Tudor England witnessed many famous events such as the Spanish Armada, the Reformation and famous individuals such as Henry VII, Henry VIII and Sir Francis Drake. But what had happened to the position women had in English Tudor society? The position of women had remained unchanged for centuries and the time of the Tudors saw little, if any, improvement despite the fact that 1485 to 1603 saw 2 queens. Neither Mary Tudor nor Elizabeth did much to advance the cause of women. Why was this?

Mary Tudor

For centuries girls had been told and, if educated, that they were inferior. So by the time, they became women, they would have acted as if they were inferior to men. The Church taught this and used the Bible to justify this belief. If men of God said that women were inferior it had to be true…..So two sections of society grew up to believe the same thing. Both men and women believed that women were inferior to men and that this was ordered by God. No change came with the Reformation. The protestant leader John Knox wrote:

“Women in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man.”

Young girls were taught that they had to obey their parents instantly. As a father dominated a household, this basically meant that the girls grew up to instinctively obey men. Even uncles, older brothers and male family friends could expect instant obedience from girls. Girls received no formal education (though very few boys did) but they were taught that their sole function in life was to marry, have children and look after their homes and husbands. Girls were taught that God had commanded them to be obedient to men – be it father or husband.

Girls from a poor home received no education as we would recognise it. They learned skills for life from their mothers. Girls from the homes of the rich received some form of education but it was in things like managing a household, needlework and meal preparation. It was generally believed that teaching girls to read and write was a waste of time. Two of Henry VIII’s wives were barely literate – Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard.

Young ladies from a rich family would have no choice over who their husbands would be. Marriages were frequently arranged so that the families involved would benefit – whether the young lady loved her future husband was effectively irrelevant. In fact, it would not have been unusual for a couple to meet for the first time at their wedding as happened to Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves.

There was no legal age for marriage and many girls aged 14 would have got married at that age. In the homes of the poor, there was almost a rush to marry off daughters as it was believed that once they reached a certain age – about 14 – they would have been seen as being too old for marrying off and therefore a liability at home – one extra mouth to feed and no extra income coming into the house.

Once married, the main function of a wife was to produce a son to continue the family line. This was true for royalty right down to the common peasant. In would not have been unusual for wives to be pregnant every twelve months. In Tudor England, pregnancy and especially childbirth was dangerous for the wife. Death in childbirth was not unusual. One ‘tradition’ at this time was for a wife to prepare a new baby’s nursery but to also make arrangements for the baby should she, the mother, die in childbirth.

The actual act of childbirth was assisted by a ‘midwife’. In fact, this was usually an elderly female relative or female neighbour with no medical knowledge. Complications were frequent and death not unusual in childbirth, but no proper doctors existed in Tudor times to change this. Even if a delivery of a baby was successful, the mother could still fall prey to illness due to the lack of hygiene during childbirth. The most famous Tudor casualty of this was Jane Seymour who died after successfully giving birth to Edward VI. Puerperal fever and post-birth infections were both killers.

The way women dressed was also strictly controlled. Women who were not married could wear their hair loose. Married women had to hide their hair away under a veil and a hood. Queens might wear their hair loose on state occasions but this was only tolerated because they had to wear a crown. Anne Boleyn’s hair was so long that she could sit on it – but despite her forceful nature, even she did what was expected of her and wore her hair in a hood after her marriage to Henry VIII.

As in previous times, a woman’s dress covered nearly everything. Sleeves came down to the wrists and even in summer dresses reached the floor. Corsets were common but a plunging neckline would be considered acceptable. For queens, ceremonial dress could be even of a challenge as their dresses could be beautiful to those looking at them but they were both bulky and weighed a great deal as they were usually encrusted with jewels. Worn on a hot evening at a state occasion, such dresses must have been uncomfortable to wear.

Elizabeth I
who conformed to standards of dress expected for women

The law gave a husband full rights over his wife. She effectively became his property. A wife who committed adultery could expect to be severely punished as Catherine Howard found out. A peer could have his adulterous wife burned at the stake if the king/queen agreed. A wife who killed her husband did not commit murder – she committed the far worse crime of petty treason. This also lead to her being burned at the stake. Wife beating was common and the logic of Tudor England was that the wife would have provoked her husband into beating her and if she had behaved properly, he would not have beaten her. Therefore she herself was responsible for her beating! In theory, a wife could walk away from a marriage – but to what? Who would keep her? Who would employ her? Therefore, women had to stay in a marriage even if it was a brutal one as there was very little else she could do.