Tudors: Daily Life
‘These English have their houses made of sticks and dirt’, reported a Spanish visitor during the 1550s, no doubt referring to timber-framed architecture, ‘but they fare commonly so well as the king’. Many people experienced improved standards of comfort, and even modest luxury, during the Tudor period, especially in more prosperous regions.
In the 1570s William Harrison, vicar of Radwinter and Wimbish in Essex, recorded the memories of elderly parishioners concerning the everyday changes they had witnessed. He noted ‘three things marvellously altered’.
First, the number of chimneys – and therefore also separate fireplaces – had greatly increased. This meant that smaller rooms could be heated and food cooked more efficiently than when there was only one fire in the middle of the main room of a house, with smoke escaping through windows and roof-coverings.
Second, where once a straw-filled mattress and a log for a pillow sufficed, people now slept on mattresses and pillows filled with wool, feathers, or even down.
Finally, where farmers and craftsmen had previously eaten from wooden bowls with wooden spoons, they now ate from pewter tableware, using spoons of pewter or even silver.
BEDS AND WALL-HANGINGS
Contemporary lists of household goods and illustrations also show that ‘four-poster beds’ began to appear during the 1520s. Before then, the hangings and canopies of beds had been suspended from bedroom ceilings on cords.
If fine tapestries or woollen wall-hangings were too expensive, houses could still be decorated with ‘painted cloths’ depicting foliage or biblical scenes.
Timber wall-panelling, confined to mansions in the 1520s, had filtered down to farmhouses and town houses by the end of the Tudor period.
WIVES, BELLRINGERS AND BEGGARS
All this prosperity (reported a disapproving Dutch writer in 1575) had a damaging effect. Middle-class English wives became:
‘fond of taking it easy, and commonly leave the care of household matters and drudgery to their servants … That is why England is called the Paradise of Married Women.’
Meanwhile Englishmen continued to confirm their reputation for casual violence, extreme xenophobia, and love of loud noises such as cannon, drums and bells. According to a German traveller in 1598, parties of drunks frequently invaded London church belfries and rang the bells for hours ‘for the sake of the exercise’. This was possibly a misunderstanding of the uniquely English art of ‘change ringing’, which originated in late Elizabethan times.
Prosperity was by no means universal, however, and later Tudor people were preoccupied – obsessed, even – by beggars. No longer able to seek alms from (suppressed) monasteries, or turned off their land by enclosures for sheep grazing, the poor thronged to towns. Only the most ‘deserving’ were reluctantly granted begging licences.
A series of Elizabethan Poor Laws – the most notable of them passed in 1597 and 1601 – made each parish responsible for assisting its own genuine paupers by levying a compulsory ‘poor rate’ on householders. Infirm or ‘impotent’ paupers, if lucky and well-behaved, might secure a bed in a Christian almshouse like Lyddington Bede House, Leicestershire.
But savage punishments were ordered for ‘idle and sturdy rogues’. Contemporary literature identified 14 male and nine female varieties, from ‘Abraham Men’ (posing as lunatics) to ‘Bawdy-baskets’ (who stole clothes from washing lines). Such ‘undeserving paupers’ faced a flogging or being pierced through the ear with a hot iron for a first offence, and execution after a third.