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A Tudor childhood

A Tudor Childhood. Shown Are The Three Children Of Henry VII And Elizabeth Of York

Find out about Tudor childhood and how children in the courts and on the streets of Henry VIII’s England lived. Featuring contributions from two Tudor experts.

Header image: Three children of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York (modified): CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Imagining a Tudor childhood

When I think of Tudor times I imagine streams and rivers teeming with fishes, sky and trees full of birds and their songs, fields and lanes covered in wild flowers, hills rich with woodlands.

I think of castles and beautiful manor houses, rich tapestries on walls, great halls busy with courtiers and visitors and servants, and echoing with voices and footsteps, barking dogs and music. I think of the wealthy people of all ages in gorgeous, uncomfortable, smelly clothes.

I also think of streets slimy with mud and dung or powdery with dust. I think of filthy hovels with animals roaming in and out, children crawling in dirt; I think of the floors covered in stinking rushes, the smell of disease and rotting food and waste, rank water in summer, flies and fleas, rats, hunger, illness. It was hard work just to stay alive.

I wrote my novel Treason in two halves, to try and depict these two worlds, of privilege and wealth and poverty and hard work. The worlds of Will and Nick, my main characters, are brought together in the story in a way that neither of them could ever have guessed – through danger and friendship.

I’m not an historian, I’m a story-teller. I researched the Tudors as well as I could in order to write about the period, and I hope I brought it to life for you. Like all novelists, I also had to use my imagination to enter the period as if I had really lived there, and to make it real for you. As a reader, you have to use your imagination too; to smell, taste, touch, see, hear and breathe the world of these Tudor children.

Treason by Berlie Doherty, 2019 edition
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Published by: Anderson Press, 2011. Available from Amazon (UK) and amazon.com.

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Treason is an historical novel set in the Tudor period, widely read in KS2 Renaissance history lessons as well as in the mass market. It deals with the intrigue, ambitions and fears in Henry VIII’s court, seen through the eyes of 11 year old Will Montague, page to the little Prince Edward. When Will’s father is thrown into Newgate prison for treason, Will has to take refuge in the streets of London. But he must save his father’s life!

For this blog, I asked two people who have explored the world of the Tudors in different ways to share with you their thoughts on the time of childhood. Here’s what they wrote:

Tamsin Rosewell – former Tudor guide

Artist and former Tudor guide Tamsin Roswell in front of one of her paintings.
Photo: Mark Williamson

Tamsin is an illustrator, artist, former Tudor tour guide and member of English Inheritance team at Kenilworth Castle. She has illustrated three of my books: The Haunted Hills, Children of Winter and Granny Was a Buffer Girl.

Cover of The Haunted Hills by Berlie Doherty
Cover of Children of Winter (2023 edition) by Berlie Doherty
Cover of Granny Was a Buffer Girl (2024 edition) by Berlie Doherty

For all children childhood was short. You were expected to be either working or helping in the home and helping with younger children, from 8 or 9, or, if you were of a higher class to be properly a ‘man and heir’, a scholar of sorts, or a marriageable accomplished young lady by 13 or 14. Not much room for teenage angst and rebellious energy!! I always liked talking to people about how hard it was to imagine the world as an Elizabethan would have seen and understood it, in a pre-scientific age when the general world view was one of a hierarchy that literally went from the lowly worms in the earth, through different animals and birds, humans, angels and on up to God on his throne; there are texts that talk about the fish of the sea willingly turning belly up to feed the eagle.

Today we believe the opposite really, not that we are more important and of higher value and spiritual status than any birds and animals, but that we have a responsibility to them. I’d think that a lot that what even young children understand scientifically now, from rainbows and storms, to eclipses and just night skies full of stars, must have felt wonderous and supernatural too. And without our constant on-hand entertainment, to sit and listen to a story or some music played must have been just so thrilling! I’d love to be able to reclaim that wonder at the world, but not the disease and malnutrition that went along with it!

The colour of privilege

With my interest in colour too, I used to talk about how very colourful our world is compared to theirs: we all have patterned clothes, maybe curtains, rugs and pictures in our schools and homes, when we go shopping there are entire aisles of cereal packets all in vivid colour, our food is often brightly packaged or labelled; everything is coloured and designed. In an Elizabethan world only the wealthy would have had pictures on their walls or patterned colourful clothes.

