Book Review: “Women in the Medieval Court: Consorts and Concubines” by Rebecca Holdorph

60474164._SY475_Medieval Europe was inundated with strong rulers and dominant figures who made a difference in how the policies of certain countries were formed. We tend to focus on the male figures, from kings to lords and rebels, when we study medieval European history. Still, the women in their lives significantly influenced how their countries were governed. Although many women stood by the side of their husbands and didn’t make much of an impact on European history, some women chose to stand out from the crowd and make a name for themselves. Rebecca Holdorph has chosen to highlight a handful of these dynamic women throughout medieval Europe in her book, “Women in the Medieval Court: Consorts and Concubines.”

Thank you, Pen and Sword Books and Casemate Group, for sending me a copy of this book. I have seen quite a few people read this book, and since I am always interested in learning about new figures in medieval history, I knew I wanted to read this title.

To cover so many women over several centuries, Holdorph breaks her book down into four sections; noblewomen, consorts, reigning queens, and concubines. Each section starts with a cast of characters list, so the reader has a brief synopsis of each woman featured in the chapter. She then dives into the stories of the women in each section, showing how they were similar and how they differed in the roles that society gave them in life.

Holdorph covers many European countries from the 11th to the 15th century to give her audience a broad scope of what it meant to be a woman in power in medieval Europe. We are introduced to noblewomen like Anna Komnene, the author of the Alexiad, Marie of France, Alice de Lacy, and the Rose of Raby herself, Cecily Neville. While examining the lives of these noblewomen, Holdorph looks at how their public lives differed from their private lives. Next, she explores the lives of queen consorts, those who married a prince or a king and ruled beside their husbands; some of the women included in this chapter are Eleanor of Castile, Maria de Luna, Isabeau of Bavaria, and Margaret of Anjou. In this section, Holdorph explores how these women became queens and what the job of the queen consort meant for each woman.

The third section focuses on the women who were allowed, for a time, to rule their respective countries on their own; women like Urraca of Castile and Leon, Berenguela of Castile, and Margrete of Denmark. Holdorph explores how each queen came to power and how they ruled their kingdoms for a little bit. Finally, we are introduced to the mistresses of rulers, known in this book as concubines, who made an impact that ended up costing them their lives. The women featured in this section include Maria de Padilla, Alice Perrers, Katherine Swynford, and Agnes Sorel, to show what it meant to be a good mistress versus a bad mistress.

I enjoyed learning about new powerful women from European countries other than England and France during the medieval period. My one complaint is that I wish Holdorph would have written this book in chronological order. Since many of these stories in this book were relatively new to me, the jumping back and forth between centuries and stories added to my confusion. Holdorph would have made a more significant point if she had her miniature biographies in chronological order and then summarized her points at the end of each section.

Overall, I found this a decent book. Holdorph does have a passion for this subject of medieval queens, but I think there are some elements of this book that could be improved on to make it more understandable for her audience. Suppose you want a solid introduction to medieval European women who may be unfamiliar with many casual history fans. In that case, I recommend you read “Women in the Medieval Court: Consorts and Concubines” by Rebecca Holdorph.

Book Review: “The Woodville Women” by Sarah J. Hodder

61772589Three women in one family who shared the same first name saw England change over a tumultuous century. They saw the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and the rise of the Tudors while on the sidelines of great battles. Through heartaches and triumphs, the women of the Woodville family became princesses and queens that would transform the political landscape of England forever. These three women, Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York, and Elizabeth Grey, were incredible examples of what it meant to be medieval royal women. They are featured in Sarah J. Hodder’s latest book, “The Woodville Women.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this book. I have read other books by Sarah J. Hodder about women from the Woodville family, so when I heard about this title, I wanted to see what new information she would share with her audience.

