City of Ladies by Sarah Kennedy Prompts Look at Women’s Roles in Tudor England
Besides being a wonderful work of historical fiction, City of Ladies by Sarah Kennedy is a poignant look into the lives of women after the dissolution of the monasteries in England under Henry VIII. The main character, Catherine Overton, has already weathered the transition from nun to wife, but many of her former sisters have not been as fortunate. This leads naturally to the question of the role of a woman in Tudor England, especially one who suddenly finds herself without a vocation or station.
It is no accident that Kennedy chose as Catherine’s most prized possession a copy of The Book of The City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (1364-1430). As the first known woman to make a living writing books, Christine was definitely the exception to the rule for her sex. Outspoken and unafraid to address the treatment of women in her time, in the book Catherine so values Christine depicts a symbolic city in which women are recognized for their gifts and defended from harm.
But real life in Tudor England was not nearly so utopian. Women had very few options and even more limited education. They began life as daughters to their fathers, lived it as wives to husbands and mothers to their children. If they were lucky enough to outlive their husbands, they might enjoy a brief period of independence in widowhood. A fortunate few benefited from participating in a husband’s business or education at a convent when they existed. An examination of each possible role a Tudor woman could play during her life shows how apt is the statement uttered by Catherine to her newborn daughter, “Poor child. To be born a girl to such a world of men.”
Childhood was not a time for coddling in Tudor England. Children were expected to speak only when spoken to. They often learned proper social graces from any number of handbooks that existed to instruct them – such as John Russell’s “Book of Nurture” – which were wielded by nursemaids and tutors.
At age seven, noble girls were sent to a more influential household to serve the lady of the castle and learn how to behave as a noblewoman. During this period of training, which often lasted until marriage, a girl would learn how to sew, sing, embroider, dance, tell stories, ride horses and hunt. Some also learned to play an instrument and possibly to read and write.
Poor girls could begin working as early as age seven. Their schooling consisted of learning household skills such as cooking, cleaning and how to tend to babies and animals. Common sense, rather than learning, was encouraged in these girls.
All women learned the essential “women’s work” of carding wool, spinning thread and weaving cloth. Herbal knowledge may have been passed down through the generations from mother to daughter, but the most skilled herbalists were to be found in convents.
Marrying well and bearing children were the primary duties of all women. Most noble women married around 12 or 13 years of age, with boys marrying around 15. The merchant class and the poor often married later, as the boys had to apprentice and be able to afford a family.
Most women bore a child a year from marriage into their mid-30s, many of whom did not live beyond infancy or early childhood. Women were expected to pass their faith on to their children, so this was one of their other primary duties in addition to managing their household.
Some women learned their husband or father’s craft by watching and assisting. These women also might learn accounting to help keep their husbands’ books. In addition, they were intimately familiar with the product because they were often the ones who sold it at market. Because of this, widowed women who knew their husband’s craft could take his place in the guilds and continue his trade after his death.
In larger cities throughout Europe, women ran silk guilds where they spun silk into thread, then wove it into fabric or worked it into ribbons or lace. There were also guilds for women who embroidered headdresses, bags and gloves.
To be a lady in waiting to a noblewoman or even a royal was a great honor, one that came with perks – in the royal house this included your own servant, a special breakfast, pension for meals and household items, and an annual stipend for gowns and other necessities. Flattery and even bribes were common from those seeking to be close to power or influence those who had the ear of the most senior rulers. In the Tudor court, there were four levels of ladies (listed from most prestigious to least):
- Great Ladies – These were well-married women drawn from the highest ranks of nobility. They only served on special occasions.
- Ladies of the Privy Chamber – These women were drawn from high-ranking noble families. They attended to everyday needs of the noblewoman they served.
- Maids of Honor – Unmarried, well-born daughters of nobles in service to the king were often sent to court at age 13 or 14, where many eventually found husbands.
- Chamberers – These untitled women assisted the Ladies of the Privy Chamber in their duties.
For the poor woman, widowhood was a struggle to survive until she could remarry. But noble women received a share of their husband’s property (usually one third to one half) and one third of his goods. This often meant a widow was suddenly a very rich woman. In addition, this dower was not often forfeited after remarriage, so a woman who had been widowed more than once would be a very attractive marriage candidate.
For wealthy women, widowhood was the only time in their lives they had full legal power. They could own property, spend or borrow money, sue and be sued, and even entertain friends or raise their children according to their own wills. At other times, all of these things were done through the will of their fathers or husbands. For that reason alone, not to mention what their experience of marriage may have been, many were in no hurry to remarry. It was said that if a woman did not remarry within five years, she likely would not.
Nonetheless, there was great pressure on rich widows to marry again, which most did within a year of their husband’s death. In England, the king could collect a large sum from anyone marrying a noble widow. In addition, a wealthy unmarried widow was in danger of kidnapping and harm by those who wanted her lands. In fact, jealous male relatives or heirs who felt slighted might withhold a widow’s dowry, forcing her to sue for it.
Bride of Christ
Becoming a nun was one of the most attractive options for some women before the dissolution of the monasteries, especially if they desired to be educated. As we see in Sarah Kennedy’s books, religious women were often skilled artists, healers, and musicians in addition to being able to read and write. Some joined a convent because of a genuine religious calling, while others were forced by family members who desired to be rid of them or had reason to offer them to the Church.
After the dissolution, these women were left without a home, place in society, or source of income other than the small pension granted to them by the crown. A lucky few had families to return to and even fewer still managed to marry, with royal permission. (The Act of Six Articles, passed in 1539, made it illegal for former monks and nuns to marry. A decade later, during the reign of Edward VI they were finally permitted to marry, but this happiness was short-lived. Many were forcibly separated when Mary took the throne.) Because of these circumstances, most former religious, like the women in Catherine’s circle, had to rely on the charity of others. If they could not, their only choices were to flee to Catholic countries in the hope that other orders may take them in or to live in abject poverty.
This harsh reality is why Catherine Overton was so insistent on keeping her circle of ladies together, even in the face of opposition from her husband, neighbors and other nobles. But, as we see in City of Ladies, such devotion is not often rewarded in a society fettered by fear both of a mercurial king and of women who may band together to achieve power that rightfully belongs to men.
City of Ladies by Sarah Kennedy will be released on November 4, 2014 by Knox Robinson Publishing (ISBN: 978-1-910282-09-0).
Women and Girls in the Middle Ages by Kay Eastwood
Women in Medieval Times by Fiona MacDonald
The Tudor Housewife by Alison Sim
Ladies in Waiting by Anne Somerset
Wife and Widow in Medieval England by Sue Sheridan Walker
About the contributor: Nicole Evelina is a historical fiction and women’s fiction author, as well as a book reviewer for HNS, Historical Honey and Sirens. She can be found online at http://nicoleevelina.com.