It was while I was happily soaking in the bath last night that I got to wondering about baths and hygiene in Tudor times – and what it meant to different levels of society. There’s this perception, perhaps, that people in the Tudor period were generally dirty, and that hygiene was not high on the list of priorities. To a certain extent, our visual media plays on this – either stretching our credibility with costume dramas showing impossibly beautiful people in impossibly pristine clothes (think BBC’s The Tudors), or presenting horribly grubby peasants in horribly filthy clothes (think Monty Python). We have also been fed this regular myth that Tudors thought bathing unhealthy; for example that even Elizabeth would bathe infrequently. I have not seen evidence of this; and she would have had access to the lavish bathrooms built in the main palaces by her father Henry VIII, so I think it much more likely that she bathed regularly.
The truth, as ever, is somewhere in between the ‘pristine’ and the ‘grubby’, and is a reflection of the rigid stratification of Tudor society. The nobles and royalty would bathe regularly – because they could. Unlike our egalitarian society, where having access to a bathroom is considered a basic human right across all of society, such access was considered a privilege. Upper classes had access to a physical bath – made of wood or possibly copper – as well as herbs, soap (made of olive oil), servants to heat the water on a fire, and means of disposing of the waste water. They also had the time available to relax in a bath.
The general population, however, did not have such access, but they recognised the need to keep as clean as they could – possibly more as a means of appearing to ‘better’ themselves than for hygiene reasons. Therefore they would either bathe in a stream, or hand wash themselves down with a bowl of water and animal fat soap. There was no means of disposing of the dirty waste water, so they would take it outside and pour it away down a hole (‘sink’). Like every household task we currently take for granted, the whole process was time-consuming and hard work. For people who had demanding lives and very little ‘down time’, personal hygiene probably only made it to the top of the priority list when the smell got too bad!