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 in which 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 to 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 a 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 void.
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 marriages 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, and 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.