History Files


Early Modern Britain

Heritage of Duty

From Channel 4's The Six Wives of Henry VIII series by Doctor David Starkey, September 2001

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.

Treaties provided betrothal contracts between royal households of different countries, while for other nobles formal agreements were the norm. A dowry of valuable items, such as money or jewels, would be agreed for transfer to the husband's family. Property rights for women at all levels of society were extremely restricted, with most entitlements falling to their husbands.

Descriptions from ambassadors and painted portraits were often the only likenesses available to kings who were deciding upon a marriage, resulting in disaster for Anne of Cleves whom Henry liked on canvas but detested in the flesh.

No matter how well educated or powerful, from a queen downwards, a woman's main purpose was to produce a son to assure that her husband's family line would continue. The deaths of mothers and their born and unborn babies were commonplace in the face of unhygienic conditions and physicians' limited medical knowledge. Most children died before reaching adulthood.



Text copyright © Channel 4 Television or affiliates. Reproduction is made on a 'fair dealing' basis for the purpose of disseminating relevant information to a specific audience. No breach of copyright is intended or inferred.