Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon, who displeased her brother, Henry VIII, by marrying for love in 1515.
A Tudor woman’s social status was defined by her performance as a mother and wife. Broadly, this meant being submissive and respectful towards her husband regardless of his behaviour; being industrious and resourceful in the house; moral and devout in character and bringing forth a number of healthy children, preferably male. The scandal of illegitimacy, therefore, was to be avoided at all costs. The strict Catholic line couldn’t have been clearer: fornication and adultery were against the law; intercourse within marriage was acceptable only for the procreation of children and the penalties were harsh and public. Children born out of wedlock could be baptised and even legitimised by subsequent marriage vows but the social stigma of bastardy and its legal implications could not be so easily shaken off. The ramifications of illegitimacy, especially within noble and royal families could be felt for decades or even generations later. Given that those united in dynastic marriages frequently sought love elsewhere and many middle and lower-class couples delayed marriage until a whole decade after the onset of sexual maturity, was the church was relying on an unrealistic sense of people’s self-control ?
The reality of sexual relations and the family unit was far more complex. The majority of young people could not afford to marry until their late twenties, yet often lived and worked together in close proximity. Are we to understand then, that temptation never got the better of them ? At the risk of sounding overly romantic, are we to believe that they never fell hopelessly in love ? Are we really suggesting that human nature has changed so unrecognisably in the intervening centuries ? No; of course young unmarried people in Tudor times had sex, with or without the blessing of church or society, yet it was often the women who were left to deal with the consequential pregnancies. Servants shared rooms with masters, young people disappeared off into the bushes at fairs and adultery was overheard through key holes and windows. Even the most rudimentary forms of contraception were beyond the reach of the majority. “Quondams” appeared in the sixteenth century but would not have been widely available: the rhythm method and coitus interruptus were also notoriously unreliable; folklore offered various unhelpful mixtures of herbs and methods of stopping up the womb using hot wax ! Whilst Katherine Howard famously knew how to “meddle” with a man without getting with child, Tudor records are full of accusations and orders concerning the paternity and maintenance of bastards. In the absence of evidence and flight of those accused, the majority of illegitimate children ended up being cared for by the parish until the age of seven, which was not popular with the tithe payers. It was in a community’s financial interests to closely police their young people.
Inevitably, informal betrothals and alliances arose; temporary relationships were entered into in good faith and broken when the couple moved on or found alternative partners. A verbal promise of marriage or “hand-fasting,” could be enough to licence physical relations, as proved the downfall of Katherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth queen. Less than two years after her marriage, it was discovered that she had enjoyed two lovers in her youth, which she had omitted to mention to her new husband. With one Francis Dereham, she had exchanged promises, gifts and spent many nights together in a shared dormitory as husband and wife. Witnesses famously recalled how they had "hung together" by the belly "like two sparrows." Katherine might still have kept her head at this point but unfortunately for her, these enquiries led to the uncovering of her later adulterous affair and she went to the block in February 1542. Hand-fasting could even override later marriages in church, even if consummation had not taken place, as Henry tried to prove in the case of Anne Boleyn’s precontract to Henry Percy and successfully established to extract himself from an unwanted union with Anne of Cleves. Earlier, Anne Boleyn had conceived Elizabeth in December 1532, before her secret marriage to Henry took place in the new year. Promises could be made any time or any place: bedrooms, kitchens and fields witnessed secret agreements: it wasn’t until 1563 that the Council of Trent declared a marriage was void if not celebrated in front of a priest, although English law did not catch up until the eighteenth century.
Legal marriages could take place anywhere, so long as the vows were properly made, enabling Catherine Grey and Edward Seymour to wed in secret in his bedroom in 1560 and immediately go on to consummate what became a doomed match. Edward’s sister, their only witness died soon after, Edward went overseas and Catherine found herself trying to conceal her pregnancy under Elizabeth’s watchful eye, unable to prove her marriage was legal. She had already been married once at the age of thirteen, which had been dissolved when it became politically expedient although this did not help her when the angry Queen committed her to the tower. Sometimes, agreements were consummated only for one of the parties to change their mind: in Rye in November 1571, the unmarried Joane Wilkinson found herself pregnant by Peter Greenaway of Hythe, who: “hath not only contracted himself in matrimony with the same Joane but also verie ungodlie hath mysused her bodie and therby gotten hir with child. Upon which complaynt the said Peter… denyed the same.” Pleading her case before the town council, she was aware that her fate lay in the testimony of others and “alleaged that there were divers credible witnesses residant within the town of Rye or near thereabouts that can depose of the same contract.” Justice for Joane would only rest on her ability to summon these witnesses and their willingness to testify and be believed.
