Gender Stereotypes Tudor
To what degree were gender stereotypes a factor in Tudor politics?
The first thing to say is that Tudor monarchy was not idealistic, like all governments it was primarily pragmatic in approach, and the great changes in the relationship of Crown and Parliament in this period were a result of immediate needs and evolving precedent. Cromwell steered Parliament towards a considerable extension in its competence to include issues of religion, the succession and the unity of the Realm. I
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n doing so, he allowed MPs to declare Royal Supremacy and established a new focus of sovereignty, the King-in-Parliament. Edward’s minority made the nature of Cromwell’s Royal Supremacy clear. It was through Parliament that objections to Somerset’s rule were overridden and it was Parliament that was used to transform the official doctrine of England. Respect for statute was a key reason why so many leading Protestants accepted Mary as Queen in 1553. After Mary’s death, Elizabeth and William Cecil inherited a position in which Parliament was growing into a genuine political forum and the use of parliamentary consent became the norm but it is wrong to see in these developments the origins of Parliament’s seventeenth-century attack on divine right kingship.
Parliament supported the Crown with money, counsel and by passing its laws. When unrequested advice was offered by MPs on matters which plainly concerned the royal prerogative, the Queen simply refused to be drawn into conflict and avoided a crisis. The Tudors had very clear expectations of men and women, and in general men were expected to be the breadwinners and women to be housewives and mothers. On average, a woman gave birth to a child every two years and having a child was considered a great honor to women, as children were seen as blessings from God, and Tudor women took great pride in being mothers.
Many women in this period were highly educated. Women were not allowed to go to school or to university, but they could be educated at home by private tutors. Elizabeth I was tutored by the famous Tudor scholar Roger Ascham. Women were not allowed to enter professions such as law, medicine, politics, but they could work in domestic service as cooks, maids and were also allowed to write works of literature, providing the subject was suitable for women: mainly translations or religious works. Women were not allowed to act on the public stage or write for the public stage.
Acting was considered dishonorable for women and women did not appear on the stage in England until the seventeenth century. In Shakespeare's plays, the roles of women were often played by young boys. Women, regardless of social position, were not allowed to vote (however, only men of a certain social position were allowed to vote). Neither could women inherit their father's titles. All titles would pass from father to son or brother to brother, depending on the circumstances. The only exception was Royalty.
The Crown could pass to a daughter, and this allowed Mary, and then Elizabeth, to reign. In some cases women could not inherit estates, but women could be heiresses to property. A man was considered to be the head of a marriage and was expected to look after his wife and children. There was no divorce in Tudor times and marriage lasted until one of the couple died. An Annulment could be obtained, which would mean the marriage was not lawful, but extensive evidence would have to be provided if this was applied for. Henry VIII only ever regarded Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr as his legal wives.
The stereotypical idea of a Tudor woman being weak, frail, feeble and foolish has been drilled into our heads for centuries. Even Elizabeth Tudor is said to have appeared on the political stage apologetic for her femaleness. The purpose of this essay is to see to what degree gender stereotypes where an issue in the political factor of the Tudor times, and to what extent this has, if at all, changed. What roles did men and women take on and why where they different, or indeed, segregated? Do the ideals of the Tudor times affect society today? These factors will be seen during my conclusion.
Women and their involvement in politics has always been an intriguing to those interested in the history of politics. Women linked with the Royals, or Nobility, -albeit wives, mothers, mistresses, offspring or siblings-have always been the subject of investigation, regarding the power the held over those the ruled, and even the authority they exercised from their concealed places behind those who ruled. Yet, even in the face of this focus, today’s historians seem cautious about laying the notion of power and influence, at the door of the female persuasion. To begin with an example of how gender was an issue, regardless of rank or station, we can look to the monarchy.
