Saturday 8 September 2012

Fifty Shades of Lady Jane Grey

Sexual Pleasure, Opportunity and Pornography in Tudor Times.

                                        A surviving selection from Raimondi's I Modi

What did the Tudors get up to in bed ? Or out of it ? While the answer may seem obvious, the sexual practices of five centuries ago were not necessarily the same as those today. The basic act remains the same, as testified by the proliferation of Tudor births and continuation of the human race, but the choice of partners, location, timing and issues of sexual etiquette, may indicate historical differences.

As might be expected also, experiences in England did not necessarily match those in Europe. The court of Francis I of France, Henry VIII’s great rival, was renowned for its debauchery, while Henry himself was consistently discreet and secretive about his liaisons. In 1524, the Italian Marcantonio Raimondi published “I Modi,” an explicit, illustrated manual of 16 different sexual poses. These were based on a series of paintings for a Mantuan palace but provoked condemnation because they were publicly available, rather than confined to the privacy of the walls of the Palazzo Te. It provoked such a scandal that Raimondi was imprisoned by the Pope and almost all copies were destroyed. This highlights key aspects of sixteenth century sexuality, in terms of its acceptability, exclusivity and the survival of printed material. In England, lewd images appear to have been used more as a deterrent, coupled with a religious message, as in sexual depictions of naughty pilgrims, or a literary satire, as found in Chaucer, rather than for overt sexual purposes. Arguably, the evidence of a culture of temporary sexual images, is unlikely to have survived anyway and, then as now, the discrepancy between the idealised and the reality, is difficult to measure.

One key difference between past and present views of sex was that of pleasure. Technically, this was defined at every level by men. Of course, we are looking back through the feminist lens, but that does not mean that women in the past were not sexually active or fulfilled. That fulfilment may have come about within specific perimeters, though. Women were considered to be desirous of sexual activity at all times; to deny them it could cause them extreme ill-health and even prove fatal. Virginal females would suffer the terrible green sickness alluded to by Shakespeare,  with vapours rising from the womb and causing dizziness or fitting; the obvious cure was marriage, as an end to lawful sexual satisfaction. In the modern mind, it creates a comic impression of rampant predatory females seeking to alleviate their symptoms whenever or wherever possible. Some of the contemporary cures outlined in leechbooks and medical works of the era suggest that for some medieval and Tudor males, this was considered a real danger. It also sheds light on the nature of medieval and Tudor attacks upon unpopular or transgressing women; slurring their sexuality, often in connection with witchcraft practices, was a predictable method of  attack.

 The exercise of female sexuality lay within male hands, metaphorically and literally. A man had to be wary of women using witchcraft or subtle means of seduction in order to get them into bed. The reason for this was partly religious, derived from their inheritance from Eve but also physiological. As "imperfect men", their wombs required the balancing presence of a male member and seed in order to be complete; their imperative was to produce children and this necessitated the sexual act. It was up to the man to resist and control these impulses in their wives and dependent females. Suitable marriages should be made for daughters, sisters and other relatives, for the benefit of their health. The female orgasm was understood in the context of this “completion” of a woman by a man; female pleasure was deemed essential for conception to take place. In this sense, the Tudors appear more enlightened than the Victorians, in promoting the enjoyment of both parties, even if the patriarchal definition and control of the act appears rather draconian to a modern reader. However, the reverse side of this could produce dire consequences for women. In cases of rape, men could claim to be “incited” to act by a desperate female, while any act of violation that resulted in pregnancy immediately invalidated itself. If a woman had conceived, she must have enjoyed herself, therefore no rape had taken place. Few cases of rape appear in the late Sixteenth century Assize court records and these are usually of minors or spinsters. Successful convictions for the violation of a married woman, or of a man’s own wife, hardly ever appear. In the 1558 case heard by the East Greenwich Assizes, William Norris was indicted for the rape of Edmund Dalton’s wife Joan, but frustratingly, the verdict is illegible!

