Life in the 16th Century

By Tim Lambert

Tudor Society

In 16th century England, most of the population lived in small villages and made their living from farming. However, towns grew larger and more important. During the 16th century trade and industry grew rapidly and England became a more and more commercial country. Mining of coal, tin, and lead flourished. So did the iron industry. During this period England became richer and richer.

As England grew more and more prosperous life for the well-off became more and more comfortable. Upper-class and middle-class people benefited from the growing wealth of the country. However, for the poor in Tudor England life did not improve. For them, life was hard and rough.

Meanwhile, in the 15th century, the population of England may have been around 2 and a half million. It rose steadily during the 16th century. By 1525 it had risen to around 3 million and by 1600 it was about 4 million.

Tudor society was divided into four broad groups. At the top were the nobility who owned huge amounts of land. Below them were the gentry and rich merchants. Gentlemen owned large amounts of land and they were usually educated and had a family coat of arms. Most important gentlemen never did any manual work. Below the gentry were yeomen and craftsmen. Yeomen owned their own land. They could be as wealthy as gentlemen but they worked alongside their men. Yeomen and craftsmen were often able to read and write.

Below the yeomen were the tenant farmers who leased their land from the rich. There were also wage laborers. They were often illiterate and very poor.

In Tudor Times the parish became the basis of local government. The most important person was an appointed magistrate called the Justice of the Peace. Meanwhile in Tudor Times kings and queens grew stronger. During the Middle Ages, the barons held castles, which were difficult to capture so it was easy for them to rebel. Cannons changed all that.

In the 16th century, jobs were not always easy to find. In Tudor times there were thousands of people without jobs wandering around looking for work. There were also disabled beggars. Some people pretended to be mad or disabled to beg. Tudor governments tolerated disabled beggars.

However, they did not tolerate able-bodied people without jobs wandering from place to place. They thought such ‘sturdy vagabonds’ without a fixed place in society were a threat to law and order.

Since the 14th century, there had been laws against vagabonds but in 1530 a new law was passed. The old and disabled poor were to be given licenses to beg. However, anyone roaming without a job was tied to a cart in the nearest market town and whipped till they were bloody. They were then forced to return to the parish where they had been born or where they had lived for the last 3 years.

A law of 1547 said vagabonds could be made slaves for 2 years. This terrible law was abolished in 1550. Once again flogging was made the punishment for vagrancy.

In Tudor Times prison was seldom used as a punishment. Instead, people were held in prison until trial then the prisoner was given a physical punishment. Tudor punishments were simple but harsh like flogging. Minor crimes were also punished by the pillory or the stocks. The pillory was a wooden frame on a pole with holes through which a person’s head and hands were placed. The frame was then locked. The stocks was a wooden frame with holes through which a person’s feet.

More serious crimes were punished by death. Beheading was reserved for the wealthy. Ordinary people were usually hanged.

Tudor Houses

In the Middle Ages, rich people’s houses were designed for defence rather than comfort. In the 16th century, life was safer so houses no longer had to be easy to defend. Rich Tudor people built grand houses e.g. Cardinal Wolsey built Hampton Court Palace. Later the Countess of Shrewsbury built Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.

Middle-class Tudors built sturdy ‘half-timbered’ houses. They were made with a timber frame filled in with wattle and daub (wickerwork and plaster). In the late 16th century some people built or rebuilt their houses with a wooden frame filled in with bricks. Roofs were usually thatched though some well-off people had tiles. (In London all houses had tiles because of the fear of fire).

In Tudor Times furniture was more plentiful than in the Middle Ages but it was still basic. In a wealthy home, it was usually made of oak and was heavy and massive. Tudor furniture was expected to last for generations. You expected to pass it on to your children and even your grandchildren. Comfortable beds became more and more common in the 16th century. In a middle-class Tudor home, a mattress was often stuffed with flock (a kind of rough wool).

Chairs were more common than in the Middle Ages but they were still expensive. Even in upper-class homes children and servants sat on stools. The poor had to make do with stools and benches.