In the Tudor century, two types of queen had control of the court. They were called Consorts and Regnant. A consorts’ role was one of reproduction. She would be married to a king, but because giving birth to a male heir defined the success of her reign; her inability to reproduce sometimes endangered her position as consort, as Henry VIII's wives discovered. The consorts’ life narrowly reflected that of noblewomen: those who were expected to produce a male heir to continue their husband's line, to overlook the day’s work in the household, and to support the numerous charities and religious institutions that were seen as appropriate for women to support.
A consort’s royal status allowed her opportunities to engage in court politics. Mary and Elizabeth Tudor were exceptions to this rule, as even though they took the title from marriage and succession, they were still expected to rule as monarchs. A Queen Regnant was one whose royal status was a birthright and not an outcome of marriage. These queens where seen as actually reigning and controlling the kingdom, and not with menial activities such as overseeing the running of the household. The notion that women were not able to govern their land, led to the idea that they must take their male councilors’ advice to avoid disaster.
There were even concerns about whether Philip II' would dominate the decision making during Mary's reign. Traditionally speaking, women in politics during the Tudor century where very marginal and hidden figures. Their domain was the household, and work was domestic, as opposed to the male world, a world of very public politics and business ventures. Women were awarded no accreditation for the parts played by them during an event of importance.
Indeed, to George Bernard referred to Anne Boleyn as “nothing more than a flirt and loose living lady”, even after the controversial ideas of her religious influence, alleged adultery and consequential fall. Tudor society was patriarchal, meaning that men were considered to be the leaders and women their inferiors. Women were regarded as "the weaker sex", in both physical and emotional values
In general females, whether married or single, were seen as unable to think in political factors and were seen as genetically inferior to their male counterparts. Unmarried women would be chaperoned constantly by male relatives and guardians, as it was thought that without a husband to guide them, they would be incapable or looking after their household affairs.
Women would spend most of their lives in the house attained by them through marriage. They would focus on the interests of their husbands, children and grandchildren, and those without children would often focus on the interests of siblings, especially sisters. On first perception, it is easy to perceive a woman’s world as narrow and confined to a small space, when in reality, their daily activities and contacts spread further than most could imagine.
Built upon a woman’s family and complex network of friends and contacts, was weaved great resource and political influence that allowed these women to perform their motherly, wifely and widows duties with great flair. Their martial family gave them the power they needed to succeed in everyday life, while their birth families provided a safety net for them, if their marriages ever failed.
A woman’s birth family was usual the most important in the line of contacts she kept. Her father would be involved with her life extensively, even after she was married to aid them as wives and mothers and to help them with financial issues. In contrast, the males in the Tudor times, held an authority which was officially known as “political”, although this could entail anything from attending the House of Lords, to arranging their sisters marriages and seeing to a respective suitor. The main parliamentary figure though, was the king, or Queen regnant. Elizabeth I was one of these queens, who took her political power seriously, and without a husband to guide her, much to the distress of Parliament.
She gave the House of Commons control over certain authority but made it clear, that as the head of the institution, certain matters would be left to her and her Privy Council. When parliament demanded that she be married in 1571, she told them in no uncertain terms, that they had no right to discuss matters that directly affected her. Although Elizabeth didn’t allow the fact that she was a woman affect her working life, it did seem as though being female was an issue, as she constantly fought to portray herself as male.
Rank seemingly played no part in the gender issues of the Tudor age. Upper-class and lower-class women alike attained authority through social standing, relationships and contact with those in higher power and woman’s incorporation into politics, although not the electorate, was the result of increased literacy skills-especially the ability to read- in women allowing them more access to news, information and ideas.
In regard to the “political” goals, most men and women shared the same ideals. To make an advantageous match in marriage would secure money holdings and status which allowed both genders to equally gain influence over such factors as land accumulation, the holding of their reputation and status, and the ability to further family members in terms of careers and marriage.