The rest of us would have lived in a natural coloured world largely. So if you can imagine a childhood without all the colour of today, and THEN you imagine what it would have been like to walk into church on a Sunday and see the stained glass, or to be allowed into a garden full of bright flowers and patterned knots, it becomes quite an exhilarating experience. Today we do those things to get away from all the colour and noise and endless patterns!

The two photos are of Kenilworth Castle. Although the garden is not in full bloom in November, you can still see that the garden is all about the pattern and design, like a sort of outdoor room, there to enjoy for its plush decor. The view through the arch is into what we think was the kitchen garden. THIS was the place for growing herbs for use. The big garden was there for pleasure, not for practicality.

Education in Tudor times – by Professor Cathy Shrank

Cathy Shrank, Professor of Tudor and Renaissance Literature at the University of Sheffield

Cathy Shrank is Professor of Tudor and Renaissance Literature at the University of Sheffield.

Her publications include Writing the Nation in Reformation England (Oxford UP, 2004); with Mike Pincombe, The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature (Oxford UP, 2010), and, with Raphael Lyne, The Complete Poems of Shakespeare (Routledge, 2017).

In Treason, Will Montague, the lead character, has to leave his home and family and become a gentleman servant, a page, in the household of Prince Edward. Leaving your family at young age was quite typical in the sixteenth century. The sons of the wealthy would frequently be sent away to be educated in other elite households. For example, Thomas More – who would become Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor in 1529, and who would be beheaded in 1534 for refusing to reject the authority of the Pope – spent some of his boyhood in the household of John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor to Henry VII. Thomas would have been about eleven or twelve when he left home (the same age as Will Montague).

Boys and girls from poorer families might also leave home at a young age, to work as live-in servants. There were also boarding schools in the sixteenth century: many of these provided free education and accommodation for poorer scholars.

If you wanted to learn a trade, you would need to undertake an apprenticeship. Again, this would mean leaving home and living with your master, as part of their household. Apprentices, though, were slightly older than Will: in the City of London, for example, no one under the age of fourteen could be an apprentice. Sixteenth-century boys also went to university much younger than today: Thomas More was at Oxford by the time that he was fourteen. Girls couldn’t go to university during this period: it wasn’t until the Nineteenth Century that women could gain a degree in the UK.

Girls could, however, be taught at home. That is what we see in Treason, where Will’s sister Margery is initially taught alongside her brother. We also see how Margery’s education changes once it comes under the control of her aunt: there’s less reading books, more sewing and preparing Margery for life as a future wife. This is a reminder that the content of female education was very much decided by the family. Some girls (like Prince Edward’s sister Elizabeth, his future stepmother Katherine Parr, or his cousin Lady Jane Grey) were highly educated. Others were not.

A Tudor education – learning, reading and writing Latin

Where girls’ education differed widely, then boys’ schooling in the sixteenth century followed a remarkably similar pattern, particularly if they were educated outside the home. Education in this period meant learning Latin, which was then still a language that educated people across Europe used to communicate with each other, in speech and writing.

At school, boys would have spent the day reading and writing Latin.

They were even supposed to speak Latin to each other and could be punished if they spoke in English (even if they just wanted to borrow a pencil).

To help them learn to do this, they had textbooks (‘colloquies’) containing lists of useful words and phrases – showing pupils how to tell their schoolmaster that someone has peed on their shoes, or that they need to go home to tend the sheep/cows/pigs – and staging short conversations about everyday matters: getting up in the morning, going to school, learning lessons. Once boys had got to grips with basic Latin, they would then move on to more complicated texts.

The schoolroom must have been a very noisy place, though: a lot of schoolwork was done through reading texts aloud, or repeating them from memory. And although schoolrooms could be quite brutal places – masters were allowed to beat their pupils – many schoolteachers in this period were aware that pupils learned better when they were encouraged and when they were enjoying their lessons.

NOTE: Think how much technology is used in your schools. Can you name all the devices in your classroom? Do they help teachers or children, or both?

Birth, death and early years

From my conversations with Cathy Shrank I also learned the following:

Infant mortality was very high. Many children did not survive their babyhood, and if you were the age you are now, you would be lucky. Children born into poor families died of malnutrition, sickness, poor living conditions, but it was still the case that in well-to-do families, even royal households, few children survived into adulthood, and even fewer babies survived their first weeks.

