Popular uprisings – against the King or against social change?

Before Jack CadeIf you look at two of the biggest social revolts in the Plantagenet / Tudor era, there are remarkable similarities. Both Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 and Robert Aske’s Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-7 were not aimed at overthrowing the King (Henrys VI and VIII respectively) – but were aimed at restoring the social order that was the foundation of the common people’s way of life.

In the case of Cade, the rebellion focussed on restoring the order through change at the top – but not specifically at the weak and wavering King Henry VI; rather the close advisors identified as the cause of the problems (the debt from war against France and the disruption from the returning soldiers).

Equally the Pilgrimage of Grace targeted the advisers around King Henry VIII – specifically Thomas Cromwell – as the cause of the changes. Their complaint was that the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the imposition of the Protestant religion created social change that they neither wanted nor approved.

In both rebellions the leaders recognised that there was an anger driving the rebels as they sought to restore their traditional ways of life. The leaders therefore tried to maintain discipline among their men, and avoid drunkenness and looting. In this Aske was much more successful than Cade – Aske’s 35,000 men were well ordered and disciplined, whereas Cade’s 5,000 went out of control once they crossed London Bridge and got into the City.

In both rebellions, the Kings recognised that fighting back was the quickest way to a disastrous all-out civil war, so diffused the rebellions by appearing to listen to their demands and issuing pardons for the foot-soldiers. They both also appeared to pardon the leaders, allowing the whole rebellion to fizzle out, before they captured and killed the two men. Cade was killed after resisting arrest, and Aske was executed for treason.

Was either rebellion successful? It depends how you define success. Cade’s rebellion prompted further uprisings that weakened the Lancaster throne and help spark the Wars of the Roses – so ultimately leading to the rise of the two York Kings then the Tudors in 1485. The failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace allowed Henry VIII to strengthen his position and to actually increase the pace of the Dissolution of the Monasteries – helping to prompt the violent backlash of Mary’s reign.

But as movements for social change, both events demonstrated the collective power of the common people and their fierce protection of their traditional way of life. That was a lesson that successive Kings and Queens needed to learn – until Charles I, who managed to get it so monumentally wrong that he ended up losing his head.

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Tudor bathtime

bathIt 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!

Opiate of the masses?

I thought this week it would be interesting to have an overview of religion as means of social control in Tudor times – and particularly the social implications of the shift from Catholicism to Protestantism.

Following Henry VIII’s break with Rome (the Reformation) and Cromwell’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the middle of the 16th century was a turbulent time for people of faith – which was pretty much every man, woman and child in the Realm. The question was, which faith?

There were those who clung to the ‘old’ religion – Catholicism and the leadership of the Pope in Rome, with its Latin Bible and highly ritualised services. This included, interestingly enough, the King himself, who never gave up his fundamentally Catholic belief – the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Reformation were essentially economic and political constructs to give him money and the divorce he needed from Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. Indeed, when William Tyndale published his English Bible in 1529, he was branded a heretic.

Then there were those that embraced the ‘new’ faith of Martin Luther and Calvin – the ‘Protestants’. In England it was primarily a stripped-back version of the same faith, with the differences being more socio-political than faith-based – it recognised the King as the head of the Church, it allowed for a Bible that could be read in English and therefore understood by the common people, and it avoided the corruption and patronage of Rome. Sure, there was more emphasis placed on elements such as transubstantiation (the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ) being symbolic rather than real – but what Protestantism essentially did, was start to unpick one of the basic tenets of Feudalism – the control of the common people by the Church.

The Reformation and shift to Protestantism therefore gave people the chance to question the rights of the religious leaders to control social behaviour; and by allowing the people to engage in the church service in English, it gave them the chance to start thinking more for themselves. This meant that the common people started to become more socially and politically curious – a movement that gathered more and more momentum and led, in part, to the Civil War in the 17th century.

Life in service

I have recently finishedkitchen (2) 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!

Clothing maketh Man (and woman)

We tend to focus so much of our historical spotlight on the Kings, Queens and nobles of the Tudor period – that we can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that Tudor costume was defined by the ladies and gentlemen who populated the Tudor Court.

But this is to miss the wide range of clothing styles and colours worn by the rest of the population. But, you ask, could they not wear similar clothes, or whatever they wanted? The answer is that they couldn’t – and this was governed not by social customs, but by the law!

And it was not just the clothes they wore, but also the food they ate, their jewellery and the furniture in their houses that were legally controlled.

The legislation was collectively called the Sumptuary Laws and it was designed to govern the amount people were allowed to spend on such things (the name derives from ‘sumptus’ – the latin for ‘expenditure’). But in truth, it actually enforced the strict stratification of society, keeping the ‘lower orders’ firmly in their place by ensuring they could be visually marked out by their clothing and food.

So, for example, nobody under the rank of Baron could line his hose with velvet or satin; nobody below a Knight wear a double ruff, carry a gilded sword or dagger. The penalty for breaking this law? At very least the confiscation of the offending item, but more likely a fine or imprisonment.

Most of these laws seemed to relate mainly to the very highest echelons of society – for example, Elizabeth’s Statute of Apparel in 1574 states that only a King, Queen and close Royal family could wear purple silk, cloth of gold and sable (although some Dukes, Marquises and Earls could use these as detailing on their outfits). Many other items of clothing and colours were also specified, together with the rank that could wear them.

So what did this mean for the common people? For the worker in the field it was largely irrelevant; they could not have afforded such fineries anyway. No, the people it really impacted were the aspiring Merchant class, becoming rich from trade, able to afford fine materials, but kept from wearing them through these rigid laws.

So ultimately, these were laws designd to keep the new middle class firmly in their place – and this they continued to do, with varying degrees of compliance, until English Civil War in the 1640s created a new kind of social order.