We begin our adventure into the Woodville family by exploring the matriarch of this rather extraordinary family, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the future wife of Richard Woodville. For a woman of Jacquetta’s status to marry a man well below her rank was unheard of in medieval Europe, but their union would change history during the tumultuous time known as the Wars of the Roses. Their daughter, Elizabeth Woodville, would marry a Lancastrian soldier named Sir John Grey of Grosby, but when John died, she caught the eye of the young Yorkist king, Edward IV.

During King Edward IV’s reign, Elizabeth Woodville, now queen of England, showed her true strength. As a mother to a large family, including the infamous Princes of the Tower, and her eldest child Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth Woodville fought for her children’s rights, even after her beloved husband’s death. Elizabeth of York would follow in her mother’s footsteps and become Queen of England when she married the victor of the battle of Bosworth Field, Henry Tudor, the patriarch of the Tudor dynasty.

The woman who proved the most fascinating character in this particular book for me was Elizabeth Grey, the daughter of Thomas Grey and Cecily Bonville. Elizabeth Grey would marry Gerald Fitzgerald, 9th Earl of Kildare, who she met at the Field of Cloth of Gold. They would live in Ireland and have many children together, but things were not smooth sailing as Kildare’s rivalries would lead to rebellions in Ireland and land him in the Tower of London a few times. Although Kildare had a rocky relationship with King Henry VIII, Elizabeth Grey was cordial with her royal relation.

Hodder was able to tell the stories of these three women in an illuminating way that reminds readers of the tales of Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York while giving new insights into their lives and telling the story of Elizabeth Grey. This book was engaging and informative, just like Hodder’s previous books. If you want a book that tells the thrilling tales of Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York, and Elizabeth Grey, you should check out “The Woodville Women” by Sarah J. Hodder.

Book Review: “Cardinal Wolsey: For King and Country” by Phil Roberts

cover264519-medium (1)When we think about those who rose through the ranks to achieve significant titles in the Tudor Court, we instantly think about Thomas Cromwell. However, we should also consider his mentor as one of these great men, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The son of Robert Wolsey, an Ispwich businessman, and his wife, Joan Daundy, who worked hard and ended up being the right-hand man of the young King Henry VIII. The man behind Hampton Court helped start the Great Matter and The Field of Cloth of Gold, Wolsey had numerous achievements. Who was the man behind these significant Tudor moments? This is the question Phil Roberts tries to address in his book, “Cardinal Wolsey: For King and Country.”

Thank you, Pen and Sword Books and Netgalley, for sending me a copy of this book. When I heard about this title, it was intriguing to me. I had not read many biographies about Thomas Wolsey, so I was excited to read this book.

Roberts begins by showing how Wolsey has been portrayed in other books and media such as films and TV dramas. He then dives into the complex task of tracking the Wolsey family from the Norman Conquest to the Wars of the Roses, which did feel a tad rushed. I wish he had included some family trees so that his readers could follow along with the different branches of the family.

Wosley had a personal life outside of his public persona with his illegitimate children, his loyal friends, and the enemies he made along the way, including Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Roberts spends a lot of time looking at the different aspects of Wolsey’s life, like his policies, the schools he built in Ispwich, and his own homes. Finally, Roberts explores how Wolsey fell from the good graces of King Henry VIII and the last days filled with anguish as he slowly died from an illness.

Although Roberts presented interesting facts about Thomas Wolsey, I think the structure of his book was a bit all over the place. In the beginning, he spent a lot of time looking into the history of Ispwich and its schools and church, including a lengthy segment about a missing statue, before getting into Wolsey’s life story. I found this information fascinating, but I don’t know if it was important enough to spend that much time on it. These facts would have been more appropriate in a book about Ispwich. Another thing that threw me off was that Roberts did not write this biography in chronological order of the events until the end of this book.

Overall, I thought this book had enlightening factoids about Thomas Wolsey, but it needed some tweaking to make it a brilliant biography. This is a book for someone who knows the general facts about the Cardinal but wants to learn more about this man. If this sounds like you, I recommend you read “Cardinal Wolsey: For King and Country” by Phil Roberts.

