There were only about 4 million people living in Tudor England and the towns
were not very big, London was the largest. Tudor England was an
agricultural society where most of the population lived in small villages
and made their living from farming. During the 16th century trade and
industry grew rapidly and England became a more commercial country.
Mining of coal, lead and tin flourished along with the iron industry.
During this period England became richer.
Tudor society was divided into four broad
groups. At the top were the nobility who owned huge amounts of land.
Below them were the gentry and rich merchants. Gentlemen owned large
amounts of land and they were usually educated and had a family coat of
arms. Most important gentlemen never did any manual work that was
beneath their dignity. Below the gentry were yeomen and craftsmen.
Yeomen owned their own land. They could be as wealthy as gentlemen but
they worked alongside their men. Yeomen and craftsmen were often able
to read and write. Below the yeomen were the tenant farmers who leased
their land from the rich. There were also wage labourers.
They were often illiterate and very poor.
The Tudors built thousands of new houses. A few were grand palaces
made of stone but most were smaller and had wooden frames pinned together
with wooden pegs and the spaces in between filled with clay or brick.
Brick and stone were only used for building big country houses. Most
buildings were made of wood and plaster. They would build a wooden
frame and then pack the space between it with clay or daub.
houses in the town were built upwards because space was limited. The floors
used to jut out over each other and they were built on both sides of the
street which made the streets gloomy, as they blocked the light. The
streets were narrow and crowded this made it easy for criminals to rob and
steal from shops, traders and people. Tudor shops were more like open
market stalls. The shopkeeper had a picture sign to show people what
they sold. This was better than a written sign because most people
Life in the Tudor Home
Everything in the Tudor home had to be done by hand so the housewife was
very busy person. The Tudors were not as particular as we are about
changing their clothes. Washing would only be done about once a month In a
big house, there might only be one washday in three months. People often
did their washing outside in a stream using home made soap from fat and
Most of the furniture was made of wood. Only important people had
chairs, the rest had to sit on stools or benches. Rich people had big
wooden four poster beds. Beds were very precious and would be passed
down to families when people died. Most people's beds were feather
mattresses covered with thick sheets and wool blankets. The walls had
wood panelling to keep out draughts. Tables were made of oak. The
dishes they used were made of earthenware which was a kind of rough pottery.
Food was usually put into a big bowl in the middle of the table then people
helped themselves. They didn't use forks just spoons and knives.
Drinking cups were made of horns which had the pointed end cut off.
Ordinary people cooked, ate and slept in the same room. They would
cook over an open fire and would probably drink beer or cider with each
Food and Drink
The diet between the rich and the poor differed greatly in Tudor times.
The rich ate well with a wide variety of meats, fruit and vegetables
recently introduced from the Americas whilst the poor had a more restricted
diet of dairy produce, bread, basic vegetables and occasionally meat such as
Peasants mostly ate coarse bread and ‘pottage’, a thick soup in which
onions, cabbage and beans were boiled up with herbs and perhaps a little
pork or bacon. Most food was too expensive for the poor. For them,
bread made from wheat was a rarity, usually it was made from barley or rye,
but in hard times they used a mixture of beans, oats or acorns. The
rich ate lots of meat, including exotic and odd things like robins,
hedgehogs, badgers, owls and tortoises and they had all the best cuts, while
the poor ate the offal. The 16th century saw the origin of many
recipes for cooking offal that survive in regional cuisines today. Before
the days of freezers and tinned foods the only way to stop food from rotting
was to salt or sugar it heavily and the Tudors ate twice as much salt in
their diet than they do now.
They used spices and herbs to try to disguise the salty or rotten taste of
meat and fish. Cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg would have come from the other
side of the world, from the Spice Islands and were very expensive.
Sugar, grown in Europe’s colonies, became very popular with the wealthy but
far too expensive for the poor. Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I loved sugar,
and the second half of the 16th century saw an enormous expansion in its
use, as a result black teeth and toothache, virtually unknown in the
centuries before, began to be a problem.
Clean water was hard to find, and so water was not often drunk, especially
in cities where supplies became contaminated with sewage and from people
cleaning clothes or animal carcasses in the drinking water supply. In
the cities water-carriers delivered water to your door for a fee and were
used only by the rich.
Alcohol, mostly beer or ale was drunk instead of water and in country areas
home-brewed ale or beer was the usual drink at most meals, Including
breakfast, even children drank beer. The children’s beer was weaker
than that drunk by adults and was known as ‘small beer’. This was made of
fermented herbs or weak cider. Wine had to be imported from the Continent so
was an expensive luxury and only for the rich.
The Tudor period saw several changes in table manners. In the 15th century
even the wealthy had eaten from the common pot, diners sipped their soup
from a shared bowl and took their drink from a shared cup. Food was
dipped into the big communal pot of salt that dominated every meal.
Food was often eaten off large slices of bread called trenchers, which could
then be eaten at the end of the meal or in large houses given to the dogs,
servants or the poor.
