The Tudor Era - Living the Tudor Life
Tudor houses were not so very different to our own, with the grand mansions having all the latest mod-cons, and the peasants living in rather less salubrious surroundings.
Tudor Society – Rich & Poor
In Tudor society, the nobility were the wealthiest people who owned large areas of land. Below them came the rich merchants and gentry, who had their own coat of arms and rarely did any work. Most people in Tudor times did not earn much money, but noblemen and noblewomen didn’t need to work for a living, and they could afford to live a life of luxury.
During Tudor times, about half of the population lived at the subsistence level, having only just about enough food and clothing to survive. Most poor people worked 6 days a week, and only had Sundays and holidays off. They would have lived in very basic homes, often in one or two rooms. They slept on mattresses stuffed with straw and the floors were of bare earth.
It was often very difficult to find work in Tudor times, particularly in years when the harvests were bad. In response to this problem, in 1550, a law was passed stating that a workhouse must be built in every parish. Poor Tudors could work at the workhouse without getting paid, in exchange for their meals and a bed. Conditions in workhouses were often pretty horrendous. In London and other large cities, the poor lived strictly in certain areas. If a poor person was seen in a wealthy part of the city, it was assumed that they were breaking the law!
Inside the Home
The houses of wealthy people would have had grand halls, bed chambers and separate areas for kitchens and servants. In the Tudor dolls house, you will have several rooms to furnish, so may wish to have a kitchen, scullery, or pantry. A grand hall, perhaps a dining room, plus a bed chamber with a huge 4-poster bed; and servants rooms in the attic. If your dolls house is a little less grand, you may have a shop or business on the ground floor and living quarters for the merchant’s family above. An example of this is the 1/24th scale Tudor Mill by The Dolls House Builder pictured below. This building has space for a mill and outdoor areas on the ground floor, with the living areas above.
Furniture in Tudor homes was often made of oak and was heavy and not very comfortable. Many people sat on benches and stools, instead of chairs. Although the master of the house would have had an often elaborately constructed and carved chair for himself, and if she was lucky, one for his wife too!
Tudor chair by Tom Burchmore
The kitchen would have had a large open fireplace for cooking, with roasting spits, and devices for hanging a cauldron. There may also be an oven set into the wall, and a wood store for fuel. There would be shelves and cupboards for storing foods and pots, and a large central preparation table. If the house is a poor one, then the cooking fire would be the focal point in the main living space.
Tudor fireplace with a 'turnspit' boy to work the roasting game
The dining room would have a board table set upon trestle legs or in a wealthier household carved oak legs. The head of the household may have a carved oak chair; the rest of the family would sit on benches. A common feature in a Tudor dining room is the buffet, a carved wooden unit on which plate would be displayed and food served. In a living room, there would be benches and stools for the family to sit on round the fire.
An example of a Tudor buffet & Replica woven rush sleeping mats for the poor
Beds were generally large and shared. In a wealthy house beds would have four posts holding up a canopy with curtains to keep out draughts and prying eyes. The poor would sleep on the floor, possibly on woven rush mats. Ordinary country folk would have a bed with straw mattress which would be changed every year. Babies would sleep in wooden cribs or cradles, and children on truckle beds that pull out from beneath their parent’s bed.
Windows & Floors
Most homes had dirt floors, which were almost impossible to keep clean. People covered the floor with reeds or rushes and replaced them when they became too filthy. Hedgehogs were commonly kept in order to eat the slugs and other pests that plagued Tudor floors! Upper floors would be made with bare wooden boards. Occasionally a rush mat or painted oilcloth would be used as a floor covering. Only rich people could afford carpets and tapestries, and these were often hung on the wall or placed over tables, rather than laid on the floor.
Staircases would not have been carpeted, but just bare wood, as these replica Tudor era stairs from the Weald and Downland Museum show.
Most Tudor homes did not have glass windows, and glass was one of the status symbols of the wealthy. Glass was very expensive, and most people took their windows with them when they moved. Glass could only be made in small panes, thus the addition of leaded windows to a Tudor dolls house works very well. People who couldn't afford glass often used polished horn, cloth or even paper. Windows would have had shutters to close at night against the cold and unwanted visitors.
Examples of window shutters from the Weald and Downland Museum
Tudor Food & Drink
Rich Tudors enjoyed much better food than the poor. Popular foods among the wealthy included: venison, fish, robins, badgers, otters and good French wine. They often used gold or silver plates, and silver or pewter spoons. Poorer people ate off a wooden platter called a trencher. There would not have been any china plates in a Tudor home.
A replica Tudor trencher with hole for food and salt & Reconstructed Tudor table from the Weald and Downland Museum
There were no forks in Tudor times, and both the rich and poor alike ate with their fingers alongside a knife and spoon. The rich would have spoons made of silver or pewter, and the poor would have used wooden spoons. Knives were used to cut the meat and then the pieces were eaten with fingers. Forks started to be used right at the very end of the 1500s.