Book Review: “Sex and Sexuality in Medieval England” by Kathryn Warner

cover260838-medium (1)When we think about the more intimate moments in the medieval period of European history, a few misconceptions and myths come to mind, thanks to historical fiction and medieval movies. The idea that girls as young as twelve were married off to much older men was the norm, and there were such things as chastity belts. Everyone was filthy and smelled awful, so they only married in the spring when they would take their annual baths. And the brilliant idea that the wealthiest lords of the village were able to have their way with the bride on her wedding day. The latest book by Kathryn Warner, “Sex and Sexuality in Medieval England,” aims to eliminate these myths to reveal the truth of the intimate lives of those who lived during the medieval period.

Thank you, Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley, for sending me a copy of this book. I have enjoyed the previous book in Pen and Sword’s Sex and Sexuality series on Tudor England by Carol McGrath, so when I heard that Kathryn Warner was writing the next book on Medieval England, I jumped at the chance to read it.

Warner begins this book by exploring the cleanliness of those from the medieval period and how they dressed. Cleanliness was vital in all aspects of life; the people took baths more than once a year. She then tackles the marriage myths, exploring everything from young marriages and marriages year-round to the moments when relationships did not work out well and even abductions and forced marriages. We also encounter stories of domestic violence, the rituals of birth and baptism, prostitution, adultery, illegitimacy, and sexuality. These tales also include their methods for healthy sex, how they dealt with abortions, and how same-sex relations were viewed at every level of society.

Warner examines literature, historical documents, and archeological clues to help her audience better understand the past. What Warner does brilliantly is the fact that she incorporates stories from every rank of society, from monarchs to peasants between 1250 and 1450, to tell a sweeping tale of sex and sexuality in medieval England. I found this book extremely enlightening and a fantastic resource for understanding the medieval period. It illuminates the shady areas of the past to dispel myths that have been circulating for a while now.

Warner has yet again combined her meticulous research with well-written prose to give her audience an informative read for medievalists and medieval history nerds alike. If you want to learn more about how medieval England viewed the more intimate moments in life, I recommend you read “Sex and Sexuality in Medieval England” by Kathryn Warner.

Book Review: “The Private Life of Thomas Cromwell” by Caroline Angus

cover260114-mediumWhen we think about the men who surrounded King Henry VIII, a few names come to mind. Cranmer, More, Wolsey, and Wroithesley are just a few, but the man who is synonymous with the infamous king’s reign is Thomas Cromwell. The man who helped Henry get his divorce from Katherine of Aragon saw both the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. He also assisted in the dissolution of the monasteries and brought reform to England with the break from the Roman Catholic Church. To modern audiences, it feels as if we know everything that there was to know about Thomas Cromwell’s public life, but what was he like in his private life when his friends and family surrounded him? Caroline Angus gives her readers an insight into Cromwell’s personal life in her latest book, “The Private Life of Thomas Cromwell.”

Thank you, Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley, for sending me a copy of this book. I love finding new perspectives about historical figures, like Thomas Cromwell, so when I heard that Caroline Angus was writing this book, I was delighted. I wanted to see what new information this book could provide about Thomas Cromwell’s life.

Angus begins her new nonfiction book on Cromwell by showing the origins of the Cromwell family and how Thomas went from the son of a blacksmith to his journeys in Italy, especially in Florence. It is impressive to see how Thomas’ influential friends from Florence would help shape how he conducted business later on in life as one of King Henry VIII’s top counselors. Thomas must have been a polymath to achieve the astronomical rise to power that we see him go through that landed him in the workforce of Thomas Wolsey.

