The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women: A Social History, by Elizabeth Norton

The English Tudor period lasted a little over 130 years, lasting from the taking of the crown by Henry VII in 1485 to the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Despite that fairly narrow range of the 16th century it became one of the most consequential periods in English history.

Elizabeth Norton’s book looks at the lives of both poor and rich women during that century. and divides her topics along the lines of Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” fromĀ As You Like It with some small refinements. She covers the stages of life from birth to death, covering childhood, love and marriage, adulthood, and old age in between.

Some of the usual suspects are here. Some of Henry VIII wives are mentioned along with some consideration of “Bloody Mary” and Elizabeth I. More interesting are some of the intimate details involved, from the swaddling of infants keeping them nearly immobile for the first few months of life to remarriage after widowhood which offered some women love after a parent-arranged first marriage.

More amazing are the dozens of documented successes for women at a time in which this was a constant struggle. Women who educated themselves despite the advice of experts that even if girls seemed to learn faster than boys it simply wasn’t true. Women who built successful businesses and hired their own apprentices despite the fact that some guilds would not allow women to become apprentices. Women surgeons who outperformed the male barber-surgeons, much to the latter’s outrage.

It’s also striking that during a time of tremendous religious turmoil, with successive kings and queens pushing between Catholicism and Protestantism, that many of the drivers of the changes and the resulting martyrs on both sides were women. Not the husbands but the wives fought for their interpretation of the correct religious life, and lost their lives on the gallows or stake as a result. And amidst the royals it was Anne Boleyn who pushed Henry VIII toward turning the Church of England into being more than an independent Catholic church, and it was his daughter Mary who earned the moniker Bloody through her executions of Protestants, followed by her sister Elizabeth who repaid the favor to Catholics.

The book as a whole is sprinkled, too, with the challenges women faced. The difficulties of proving rape, even for children aged 4. Adult women raped into marriage because “consummation” was more binding than a legal ceremony. The constant threat of witchcraft accusations. All of this happening at a time in which the theft of more than a shilling in value could result in execution, sometimes as horrifying as being boiled alive.

It’s a book that deals with courage, depravity, genius, and superstition in a way that shows the broad spectrum of human life during the century that first set England on course to becoming a major world power. The variety is wonderful with insights into dozens of lives.