Tudor Women and Fashion Rules It’s hard to imagine being told what fabrics and colors you could wear, isn’t it? Sumptuary Laws in place during Tudor times regulated the wearing of rich fabrics to the upper classes, the number of meal courses to be served for specific guests, and the purchases of luxuries allowed for each social class. Henry VIII, in particular, was concerned about the rise of the wealthy merchant class with no connection to nobility, and so he revived and expanded the restrictions on clothing and other expenditures. For example, only members of the royalty were allowed to wear ermine, and only the nobility were allowed to wear clothing trimmed in fox or otter. Anne Boleyn was known for her stylish attire, she had it early and further developed it while in France. She brought French sophistication back to the English court and was known especially for her French hoods, and for adding each day a small, but different accessory to her wardrobe which was always fresh.
Tudor Women as Mothers Children were treasured in Tudor times as they are today. A woman would probably have had a child every one to two years. Many women died in childbirth due to poor medical hygiene, and the chance at least one of their children would die was significant. Consider that Catherine of Aragon is reported to have been pregnant at least six times, but had only one son who lived just a few days and one surviving daughter, Mary. Anne Boleyn was pregnant at least three times, perhaps four, but only Elizabeth survived. Kateryn Parr and Jane Seymour each bore one child and both women died of childbed fever. Even the most noble of women were not spared the grief of frequent miscarriages or stillborn children.
Giving birth for women of the noble class would have been a social event attended by the mother’s closest friends and a midwife arranged ahead of time. Doctors almost never attended births. Puerperal sepsis, or ‘childbed fever’, was common as handwashing was rarely practiced (by midwives or doctors.) A contemporary study for the UK’s National Institute for Health estimates the maternal death rate in the 16th century as 26 women per every 1,000 births. Compared to today’s figure in the UK of .11 per 1,000 women dying as a result of childbirth, you can see that childbirth was definitely a hazardous undertaking in Tudor times!
Tudor Women and Social Relationships Within the social structure of Tudor times, loyalty to family, especially family of origin, took precedence. For women of noble birth, that meant that advancing the social position of their families was their primary function. Oftentimes Anne Boleyn is seen as having been “pushed” toward marriage to Henry by a socially climbing family. The truth is, all families were social climbers and Thomas Boleyn was no different than other good men before and after in seeking to advance his house, often to disasterous consequence, but sometimes, to love. Betrothals and marriages, the ability to produce an heir and their connections as ladies-in-waiting to more highly-ranked nobles would have motivated the decisions made by and for noble women of this era.
The relationships they formed within noble circles would not only have been based upon similar personalities and interests, but also the other person’s ability to help them advance their family’s interests. It was common for young women in noble families to leave their families for extended periods to serve at court. One type of close relationship that was familiar to women of noble households was with long-time servants who served not only as employees but also as confidantes and go-betweens with others in the household. This is clearly seen in Meg Wyatt’s friendship with her longtime lady’s maid, Edithe.
Research Sources: Coventry.ac.uk; Elizabethan-era.org.uk; elizabethi.org; TudorsWiki; LocalHistories.org; NIH.gov
Main photo credit: By Unknown – http://www.historicalportraits.com/Gallery.asp?Page=Item&ItemID=1200&Desc=Katherine-Parr-%7C–English-Sixteenth-Century-School, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16580673