Our Tudor Sisters

Our Tudor Sisters

Historical novelists are sometimes suspected of importing twenty-first century values into sixteenth century novels. While it’s true that most authors seek to connect their readers with their novel’s women of the past, it isn’t necessary to ascribe new values to past women.

They valued education. Although medieval women’s education was often limited to gentler feminine arts such as dance, needlework, and playing of the lute or virginals, by the beginning of the Tudor era women were much more interested and involved in intellectual education. Queen Catherine of Aragon ensured that her daughter, Mary, had a strict regimen of demanding studies in accordance with her own upbringing.  Sir Thomas More is often credited with putting practice to the idea that non-royal women deserved as much education as noble or highborn men.  His daughters undertook an education complete in classical studies,  languages, geography, astronomy, and mathematics.

Queen Kateryn Parr’s mother, Maude, educated her own daughters in accordance with More’s program for his children, eventually running a kind of “school for highborn girls” after she was widowed. Eventually, educating  one’s daughters was seen as a social necessity and men expected their wives to be able to play chess with them, discuss poetry and devotional works, and be conversant in the issues of the day.

Anne Parr, Countess of Pembroke

Anne Parr, Countess of Pembroke

 They knew they couldn’t marry for love – the first time – but desired it anyway. Most historical readers understand that women in the Tudor era were chattel, legally controlled by their fathers and then their husbands. They married for dynastic or financial reasons; marriage was an alliance of families and strategy and not of the hearts. And yet, these women, too, had read Song of Songs wherein a husband and wife declare their passion for one another.  Classically educated as they were, Tudor women had surely come across the Greek myths, including Eros and Psyche, and perhaps had even read the medieval French love poem, Roman de la Rose.

Mary Rose Tudor

 If a woman was left widowed – and that happened quite often – she was free to remain widowed and under her own authority or to marry whom she wished.  Henry VIII’s sister Mary, married first King Louis XII of France, for duty.  When he died, she married Charles Brandon, for love.  After Mary’s death, Brandon  married his ward, Katherine Willoughby, her duty.  Later, she married Richard Bertie for love.  Kateryn Parr married three times for duty, including her third husband, King Henry VIII.  Her fourth marriage, to Thomas Seymour, was for love.
They were working women. High born women were often ladies in waiting to the queen, a demanding, full time job with little pay and time off. They ran the accounts for their husband’s properties and juggled household management.   Kateryn Parr’s sister, Anne, served in the household of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. Some highborn women, such as Lady Bryan, became governesses. Lower born women were lady maids, seamstresses, nurses, servants, or baby maids in addition to helping their husbands as fishmongers or in the fields.

Although there are some notable differences, we have much more in common with our high born sisters of five hundred years ago than one may think!

{Main photo credit: By Unknown – http://somegreymatter.com/meltonconstableportrait.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13408812}

{Anne Parr photo credit: Hans Holbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons}

{Mary Rose Tudor photo credit: By Attributed to Jan van Mabuse (Jan Gossaert) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons}

18 Comments On This Topic
  1. Jennifer
    on Jul 11th at 7:33 pm

    Wonderful article. In the end, no matter what time period we are born in,we are all human. I don’t think we’re much different from Tudor ladies at all. Thanks for the article.

  2. Heather Crouse
    on Jul 11th at 7:46 pm

    I almost feel as though education was valued more then than it is now. I’ve always had the sense that medieval women took their studies very seriously- learning multiple languages and practical subjects. Today, at least in the US, it saddens me to see how little the students care about their studies. It is so hard to get them interested in anything more than fb or video games and, with little to no parental supervision, education just isn’t enforced/encouraged like it should.

    They might have had to marry for duty, but sometimes I think they were better off!

  3. Lizz
    on Jul 11th at 8:12 pm

    I never knew women could marry for love after their duty, interesting! I had also previously assumed that higher education for women had been adopted before the Tudor era.

  4. sandrabyrd
    on Jul 11th at 9:13 pm

    I agree, Jennifer. Women then, women today. Nothing new under the sun! Heather, I’m constantly amazed at the breadth and depth of the higher born women’s education then. It does make me a little wistful, too. Thanks for stopping by, Debra, Lizz and Amy. I’m glad you enjoyed.

    I like Lady Jane, too, Brittany. Eric Ives has a novel out about Jane Grey, and so does Susan Higginbotham. You might check out one or both of those.

