Fastings, beatings and hangings: The reality of childhood Tudor-style


HISTORY

Tudor Children by Nicholas Orme (Yale £20, 288pp) 

When you look at Tudor drawings of children driving oxen, harvesting corn or playing with hobby-horses, they seem to have weirdly grown-up faces.

In Nicholas Orme’s fascinating snapshot of Tudor children in his new book on the subject, we see 1500s illustrations of swaddled babies and toddlers in their wheeled walking frames, and they all look like little wizened old men.

It’s almost as if the Tudors didn’t really believe in childhood. ‘Did children, as we understand it, exist in Tudor England?’ Orme asks — or were they just treated as small adults from the moment of birth, living brief, harsh, overworked lives?

Discovering the truth is not easy, for the precise reason that children were not considered particularly interesting in Tudor days. Across swathes of the population, they were simply put to work from the age of five, to earn money for their hungry families. They could be hanged for crimes, just as adults could, and even the minor punishments were harsh: one boy, Peter Carew, who played truant from his school in Exeter, was punished by being ‘tied to a rope and led round the city like a dog’.

There was no rule that children had to go to school and, I must say, I would have avoided it. Schoolmasters would shout: ‘Up with him!’ if a boy misbehaved and the unhappy miscreant was carried up to the front of the classroom and held on the back of another boy who pulled his trousers down, so the master could birch him on his bare bottom.

A wealthy family at leisure: But for most children life was harsh

A wealthy family at leisure: But for most children life was harsh

More was recorded about the lives of upper-class children than lower-class ones. The Tudor educationalist Sir Thomas Elyot wrote a book called The Governor, about how to educate high-born sons and daughters, and I think we can blame him for promoting the reign of heartiness which would take root in Britain’s public schools. He stipulated that all boys should be trained in riding, hunting, running and wrestling.

He was not as strict about girls’ pursuits, entreating them to acquire the accomplishments of weaving and cooking.

But don’t be fooled that Tudor girls’ education was purely domestic. The future queen, Elizabeth I, was well-educated in foreign languages, writing a letter in fluent Italian at the age of 11.

I loved this book for its pin-sharp glimpses of what really went on in the daily lives and minds of children. Of all unlikely sources, Orme came across some Tudor foreign-language textbooks containing sample sentences for translation. ‘We will make a pit-hole and there cast our nuts.’ Ah, so that was a common game.

‘Thou stinkest . . . thou art worthy to be hanged.’ ‘I shall kill thee with thine own knife.’ ‘He is the vilest coward that ever pissed.’

don¿t be fooled that Tudor girls¿ education was purely domestic. The future queen, Elizabeth I (pictured), was well-educated in foreign languages, writing a letter in fluent Italian at the age of 11

don’t be fooled that Tudor girls’ education was purely domestic. The future queen, Elizabeth I (pictured), was well-educated in foreign languages, writing a letter in fluent Italian at the age of 11

Slightly more exciting than today’s textbooks with their boring sample sentences like ‘At the weekend, I enjoy going to the cinema with my friend’.

Boys played with dolls. The mother of one Tudor two-year-old boy, John Johnson, wrote to her husband begging him to bring back ‘some baby’ from London — ‘baby’ being another word for doll.

From doll-playing, boys progressed to nest-robbing, cock-fighting, bird-trapping — and the popular sport of half-burying a cockerel and aiming missiles at it. So, not much sentimentality about either children or animals in those days, then.

Bed-sharing was the norm at the time: two to a bed till the age of 15 at Christ’s Hospital school, and three to a bed (head-to-toe) for choristers at Winchester College.

One boy slept in the same bed as his schoolmaster, and another in the same bed as his uncle, who was a priest. We cannot know whether those were situations of sexual abuse or merely a matter of shortage of space.

One thing we do know is that, as soon as the Reformation took hold in the mid-1530s, the Puritans couldn’t stop preaching the virtues of virginity and chastity in the young.

They were also keen that children should fast. Forced to eat fish every day in Lent, one poor boy wrote: ‘How weary am I of fish!’

And, in the early days of the printing press, they tried to stop them from reading their secular Robin Hood-type stories, which they disparaged as ‘fables of love, wantonness and ribaldry, so filthy as heart cannot think, to corrupt the minds of youth’.

They wanted children to exist solely on a diet of the Bible.

That was the cultural battleground of the 1500s, but Tudor children would not so easily be turned away from their favourite book, Bevis, full of murder, fights, knights, monsters, imprisonments and abductions.

One Venetian in the 1500s commented harshly that England had a ‘want of affection . . . strongly manifested towards their children’.

He was referring to the habit of boarding children out in other people’s houses, where boys took on roles as carvers, cupbearers or choristers, and girls as junior ladies-in-waiting, or in many cases as menial domestic servants stuck in the scullery.

But as Orme suggests, that tradition was not all bad. Living in other households instilled the habits of good manners and hard work in teenagers and widened their horizons. They toughened you up, those Tudor mums and dads.

Orme’s sleuthing has opened our eyes to that lost generation.



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