In the 15th century, only a small minority of people could afford glass windows. In the 16th century, they became much more common. However, they were still expensive. If you moved house you took your glass windows with you! Windows were made of small pieces of glass held together by strips of lead. They were called lattice windows. However the poor still had to make do with strips of linen soaked in linseed oil.

Chimneys were also a luxury in Tudor Times, although they became more common. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages, a rich person’s house was dominated by the great hall. It extended up to the roof of the building. In the 16th century, many people installed another story in their house over the great hall. So well-off Tudor people’s houses became divided into more rooms.

In rich people’s houses, the walls of rooms were lined with oak paneling to keep out drafts. People slept in four-poster beds hung with curtains to reduce drafts. Wealthy people hung tapestries or painted cloths on their walls.

In Tudor, England carpets were a luxury only the rich could afford. They were usually too expensive to put on the floor! Instead, they were often hung on the wall or over tables. People covered their floors with rushes or reeds, which they strewed with sweet-smelling herbs.

In the 16th century, wealthy people lit their homes with beeswax candles. However, they were expensive. Other people used candles made from tallow (animal fat) which gave off an unpleasant smell and the poor made do with rushlights (rushes dipped in animal fat).

Rich Tudors had clocks in their homes. Most people relied on pocket sundials to tell the time. Rich people were also fond of gardens. Many had mazes, fountains, and topiary (hedges cut into shapes). Less well-off people used their gardens to grow vegetables and herbs.

However poor people lived in simple huts with one or two rooms (occasionally three). The floors were of hard earth and furniture was very basic such as benches, stools, a table, and wooden chests. The poor slept on mattresses stuffed with straw or thistledown. The mattresses lay on ropes strung across a wooden frame.

In the 16th century, toilets were basic. In 1596 Sir John Harrington invented a flushing lavatory with a cistern. However, the idea failed to catch on. People continued to use chamber pots or cesspits, which were cleaned by men called gong farmers. (In Tudor Times a toilet was called a jakes). For toilet paper, rich people used rags while poor people sometimes used a plant called woolly mullein.

Tudor Food

In the 16th century, rich people ate vast amounts of meat. However, they did not eat many vegetables. On certain days by law, people had to eat fish instead of meat. At first, this was for religious reasons but later in the 16th century, it was to support the fishing industry. If you lived near the sea or a river you could eat fresh fish like herring or mackerel. Otherwise, you might have to rely on dried or salted fish.

Poor people lived on a dreary diet in the 16th century. In the morning they had bread and cheese and onions. They only had one cooked meal a day. They mixed grain with water and added vegetables and (if they could afford it) strips of meat.

All classes ate bread but it varied in quality. Rich people’s bread was made from fine white flour. Poor people ate coarse bread of barley or rye.

The Tudors were also fond of sweet foods (if they could afford them). However, in the 16th century sugar was very expensive so most people used honey to sweeten their food.

In the 16th century, new foods were introduced from the Americas. Turkeys were introduced into England in about 1525. Potatoes were brought to England in the 1580s but at first, few English people ate them.

People drank ale or beer or, if they were rich, wine. The Tudors also drank cider and perry.

Rich people liked to show off their gold and silver plates. The middle classes would have dishes and bowls made of pewter. The poor made do with wooden plates and bowls. There were no forks. People ate with knives and their fingers or with spoons. Rich people had silver or pewter spoons. The poor used wooden ones.

In the 16th century, ordinary people made much of their own food. A farmer’s wife cured bacon and salted meat to preserve it. She baked bread and brewed beer. She also made pickles and conserves and preserved vegetables. Many farms kept bees for honey.

Tudor Towns

Only a small part of the population of 16th century England lived in towns. Nevertheless, peasants brought things to weekly markets to sell. All kinds of manufactured goods like shoes and pottery were on sale in towns.

