The life of women in Tudor society was scrupulously controlled – from the way they dressed, their education and what they did in their spare time. Even under the two female rulers of the Tudor era, not much changed, but perhaps Queen Elizabeth I of England’s reign (1558-1603) can be assessed as the birth of the first British feminist icon. Kaiya Rai explains.
Though very few boys received proper formal education, virtually no girls did either. Those who were poor learnt skills from their mothers and grandmothers, and girls from rich families received an education in things such as managing a household, needlework and meal preparation. Moreover, domestic skills were essential for a woman in her future married life, as one contemporary writer commented that a woman who could not cook had essentially broken her marriage vows - “she may love and obey, but she cannot serve and keep him with that true duty which is ever expected.”
At the beginning of the 16th century it became more common for girls to attend schools alongside their male peers, and by the 1560s even the very poorest girls underwent some form of education. Most of this education, however, was dominated by Christian dogma and doctrinal teaching, such as William Barber’s school in London, who taught ‘further learning’ of the Bible. Since the Bible was used by the Church and the patriarchs in society to justify the inferiority of women, this almost added to their lack of independence, no matter the fact that they were being educated. The exceptions in education began emerging during the Reformation, when humanists, such as Thomas More, actively sought to give their daughters an excellent education. Humanists paved the way for the Enlightenment era of the 17th and 18th century, as they believed in self-understanding of the Bible, and drawing conclusions for oneself as opposed to passively listening to and believing everything the Church taught. Thus, their emergence in the education stage of Tudor England was of a similar nature - to try and reform stereotypical attitudes towards knowledge.
Marriage and patriarchy
There was no legal age for a woman to be married and so for many families, it was a matter of urgency to try and find a husband for their daughters, who would have no choice in the matter. Many believed that if a girl passed the age of 14 unmarried, she would become a burden to the family as it was an extra mouth to feed with no extra income, and many first met their spouse on the wedding day, much like Anne of Cleves and Henry VIII did. For some, such as Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Earl of Surrey, marriage was an opportunity to further her social position. Most women were expected to enter service before they were married, and for upper-class women this would usually be with a woman of higher social standing who would also aide her in finding a husband, and for lower-class women, the agreement of a year’s service in exchange for wages and housing was usual. Others entered into the more abstruse institution of prostitution, where disease was rife and was the cause of many premature deaths. However, this was still seen as dishonorable, though it was common, as is evident in the case of Mother Bowden’s brothel which was declared ‘immoral’ by the parish officials in 1567. Furthermore, women were taught that God had commanded them to be obedient to men, whether that be father or husband, and so the patriarchy in a woman’s life in Tudor England was constantly upheld and strengthened by all sources of power.
Since they had been told from childhood that they were inferior, women subsequently acted in an inferior manner. The Reformation actually did little to thwart this, despite the more modern tendencies and attitudes of the humanists, as is evident in the beliefs of Protestant leader John Knox, who wrote “women in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man.” The law gave men full rights over their wives, to the extent that they could have their wife burned at the stake for adultery, and that if a man beat his wife, it was justified on the grounds that she must have done something to provoke him, by not being a ‘good’ wife. Another important aspect of a woman’s married life was childbirth; they were expected to produce sons to carry on the family line, and this was true for royalty and peasants alike. However, childbirth was dangerous, and resulted in many deaths during it, or even after the baby was born, as puerperal fever and post-birth infections were common. One job of the ‘midwife’ was even to make arrangements for the baby in case the mother should die, indicating just how often women did die during childbirth.
Tudor women under Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth I did not ever get married, and to this day retains the somewhat misleading title of ‘the Virgin Queen.’ She was the most powerful woman of her time, and refused to relinquish or share that power, when women were considered property, and so perhaps it could be seen that she was a feminist in some sense. She was strong, intelligent and refused to be constrained by a political marriage. This is apparent in her hidden relationship with Robert Dudley, who she could never marry because of his status, but yet still refused to marry another who she did not love. She once stated “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England, too,” thus again indicating just how brusquely independent she was determined to be.
There is speculation among historians as to why Elizabeth I never got married, such as a psychological explanation owing to what happened to her mother and stepmother in marriage (they were beheaded). Perhaps she saw the damage of what Mary’s marriage to Philip II did to the country, and to Mary’s heart, or perhaps she held a fear of childbirth as two of her stepmothers, Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr had died just after childbirth. It is clear that her love for Robert Dudley did play some importance, and her constant appearance of an available woman to foreign ambassadors meant that she could enter marriage negotiations and use them to her advantage by influencing other countries and playing them off against one another.
Despite the fierce independence of Elizabeth, she did not do much to actually improve the lives of women in society, and so perhaps cannot be a ‘feminist,’ as we see them. As Carrick asserted that “she was the monarch and [felt she’d been] appointed by God…. that set her apart from the rest of humanity.” However, we must also place her in context, and Carrick also recognises this, by stating, “The idea of women’s rights…just wouldn’t occur to her yet and yet as an individual she was that; she lived that. She was brilliant at sport and horse riding, really active, a massive intellect.”
Therefore, whilst women in the Elizabethan era had primarily similar lives to those living under the reign of the previous Tudor monarchs, the roots of feminine individuality can clearly be seen in the era, and so perhaps helped to set up a platform which would aid the suffrage movement many centuries later.
What do you think of the life of women in Tudor England? Is Elizabeth I the first British feminist? Let us know below.