I have recently finished reading the excellent Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Freemantle, about Katherine Parr and her marriages to Henry VIII and Tom Seymour. The character that I find most interesting is the second protagonist, Dorothy (Dot) Fownten. She is based on a real Dorothy Fownten (or possibly Fountain – accurate spelling of names, especially of low-born women, was not important back then) – and she is the serving girl that Katherine Parr brings with her to Court.
As Elizabeth Freemantle herself says, this gives us the opportunity to see the treacherous Tudor Court from the perspective of an illiterate but intellectually curious outsider, as well as demonstrating the depth of Katherine’s character through her loyalty to Dot.
For me, it also gives us an opportunity to explore the normality of the everyday lives of Tudor serving people, and see the parallels with our own. In one scene, Dot is cleaning the windows with a cloth soaked in vinegar – as good a cleaner then, I assume, as it still is now. In another scene, she scatters lavender around a room to mask the cooking smells wafting up from the privy kitchens below – today wouldn’t we just plug in a lavender scented diffuser to do the same thing? There are scenes where she chats with Betty, the woman who scrubs the pots and pans clean, or observes Big Barney, the man who empties the jakes – the Tudor cesspitts or toilets. All these scenes go to build a picture of normal daily life going on behind the intrigues and plotting of the nobility that we more usually read about.
In my view, Tudor history has for too long been all about the Kings, Queen’s and courtiers. In the modern age, where we are fascinated with the minutiae of ordinary people’s daily lives – think soap operas and reality TV – it seems only natural to take a similar view of life in Tudor times!