Most poor Tudors only had one cooked meal every day. They typically ate bread, cheese and lots of vegetables, and sometimes they had grain mixed with whatever meat they could find, such as: rabbits, blackbirds, pheasants, partridges, hens, duck and pigeon. They also used to eat fish caught from rivers and lakes. Vegetables were considered to be the food of the poor and were not often eaten by rich Tudors.
The diet of rich Tudors was based around eating meat. They would have eaten the same types of meat as listed above, but they also would have eaten more expensive meats, such as: swan, peacock, geese, boar and venison.
Kitchen shelves from the Weald and Dowland Museum & Hanging herbs from a miniature 1/12th scale scullery
Deserts and puddings decorated with marzipan became very fashionable during Tudor times. These were made to look like vast castles or fierce animals and made a striking focal point at Tudor feasts. Honey was used to sweeten food and drinks. It was much cheaper than sugar and it was also used to preserve fruit.
Everyone in Tudor times drank ale – even children! The rich also drank wine. Some of the wine was produced in the vineyards of south-England, but most was brought in from Europe. The rich people of Tudor England would have used wine glasses. These were imported from Italy and were incredibly expensive. The poorer people would have drunk from wooden goblets.
Toilet Facilities and Bathing
Tudor peasants would have bathed seldom or never. The nobility and royals might have bathed occasionally, but most of them just a few times a year.
One of the many reasons for limited baths during the Tudor Era was a fear of contracting the plague. Bathing supposedly opened the pores, letting the plague (which they believed was airborne) into the body. However, it is a myth that they were all dirty and rarely washed. There is evidence that the wealthier classes certainly washed themselves fairly often, but rarely took baths since it was difficult to heat large amounts of water in one go.
During their menstruation Tudor women excused themselves away from men, and stayed secluded in their own chambers until their period was over.
Farting was a great offense in Tudor England. It was considered very rude to do it.
Even rich people did not always have a lavatory. Some castles and palaces did include a toilet, but it was little more than a raised hole in the floor above the moat. The toilet was not private as it is today, but was still called a privy.
Queen Elizabeth I had a close stool, which was basically a commode – but hers was padded with velvet and lavishly decorated
Sports & Games
The wealthy enjoyed various sports and pastimes that the poor could not afford or weren’t legally allowed to play. These included hunting, jousting, falconry, tennis and bowls.
The rich also enjoyed various board games, some of which are still played today several hundred years later. Especially popular were chess and a form of backgammon, as well as card games.
Poor Tudors enjoyed watching plays at the theatre, although they often stood and watched, while the rich sat near or on the stage. Poor people in Tudor times probably didn’t have a great deal of spare time to play games anyway!
There were laws which governed what each class could or could not wear, and only persons of a certain rank could wear velvet or silk. These laws dictated what colour and type of clothing, furs, fabrics, and trims were allowed to persons of various ranks or incomes. Only Royalty could wear purple, and people did not dress above their station. If you were to break any of these rules, you would be fined and possibly imprisoned.
The way women dressed was strictly controlled. Women who were not married could wear their hair loose. Married women had to hide their hair away under a veil and a hood. Queens might wear their hair loose on state occasions, but this was only tolerated because they had to wear a crown.
Everyone wore hats. Poor women wore a linen cap called a coif. Men wore woollen caps. Buttons were usually for decoration and clothes were held together with laces or pins.
The Tudors used mostly vegetable dyes such as madder for red, wode for blue or walnut for brown. A chemical called a mordant was used to 'fix' the dye. The most expensive dyes were bright red and black. The fur used on clothing could be cat, rabbit, beaver, bear, badger or polecat.
A common accessory to Tudor dress was a patch of fur worn near the neck: a flea patch to discourage the pesky nuisances from residing on the hair or skin.
Rich people dressed in fine silks and brocades, and used furs for warmth and show. Tudor women didn't wear knickers. Men sometimes wore linen shorts and linen was used to make shirts and undergarments, but only the rich could afford cotton and silk. Women wore a kind of petticoat called a smock or shift or chemise made of linen or wool with a wool dress over it.
A replica Tudor style shift & Queen Elizabeth I with an elaborate stomacher
Women often wore a stomacher, which was a decorative triangular panel filling in the front opening of her gown or bodice. It could be boned and part of the corset, or it could just cover the front of the corset. Decorative ones could be sewn or pinned into place or attached with lacings on the gown's bodice.
Poor people could not afford to dress stylishly in the Tudor period. Poor men wore woollen trousers and a long tunic, and poor Tudor women wore loose and baggy clothing made from rough wool.
To go with this feature on the home life of the Tudors, I have made a DIY project to make a Tudor style bathtub which is available now.
Please click on these links to visit the pages with information on Tudor Architecture & Buildings or the feature on Tudor Gardens & Outdoor Spaces.