Tudor Life

I have put this page together to enable you to get an idea of what life was like in the Tudor period when Ralph and William Snitch were alive

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

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.

Tudor Houses

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.
Most 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 couldn’t read

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 ashes. 
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 meal.  

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 wild rabbit.  
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 cost more.
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 sewers.
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 leather.

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 school when 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 teachers.
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 petticoat and 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 worn. 

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.