In 1500 London probably had a population of between 60,000 and 70,000. By 1600 its population was over 250,000. Other Tudor towns were much smaller. Bristol probably had a population of about 14,000 in 1500. By 1600 it had grown to about 20,000. The next largest town, Norwich had about 10,000 inhabitants in 1500. In 1600 it still had less than 20,000.

The largest town in the north of England was York. In 1500 it had a population of about 10,000. By 1600 it had only risen to about 12,000. The next largest town was probably Exeter with a population of about 9,000 in 1600. Most of the towns in Tudor England were much smaller with populations of between 2,500 and 4,000. In the 16th century, anything with more than 1,000 inhabitants was considered a town.

In most Tudor towns tradesmen of one kind tended to live and work in the same street e.g. in many towns butchers and slaughterhouses gathered together in a street called the Shambles.

People usually obtained their water from wells or from water carriers who carried water in containers on their shoulders. Some towns had conduits that brought in water from the countryside and which the public could use.

In Tudor towns, streets were also narrow. Upper stories of buildings jutted out over lower stories. These were called jetties. At night the streets were dark and dangerous. Quite apart from the danger of being robbed, it was easy to have an accident on dark, unpaved streets. In London, you could hire a link boy with a lamp to light your way.

Outbreaks of plague were common. When the plague struck it might kill 10%, 15%, or even more of the population of a town. However, towns always recovered. There were always plenty of poor people in the countryside willing to come to towns in search of work.

London grew enormously in the 16th century. In 1500 the town was encompassed by its walls but by 1600 rich men had built houses along the Strand joining London to Westminster. In the Middle Ages, the church owned about 1/4 of the land in London. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries it released a great deal of land for new buildings.

Along the walls of Tudor London were several gates, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate, and Ludgate. Two of the gates were used as prisons, Ludgate and Newgate. Furthermore, the body parts of traitors who had been hung drawn, and quartered were displayed over the gates as a warning.

Over the River Thames was London Bridge, which had buildings along its length. (Many of them had shops on the ground floor). South of the Thames was the large suburb of Southwark. The River Thames was a major transport route as Tudor London was the largest port in England. Sailing ships sailed to quays just before London Bridge and there were also smaller boats owned by watermen for transporting people along the Thames. Tudor monarchs and other rich people had their own barges. There were also many fishermen in London and The Thames teemed with fish like salmon, trout, perch, flounder, and beam.

At 9 pm in summer and dusk in winter church bells rang the curfew and the city gates were locked.

Transport in Tudor England

In Tudor England roads were just dirt tracks. Men were supposed, by law, to spend several days repairing the local roads. People traveled by horse. You could either ride your own or you could hire a horse. From the mid-16th century, some rich people rode in carriages. They must have been very uncomfortable because they did not have springs and the roads were very bumpy.

In Tudor Times you would be lucky if you could travel 50 or 60 miles a day. It normally took a week to travel from London to Plymouth. However rich Tudor people deliberately traveled slowly. They felt it was undignified to hurry and they took their time.

Goods were sometimes transported by packhorses (horses with bags on their sides). Also, carriers with covered wagons carried goods and sometimes passengers. However, when possible people preferred to transport goods by water. All around England, there was a ‘coastal trade’. Goods from one part of the country, such as coal, were taken by sea to other parts.

Games in Tudor England

Although the days of armored knights were over, rich people still enjoyed tournaments in the 16th century. The contestants dressed in armor and rode horses. They fought with wooden lances and swords.

Rich people also enjoyed hunting. They went hunting deer with bows and arrows. After it was killed the deer was eaten. The rich also went hawking. Falcons were trained to kill other birds.

Rich people also liked wrestling and ‘casting the bar’, which was like shot-putting but with an iron bar. They also played billiards. Rich people also played board games like chess and backgammon (a backgammon set was found on the wreck of the Mary Rose. It is the same as a modern one). They also played tennis with a leather ball stuffed with hair. They also played bowls and skittles. Playing cards were also popular.

