The Tudor dynasty is one of the most exciting and well-known periods in English history, featuring all sorts of political and social turmoil, intrigue in the royal court, and a variety of wars, dramas, executions, and controversies.
But whilst we still, as a country, hold a fascination for this grisly and gruesome period, our attention generally stays with the kings and queens themselves, from Henry VII and King Henry VIII through to Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I of England. At school, and in everyday conversations about the Tudor era, rarely do we look beyond to see what the normal people would have been doing.
Yet, to focus only on the Tudor monarchs is to miss some of the most fascinating parts of the era – and it is to overlook the effects of the actions of the monarchs themselves.
So, whilst you can find plenty of information about the monarchs in our article on the lives of the Tudor kings and queens – and in our piece, Who Were the Tudors? – we’ll be looking here at what it was like to be you in the Tudor age.
Whilst it is incredibly fun to imagine, we can assure you: you’ll probably prefer to be alive right where you are now. Let’s take a look!
Let’s start with one of the most well-known aspects of the Tudor era: the religion.
As you’ll know, the Tudor monarchy were fairly concerned about religion. However, throughout the period, different monarchs and their heirs couldn’t quite agree on what sort of religion they wanted in the country at the time.
Roman Catholicism – with its power in the papacy in Rome – and, after the Reformation, ‘Protestantism’ were the two major religious forces in Europe at the time. However, Protestantism was never really a unified way of thinking. There were many protestantisms, almost as many as there were protestants themselves.
Generally, Protestant thought suggested that anyone could read the Bible – which was probably not you, because you probably couldn’t read – and that there should be some differences to the Church service.
If Henry VIII of England broke with papal power to set up the Church of England – a move continued by his son, King Edward VI – Mary I, or ‘Bloody Mary’, Edward’s half-sister, desperately wanted to return England to Roman Catholicism. Lots of political violence followed (which means violence against you), and it wasn’t until Elizabeth that compromise was found.
What all these religious changes would have meant for you is complicated. If you were particularly committed to one side or the other, and you were quite an important person, you may well have been executed – depending upon which monarch reigned whilst you were alive.
Otherwise, it would have meant that you would have had merely to stop paying tax to Rome, but pay increased taxes to the monarchy. Great!
Discover awesome facts about the Tudor period!
One of the monasteries that suffered under Henry VIII
Much more than these days, a lot of what you were able to do in Tudor England was determined by your class, or your general position in the social hierarchy.
To put it quite simply, there were four main classes in Tudor England: the Nobility, the Gentry, the Yeomanry, and the Poor. These were fairly fixed categories – and your place in each one would determine the things you were allowed to wear, eat, do, and, really, even think.
As the House of Tudor was in the early modern period, which came at the latter end of the feudal period, you still find reference in this age to the Great Chain of Being, an idea of a hierarchy that stretched from God, through angels, to kings, noblemen, and down to the poor, and ultimately to animals. By basing hierarchy on theological terms, the poor were less likely to resent their position in life.
As a noble, you didn’t have a bad life – particularly if you came from an ancient family like the Howards, the family of the Dukedom of Norfolk, or the Earldom of Pembroke. You could be sure to wield a fair amount of influence in the Tudor court and have plenty of cash from the people on your land. Your position, however, was dependent on the favour of the king.
Not all people who held influence over the king were born into nobility, however. Look at Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s most important advisor. He was the son of a blacksmith and brewer – and look where he ended up!
If you were poor, you were obliged to work – and to work hard. If you were unemployed and you went looking for work, you’d end up in a fairly unpleasant position. With one offence, you’d be whipped; with a second, you’d have an ear cut off. If a third time you were caught as a ‘vagabond’, you’d be executed.
As about a third of people lived in poverty, it wasn’t great to be poor, particularly during times of famine and economic decline. The best you could expect was alms – or charity – from the rich.
Unlike in the England of the twenty-first century, war was always a present threat in the sixteenth century. If you hadn’t fought in the Wars of the Roses, you’d be more than likely – if you were an able-bodied man – to be shipped out to fight the French, the Scots, or, later on, something like the Spanish Armada.
Unfortunately, however, if that wasn’t enough, you were sort of obliged to fight for the earl, duke, or regional power upon whose land you lived and worked. And so, if your duke was rebelling against the policy of the monarch, it was more than likely that you would get involved too.
Whilst the specific circumstances were much more complex, this is generally the case of what happened during the Pilgrimage of Grace, the rebellion of ‘the north’ against Henry VIII’s reformation policies in 1536; during Bigod’s rebellion of 1537, for the same reasons; and during Wyatt’s Rebellion in 1554 against Mary I’s intention to marry Philip II of Spain.
Generally, as a poor person during the Tudor period, you would go to fight when you were told to.
Elizabeth I (1533-1603) Queen of England and Ireland from 1558, last Tudor monarch. Version of the Armada portrait attributed to George Gower c1588. (Photo by: Photo 12/UIG via Getty Images)
Working, in the Tudor times, was another thing that was entirely dependent upon your class and upon your geographical place.
Again, if you were a noble, you’d be fairly free from anything strictly called ‘work’. The chances are that you were born into land from which you earned your money, taking part of the produce directly created by the poor peasants working on your land.
If you were lucky, as a poor person, you would be a peasant who would rent the land off the nobleman. ‘Lucky’ is a bit of a stretch, because, really, you’d be working all day for all of your life. But at least you would have a stable life (and we saw above what would happen if you didn’t get work).
If you lived in the city, however, things were a little different. Maybe you would work in the textile industry, or, if you were of a higher sort of class, you’d be a clerk or a professional: a solicitor, a doctor, or another such trade.
For many people, ‘fun’ wasn’t really a thing that happened. There wasn’t really such a thing as leisure time, with labour laws being absent and with people living generally at a subsistence level.
Sundays, however, being the Lord’s day, were generally days of rest. You’d go to church, for sure, but afterwards you could play a bit of sport, see travelling musicians, or dance.
In London, you could attend the theatre whether you were rich or poor – and see plays by the likes of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.
If you were a noble person, much of life was leisure time. You could have private musicians, you might write poetry, go hunting, or even play tennis.
Shakespeare was one of the great Tudor artists. Image from the Independent.
Of course, the food that you would eat was dependent entirely on class too. And, if you were poor, you wouldn’t eat very well – and there may have been times of the year, or particular times of hardship, in which you didn’t eat very much at all.
Pottage was the general dish for the poor, a soup or stew of vegetables and oats. Bread and cheese were staples too – alongside whichever vegetables you could get your hands on.
Of course, things were different for the rich, who could afford to employ cooks and who could afford much more extravagant foods. Meat was always on the menu.
Most importantly, all foods were eaten seasonally. There would be no chance of anything else – shipping foods from all over the world, as we do now – as there was simply no chance of keeping it fresh!
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