Women in Renaissance Britain
Henry VIII's wives were powerful women in their own right, but this did
not prevent their behaviour being bound by the mores and movements of the
day. Women were very much second-class subjects of the crown. Wife-beating
was seen as a man's right.
In an age when a misogynistic Church and religion was central to
society, women were seen as the authors of original sin, tempting men away
from God. It was accepted that women were created to obey first their
parents and then their husbands, and bear children.
As with fundamentalist religions today, married women were supposed to
hide their hair, which was seen as revealing too much of their sexual
attraction. Dresses stretched to the floor to conceal the woman's legs. The
sacrament of marriage made the 'damnable act' of sex pure. With this
consummation, a marriage would be completed. Without it the union would be
Education for common people was cursory and for women it was usually
seen as pointless. For some the thirst for writing found release in love
letters, even touching on the monarchy. Neither Jane Seymour or Catherine
Howard had received much education at the time of their marriage to Henry.
For most girls any education they did receive was directed at how to be
a good wife: religion, duties to their husband, looking after the house,
sewing, a knowledge of herbs and plants for healing and food.
Marriage – which was generally at about the age of fourteen, but for
which there was no legal age – was usually arranged for a woman. Life
expectancy for both men and women was around thirty years.
Noble, upper class and royal families arranged unions to create or
maintain alliances of power. No family wanted to ally with one beneath their
status, so there followed a lengthy negotiation, much intrigue and in-depth
investigation. The couple would frequently not meet until their wedding.