All classes gambled in 16th century England. Poor people gambled with dice. They also played games like shuffleboard (shove ha’penny) and nine men’s morris. The Tudors also played draughts and fox and geese.

Music and dancing were also very popular. The printing press made books much cheaper so reading was a popular pastime for well-off people.

Ordinary people played a rough version of football. There were no rules and the ‘pitch’ was often a large area including woods and even streams! It was a very rough game. Injuries like broken limbs were common.

Cruel ‘sports’ like cockfighting were also popular in the 16th century. So was bear-baiting. A bear was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it.

The Theatre in Tudor England

In the 16th century, people liked plays, both comedies and tragedies. In the 16th century groups of professional actors became common. However, Tudor governments were suspicious of actors. They were regarded as layabouts who did no useful work. From 1572 actors had to hold a license from a noble. Without protection from some powerful man, actors were likely to be arrested as vagrants!

In the early 16th century actors performed in market squares or courtyards. However, in the late 16th century plays became more and more popular and it eventually became worthwhile making purpose-built theaters in large towns. In 1576 a man named James Burbage built the first theater. Others followed. Those who could afford the best seats were sheltered from the weather. However, the poor customers stood in the open air. They were called groundlings. Rich people sat on the stage!

There were no female actors in the 16th century. Boys played women’s parts. Plays were usually held during the day because of the difficulty of lighting a stage.

Meanwhile, Tudor children played with wooden dolls. (They were called Bartholomew babies because they were sold at St Bartholomew’s fair in London). They also played cup and ball (a wooden ball with a wooden cup on the end of the handle. You had to swing the handle and try to catch the ball in the cup).

Education in Tudor England

Boys usually went to a kind of nursery school called a ‘petty school’ first then moved on to grammar school when they were about seven. The school day began at 6 am in summer and 7 am in winter (people went to bed early and got up early in those days). Lunch was from 11 am to 1 pm. School finished at about 5 pm. Boys went to school 6 days a week and there were a few holidays.

Many Tudor children learned to read and write with something called a hornbook. It was not a book in the modern sense. Instead, it was a wooden board with a handle. Fixed to the board was a sheet of paper with the alphabet and the Lord’s prayer (the Our Father) written on it. The paper was usually protected by a thin slice of animal horn.

Discipline in Tudor schools was harsh. The teacher often had a stick with birch twigs attached to it for hitting boys.

When they were about 15 or 16 the brightest boys might go to one of England’s two universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Of course, many boys did not go to school at all. If they were lucky they might get a 7-year apprenticeship and learn a trade. Some craftsmen could read and write but few laborers could.

As for girls, in a rich family, a tutor usually taught them at home. In a middle-class family, their mother might teach them. Upper-class and middle-class women were educated. However, lower-class girls were not.

Tudor children who did not go to school were expected to work. They helped their parents by doing tasks such as scaring birds when seeds were sown They also helped to weave wool and did other household tasks.

In the 16th century, children from rich families usually had their marriages arranged for them. Children from poorer families had more choice over whom to marry. Yet girls usually married young. Many were married when they were only 15 or 16. Boys often married between the ages of 18 and 21.

Clothes in the 16th Century

For rich people fashion was important. For the poor, clothes had to be tough and practical. All classes wore wool. However, it varied in quality. The rich wore fine-quality wool. The poor wore coarse wool.

Linen was used to make shirts. Only the rich could afford silk. Rich people also embroidered their clothes with silk, gold, or silver thread. Rich women wore silk stockings.

Men wore short trouser-like garments called breeches. They also wore tight-fitting jackets called doublets. Another jacket called a jerkin was worn over the doublet. Over the jerkin, rich men wore a gown, or later in the 16th century a cloak or cape.

However, instead of a doublet, many workingmen wore a loose tunic. It was easier to work in. Some workingmen wore a leather jerkin called a buff-jerkin. Men also wore stockings or woolen socks, which were called hose.

