5 surprising Tudor facts
1) The Tudors wore spectacles
In 1541, the grandmother of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, under suspicion for her knowledge of the queen’s pre-marital sexual affairs, broke into coffers belonging to two of the men involved and sent for her spectacles to read the letters that she found. Since she was doing this by candlelight in the middle of the night, it’s not surprising she needed a little help to read – and then burn – these incriminating documents.
Spectacles at this time were usually armless, designed to sit on the bridge of the nose or to be handheld. Although they were useful for reading, they wouldn’t have been particularly helpful for people who needed to wear them all the time. Poor eyesight was common in Tudor England and there was little that could be done about it. The many remedies for eye conditions that can be found in early modern medical recipe books show that people certainly tried to cure themselves – but the vast array of remedies suggests none of them were very effective!
2) The official penalty for brawling within the royal court was the loss of a hand
With a court full of young and rowdy men, Henry VIII felt that a deterrent was necessary to control his courtiers, and he chose to make the punishment fit the crime. In 1541 Sir Edmund Knyvett [the eldest son of distinguished courtier and sea captain Sir Thomas Knyvet] had a fight on the tennis court with one of the Earl of Surrey’s servants, Thomas Clere, and landed a punch on Clere’s nose. Knyvett was arraigned for this later in the year and sentenced to lose his hand.
Apparently the royal surgeon would be the one to sever the hand; the king’s mastercook supplied the knife; and the sergeant farrier [the person in charge of providing horses with shoes] the hot iron to sear the wound, while the sergeant of the cellar [the person in charge of the court’s alcohol] supplied alcohol (for the spectators, not the victim).
Knyvett is said to have pleaded that his left hand be cut off, so that he could continue to serve the king with his right. Happily for Knyvett, in the end he was pardoned, but the king put out a proclamation then and there that in future, anyone found brawling within the precincts of the court would definitely lose a hand.
3) Elizabeth I could be violent
She may not have borne arms or led an army, but Elizabeth I could be quite violent in a domestic setting. When in a rage, she swore like a trooper and could apparently be heard several rooms away.
Elizabeth was not above abusing her ladies-in-waiting; in 1576, when she discovered that Mary Shelton had secretly married courtier Sir John Scudamore two years previously, she flew into a rage and rained blows on the unfortunate Mary, and according to some sources may have broken her finger.
Elizabeth I wasn’t above throwing things either; there is a story that she once threw a slipper at her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Elizabeth also had no toleration for lack of respect: one day in 1598, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, turned his back on the queen during a heated argument. For this unthinkable breach of court etiquette, Elizabeth promptly boxed his ears, at which point Essex placed his hand on his sword hilt [handle]. Shocked courtiers scrambled to put themselves between him and the queen, and Essex stormed out of the room.
4) Tudor aristocrats gave each another some interesting presents
Gift-giving was a key element of the patronage system; if you wanted something done, you gave the relevant person a gift, since this would in theory force them to reciprocate by doing whatever it was that you wanted. Gifts could be very personal, such as jewellery worn by the giver, or clothing.
Food items could also be given as gifts; for example, noblewoman Lady Honor Lisle prided herself on her homemade quince marmalade [quince is a fruit similar in appearance to a pear]. Some food items were rather more exotic, and letters testify to attempts to transport seal and porpoise before they went bad.
Sometimes even live animals were given as gifts. Lady Lisle sought advice on a gift for Anne Boleyn in the 1530s and was told that the queen hated monkeys, but liked spaniels. Plus, Princess Mary (later Mary I) was given a parrot by the Countess of Derby in 1538.
New Year’s Day, rather than Christmas, was the biggest gift-giving day for the Tudors, and nobles competed to give the king or queen the best present. Such gifts usually involved vast quantities of gold and jewels, but were sometimes more inventive: the Duke of Norfolk gave Henry VIII a chess set in 1532, and in 1557 Mary I and her husband, Philip II of Spain, were given “a Map of England, stayned upon cloth of silver in a frame of wood”. It is also said that Elizabeth I’s courtiers indulged her love of clothes with gifts of gowns and fabric.
5) All Tudor monarchs, and many aristocrats, adopted or inherited mottos that would be used alongside their personal symbol or ‘badge’ on their servants’ livery [uniform]
These mottos could change to reflect important events or occasions, such as a marriage, and temporary mottos were worn during tournaments.
Some of these mottos are well known: Henry VIII’s ‘Coeur Loyale’ (Loyal Heart) in 1511 after the birth of Prince Henry; ‘Declare, I Dare Not’ in 1526, which is thought to relate to Anne Boleyn; and the royal motto still used by our queen today, ‘Dieu et mon droit’ (God and my right)’. Some mottos are less well known – for example, Mary I’s was ‘Truth, the daughter of time’.
Some Tudor mottos have a peculiarly modern feel. Philip II’s motto when king of Spain was ‘The world is not enough’ – apt for a man who controlled Spain, the Netherlands, parts of Italy, and swathes of Germany! Anne Boleyn used the motto ‘Ainsi sera, groigne qui groigne’, during the Christmas period in 1530, which in modern idiom is more or less ‘Haters gonna hate’ – a clear reference to her intention to marry Henry VIII.
Dr Nicola Clark is an early modern historian specialising in gender and court history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the University of Chichester. Her book, Gender, Family and Politics: The Howard Women, 1485–1558 is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.