Sexual Pleasure, Opportunity and Pornography in Tudor Times.
A surviving selection from Raimondi's I Modi
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.