Tudor women wore a kind of petticoat called a smock or shift or chemise made of linen or wool and a wool dress over it. A woman’s dress was made of two parts, a bodice, and a skirt. Sleeves were held on with laces and could be detached. Working women wore linen aprons.

In Elizabethan England, many women wore a frame made of whalebone or wood under their dress called a farthingale. If they could not afford a farthingale women wore a padded roll around their waist called a bum roll.

Tudor women did not wear knickers. However, men sometimes wore linen shorts.

In the 16th century, everyone wore hats. Poor women often wore a linen cap called a coif. After 1572 by law all men except nobles had to wear a woolen cap on Sundays.

In the 16th century, buttons were usually for decoration. Clothes were often held together with laces or pins. Furs in Tudor Times included cats, rabbits, beavers, bears, badgers, and polecats.

People used mostly vegetable dyes such as madder for red, woad for blue, or walnut for brown. The most expensive dyes were bright red, purple, and indigo. Poor people often wore brown, yellow, or blue.

Some Tudor women wore wigs. Both Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots wore them. When Mary was beheaded her wig came off.

In the 16th century laws called sumptuary laws laid down what each class could and could not wear. Complicated laws said that only people with a certain amount of wealth could wear certain expensive materials such as velvet and silk. These laws, of course, made no difference to poor people since they could not afford costly materials anyway! However, the laws were supposed to keep the classes separate. You were supposed to be able to tell which class somebody belonged to by his or her clothes. However many people simply ignored the sumptuary laws.

16th Century Medicine

In the 16th century, many people died in epidemics of sweating sickness (possibly influenza). Many others died of smallpox. Elizabeth I almost died of it). Even if you survived smallpox it could leave you disfigured with pox marks or blind. Syphilis was also rampant. Dysentery was also a killer.

Tudor doctors were very expensive and they could do little about illness partly because they did not know what caused disease. They had little idea of how the human body worked. Doctors thought the body was made up of four fluids or ‘humours’. They were blood, phlegm, choler or yellow bile, and melancholy or black bile. In a healthy person, all four humours were balanced but if you had too much of one you fell ill.

If you had too much blood you would be bled either with leeches or by cutting a vein. Too much of the other humours would be treated either by eating the right diet or by purging (taking medicines to cause vomiting).

Doctors also thought infectious disease, like the plague, was caused by poisonous ‘vapors’, which drifted through the air and were absorbed through the skin.

One of the main ways of diagnosing sickness was uroscopy (examining urine) by its appearance, its smell, or even by its taste! n Astrology also played a part in Tudor medicine. Most doctors believed that different zodiac signs ruled different parts of the body.

Since doctors were so expensive many people went to see a wise man or wise woman if they were ill. The wise men or women would know about different herbs and their properties and might be able to help.

The average lifespan in the 16th century was shorter than today. The average life expectancy at birth was only 35. (So only half of all people born lived to be 35). However many Tudor people died while they were still children. Out of all people born between one-third and one-half died before the age of about 16. However, if you could survive to your mid-teens you would probably live to your 50s or early 60s. Even in the 16th century, some people did live to their 70s or 80s.

16th Century Weapons

In the 16th century, warfare was transformed by guns. Early guns were lit by a slow match (string was soaked in saltpeter and when it was lit it smoldered). The slow match was touched to the gunpowder to ignite it. However, in the early 16th century, the wheellock was invented. A metal wheel spun against a piece of iron pyrites generating sparks that ignited the gunpowder. As a result, most cavalry stopped using lances. Instead, they carried two or three pistols each, ready to fire, and sabers.

Meanwhile, in the early 16th century, the traditional English weapon was the longbow but handguns were increasingly used. The longbow slowly went out of use in Tudor times. However, muskets took a long time to reload, and during that time the infantry needed protection from cavalry. They were protected by men with pikes (a weapon like a long spear).

Tudor forts and walled towns often had bastions. They were triangular sections of the wall that jutted out from the rest of the wall. They provided flanking fire. In other words, guns on the bastion could fire at approaching soldiers from the sides.

Last revised 2024