The age of consent in Tudor times was fourteen for girls and twelve for boys, although this was not enforced by any law. Few eyebrows were raised when the children of the aristocracy were betrothed at the ages of three or four, or were raised in the households of their in-laws. Consummation would not take place until the pair had reached puberty, although this, like fertility, could differ vastly. Equally strange partnerships were made at the other end of the age bracket: one of Elizabeth Wydeville's brothers married a wealthy Duchess in her eighties, when he was only in his twenties. History does not record what happened on their wedding night. Question marks also surround the consummation of some notorious teenage marriages. Did Catherine of Aragon sleep with her first husband, Prince Arthur ? Some historians are convinced she did, while others are equally convinced otherwise. Only two people knew for sure. The closest we can come to the truth is Catherine’s later admission that they shared a bed on about seven occasions but that “full” consummation had not taken place, assuming the virginal fifteen-year-old was fully versed in these areas. Perhaps there was some sort of foreplay or fumbled teenage attempts at intercourse that barely constituted the act. After all, they had reason not to believe they had time on their side: neither could have known Arthur would die only six months later and Catherine would go on to marry Henry VIII.

Lady Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley, two other naïve teenagers, were married on 21 May 1553. Jane was then pronounced Queen on 9 July, hardly giving them any time to discover their sexuality, if the marriage was consummated at all. There is also the first marriage of Anne Neville, Queen of Richard III, which was probably consummated when she was left a widow at fourteen in 1471, as was the match of Henry VIII’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy to Lady Mary Howard in 1533, also aged fourteen. Then there was the widowed virgin Christina of Denmark, whom Henry VIII wanted to marry in 1538. The teenager refused him, rumoured to have said that if she had two heads, she would gladly spare him one. However, as a rule, remarriage for those widowed in their teens was considered vital for their health. Christina took a second husband at the age of twenty and bore him three children.

Sex was also dictated by the cycles of the year. For the religious Tudor, certain dates were off limits, such as Sundays, saints’ days and the forty days of Lent: those who transgressed were supposed to do penance and not receive communion. But just how could a priest know, looking out over the faces of his flock, exactly what they had been up to the night before? Sex during menstruation was frowned on as this was supposed to produce children who were red-haired and puny and “depraved” practices between man and wife could result in birth abnormalities. Restraint was counselled, but in reality, withdrawal and folkloric methods of birth control were employed, although as the baptismal records attest, restraint was often thrown to the wind! The relaxation of the usual routine could promote sexual encounters.

Fairs and festivals provided many couples with an opportunity for intercourse, when the carnival attitude and possible higher consumption of alcohol fuelled behaviour. Listed in the Essex Assize court records, in 1582, the promiscuous and pregnant Susan Babye lay with a John Fletcher at Witham fair and a William Dagnett on Lady Day. She then went on to sleep with Richard Howe at Midsummer, when the warm longer nights allowed for outdoor encounters. In 1589, Alse Mathews had sex with a servant named Davie Cox at a gate in a field, at the Feast of Pentecost. Agnes Parette and John Eavens of Earl Colne slept together twice at the start of the harvest season; by the end of it they were probably too tired ! Parish records in Essex confirm that fewer live births took place nine months after the harvest period, during May and June. The peak time for conception was early summer, with the highest percentage of births following next spring, in March and April. The cycles of the church and land certainly had an impact on when the Tudors had sex!

For the unmarried, finding the opportunity posed a problem. Sleeping habits were determined by class and dictated sexual practices. Tudor spouses of high class did not usually share beds. It was a sign of status that a Lord and Lady had their own household under the same roof, which meant separate bedrooms. The Lord would usually take the initiative and visit his wife in her chamber for sex, before returning to his own bed. However, this seems rather formal and it is pretty unlikely that the rule was always followed; encounters must have taken place in other locations such as hunting lodges, inns or whenever opportunities arose. Perhaps they were even initiated by women and perhaps some men even enjoyed this!! The high concentration of servants in Tudor households made for little privacy but lower down the social scale, there may have been fewer prying eyes.

Undoubtedly sex took place in shared spaces, such as the dormitories of apprentices and servants, such as in the early teenage experiences of Catherine Howard., resident in the large household of her grandmother. In another story from the Assize Courts, Joan Collen was a travelling servant who sold butter in the 1590s. Drinking one day in the King’s Head tavern at Limehouse, she met a William Rothman, who desired her and wanted to take a room in the inn in order to bed her but the time and place “would not serve.” Later, they slept together in a field, an orchard and a stable. This came to light when she conceived an illegitimate child. Among families sharing bedrooms and small houses, the couplings of adults must have been a routine matter of biology, just as communal and public as washing and defecating. The act must have taken place with less embarrassment, than in our post-Victorian era.