    Thanks for the shoutout about the book, Elise, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  5. sandrabyrd
    on Jul 11th at 9:21 pm

    I’d be honored if you’d share it, Courtnie, and I’m so glad you like the site! Contact me through the mail on this site if you’re interested in doing an Anne B giveaway on your facebook page~

  6. Ti Colluney
    on Jul 12th at 12:09 am

    I wish I was able to go back in time and even if I was a ghost, see and hear all the wonderous sites. I mean who would not want to go to one of King Henry’s feasts? And then you stumble on an article like this one and it makes the desire even stronger to explore the beautiful strong women who helped shape our world.

  7. Steffi
    on Jul 12th at 12:12 am

    Great article, many thanx! It is nice to know that women could marry for love in tudor times as well after their duty was done, KP is a fascinating person!!!

  8. Jessica
    on Jul 12th at 12:53 am

    I really enjoyed your article. As someone who conducts research on elite women in this era, I feel like it was nicely put together in its description of women within the upper classes. I know that the point of the article was to discuss elite women specifically (i.e. women at the heart of my own research), but we must remember that the majority of women did not have access to humanist educations in the sixteenth century like the women discussed in this article. I believe that is why it was considered SO revolutionary that More advocated for universal education for men and women in 1516 in his book ‘Utopia’- it was a completely foreign concept to many who lived during the Tudor period.

  9. Patricia
    on Jul 12th at 6:52 am

    Well written and very interesting. No matter how much one reads about this period it seems you can never read enough. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Kirsten McElroy
    on Jul 12th at 8:36 am

    It seems that educated women during the Tudor era had to play a “game” with their knowledge. While their husbands may have valued their wives’ ability to run households and carry on interesting conversations, these women needed to be quite cagey. Yes, an education was an admirable quality, but the wife would always have to allow her husband to have the higher voice in all matters. So, while an education for women was highly valued, I suspect that it was probably silenced much of the time.

  11. Lisa DeAngelis
    on Jul 12th at 9:35 am

    Very informative. I had not realized the protocols for widowhood. No wonder there was so much hanky-panky going on!

  12. sandrabyrd
    on Jul 12th at 9:51 am

    Hi Ti, yes, I would definitely like to attend one of the banquets or masques! Jessica, I admire More, too, and he walked the talk with his own children. Sadly, I think he was ahead of his time in many ways. Thank you for stopping by Patricia!

    Colleen – I know what you are saying. Next time I complain about my work load I’ll think back on how much they learned and did at such a young age. Of course, I wouldn’t mind having a lady’s maid. 🙂

    Kirsten, you’re right. They were still under their husband’s control, and even though K Parr was educated, when Henry questioned her as she tried to influence his opinion she had to scurry back to submissiveness. But it was a turning point!

    Yeah, it’s interesting that they had more freedom in widowhood, Lisa. Their jointures provided money for them, in their own names, I believe, and property, so that’s where the freedom came in.

  13. Lori Thomas
    on Jul 12th at 11:47 am

    Very interesting, learned something new again of the Tudor era.

    Thomas More was such a great man, sad that his life was taken.

  14. sandrabyrd
    on Jul 12th at 7:08 pm

    Thank you, Carolina and Lori, and I hope you do enjoy the novels, too! All good thoughts, Courtnie.

    Elizabeth, you’re right about the advantages and I wish in many ways we could return to the more genteel and polite society you rightly mention. But they also lived a difficult and oftentimes short life, too. And, as Jessica points out, lower born women didn’t have those advantages.

  15. Jennifer
    on Jul 12th at 8:41 pm

    I’m with Ti. I would Love to be able to go back in time. There are so many amazing events I would love to experience. I would love to see the actual curriculum that women were given to learn. Are there copies of Tudor homework anywhere? Lol

  16. lara
    on Jul 15th at 5:01 am

    Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to mention that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing on your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  17. sandrabyrd
    on Jul 16th at 9:10 am

    Haha, Anne, I agree completely. I think some of his wives were really hoping for that love, though, at least Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, both of whom had it for a time. From Jane Seymour forward, I think they likely knew what they were getting into!

  18. sandrabyrd
    on Jul 24th at 5:27 pm

    Congratulations to Heather Crouse, winner of the Kateryn Parr earrings. They will be arriving shortly to a mailbox near you!