Saturday, August 2, 2014

Fun Fact Saturday: Sex and Sin in Tudor England

Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love and Miranda Richardson in Blackadder make it seem like Tudor women led merry, bawdy lives filled with satin, lace and lasciviousness. The reality was far less frivolous and fun. Sex, politics, position and power were the trials and tribulations negotiated on a daily basis by Tudor women, and losing your head wasn't always the worst thing that could happen...

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998)
1) Underskirts, not underwear.

Tudor women went unemcumbered by underwear. They wore a multitude of layers with ruffs and partlets and over-gowns covering full-skirted kirtles, with detachable sleeves, attached by tapes or pins.

Stomachers were laced tightly in place and skirts held their shape with the help of hooped farthingales and padded bum-rolls. Beneath all that would be an embroidered linen shift, under which they wore nothing at all -- most convenient for relieving themselves discreetly and, one can only assume, all sorts of other things.

2) Maids weren't always maidenly.

The disgraceful behavior of the young women at the English court was much commented on abroad. In 1581 royal maid Anne Vavasour gave birth, aged 16, in the maids' dormitory at Whitehall Palace, having been seduced by the much older and married Earl of Oxford. They were both thrown into the Tower by a furious Queen Elizabeth.

Clive Owen & Abbie Cornish, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
In the 1590's the Queen's favorite the Earl of Essex was said to be having carnal relations with no less than four of the maids of the Chamber simultaneously.

3) Contraception was a messy business.

Contraception was illegal as it interfered with God's plan but wealthier men often availed themselves of a quondam or condom fashioned from lamb's gut.

Some women used vinegar soaked wool inserted into their nether regions; others used beeswax plugs and even blocks of wood (which may well have worked by putting them off the act altogether). When all that failed, they might resort to a concoction of rue to induce a miscarriage, rather than suffer the shame of pregnancy.

4) The best kind of woman was a married, pregnant woman.

Tudor women were believed susceptible to temptation and unable to control their base desires. The remedy for this was regular sexual relations -- within the sanctity of marriage, of course.

Unmarried women were regarded with suspicion, leading to many being condemned as witches. As breastfeeding delayed ovulation noblewomen's babies were handed over to wet nurses from birth, to ensure they become pregnant again quickly.

Joseph Fiennes & Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love (1998)

5) The bedroom was no place for experimentation.

Once married, the missionary position was the only sexual mode sanctioned by the church and was thought to be more likely to produce boys. Anything more creative risked the devil getting involved and birth defects.

Anne Bolyen's supposed sixth finger and the belief that she miscarried a deformed baby, was seen as proof she was dealing with dark forces.

6) Childbirth was often fatal.

The pain and danger of childbirth was accepted as women's punishment for having been tempted by the serpent in paradise, causing man's fall, and was faced with little more than prayers, stoicism and amulets.

There was no understanding of the need for cleanliness and the most common cause of maternal death was puerperal fever, a septic infection of the reproductive organs that always resulted in death. Two of Henry VIII's six wives died of it: Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr.

7) It was a man's world.

Married women lived under the rule of their husbands and were expected to be obedient and submissive. If a husband disliked his wife's behavior he was permitted to beat her with a stick no broader than his thumb but not so violently as to kill her.

If a wife was deemed a nag she might be paraded about in public wearing an iron bridle, complete with a tongue piece, to make speech impossible and humiliation certain.

If a man killed his wife he was tried for murder. However, if a woman did the same the charge was treason, as it was a crime against authority.

8) Boiling and burning for breaking the law.

In 1531 Henry VIII reinstated an ancient statue that declared the punishment for poisoning to be death by immersion in hot water. A maidservant Margaret Davy was convicted of poisoning her employer in 1542 and boiled alive in the market place of King's Lynn.

Mary I earned the sobriquet Bloody Mary for the 280 men, women and children who were burned in her reign for refusing the Catholic faith. But, contrary to common belief, her sister Elizabeth was equally ruthless. 600 souls were dispatched in the wake of the Northern Rebellion of 1569 alone.

Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, The Tudors (2007-2010)

9) A life with execution but not torture.

Women could burned or boiled alive but were rarely tortured. Evangelical protestant preacher Anne Askew was the exception.

Towards the end of Henry VIII's reign religious factions at court became dangerously polarised and a powerful Catholic clique attempted to bring down the Queen, Katherine Parr, using her suspected links to Askew.

Askew was tortured on the rack, dislocating her elbows and knees and pulling her shoulders and hips from the sockets. Stoic to the last, she refused to talk. Her injuries were so great that she was unable to stand upright and was chained to a chair when she was burned at the stake.

10) Even Elizabeth I was regarded as suspicious.

During Elizabeth's life her Catholic enemies all over Europe spread salacious stories to discredit her. Whether they were imagined, invented or real, we will never know because she left strict instructions that her body after death was not to be subject to autopsy or inspection.

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
This extreme secrecy around the royal corpse has led to speculation as to what Elizabeth sought to hide. It even gave rise to the implausible notion that she was in fact a man, having died as a girl and been replaced by a male playmate of similar stature and coloring. This is absurd in the extreme but whether she was indeed the Virgin Queen she purported to be, will ever remain a mystery.

By Elizabeth Fremantle ~ Courtesy of


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