Under Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell’s private and public life became insanely busy as he gained the king’s respect. He would be the principal architect for the dissolution of monasteries and helped Henry VIII gain his divorce from Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. As Cromwell became a player in Tudor politics, he married Elizabeth Williams and had several children. As Cromwell’s family grew, so did Thomas’ roles at the court of Henry VIII. He was the king’s number one advisor and was asked to perform the most difficult tasks, like bringing the downfall of Anne Boleyn and breaking England from the Roman Catholic Church. In a way, Thomas Cromwell was the Tudor equivalent of Alexander Hamilton.

I enjoyed this book because we see Cromwell as a human being, not just some lofty historical figure. He was a man who climbed the social ladder with his talents and his connections throughout England and Europe. With every title and every bill passed, Cromwell gained new enemies, who would lead to Thomas Cromwell’s downfall after the disastrous marriage between Henry VIII and Anna of Cleves. His fall was so dramatically quick that even Henry VIII regretted killing Thomas Cromwell.

Angus’s passion for comprehensively telling Cromwell’s story for scholars and students of Tudor history shines through this book. Her research is meticulous as she balances Thomas’ public life and private life to tell the whole story of the legendary man. If you are interested in understanding the life of Henry VIII’s most faithful servant and trusted advisor, I recommend reading “The Private Life of Thomas Cromwell” by Caroline Angus.

Book Review: “The Son that Elizabeth I Never Had: The Adventurous Life of Robert Dudley’s Illegitimate Son” by Julia A. Hickey

cover260109-mediumWhen we study the life of Queen Elizabeth I, the image of a virgin queen who never married tends to come to mind. Of course, she had a man who she favored above all others, Robert Dudley, but he married several times to Amy Robsart and Lettice Knollys. It was with Lettice Knollys that Robert Dudley was able to produce his heir, aptly named Robert Dudley Lord Denbigh, who unfortunately died at a young age. Robert Dudley was left without a legitimate heir, but he did have another son, albeit an illegitimate son, also named Robert Dudley. Julia A Hickey has decided to examine the life of the illegitimate Robert Dudley in her book, “The Son that Elizabeth I Never Had: The Adventurous Life of Robert Dudley’s Illegitimate Son.”

Thank you, Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley, for sending me a copy of this book. I am always in the mood to learn about someone from the Tudor period I have never heard about before. I did not know that Robert Dudley had an illegitimate son and that he might have been married before he married Lettice Knollys, so I was excited to learn more about this mysterious son.

Hickey begins her biography about this often forgotten Dudley by exploring the origins of the Dudley family and how his father was able to rise from the ashes to become Queen Elizabeth’s favorite. I think she did a decent job explaining Dudley’s history, but Hickey tends to jump around instead of staying in chronological order with specific issues, which is a pet peeve for me. I also felt like this background information went on for a bit too long, but that might have been because I had just recently read a biography about Dudley, so most of the background information was not new to me.

Robert Dudley had fallen in love and allegedly married one of Elizabeth I’s maids of honor, Douglas Sheffield, who was Robert “Robin” Dudley’s mother. Robert Dudley would later marry Lettice Knollys to the ire of Queen Elizabeth I and had a son named Robert Dudley to add to the confusion, known as Lord Denbigh or “the noble imp.” After Robert’s legitimate son, we see the rise of Robin Dudley, as he became an explorer and trader in the silk industry. We also see Robin Dudley dealing with romantic scandals, notably leaving England, his wife Alice Leigh, and their growing family to flee to France with his mistress and future wife, Elizabeth Southwell. Robin and Elizabeth were married even though Robin never divorced Alice, thus committing bigamy and making him an enemy of the Stuarts, especially King James I.

Robin was also allegedly involved in the Essex Rebellion but only stayed in prison for a short time. He tried to gain legitimacy through a court case arguing that his parents were indeed married, but it failed spectacularly. Besides the scandals, Robin was an adventurer and deeply fascinated with navigation; his most notable work, The Secrets of the Sea, was the 1st atlas of the sea ever published. It was interesting to see how Robin’s life transformed as he worked in Italy until the end of his life and how he dealt with living during the reigns of Elizabeth and the early Stuarts in different ways.

