Bodily Hygiene in the Tudor Age
In a year of viruses and disease, personal hygiene has never seemed so important. Handwashing, bathing and teeth-brushing seems second-nature to us in this modern society, and we all understand the importance of soap. Walk down the hygiene aisle at your local supermarket and you’ll see a torrent of fragranced, antibacterial soaps, gels, pastes, and creams. But for the Tudors, nipping down to their local store just wasn’t possible. So, how did they stay clean?
Contrary to popular belief, the Tudors were a lot more hygienic than we give them credit for. Soap would have been used in every household, regardless of status or wealth. For the upper classes, soaps made from natural oils or vegetable fats would be used to cleanse the skin, and more often than not they would have been fragranced with sweet smells such as lavender or sage. The poor would have had to make do with soaps made from cruder materials, such as animal fats, but it still got the job done.
Soaps consisting of these types of fats were also often used within the household, as a form of Tudor laundry detergent or washing-up liquid.
As well as sweet-smelling soaps, fragranced water would have been regularly used by the upper-class Tudors to rinse their hands, especially before they dined. The Tudors did not use cutlery as we would today, and instead they (even the royals!) often ate with their fingers. Having clean hands was therefore of utmost importance, and even the Tudors recognised that eating with grubby fingers was not the most pleasant thing to do. Although the Tudors were not entirely clued-up on germ theory (that wasn’t discovered until the 19th century!), they still knew how important washing one’s hands were against dirt and the sicknesses that were so rife in the Tudor Age. Indeed, both Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I were inflicted with life-threatening diseases at one point in their lives.
In the Tudor times, there existed a belief that bathing in warm water led to the pores of the body opening up and letting in ‘miasmas’, or air that was believed to be dangerous to the body. Thomas Moulton, a physician writing in the mid-1500s, wrote that people should avoid bathing in hot temperatures, for they “openeth the pores of a manne’s body and maketh the venomous ayre enter for to
infect the blood”. Many people believed in Moulton’s advice and avoided bathing in hot, soapy water. But did this mean that the Tudors did not bathe at all?
No! In fact, standards of hygiene greatly improved in the Tudor times, and regular bathing was encouraged and was considered essential to a healthy lifestyle. Water scented with citrus peels and herbs (such as mint and sage) were cheap, commonly found ingredients that not only gave off a delightful smell, but also had medicinal purposes. It was for this reason, therefore, that the sick were encouraged to bathe as regularly as possible to keep their illnesses at bay.
Bathtubs in the Tudor times were not permanent, but could be moved around and used whenever one desired a bath. They were large, barrel-like tubs that were, quite frankly, an ordeal to fill. Typically, women would go back and forth with pails of clean, fresh water (which was often difficult to find in rural villages!) to fill up the bath, which would then need to be heated by a fire. Hot linens would line the tub, and clean towels would be ready and waiting for the bather to use once finished. After the bath, all of that water would have to be poured away. No wonder people were dissuaded from bathing regularly!
More often that not, baths would be used by more than one member of the same family. It could also be a social affair, with more than one person bathing at the same time, with some even sharing a meal whilst they washed! If one could not be bothered for such a laborious bath, they would have sponged themselves down daily with clean water to wick away sweat, dirt and grime. Historian Ruth Goodman goes one step further and suggests that the Tudors would have had a “dry” bath if they did not fancy the full routine. “Dry” bathing consisted of people scrubbing their skin with a dry cloth to remove dirt and grime, and, by all accounts, it worked extremely well!
Of course, the Tudor monarchs would not have had to draw their baths themselves. Instead, King Henry VIII had installed personal bathrooms at Hampton Court Palace, Windsor Castle and Whitehall Palace, that were all complete with a sophisticated plumbing system that allowed both hot and cold water. Henry appears to have had an obsession with keeping himself clean. He was deathly afraid of illness, and so he indulged in a regular hygiene routine to stay healthy. His daughter Elizabeth, however, was not as easily convinced. Famously boasting that she only took one bath per month, Queen Elizabeth I was not exactly the model of good hygiene that her father had been.
In fact, not only was Elizabeth adverse to bathing, but also, it appears, dental hygiene. The queen was known for her rotten black teeth that had deteriorated through her excessive love of sugar. To her credit, Elizabeth I is believed to have brushed her teeth on some occasions, but what she used to clean them with actually furthered the decay. In a time before minty toothpaste, Queen Elizabeth I rubbed honey and sugar-paste over her gums with either her fingers or a cloth rag! Paul Hentzner, a German traveller visiting the Elizabeth Court, commented in disbelief about Elizabeth’s teeth, and cruelly remarked that the queen had to rely on dentures. Elizabeth’s grandfather, King Henry VII may have also relied on fake teeth, as the chroniclers recorded him as having “teeth few”!
Thankfully, from archaeological excavations and contemporary chronicles, we know that the majority of the Tudors had perfect pearly whites. In an age before excessive sugar consumption, teeth did not quickly decay, and instead many people went through life with a row of straight, perfect teeth. The skeleton of Princess Mary Tudor, the younger sister of Henry VIII, was found to have a “good set of teeth” for example, and Anne Boleyn, who, aside from a supposed protruding tooth, had a perfect, healthy set of teeth. Still, all this aside, I’m glad I live in the modern age of soaps and toothpaste!
Hugh Plat, Delightes for Ladies (14th Century).
Goodman, R., Getting Clean, the Tudor Way. 2016. Available online at: https://newrepublic.com/article/129828/getting-clean-tudor-way.
Goodman, R., How To Be A Tudor. (Penguin Publishing: 2015).
On The Tudor Trail, Tudor Hygiene Part 1 – Bathing. 2010. Available online at: http://onthetudortrail.com/Blog/resources/life-in-tudor-england/tudor-hygiene-part-1-bathing/.
Sherrow, V., For Appearance’s Sake: The Historical Encyclopaedia of Good Looks, Beauty, and Grooming. (Greenwood Publishing: 2001), pp. 20 – 37.