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Professor Barbara Harris’s research into gender and Tudor times has been able to show that what was considered domestic, public, political and private where very hard to distinguish from each other during this time. The family was the quintessential political base for women. If you were a wife or mother, this would be considered your “career” which was politically significant. Women were constantly involved in activities which allowed them to build and maintain relationships with others, such as arranging marriages. Professor Harris rethought this “domestic chores”
Of course, the issue concerning gender where not just rife in the household and in business ventures. Gender was a very common influence on sentencing a criminal as well. Tudor punishments were very severe and entailed hanging, burning to death, torture, whipping, being chained to stocks you would have all sorts of rubbish and rotten foods thrown at you before you eventually starved to death(if you were lucky),or some passing animal decided to have a bite, dunking in a river or branding with a hot iron. These are only a few examples of how a “criminal “would be treated.
Whipping was sentenced for serious offences such as robbery with violence and begging. For this act, a “pillory” was often used. A pillory was made of two upright posts and two boards which were held together with each other. These boards had circular openings for the neck and wrists of the prisoner. The pillory had a roof, open sides and was placed on a platform. The prisoner would stand through his whipping, being fully exposed to the public.
This form of punishment was usually reserved for male offenders. Women who were accused of being “scolds where taken to a device called a “ducking stool”, a highly popular form of punishment for the time. Historians have argued the meaning of the term "scold" relentlessly and have discussed its implications at length. The same questions always come to rise. Where these women independent, and was this type of punishment one brought by men to keep their women in check? After all, social conformity was extremely important during the Tudor times, and it was often felt that men had to keep their women at hand to save themselves from the embarrassment of having an unruly wife, mother, etc.
For Women though, the most common crime was of witchcraft. It was common practice during this period to blame someone for cursing your cattle if one or more of your livestock died without an obvious reason. Witchcraft was considered a serious offence, and was punished in the most serious ways. The Witches of Warboys is an example of those involved in witch-hunting. The Witches of Warboys refers to Alice Samuel and her family between who where accused, taken to trail and then executed on charges of witchcraft in the village of Warboys, England.
The accusations were first made by Jane Throckmorton, who had started having fits. She accused the 76 year old Alice Samuel of enchanting her and Jane’s four sisters and some household servants begin reporting similar symptoms. In 1590, Lady Cromwell, (the grandmother of Oliver Cromwell,) came to Warboys to visit. During this time, she met Mrs. Samuel and too accused her of being a witch. At one point, an argument ensued, which was quickly dissolved when Lady Cromwell cut off a lock of Mrs. Samuels’s hair.
Lady Cromwell later became ill and later died in 1592.In 1592 Alice Samuel confessed to witchcraft, and was taken to Huntingdon where she was imprisoned with her daughter Agnes and her husband John. All three were tried on April 5th 1593 for the murder, by witchcraft, of Lady Cromwell, and were found guilty. They were sentenced to be hanged. In conclusion, it seems that in the Tudor Century, men and women were segregated in just about everything, from the way they performed daily duties, to what crime was applicable to them.
Tudor politics was no different, with the exception of certain women given power in some circumstances, but they still had to appease male advisors and peers, if their influence was to go ahead.
Queens such as Elizabeth I made up for her lack in a husband or any other close male relative with her dealings with her male councilors and through the image of her personality as male during contact with the public. In response to the Parliamentary request she marries, 1559:
‘I am already bound unto a husband, which is the kingdom of England and that may suffice you.’
This proved to society that although she was a woman, she was not ruled by her male peers. Gender issues were a factor in Tudor politics, but they were not totally oppressive. It seems that for some people, the gates where open to them, as long as they adhered to certain rules and conduct. It is probably fair to say that, despite the limitations, women had more freedom in the Tudor period than they had had previously and would have again for some time. The Renaissance brought with it a new way of thinking. Elizabeth being on the throne also encouraged men to educate their daughters, in the hope that it would secure them a more advantageous match in marriage, further widening their political influence.
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Carol Levin, the Reign of Elizabeth I (Palgrave, 2002).
Elton, G.R. England under the Tudors. Routledge(1955)
Daybell, J. Women and Politics in Early Modern England, 1450-1700 Ashgate.(2004)
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