My friend Claire Ridgway, of The Anne Boleyn Files, recently had the opportunity to listen in on a talk by Tudor author extraordinaire, Alison Weir on 1 July at the Mary Rose Museum at the historic dockyard at Portsmouth (and lunch with her afterward!). Claire was kind enough to share the experience with me so I may share it with you. Today, in part 1, we have Weir’s take on women in Tudor England in general, and on marriage. Take it away, Claire…
I’ve been wanting to catch one of Alison Weir’s talks for a long time so I was really excited when I managed to get a ticket for this talk to aid the Mary Rose Appeal. Alison explained that this talk was not based on any particular book, but on research she has done dating back to the 1970s, and it was a truly enlightening talk, educating the listeners about what it was really like to be a Tudor woman.
Alison started with a quotation from John Knox’s “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women”, a treatise directed at Mary of Guise but which also could be applied to Mary I and her successor, Elizabeth I, a diatribe against the “monstrous regiment” of female rulers. This quotation set the scene for the talk, a talk about the roles that Tudor society expected women to play versus the roles that they actually did play.
Alison explained how men were traditionally seen as the hunters, gatherers and protectors, whereas women were descended from Eve and were the cause of Adam leaving Paradise. Women were viewed as instruments of the Devil, temptresses and “the only imperfection in God’s creation”. Alison quoted Vincent de Beauvais from the 13th century:-
“Woman is the confusion of man, an insatiable beast, a continuous anxiety, an incessant warfare, a daily ruin, a house of tempest and a hindrance to devotion”
and this belief, that women were more prone to sin and could lead men astray, was still prevalent in Tudor England. Tudor women were given little freedom and Chaucer’s character, Patient Griselda, was held as the ideal that girls should aspire to.
Alison went on to discuss betrothals, pre-contracts, dowries and marriage, explaining that a marriage ceremony was not needed to legalise a marriage, even a verbal contract witnessed by two people and then consummated was enough. This helps us to understand the concerns over Anne Boleyn’s alleged pre-contract to Henry Percy and Catherine Howard’s to Francis Dereham.
Alison pointed out that sex before marriage was forbidden but that it was seen as acceptable for a man to sow his wild oats before settling down; however, a woman was expected to be virtuous and guard her reputation with her life, and this is why Henry VIII courted Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard in front of chaperones, to guard their reputations. Talk about double standards!
For the woman, sex was seen as simply necessary for procreation and it was believed that women were not meant to experience sexual pleasure. Alison stated that when someone in the 16th century questioned this belief and said that women were made to experience pleasure, he was accused of heresy. Also, a shocking fact – women with sexual experience could not accuse a man of rape!
Marriage for love was seen as pure insanity and arranged marriages were the norm. Henry VIII bucked tradition by following Edward IV’s example and marrying for love, but this certainly was not normal. Boys could cohabit from 14 and girls were deemed ready for a sexual relationship from 12, and Alison noted that there was a very practical reason for this: life expectancy. In Tudor times, women had a life expectancy of around 30 so it was sensible to marry young.
Part 2: Henry’s queens and adultery, stay tuned!