Wednesday 22 August 2012
What was it like to be a child in Tudor times ?
Today we value our children's early years as a time of innocence and important formative experiences. A huge market exists for furniture, clothing and toys specifically designed with our small people in mind and increasingly, their needs dictate the family's routines and choices. But this was not always the case. The concept of childhood, as a separate, sentimental and idealised period of development, is a relatively modern invention. Whilst now, children have rights and laws to protect them from harsh working hours and promote their health, safety and education, the survival of young people in the past was less certain and they were expected to adapt and conform to adult expectations more early.
In the Tudor period, average life expectancy was shorter and the likelihood of premature death by disease, infection or accident, place childhood mortality within a predictable framework. Yet, understanding of childcare differed greatly. Think of the modern home with its stairgates and safety plugs, with all sharp or dangerous objects removed and locks on the cupboard doors. When we read that Tudor babies spent the first year of their lives tightly swaddled in their cots, it seems contrary to our beliefs in their developing needs and the process of learning to walk. However, the unsupervised toddler, ranging free about the Tudor home with its uneven surfaces, open fires and boiling pans, was far safer when restricted to its bed. Court records are full of poor infants meeting with accidents when they ventured out of doors and windows, or toddled off down the street and fell in ditches. A heart-breaking amount of cases seem to have been readily preventable if a child had been supervised in the way they would be today. This isn't to suggest the average Tudor mother was negligent- and I do say mother rather than parents, as fathers were not directly involved in the care of small children. Then, mothers seemed to have different ideas and priorities and perhaps, fewer options. One upsetting tale recounts a baby left swaddled in a cot, all alone whilst the mother went out. On her return, she found it had been fatally injured by a scavenging wild pig that had entered the house !
Discipline was also far more severe for small children in Tudor times. Physical chastisement, which today would be considered abusive, was par for the course. In fact, most manuals recommended such treatment in order to train the offspring and act as a deterrent. Whilst today we understand that a baby's cries are its attempts to communicate with us or that a toddler may have a tantrum because it is frustrated, such behaviour was readily met with blows. Nor did these just come from the parents themselves; neighbours, apprentices and even strangers stepped in to discipline a child for what seem like very minor misdemeanours or even misunderstandings. This didn't create a sense of communal parenting; rather it taught the Tudor child that it had to be wary of everyone and learn to toe the line. No doubt there were many affectionate, loving parents but physical discipline was seen within that context and perpetuated through society; a mother would beat her child just as a husband would beat his wife or a master would beat his servant. It was an action that re-enforced social status and appears to have been a daily occurrence. Cases only appear in the courts when people went too far, as they often appear to have done.
The Tudors did recognised different developmental stages in their children. Whilst they were not exactly seen as small adults, it was understood that there were certain tasks they could not perform and certain rites of passage through which they must pass. Seven was a key early stage. Until then, boys were very much in the care of their mothers, dressed and treated the same as girls. From their seventh birthday onwards, their masculinity was asserted, their clothing changed and they entered male company more frequently. Poorer children were expected to work at this age: recent archaeological excavations show the effects of hard labour on the bones of children this young. The next stage was around twelve, when girls could be considered of marriageable age, rising to fourteen for boys. Some aristocratic matches were arranged well before this, in the children's infancy, after which they might be brought up in the household of their betrothed. Royalty were united young: Richard of York was married at the age of four in 1478 to a five-year-old heiress, Anne de Mowbray. Sometimes these matches did not work out but often, the pair were considered capable of consummating the union by their mid-teens, such as with Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon in 1501. Fourteen was also the traditional age for apprenticeships and service to begin. Boys and girls could be bound to a master and learn a trade for the next seven years, being sent away from home and working long hours, sometimes for little food or recompense. They had to follow strict rules of conduct or face dismissal and punishment. The bands of unruly apprentices that caused havoc on London streets must have been exploting their only outlet of freedom; small wonder these groups of repressed adolescents frequently turned to violence and mischief on feast days. The May Day riots of 1517 saw a few thousand young men causing mayhem in the streets under the excuse of xenophobia; many were captured but later pardoned by Catherine of Aragon.
Education was uneven across Tudor society. The wealthiest could afford their own private tutors. Henry VIII was taught by some of the leading thinkers of his day, such as poets Bernard Andre and John Skelton. Grammar schools did exist to instruct the sons of the middle classes in the basics, such as the one Shakespeare attended in Stratford-upon-Avon but there was no universal curriculum. Discipline was again harsh, classes large and experiences determined by the interest and character of the school master. Girls learned at home, from their mothers, who prepared them for their future lives as wives and mothers. A medieval poem "How the Goodwife taught her daughter" focuses on desireable behaviour and morals, such as modesty, charity and religion. Even Princess Mary was raised with these expectations, although she was then the heir to the throne. Other manuals, such as the fifteenth century "Babees' Book" and the poem "Urbanitantis", focused on table manners and a child's interactions with others; they were to speak sensibly when spoken to and otherwise remain silent. As the sixteenth century progressed, more noble women were taught to read, to enable them to run their own households. The survival of letters, diaries, poems and recipe books show how this skill was becoming increasingly valued. Later, when religious changes meant that people were encouraged to read the Bible themselves in English, more impetus existed for the teaching of literacy. The most prominent women set the example; Elizabeth I, Jane Grey and the daughters of Thomas More all received impressive educations and by the end of Elizabeth's reign, many more women were reading, writing and composing: the "Blue-stocking" had already been born.
Noble children's lives were strictly regimented. Aristocratic women did not breastfeed but sent out their babies to wet-nurses for the first year. Raised by strangers and frequently succumbing to illness or neglect, the survivors were sent home to a family they did not know. The diary of John Dee records the different nurses his children were sent to in the 1580s and the payments made for this service, of money, candles and soap. Children often lived in mini-establishments within their parents' own properties, with a household comprising nurses and carers, mixing with their relatives infrequently. This doesn't mean they were any less loved or appreciated but they did interact with their parents less frequently; affection must have developed between them in different ways. The old historical misnomer that Tudor parents did not love their children is disproved by the poems of loss that survive, for example, Ben Jonson's sonnet on the loss of his son. Children must have had a number of primary carers and formed attachments to those they saw frequently. Some must have retained affection for these figures all their lives, such as Henry VIII and his nurse, Elizabeth Denton and Elizabeth and Kat Ashley. Parents saw their roles as overseers of careful regimes, where bedtimes, meals, lessons and education were dictated for others to carry out. A diet containing meat was considered important for growth but milk was not safe to drink after midday; instead, children were served "small" beer. These experiences depended upon social status. Less time was allowed for "play" as we understand it today. The three-year-old Prince Arthur had a punishing regime of academic lessons in 1489, with only a brief window before bedtime to enjoy his favourite games and pet dogs.
The lives of children in Tudor times were often brutal and filled with experiences that would horrify the modern parent. Although they were recognised as different from adults, their needs appear to have been considered secondary and their education and training geared towards conformity. The early years were filled with potential dangers of illness, accident and violence although the decisions that may seem to us today to be misguided, actually represented the best efforts of Tudor parents. Much has changed in psychology and pedagogy since then.