Servants often slept in their masters’ or mistresses’ rooms on truckle beds, or outside their doors, in kitchens, halls, corridors or wherever space dictated. These were purely for sleep and were stored away during the day, forcing their occupants to find other opportunities for intercourse while their employers were out. In 1600, Joan Loveday conceived a child after a single encounter with a fellow servant Richard Bettes, in her master’s chamber, which was a common location for illicit sex. Sometimes masters made complaint against their servants for lewdness, as Martin Skynner did against his man Thomas Yeldham in 1582, supported by his other employees. On some cases, the master was to blame. In 1591, Bridget Hide described how her master came to her bed intent on “abusing” her although she managed to repel him; however, he later “won her to his will.” Lower class women were supposed to be more “earthy” and sexually gratifying than their high-class rivals; aristocratic women were often “off-limits” due to pregnancy and considered essential for procreation whilst short-term mistresses and casual encounters for pleasure were made with “base” women. Henry VIII may have had a number of these, now lost to history, procured by Sir William Compton in his London home. One anecdote survives from 1537, listed in  the Court Rolls, when he took a fancy to a young woman out riding with her sweetheart and established her as his mistress. Edward IV was reputed to have shared his mistresses with his son-in-law Dorset and best friend Hastings, especially the notorious “Jane Shore.”

With imperfect contraception, pregnancy was an inevitable and frequent outcome. For those who wished to become parents, contemporary manuals suggested that the best time for conceiving children was in the middle of the night, between the recommended first and second sleeps, so some must have taken a chance whilst others around them slept. However, illegitimacy may have been higher than we suspect. Examinations of parish records from the 1530s through to 1600 indicate only a couple of cases a year but the real figure, including abortions and stillbirths, must have been higher. Some women clearly took steps to ensure the pregnancy did not come to term or that the baby was abadnoned or killed. Cases of infanticide are frequent in Assize court rolls, often resulting in conviction and the passing of the death sentence upon the mother. Her only plea was pregnancy, which could delay her sentence, although justice still needed to have been seen to be enacted.

Unlawful sexual behaviour and its outcomes were considered to be the business of the whole parish. Some Tudor couples openly lived together or attempted it in secret, like the widow Rebecca Purkas and William Hyde of Thaxted, who were only "discovered" in 1592, when Rebecca gave birth. Thomas Lynwood confessed in 1576 to deserting his three children and wife of seventeen years to live “a wicked and incontinent life” with a widow named Agnes Cawsey. In many few cases, villagers, gathered together in tithings, accused such couples before the justices; the punishment was often a fine or public whipping. Immorality was not acceptable once it became public knowledge or the arrival of a child necessitated funds from the parish coffers. Financial considerations often outweighed condemnation out of prudery. The Tudors were most certainly not prudish or precious when it came to sex and bodily functions.

Pornography has been around since ancient times; fine Roman examples are particularly abundant on the walls of surviving buildings. Beyond Raimondi’s attempt in 1524, very few images of this type appear to have survived from the sixteenth century. It is unclear whether English Tudor pornography existed in the form we would understand although nudity and depravity were commonly depicted. Many images of the naked female form graced artwork, tapestries, carvings and sculptures, but were often illustrative of moral, religious or historical tales, rather than as direct titillation. When “lewd” images occur, of males and females, the individuals are usually being punished in some circle of hell and are intended as a religious warning. The very real fear of damnation would probably have put a dampener on any excitement such pictures may have aroused. Yet they clearly depict the extremes of contemporary practices, or artistic perceptions of them in the brothels and stew houses along the South bank of the Thames. The advent of the printing press, set up by Caxton in the precincts of Westminster Palace in the 1480s, could have allowed for the greater distribution of images and made them more accessible, immediate and private.  This would have allowed for the development of pornography, although almost nothing of this type survives; instead, sexual and misogynistic jokes, poems and puns appear to fill this gap, along with their illustrations of wanton or semi-clad females. The thrill appears to have been found in female naughtiness and the need for chastisement. Little changes there. Graphic descriptions in works by Chaucer, Mandeville, Boccaccio, Aretino and others, point to a culture of sexually provocative language; it was an oral rather than a visual tradition of pleasure. Otherwise, the history of surviving English pornographic imagery appears empty until the seventeenth century.  

Whilst certain codes of sexual conduct prevailed among the Tudors, it is clear that their behaviour did not always neatly conform. Where and when they gave in to their natural urges and the resulting consequences were very much a function of their class and gender. Where their practices may most differ from modern behaviour, is in the lack of privacy that must have affected attitudes towards copulation. Sex was likely to have been as commonplace in many communities as other bodily functions, although once the results of it became apparent, the participants were called to account. However, it is indicative of the Tudor attitude that this was usually in order to provide for an illegitimate child rather than to punish those engaged in the act.

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