Women in Tudor England - 1485 to 1603
Life for women during the Tudor period, 1485 to 1603, was not easy. In those days, women had no legal rights. Tudor law was not kind to women. The law was used to limit women. They didn’t have rights to inherit property. The law actually considered them the property of either their husband or father. There were even laws that prohibited them from holding jobs and laws that defined what color clothes they could wear.
Tudor women were taught from birth that they would always be inferior to men. Perversely, they were perceived to be evil temptresses with natural tendencies to corrupt men. It wasn’t just that women were the weaker sex but all women were to be blamed for mankind’s fall from Heaven. Tudor girls did not have easy childhoods. Poor girls began doing household chores as soon as they were strong enough. They had very little freedom. From birth, they were taught to obey their parents above all. The highest level of obedience was to be expected from all girls.
Most marriages in Tudor England were arranged. Fathers would pay a dowry for someone to marry their daughter's free them of the financial responsibility. Women were considered financial burdens on their parents because they could not get jobs. In most cases, women had little say in the selection of their husbands. They were taught that their sole purpose in life was to marry, obey their husband, and populate the earth. Female singles were deemed to be worthless to the society.
Very few Tudor women were educated and most never learned to read and write. It was rare for poor girls to attend school. When they did, they learned subjects like art and music, while boys learned math and Latin. They often learned things like cooking and sewing so that they could serve their husbands and children better.
Childbearing was dangerous for Tudor women. If there were complications with the birth, there was very little that could be done. It’s not uncommon that women died during childbirth. Tudor women also suffered a high number of miscarriages and stillbirths. Yet, it was rare for someone to have only one child.
Women always wore dresses. Rich women wore gowns with layers and trains of satin or silk. They were shaped like geometric shapes rather than the shape of the body so there was always a lot of padding underneath it. Poor women wore simpler dresses with half-sleeves.
- Life in Tudor times
- Life for Tudor women
- Childbirth in Tudor times
- Sex and Marriage During Tudor Times
The Tudor Society
Tudor society was based on a hierarchical system. Basically the higher up you were in the system, the richer you were. It was extremely difficult to move up to the ‘next level’. If you were born poor, it was highly unlikely you could become rich although some clergymen certainly achieved it. A few merchants and businessmen, who became very rich through their dealings, were able to buy enough property not to have to carry on working. The Landed Gentry never quite accepted them as one of their own
- A diagram of the structure of Tudor society:
The Tudor home-makers
Some Tudor women worked spinning cloth. Women were also tailoresses, milliners, dyers, shoemakers and embroiderers. There were also washerwomen. Some women worked in food preparation such as brewers, bakers or confectioners. Women also sold foodstuffs in the streets. A very common job for women in the 16th century was domestic servant. Other women were midwives and apothecaries. However most Tudor women were housewives and they were kept very busy. Most men could not run a farm or a business without their wife's help.
In the 16th century most households in the countryside were largely self-sufficient. A housewife (assisted by her servants if she had any) had to bake her family's bread and brew their beer (it was not safe to drink water). She was also responsible for curing bacon, salting meat and making pickles, jellies and preserves (all of which were essential in an age before fridges and freezers). Very often in the countryside the housewife also made the families candles and their soap. The Tudor housewife also spun wool and linen. A farmer's wife also milked cows, fed animals and grew herbs and vegetables. She often kept bees. She also took goods to market to sell. On top of that she had to cook, wash the families clothes and clean the house.
The Tudor housewife was also supposed to have some knowledge of medicine and be able to treat her family's illnesses. If she could not they would go to a wise woman. Only the wealthy could afford a doctor. Poor and middle class wives were kept very busy but rich women were not idle either. In a big house they had to organise and supervise the servants. Also if her husband was away the woman usually ran the estate. Very often a merchant's wife did his accounts and if was travelling she looked after the business. Often when a merchant wrote his will he left his business to his wife - because she would be able to run it.
Famous Tudor women
Famous Tudor Women were governed by the rules of society and their roles were subservient to the male members of their families. Tudor woman were raised to believe that they were inferior to men and that men knew better! Disobedience was seen as a crime against their religion. The Church firmly believed this and quoted the Bible in order to ensure the continued adherence to this principle. The Scottish protestant leader John Knox wrote:
"Women in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man."
The fabric of Tudor society was built with this belief and Tudor women could not be heirs to their father's titles. All titles would pass from father to son or brother to brother, depending on the circumstances.
Who were these Tudor women?
This project aims to create a historical profile of all the well-known and no so well known Tudor women who lived in Tudor times.