Reviewed by Harriet
Elizabeth Norton has become well known for her biographies of four Tudor queens: Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr. Her most recent book, published just a few months ago, was The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor, which focuses on an important moment in the early life of the girl who would become Elizabeth I. In this new work, she broadens the spectrum considerably with an impressive sweep through the Tudor period, examining the lives of a large number of women ranging from royalty to the poorest of peasants.
The book is structured according to Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, so we follow the lives of a wide variety of women from infancy through childhood, marriage, trade, and so on to the final chapter, which fittingly concludes with the death of Queen Elizabeth. Each chapter also contains one or more subsections – rather like extended footnotes – adding further information about an aspect of whatever issues have been touched on in the main chapter.
I’ve always been interested in the history of women’s lives and, though I’m not an obsessive Tudor fan, thought I knew a fair amount of what how women would have lived at this period. But there were certainly revelations and surprises, and above all, Norton brings the facts to life by relaying them through the examples of individual women. So, in the first chapter, ‘Of Babies and Bellies’, we learn about the fourth pregnancy of Henry VII’s queen Elizabeth and the birth of her child, another Elizabeth. And, in those useful quasi-footnotes, there’s fascinating information about how many women convicted of crimes were able to escape the death penalty by ‘pleading the belly’ – many would actually succeed in becoming pregnant while in prison for that very purpose. Still in the ‘First Age’, there’s a chapter on ‘Nurses and Nurseries’ (lots of information about wet-nurses here) and one on ‘Toys and Terminations’, sadly including the death of three-year-old Elizabeth Tudor.
The Second Ages focuses on education, records of which as far as girls were concerned, are ‘extremely sparse’. Girls were generally educated at home, and by the end of the period it was certainly common for them to be taught to read and write. There were exceptions though – Thomas More, for example, famously educated his three daughters to a very high standard – but even when far-sighted scholars started arguing that women should have a proper education, it was believed that Latin and Greek should be taught only to boys. By the end of the century it was common even for poorer girls to attend some sort of school. By their teens, however, if they were born into the labouring classes, they would generally take up some work, quite often going into service in the grander house. Masters and mistresses were often kind, but not always – there are many stories of young girls being raped by their masters. This was not, however, the fate of Elizabeth Barton, whose story runs though several chapters in the book.
At the age of nineteen, Elizabeth Barton moved to a job working for a successful farmer and estate manager. While she was there she became ill, and was very kindly nursed by the family she worked for. After she recovered, though, she started making profound religious utterances, and gained the reputation of being a great holy woman. She became a nun, and was, by the late 1520s, ‘probably one of the most famous women in England’. But her success was not to last, and eventually she was brought to confess that all her utterances and prophecies were false. She was imprisoned in the Tower of London, tortured on the rack, and died bravely on the scaffold, making an impressive and impassioned final speech.
Barton was not alone in dying for religious reasons. In an era when the accepted faith swung wildly between Catholicism and Protestantism, woe betide anyone who stuck to their beliefs. Catholics were burned at the stake during Protestant eras, but the most shocking figures come from the time of Mary I. In the final four years of her short reign, no less than 280 people, 50 of them women, were burned alive for refusing to abandon their Protestant beliefs. But there was another form of punishment equally, if not even more, disturbing: boiling alive. This seems to have been reserved mainly for poisoners, and as poison was mainly used by women, there were a disproportionate number of these who suffered this appalling death.
Life was often grim, then, in the Tudor period, but not invariably so. It’s encouraging to learn that some women – mostly though not invariably widows – managed to make a success of their lives in business. Although it was not easy for either unmarried girls or married women to ply a trade – the livery companies in London were entirely run by and for men – girls did sometimes manage to get apprenticeships, even occasionally in male-dominated trades. And wives certainly did manage to become working partners in their husbands’ trades, though only unofficially – any debts incurred or wages earned were viewed to be their husband’s. Enterprising widows, though, could carry on a business in their own right, and some did so with remarkable degrees of success.
Many of Norton’s multiple case histories are those of women from the lower ranks of society, but she also focuses her attention on royalty, and in the final chapters there is much of interest regarding the later life of Elizabeth I. There’s a fascinating section on her apparently rather serious interaction with the Duck d’Alencon, who it appears she seriously considered marrying even though she was by then quite advanced in years, by Tudor standards at least. Then the final section of the book, on old age, details her struggle against her own physical deterioration, and her refusal to take to her bed even when death was imminent.
Altogether this is a splendid book – highly readable, informative and impressively researched. There are many pages of detailed endnotes, illustrations and a bibliography. Highly recommended for anyone interested in women’s lives and/or in this fascinating period of English history.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and is very glad she does not live in the Tudor period.
Elizabeth Norton, The Lives of Tudor Women (Head of Zeus, 2016). 978-1784081751, 406pp., hardback.
Also read Harriet’s Q&A with Elizabeth Norton in our BookBuzz section – here.