I wanted to learn more about the early Stuart kings and the different issues that Hickey included in this book that were unfamiliar to me. Robert “Robin” Dudley lived quite a fascinating life, and I think he would have made his father Robert Dudley proud with his adventures to new lands and the book The Secrets of the Seas. Suppose you are also interested in learning more about Robert Dudley and his illegitimate son. In that case, I recommend reading “The Son that Elizabeth I Never Had: The Adventurous Life of Robert Dudley’s Illegitimate Son” by Julia A. Hickey.

Book Review: “Arthur Plantagenet: Henry VIII’s Illegitimate Uncle” by Sarah-Beth Watkins

cover260113-medium (1)When we think of those who made an impact in history, we tend to think of those who have been born to a married couple and therefore were considered legitimate children, especially when it comes to royal children. However, we know that illegitimate royal children, like William the Conqueror, greatly impacted history. Illegitimate royal children may have been barred from becoming king or queen of their respective countries of birth, but that does not mean they didn’t impact how their home country was governed. One of these children who affected politics during the Tudor dynasty was Arthur Plantagenet, the illegitimate son of Edward IV. In her latest book, “Arthur Plantagenet: Henry VIII’s Illegitimate Uncle,” she explores the life of this man who gives us extraordinary insight into the running of Calais and how Henry VIII treated other family members.

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this book. I have enjoyed the previous books I read by Sarah-Beth Watkins, and when I heard that she was writing a new book about Arthur Plantagenet, I was thrilled to read it. I have only heard about Arthur Plantagenet as a side character in other biographies and novels during Henry VIII’s reign, so I was looking forward to learning more about this man.

Watkins begins by exploring the possible birth dates and Arthur’s birth mother, which is a difficult challenge because Edward IV was known for having several mistresses that we know about and probably others who have remained secrets in history. While some illegitimate children were not acknowledged by their royal fathers, it looks like Edward IV accepted Arthur and allowed him to have a good education that would have followed his legitimate sons’ education regime. After the shocking death of Edward IV and the reign of Richard III, we see Arthur establishing himself in the court of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York; we have records of Elizabeth of York taking care of her illegitimate half-brother. Arthur was so close to Elizabeth of York that he attended her funeral.

Arthur’s rise during the reign of Henry VIII focuses on this title. We see how Arthur started as a Spear of Honour and worked his way up to Viscount Lisle after Charles Brandon became Duke of Suffolk. He was a Knight of the Garter, the Vice Admiral of the Tudor Navy, and finally became Lord Deputy of Calais. Arthur was married twice to Elizabeth Grey and Honor Greenville, and although Elizabeth was the one who gave Arthur his daughters, Honor was the one who we know the most about because of the Lisle Letters.

With the title of Lord Deputy of Calais came significant responsibilities for taking care of France’s last remaining English city. Arthur Plantagenet had to deal with your average repairs, preparing the town for battle, civil disputes, religious quarrels, and plots against King Henry VIII. The time that Arthur and Honor were in Calais was a tumultuous time for England and Henry, and we get to see how Arthur felt about these issues, like the Pole family drama, through his Lisle letters. The connection with the Pole family led Arthur to become a prisoner in the Tower of London for two years as he was connected to the Botolf plot to take the city of Calais for the Pope.

Watkins brings the life of Arthur Plantagenet to the forefront and gives this hidden illegitimate Plantagenet his time to shine. It was a fascinating read, especially learning about how Calais was maintained and about the Botolf plot, which I had never heard about before reading this book. If you want an excellent book that introduces the life of Arthur Plantagenet and his role during the reign of King Henry VIII, I would highly recommend you read “Arthur Plantagenet: Henry VIII’s Illegitimate Uncle” by Sarah-Beth Watkins.