It is hard to imagine eating British food without a fork, yet in Tudor times
only a spoon and a knife were used at mealtimes, forks were not
used for eating with until the late 17th century. Tudors would have
used a spoon for serving and a knife for cutting the food. Fingers were
often used for eating with.
Dinner was the main meal of the day, taken at any time between 10.30 and 12
noon. A light breakfast at about 6.30am preceded it which consisted of bread
and butter, perhaps some meat and ale or wine. Supper was taken between 4
and 6 o’clock, and was a smaller version of dinner.
Lighting in the Home
Most people in 16th century Britain lived in poorly-lit houses.
Only the wealthy could afford window glass, which meant that they could let
light in while preserving heat. The poorer classes never had this
luxury and had to do with wooden shutters to their windows, not being able
to afford glass. This meant they could only let light in during the warmer
weather. The peasantry lived in windowless houses with only a hole in the
roof, slits in the wall and a doorway for light and ventilation.
Artificial light was needed in every household on all but mid-summer
evenings, and many needed it during the day. The most common form of
domestic lighting was the rushlight, made by dipping a dried, peeled rush
in animal fat. These were cheap to make and would burn for between 30
mins and an hour. Rushlights have been used in Britain since Roman
times, and were lit in both rich and poor houses.
As time progressed candles came along, these gave a better light but were
more expensive. Most were made at home with tallow melted down from
cooking fat, and with linen or cotton wicks. These candles needed frequent
attention when lit as the wick burned more slowly than the fat. They
dripped, smoked and smelt horrible. Beeswax candles were the best but
In addition there were oil lamps fuelled with fat or oil, with a wick made
of twisted textile strands or rush. They provided a good amount of
light but the wick needed frequent trimming and the burning oil gave off
unpleasant fumes and were a bit sooty. Further progress saw the
pottery lamp introduced. The upper bowl contained oil and a wick that hung
over the edge, the lower bowl caught the oil that inevitably dripped from
above. Animal and vegetable oils would have fuelled these lamps.
Travel in Tudor Times
The roads of England were very poor and each village was supposed to repair
its own roads. A law was introduced in 1555, where one man was chosen every
year to be "Surveyor of the Highway". Rich people were required to provide
the materials for repairing the roads and the poorer people were to work
unpaid for 6 days a year to carry out the repairs. Some people left
money for road repairs when they died. Nobody liked having the job of
surveyor and quite often the surveyor would only bothered to repair those
pieces of road they travelled on.
Roads did not have good surfaces and not properly drained like ours today,
deep ruts made by carts filled up with water when it rained. Most people
travelled on horse back or on foot. For shorter journeys you might pay to
have yourself carried in a chair. Travelling could be very dangerous
it was not a good idea to travel alone if you could help it. Servants
at the inns where travellers stayed were sometimes in league with robbers.
They looked at a traveller’s luggage and if they thought he was worth
robbing, would find out when they were setting off and where they were
heading. They would inform the robbers, who would lie in wait and
attack them, taking all of their money and valuables.
Tudor streets were not covered with tarmac, nor were the pavements paved
both were just compacted earth. When it rained, and especially in
winter, the streets would turn to thick mud. Towns and cities were very
unhealthy places. There were no proper sewers (except in Bristol) and
all kitchen and toilet waste was thrown into the streets where it lay in
heaps at street corners. The usual household toilet was a large pail which
was inevitably emptied out of an upstairs window into the street below,
regardless of passers-by. Things were just as bad outside towns as in
the country the ditches running between properties were used as open
It was very hard to keep your feet clean and dry under these conditions.
Shoes were very rarely waterproof so rain, snow and mud, let alone the
sewage lying around would have made getting about on foot very unpleasant.
Several types of overshoe were devised to raise the foot further above the
ground; these were known as “Pattens”, wooden shoes with blocks underneath
which gave extra height to the wearer. They were designed to be
slipped on over an ordinary shoe. Pattens first appeared in the 14th
century and by Tudor times were worn by everybody. These were very
plain, which suggests that they belonged to the poorer classes. Those
belonging to a wealthy person would probably have had some decoration on the
School and Play
Only a small percentage of Tudor children went to school, most children were
only taught those
skills that their parents thought would be necessary for their adult life.
Most parents saw little point in educating daughters to write or even read,
as these skills were not needed for running a household and bringing up
children. Poor children were not educated as they were needed for
their labour as soon as they were capable of it.
Boys began school at the age of 4 and moved to grammar
they were 7. Girls were either kept at home by their parents to help
with housework or sent out to work to bring money in for the family. Boys
were educated for work and the girls for marriage and running a household.
The wealthiest families hired a tutor to teach the boys at home.
Schoolmasters received no training and the quality of teaching varied
enormously. Many were clergymen trying to enhance their meagre wages.
