Women in the Time of the Tudors
This essay complements the first MRL Adult Lecture of 2015. On January 26, Sarah Kennedy, who visited last year to discuss Altarpiece, the first novel in her The Cross and The Crown series, returns to discuss City of Ladies, the recently published second book. The series details the life of women in Tudor England. To prepare for this discussion, the following is intended to refresh our knowledge of sixteenth century British history.
By the early 1500s, a convergence of intellectual developments on the continent of Europe brought a rebirth of ancient learning and new humanist thinking to Tudor England. In southern Europe the Renaissance renewed interest in Greek and Roman culture and learning; in northern Europe new religious thought emphasized individual will and human involvement in events.
Translations in English of the New Testament made the “word of God” accessible to lay people without reliance on interpretation by the Church. Economic and social conditions unique to England also added to an unsettling of order. An expanded English urban middle-class centered around the cloth trade. King Henry VIII depleted the national treasury with costly foreign alliances and military misadventures. Excesses in personal conduct, displays of wealth, ecclesiastical privilege, and ostentatious pomp at all levels of the Church fueled resentment against that institution by the general population. This popular disaffection, personified in the chief royal councilor Cardinal Wolsey, provided cover for the King to eliminate him, to act against the clergy, and to convert the wealth of the Church to himself. Precipitously, the desire of the King to have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled by the Pope in order to marry Anne Boleyn created tension between the King and the Church. While all these factors played a role, the King’s personal life propelled the passage of the 1536 Act for the Dissolution of the Monasteries causing religious chaos that lasted for years. Though two women were at the center of the turmoil, the consensus among many historians is that women did not benefit from it. The belief in the inferior position of women remained unchanged from previous centuries; however, from this lesser standing, women found ways of being influential and active in the secular society. Unfortunately their sisters in the convent found their societal relevance denied.
Between 1536 and 1540 the monastic religious orders in England were dissolved. Though the exact number is unknown, about 140 nunneries were closed, affecting about 1,600 nuns. Most of the dissolved nunneries were very small; in addition to their religious role, they were an important local institution. Their abbeys and nunneries served as a refuge for traveling gentry who wished to avoid the bread and board at the local taverns. The sisters educated local daughters in reading and numbers and the gentry’s daughters, in addition, were taught needlework and drawing skills. The nuns served as the pharmacists and doctors in the neighborhood.
The historical record is absent on what happened to these often penniless “former” sisters. Some made their way to religious orders on the Continent. Those who stayed faced the same environment as other women in society of the 1600s, plus being additionally burdened by being an age unsuitable for marriage and by their own vows of chastity. Returning to their families was not always a viable choice. Many of the nuns arrived at the monastery as the "spare" daughters to be “dedicated to God” or as orphans abandoned on the door step. These women came into a secular society that espoused the Biblical interpretation that women were to serve and obey a man, which not even the Reformation theology challenged. The sole function of the woman was to marry, produce sons, and look after her home and family. Women from wealthy families were more constrained in their opportunities than their less well-off sisters. Usually the women of the upper ranks of society had no control over a choice of a husband. Their health was put at risk because they did not nurse their children, resulting in frequent pregnancies and therefore at greater risk of dying in childbirth. In contrast, common country and city women, though still enjoined by their Biblical role, found economic necessity brought broader opportunities.