Book Review: “Imprisoning Mary Queen of Scots: The Men Who Kept the Stuart Queen” by Mickey Mayhew

cover258870-medium (1)Throughout history, there have been a select number of cases of monarchs becoming prisoners either in war or in times of peace. One of the most famous cases of a monarch’s imprisonment during the 16th century was the case of Mary Queen of Scots. While there have been many tales of her infamous imprisonment and execution, there has not been much attention to the men and woman who acted as Mary Queen of Scots’ jailers. Who were the men and woman Elizabeth I put in charge of guarding the Scottish queen while she was in England? What were the conditions of her imprisonment, and what were the castles and manors like when the queen arrived? Mickey Mayhew explores these questions in his book, “Imprisoning Mary Queen of Scots: The Men Who Kept the Stuart Queen.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this book. I have heard good things about Mickey Mayhew’s previous books that Pen and Sword Books have published, so when I saw this title, I wanted to read it. I have not read many books about Mary Queen of Scots’ imprisonment in England, so I was looking forward to learning something new.

Mayhew begins his nonfiction book by exploring Mary Queen of Scots’ origins and how she ended up being a prisoner in England. Next, he looks at the jailers in charge of Mary’s well-being while she was in England. Mayhew focuses on jailers in this book: Sir William Douglas, Henry 9th Lord Scrope, Sir Francis Knollys, Thomas Howard 4th Duke of Norfolk, Bess of Hardwick, Ralph Sadler, Sir Amyas Paulet, and Sir Drue Drury. Remarkably, we as readers get background information about every jailer and how their time with the prisoner queen affected them differently. For example, the imprisonment was so much of a strain that it tore the marriage between Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, and Bess of Hardwick apart. We also see how the conditions of the castles and manors that Mary was housed in affected her mentally and physically. Some places that Mary was housed in included Carlisle Castle, Bolton Castle, Tutbury Castle, Sheffield Manor Lodge, and the infamous Fotheringhay Castle.

Like any prisoner, there are always escape attempts and plots afoot, and Mary Queen of Scots was no exception. Mayhew explores the famous schemes like Ridolfi and Babington and more minor attempts by Mary and those loyal to her. He also explores how jailers lived their lives after Mary Queen of Scots died. He concludes by examining how each jailer has been portrayed in literature and film/TV shows.

The one thing I wish Mayhew had not done in this book would have been to call Mary I “Bloody Mary” and Elizabeth I “Elizabeth Tudor.” Elizabeth I and Mary I were queens like Mary Queen of Scots, and their nicknames, especially Mary I, should not define who they were as rulers.

Overall, I think Mayhew did an excellent job making the topic of Mary Queen of Scots’ jailers exciting for his audience. It was a well-researched book that allows you to view Mary’s imprisonment and jailers differently. If you want to learn more about Mary Queen of Scots and her jailers, I recommend reading “Imprisoning Mary Queen of Scots: The Men Who Kept the Stuart Queen” by Mickey Mayhew.

Book Review: “London, A Fourteenth-Century City and its People” by Kathryn Warner

60747108._SX318_The city of London has been around for over two millennia, and with each passing century, it changes ever so slightly. From the Roman Londinium to medieval London, we see the city grow from a settlement of between 30,000 to 60,000 people to a bustling town of around 80,000 to 100,000 people. With growth comes changes to the city that would become the capital of England, and one of the most significant periods of transformation for the capital was during the fourteenth century. What was life like in fourteenth-century London for the average citizen of this sprawling city? Kathryn Warner attempts to answer this question in her latest nonfiction book, “London, A Fourteenth-Century City and its People.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this book. I am always fascinated by learning about how people from different centuries lived their everyday lives, so when I heard about this title, it piqued my interest.