From 1559 no one was allowed to teach
children unless they had a licence
from the local bishop, an attempt to ensure that teachers were morally fit
to instruct children and by the later 16th century there were some female
By the mid 16th century it is estimated that only 20% of men and 5% of women
were literate, though this might mean they could only sign their names and
nothing else! There was very little free education in the 16th
century and there were two types of school in this period, parish and
grammar, and you had to pay for both. The parish schools were more
numerous with over half the parishes in England having one by the end of the
Tudor period. They taught singing so that boys could be choristers,
but also reading, writing and simple arithmetic, and were attended by both
boys and girls. The parish church or the schoolmaster’s home
frequently served as the schoolhouse.
There were two types of Grammar schools, some were private, being attended
only by fee-paying children, others were funded by people who left money in
their wills, often stipulating that all or a set number of places should be
free so that poor children could go. Grammar schools taught almost
exclusively Latin as that was still the language of scholarship, sometimes a
little Greek and English were also taught. Grammar school was usually
seen as preparation for university and girls very rarely attended as they
never went to university. The school day was long, starting at about
6am and ending at about 5.30pm, five days a week.
The children of the gentry were usually taught at home by private tutors but
some did go to grammar schools, especially later in the period. Other
than the parish schools there was very little provision for girls although
upper class girls were always taught at home. On the whole they
learned reading, writing, needlework, French, singing, dancing, music,
manners and morals, but still by the end of the Tudor period even rich girls
were not invariably taught to write.
As in other areas of Tudor life, there was great disparity between the
clothes worn by rich and poor. While items of clothing worn by wealthy
Tudors still exist in museums, very few examples
of clothes worn by working
people and the poor have survived. Their clothes would have been worn
until they fell apart or were passed to someone else. No one would
have thought to preserve them, so it can be difficult to get first hand
evidence about the clothes worn by most of the population.
In general terms it is hard to describe the costume of the period as there
were many changes in fashion. All people, rich or poor would have worn lots
of layers, mainly to keep out the cold, but also to help disguise bodily
smells as they didn’t bathe very often.
Men and boys wore breeches (like short trousers) and hose (stockings)
covering the leg. On the top half there would be at least one
undershirt, then an under-jacket or tunic. On top, the wealthy might have
worn a type of jacket called a “Doublet”, a close-fitting garment with long
sleeves, whilst poorer men would wear a loose tunic. Wealthy men were as
fashion-conscious as the women, wearing ruffs, elaborate jewellery and
putting padding around their shoulders to appear broader.
For women and girls, the first thing to put on would be a ‘shift’ or
undershirt made of cotton or linen for the poor and perhaps silk for the
rich. Then came the petticoat, a hooped underskirt or crinoline’ was
worn under the petticoat if you were rich. The hoops were made of
willow sticks softened in water then bent to shape.
Skirts got wider and
wider throughout the Tudor period and a ‘bum roll’, a roll of material like
a thick sausage, was worn low on the back to make a pronounced shape.
This was worn by both rich and poor. They then put on another
underskirt. The poor girl’s overdress would be made of a
heavy durable material like worsted or wool whilst the rich, outer garments
were made of such things as velvets and silks. In the winter a pair of
sleeves would be attached to the dress at the shoulders, with ties.
Fastenings for clothes were mainly ties or buttons (often highly decorated
gold or silver if you were rich), there were no zips or ‘Velcro’!
The poor would cut buttons off worn-out clothes and sew them onto others to
save having to buy new ones, as they would have been expensive.
Dresses for the rich would have been laced at the back and boned with
whalebone around the bodice to achieve the straight upright shape that was
fashionable. The lace would be loosened during pregnancy because there
was no specially-designed maternity wear as there is now.
Everyone wore some kind of headwear. Different trades had their own
distinctive headgear. Women working in the fields would have worn a
cap to keep the sun off their skin, it was fashionable to have pale skin.
Both men and women wore stockings held up with ties, these were knitted,
again, silk for rich, wool for poor, and would have had seams as they
couldn’t knit stockings in tubes as they do now. Underpants were not
The rich spent lots of money on clothes and were greatly influenced by the
monarch and the court. For them fashions and fabrics were constantly
changing, their clothes could be made from a wide choice of materials
including silk, velvet and linen. The fabric could be dyed or printed
in a variety of colours and was often richly embroidered. For the poor
it was very different. The very poorest didn’t have a single change of
clothes. All their clothes were homemade, usually using wool from
their own sheep, spun and dyed at home with vegetable dyes, though generally
woven by a professional weaver. The resulting clothes were plain and
coarse, and would feel rough against the skin. In Tudor Europe,
clothes were not just for keeping you warm. Your clothes were an
indication of your position in society and laws were passed to ensure that
nobody dressed above their station in life. In 1510 the English
parliament passed a law defining the dress of everyone from the aristocracy
right down to labourers, telling everyone what they could and could not
wear. There were punishments for breaking these rules; gentlemen would
be fined and servants and labourers could be put in the stocks for three
days, needless to say, the law was often flouted.