, made butter and cheese, spun their own linen and made their own clothes without sewing machines.

There were few schools for the children of the poor. Indeed, the suppression of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII removed the centres of education where boys could learn Latin and prepare to become priests. After this, there were grammar schools built in some of the large towns, but still most of the children in England were not taught to read or to write. They were trained to use their hands, however, and were apprenticed, sometimes at the age of seven, to carpenters, joiners, builders, silversmiths and others.

The Tudor sovereigns were supreme. There was no popular government, as there is to-day. There was a small House of Lords, and a House of Commons, which assembled at the bidding of the king or queen. The monarch could decline to let a bill become law, even if passed by both Houses. Queen Elizabeth declined to pass forty-eight bills out of ninety-five in the course of her reign.

Perhaps at no period in our English history did the people suffer from so many religious changes as they did in this Tudor period. Yet through all the changes, we read that in the days of the Tudors the English were a "God-fearing people, chivalrous to women, kind to the stranger, hospitable, devoted to the queen and willing to die for their country."

"Let your first action be the lifting up of your mind to Almighty God in hearty prayer, with continual meditation and thinking of Him to whom you pray," wrote Sir Henry Sidney to his son Philip at Shrewsbury school.

In Elizabeth's time strict attendance at the new Church services was insisted on. She imposed heavy fines on all who absented themselves for conscience' sake from them.

But of the great changes in the English Church, as well as of the New Learning, famous voyages and discoveries, the defeat of the Spanish Armada and many other interesting events, the following pages will tell.

[Tudor Geneology] from Tudors and Stuarts by M. B. Synge