London was an international melting pot for Europe, so Warner used many stories to show the city’s diversity. To narrow down the information used in this particular book, Warner explains to her audience that she would only use tales from the reigns of Edward I, Edward II, and Edward III. This book is broken down into bite-sized chapters exploring different aspects of London life, from government and religion to medical, housing, and marriage. This may sound like your average time traveler guidebook, so those of us living in the 21st century can understand the fourteenth century, but Warner gives this genre a bit of a twist.

Instead of focusing on the different aspects and what was considered normal for citizens to eat or wear, Warner looks at unique cases that correspond with the elements that defined fourteenth-century London. They give great insights into how deadly the time was and how the average London citizens dealt with the legal restrictions of everyday life. Every aspect of fourteenth-century life had consequences for those who broke the rules, from charging too much for a loaf of bread or a mug of ale to stealing clothes or building violations. We also get great insight into how women and children were treated, the darker aspects of life, and how they were approached.

The one issue I had with this book was that it showed the cases that were the exceptions to the rules instead of showing what the standards were. Although I am glad Warner included the information she did, like her glossary, nicknames, and the introduction of surnames, I did want more facts to make this book feel complete. I wanted to know what the typical fashion was like for Londoners and what they ate during a normal day. What did a typical day look like for someone who lived in London during the fourteenth century?

“London, A Fourteenth-Century City, and its People” by Kathryn Warner is a well-researched and captivating look into London’s past for those who love learning new facts about medieval Europe. If you like learning new factoids about medieval London, you will find this book rather entertaining.

Guest Post: “Did Tudors Smell Whiffy?” by Carol McGrath

Book jacket Tudor Sex and SexualityToday, I am pleased to welcome Carol McGrath to the blog to discuss Tudor hygiene as part of the Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England blog tour. I would like to thank Carol McGrath and Pen and Sword Books for allowing me to be part of this tour.

Did Tudors smell whiffy? Did they care about personal hygiene? It may surprise you that the Tudors cared about cleanliness despite the fact many did not bathe regularly. Henry VIII frequently took baths and had a new bathhouse constructed at Hampton Court for his personal use and a steam bath at Richmond Palace. This new bath was made of wood but lined with a linen sheet to protect his posterior from catching splinters. It was a marvellous feat of Tudor engineering and allowed water to flow into it from a tap fed by a lead pipe bringing water from a spring over three miles distant from the palace. Tudor engineers were clever enough to pass the pipe underneath the Thames river bed using gravity to create strong water pressure to spurt up two floors into the royal bathroom.

It was important to most Tudors not to stink and particularly important not to smell unpleasant when contemplating relations with a lover. Stinking like a beast was totally unacceptable to a Tudor because, ideally, humans should smell sweet. Of course, the Tudor world was less sanitized than our world. Even so, people were not unaware of bad smells around them, and they actually feared nasty pongs. Medicine taught that disease spread through miasma or foul-smelling airs. Importantly, Tudors also believed that sweet smells could be a key indicator of a person’s moral state, never mind that smelling sweet could help attract a lover. 

bathingBathing for most Tudors meant a dip in the river. For those dwelling in towns, bathing facilities such as bathhouses existed during the first few decades of the era. Crusaders had brought the habit of bathing back from the East, thereby making the idea of bathhouses popular.

Hygiene meant both cleaning oneself and one’s clothes regularly. Just as the Church clamped down on sexual freedoms, it had opinions on bathing: heat could inflame the senses, and washing nude was a sign of vanity, even sexual corruption, so they often wore shirts while bathing.  You could scent a bath with flowers and sweet green herbs to help cure ailments, therefore attaching a medicinal element to the practice. Exotic perfumes such as civet and musk were used in soaps, as well as rose water, violet, lavender, and camphor. For those who could afford scented soaps, they certainly were available.

Tudor Pomander replica

Where public bathhouses went, sex soon followed, so it is no wonder the ever-critical Church complained. Tudor brothels were called ‘stews’ and ‘to lather up’ was an early sixteenth-century slang phrase for ejaculation which came from the notion that one could stew in hot water and steam within a bathhouse. As recently as the previous century, the City of London officially recognized the borough of Southwark as having the highest concentration of bathhouses in London. Ironically, this was an area owned by the Bishop of Winchester, and since many bathhouses were also brothels, their sex workers acquired the alternative name of Winchester Geese.