Girls as young as 12 became mothers (King Henry VII’s mother was only 12 when he was born. And Harry, as Henry VIII was known, had to wait until he was 14 to marry Catherine of Aragon.

NOTE: You might like to think why more of us survive birth and live longer today.

In a wealthy home you spent most of your childhood in the nursery, often looked after by a wet-nurse (who breast-fed you till you were one or two) and other maids and servants. You were kept swaddled up in linen cloths, so tight that you couldn’t move your arms or legs, in a wooden cradle until you were taught to walk, maybe with a wooden push-along wheeler. In poor homes, you were likely to crawl about the dirty floor of the house, among the animals.

At 7 boys would be sent to the petty school and taught Latin, Greek, religion and mathematics. Latin was taught all over the world, much as English is today, and the education was standard throughout the country. If Nick went to one of the petty schools he’d be taught for about 8 hours a day and then do some work. Perhaps he’d collect a jug of beer on his way home for himself and the girls.

Will and Margery would be taught at home by a tutor for eight hours every day. They’d learn to play an instrument or sing, be taught to read, to draw and paint. Margery would learn to sew and for the boys there’d be fencing and archery, and falconry.

NOTE: What kind of activities are you taught in school today? Are boys and girls taught exactly the same things?

Off to work!

Children like Nick and his sisters would be expected to work. If they were lucky enough, they might get a job as a servant or become an apprentice to a carpenter or shoemaker perhaps. If they did, they’d be leaving home at seven years old.

Darkness, cold, shadows and ghosts

My conversation with Professor Shrank made me think how much the invention of electricity has changed all our lives, but especially chidren’s. Imagine how dark the Tudor home must have been. After daylight faded the house would be lit only by firelight and by rush and tallow candles. Tallow is animal fat, which would be very smelly, hot, smoky and dangerous.

The great halls, and especially the courts, were huge buildings with many rooms, long corridors, high ceilings. They were echoey and draughty, and would be lit by hundreds of candles. Think of the shadows they would cast, and how a breeze or even someone walking past would make them flutter and dance – or go out, plunging you into darkness! A child with a vivid imagination could well believe they were seeing ghosts and spirits.

The Tudor period took place during the ‘little ice age’. Winters were bitterly cold. Even mighty rivers like the Thames could freeze so deeply that horses and carriages could drive along them. Children could have some fun skating or sliding on the ice, but think how cold they would be. They would need to wear many layers of itchy, woollen clothes, maybe wrapped round their feet as well as their bodies.

Thoughts from a future king

I’m called Edward. I’m looked after by many nurses and servants. They wash me, dress me, bring my pusher to teach me to walk, somebody sings to me sometimes, somebody combs my hair, somebody carries me to the Great Hall where I may see my father if he sends for me. He holds me up for all the court to see, and they roar and clap in a noisy, drunken way, then he hands me back to be put to bed. My page Will Montague fetches everything I need. He didn’t stay for long enough for me to know him properly. I’ve never seen my mother, Jane Seymour, because she died twelve days after I was born.

When I am six I am betrothed to Mary Queen of Scotland. She’s seven months old. Well, two years later ‘they’ decided that I didn’t have to marry her after all. That’s good, I suppose. I don’t know what marriage means.

When I am nine my father dies. There’s a lot of fuss about it, and then I become Edward VI, King of England and Ireland, though my Uncle Edward Seymour seems to do most of the ruling, and will do till I’m 14.

A child is king

It’s quite lonely, being a king and not a king. I’m surrounded by servants and nurses, every movement I make is supervised in case I hurt myself. I can’t move on my own from one room to another, play with the dogs, go outside, change my clothes because I’m too hot or too cold or they’re too heavy, eat when I’m hungry. The windows are too high for me to see out of.

I do like sport though. I love to ride. I’ll never be as good at tennis as my father was but I used to enjoy playing with him in our court, bouncing the ball as hard as I could against the walls. I mainly spend my time studying, which I love because I’m very clever. I enjoy learning. My tutors say I’m particularly good at Theology. I write my diary, I say my prayers and attend services, I am told about matters of State even though I can’t comment on them. I understand it though. I understand everything. Every day I’m learning how to be a king. I will be a great king when I’m old enough to rule.

NOTE: King Edward VI died when he was fifteen years old.

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her new picture book The Seamaiden’s Odyssey, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell, will be published by UCLan on 5 September 2024. See the About me page for more information.

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