Bolsover Castle

7 Inventions of the Tudors and Stuarts

The Tudor (1485-1603) and Stuart (1603-1711) periods were great times for new ideas and new inventions.

Thanks to developments during this era, you can visit a theatre, get your portrait painted, read a newspaper, drink tea or coffee and eat with a fork.

They also invented the flushing toilet and an ingenious way of making cannon balls bounce off castles.

Find out more about how the Tudors and Stuarts shaped modern life.

St Mawes Castle

1. Bouncing off the balls

By Tudor times cannon-fire was a deadly threat to castles - particularly tall old-fashioned rectangular fortresses with corners. If an enemy cannon ball knocked out a corner-stone, the whole building might collapse. So when Henry VIII built over thirty forts to defend the English coast in 1539-47, he tried an ingenious new design - most of his new forts were made without corners.

Instead they were squat and rounded, often with a central round tower ringed by lower semi-circular towers, like the petals of a Tudor Rose. Among the most powerful was Deal Castle. Low to the ground, they presented a smaller target than a tall medieval castle, and if cannon balls did hit them it was hoped they would bounce off the rounded walls. Some even had curved instead of vertical battlements, to deflect incoming shots away from gunners on the wall tops. You can see these 'shot-deflecting battlements' at St Mawes, Pendennis, Walmer and Portland Castles.

A portrait of Elizabeth Home, Countess of Suffolk by Unknown Artist, early 17th century.

2. Get Yourself Painted

In the Tudor period, we begin to see what people in English history looked like. Images of kings and saints fill medieval churches: but these show ideal monarchs or holy men, not real likenesses. When the religious changes begun by Henry VIII banned holy pictures in churches, the artists who'd painted them had to look elsewhere for work, and the age of the portrait began.

Rulers like Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, of course, were first on the portrait scene. Nobles and courtiers were next, and you can see an amazing display of full-length portraits of them at Kenwood, dressed in the latest extravagant fashions. Then, especially during the Stuart period, country squires, merchants and prosperous farmers - and their wives - also began to want portraits as status symbols, even if they could only afford a cut-price travelling artist to paint them.

Did people really look as they appear in their portraits? Obviously, they wore (or sometimes borrowed) fine clothes to be painted in, and it paid the artist to make them look as attractive as possible. Yet some portraits are undoubtedly genuine likenesses. Oliver Cromwell famously ordered himself portrayed 'warts and all'.

A masque being performed at Bolsover Castle

3. Taking in a show

Even in today's world of television, films and video streaming, people still love a live show. The Elizabethans invented a new way of enjoying one - the theatre. The first purpose-built London theatres opened in the 1570s. Like the recreation of Shakespeare's famous Globe theatre where you can still enjoy plays today, they were hollow circles focussed on a stage at one side, with an open space at the centre and galleries all round.

Unlike the 'masques' performed for the chosen aristocratic few at places like Bolsover Castle, theatres were for everyone, and were wildly popular. You could pay a few pennies to stand in the open space, or considerably more to join the courtiers and richer folk sitting in the galleries. And if you didn't live in London, you could still hope to catch a play performed in an inn or town hall by a travelling company of London actors.

Over 300 different Elizabethan plays survive, and you can still see many acted today. But if you could witness one as originally performed, you'd notice a big difference, because all the women's roles were performed by heavily made-up boys. Women didn't begin to appear in theatres until the later Stuart period.

Old Wardour Castle

4. Royal Flush

Well into the 20th century, many ordinary homes didn't possess flushing loos, making do with outside 'privies' set over holes in the garden or back yard. Yet the flushing toilet was invented back in Tudor times, by Queen Elizabeth I's favourite godson Sir John Harington in about 1596. A famous author and wit, Sir John apparently hit on the idea of flushing a lavatory from a tank of water above it during an aristocratic party at Old Wardour Castle. Under the pen-name 'Misacmos' ('hater of filth') he described his invention in a booklet called the 'Metamorphosis (transformation) of Ajax', 'a jakes' being Elizabethan slang for a loo.

Flushed with pride, Sir John installed his ingenious new-style loo in his own mansion and also presented one each to Queen Elizabeth and her chief minister Robert Cecil. But the idea never caught on, perhaps because Harington's loo only did half a job: the waste dropped into a pit, which had to be cleaned out. It wasn't until late Victorian times, after Thomas Crapper won a royal appointment to install flushing toilets at Sandringham, that modern-style loos flushing into efficient drains became common.

A copy of ’The Moderate Intelligencer’, a Civil War Newsbook from 1647

5. It's in the Papers

Newspapers were invented during the Civil War (1642-51). Before that, the government rigidly controlled printing, and news-hungry people had to pay for hand-written newsletters from their personal London 'reporters'. But when war broke out, both King and Parliament poured out rival printed pamphlets boasting of their own victories and the enemy's defeats. They were packed with 'spin' or even downright lies: one actually reported in detail a battle which never happened.

Then both sides started regular weekly newspapers with scandalous 'revelations' about the opposition's goings-on. At least 300 different newspapers appeared during the 1640s and 50s, all proclaiming their news was absolutely true: a few were total fakes, pretending to come from one side while actually supporting the other. Though produced very quickly, they might take a week to reach their country readers via pedlars or slow-moving carriers' carts.

In the 1660s, after the war, the government tried to impose rules on newspapers, and produced its own 'official' news sheet. But the cat was out of the bag, and no government yet has really managed to control 'what the papers say'.

Coffee beans. Photo by Justin Miller via Flikr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/incanus/

6. Coffee, tea or chocolate?

Ask that question before the Stuart period, and the answer would have been 'What are they?'. Coffee from the Middle East, first of the 'new drinks', became popular in England in the 1650s, when the first coffee houses opened in London. By 1675, there were about 3,000 throughout England. Most were 'men only' places, where they gathered to smoke, talk politics and read the newly-available newspapers - and perhaps also try the new 'chocolado' drink (solid chocolate bars came later).

Many women adopted tea (pronounced 'tay') - the 'new China drink' available from around 1660. It was much more expensive than coffee at first, and kept in securely locked caddies. But it had the great advantage of society ladies being able to make it easily at home, without the presence of earwigging servants.

A reconstruction of the kitchens of Kenilworth Castle in 1575 by Ivan Lapper.

7. Forks replace fingers

Today we eat our meals with spoons, knives and forks. But until the later Stuart period, most English people ate with spoons, knives and fingers. Though forks were used in medieval kitchens for fishing lumps of food out of cooking pots, at the table people cut up solid food with their knives, and ate it with carefully washed fingers. (But don't be fooled into thinking they gnawed bones or threw food about - Tudor and Stuart table manners were much more elaborate than today's).

In 1611, an English traveller was surprised to find sharp two-pronged table forks being used in Italy. But most English people thought this ingenious foreign invention both dangerous - because they might prick your mouth - and insanitary, because forks put into mouths and then used to spear pieces from shared dishes might transfer your saliva from one to the other. So the earliest English table forks were probably used only to hold down joints of meat while they were cut. Royalty were actually eating with forks by the 1670s, but in 1700 a book of table manners for schoolchildren still assumed that fingers would be used instead.

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