As the sixteenth century continued, bathing fell into decline as new medical advice suggested it weakened the body. Cleaning the skin left it open to infection. This was considered an outside agency that drifted in the air like spores and which rose from places of putrefaction. The skin’s pores were one body area through which these nasty spores could enter, so medical advice determined that the skin needed to be preserved as a barrier. Pores were a secondary route into the body, and the filth produced by the body must be removed completely and quickly to avoid reabsorption. It became important to wash your shirt and change it frequently to keep clean.

Linen shirts, smocks, under-breeches, hose, collars, coifs, and skull caps allowed the total body coverage. As a fabric, linen was very absorbent. It drew sweat and grease from the skin into the weave of the cloth. Since linen acted like a sponge, the Tudors thought it would draw out waste products from the body and improve the body’s circulation, strengthen the constitution and even restore the balance of the humours.

laundress

Laundresses were popular during Tudor times, not just to keep linen washed but because the washerwomen were easily connected with sex. They were badly paid, so sex work was a way to subsidize their income in many cases. Washerwomen sometimes became known as ‘lavenders.’ The word lavender comes from the Latin lavare to wash, and the word to launder derives from these sweet-smelling flowers. Lavender grows all over Europe, and as it was cheap and readily available, it was used widely when washing clothing. The sixteenth-century poem Ship of Fools contains the following lines:

Thou shalt be my lavender Laundress.

To Wash and keep all my gear

Our two beds together shall be set

Without any let.

People used linen to scrub the body. The Tudor Gentleman, Sir Thomas Elyot, wrote a book in 1534 called The Castel of Health. He suggests an early morning hygiene regime to ‘rubbe the body with a course lynnen clothe, first softly and easilye, and after that increase more and more, to a hard and swift rubbynge, untyll the flesh do swelle and to be somewhat ruddy and that not only down ryghte, but also overthrart and round.’ Rubbing vigorously after exercise could draw the body’s toxins out through open pores, and the rough linen cloth would carry them away. Most people only owned two or three sets of underwear. Listed underwear occasionally turned up in Tudor inventories, and linens would often be recorded in wills as bequeathed to others.

Ruth Goodman, a well-known social historian, once followed a Tudor body cleansing regime for a period of three months while living in modern society. No one complained or even noticed a sweaty smell. She wore natural fibre on top of the linen underwear but took neither a shower nor a bath for the whole period. When she recorded The Monastery Farm for television, she only changed her linen smock once weekly and her hose three times over six months, and she still did not pong. Tudor England was not a place where everyone smelled as sweetly as most people who shower daily today, but its people generally managed not to stink. Of course, the past did smell differently. Even so, being clean and sweet-smelling did matter to many Tudors. 

C McGrath twitterCarol McGrath 

Following a first degree in English and History, Carol McGrath completed an MA in Creative Writing from The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast, followed by an MPhil in English from the University of London. The Handfasted Wife, the first in a trilogy about the royal women of 1066, was shortlisted for the RoNAS in 2014. The Swan-Daughter and The Betrothed Sister complete this highly acclaimed trilogy. Mistress Cromwell, a best-selling historical novel about Elizabeth Cromwell, wife of Henry VIII’s statesman, Thomas Cromwell, republished by Headline in 2020. The Silken Rose, first in a Medieval She-Wolf Queens Trilogy featuring Ailenor of Provence, was published in April 2020 by the Headline Group. This was followed by The Damask Rose. The Stone Rose will be published in April 2022. Carol writes Historical non-fiction as well as fiction. Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England will be published in February 2022. Find Carol on her website:

www.carolcmcgrath.co.uk.

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