Cohabitation was particularly frowned upon. Just how many of couples “living in sin” had been through some sort of hand-fasting or pledge is unclear: again, secrecy appears to lie at the root of the problem, although court records are full of the judgements made by neighbours, based on what they had seen. One Surrey ruling of 1569 decided that to establish paternity, it was “sufficient proof” that the mother and the accused had been discovered together in “suspicious” circumstances by a credible witness. At Midsummer 1589, William Pennocke, a maltman of Elstree in Hertfordshire, was charged with “living incontinently” with Mary Brooke, alias Thayer of Great Baddow, as a result of which she was pregnant. John Saunder, a clothier of Coggeshall, had been previously called to answer a case of adultery when he was resummoned for refusing to honour an order for maintenance of a child born to a Mary Webbe, of which he was also the reputed father. The Canterbury sessions heard in 1601 that one Mary Lawnder of Sittingbourne had lived an “incontinent” life, having born five or six illegitimate children, for which she was committed to a house of correction in Canterbury.
Provision for illegitimate children, especially those born to the poor, homeless or servants, could be a drain on the parish, into whose care they were frequently entrusted. In Easter 1575, the general sessions at Chelmsford passed an ordinance for the relief of the poor and vagabonds:
“If any woman has a bastard child and any person can be proved or vehemently suspected by reasonable presumptions to be guilty of begetting the child or of incontinency, the justices shall take order with the man and woman for keeping the said child; and they shall take order with the mother to keep and nourish the child without charging the inhabitants and if they forsake the child and refuse to keep and same, they shall find her out and take order with her and if the man suspected to be guilty of begetting the child shall be conveyed away or concealed by his parents or other persons counselled by them to depart the country or his place of abode so he cannot be forthcoming to answer the charges against him, then the justices shall charge the parents and counsellors with the keeping of the said child until the party appear; and the justices shall take order by bond with the begetter of the child, and if he refuse to enter into bond, then they shall commit him to gaol.”
The assize courts took a dim view of those fathers who had failed to maintain their offspring, employing fines and imprisonment to ensure payment. Mariner John Brooke of Burnham had failed to support his daughter by Agnes Nicoll in April 1579 and was ordered by the local court to pay 8d a week to the parish for the keep of the child. At Easter 1591, Robert Barnard of Little Totham was also remanded in custody at Colchester gaol until he was able to support the child he had fathered with single woman Mary Turner of Southminster. In October 1586, John Poole was imprisoned for refusing to pay 8d a week for the upkeep of a child born to Mary Warde, currently maintained by the church wardens of West Hanningfield. Social class was no barrier to reprimand: Robert Noble of Thundersley was summoned in January 1591 for failing to maintain an order, meaning provision, for a child fathered by him on Margaret Nevell, who had been his servant and in March 1603, Elizabeth Bright, the servant of Nicholas Clarke, a painter of Beuchamp Roding bore his child. Marriage was no bar to desertion either: John Curtes of Shopland, husbandman, was to be apprehended in midsummer 1592, for having deserted his pregnant wife, who had passed her child on to the parish for care. Sometimes costs were split between the parents. Edmund Cheveley of Stock was to contribute 6d weekly and Susan Dates 4d weekly for the maintenance of their child in 1579 but sometimes both parents absconded, like Alice Romboll and Arthur Machin, named and shamed by the constable of Writtle in 1576. In 1602, it was Anne Seayne of Billericay who had “unnaturally” absconded and left her child in the care of the parish and in 1591, Bridget Hammond at the Chelmsford Assize who had left with the consent of the father of her child.
Severe, public punishments for fornication and adultery were intended as deterrents and many many villagers actively denounced each other for transgression. Cases from the Essex assize courts suggest communities were jealously protective of their codes of moral conduct, reluctant to see their neighbours get away with unlawful behaviour. An intolerance of rule-breaking and the financial implication for the parish seem to recur in many statements and letters of complaint: the “whistle-blowing” culture cannot have helped neighbourly feeling, as seen in the swathe of orders made to keep the peace and the high number of physical and verbal clashes that required legal mediation. Denunciations could be supported by oaths of in excess of ten people, travelling to the local court to give witness, who would then provied an audience for the implementation of whippings and other shaming penalties. These were often carried out in market places or outside churches, at the busiest times of day. Yet society could not override biology. In spite of the social stigma and range of deterrents, the Tudors continued to have sex outside marriage and produce illegitimate children. It wasn’t the norm; the average per parish was around 10-12 from 1538 when records began, until the end of the dynasty in March 1603 and the lives of those involved could be very difficult as a result. It must have been very difficult for young people: the social and economic circumstances of their lives was often in direct competition with the rulings of their culture and church. Another four centuries before the stigma would finally be shaken off.