Women in the 16th Century

By Tim Lambert

It is a myth that 16th-century women were meek and submissive. Some were strong-minded and they had more influence than is sometimes imagined.

In 1513 Henry VIII went to war in France. He made the queen, Catherine of Aragon, Governor of the Realm, and Captain-General of the home forces in his absence. In other words, he was willing to entrust the kingdom to her. In 1544 Henry went to war in France again. This time he made Catherine Parr regent in his absence.

Women’s work in the 16th century

In 16th century England women were not allowed in the professions (such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers). However, women were allowed to join some of the guilds (organizations of tradespeople and skilled workers). In 1562 a law, the Statute of Artificers, made it illegal to employ a man or a woman in a trade unless they had served an apprenticeship. However, in the case of women, the law was often not enforced. Very often the guilds (who regulated trade) let male members employ their wives or daughters in their workshops. Furthermore, if a craftsman died his widow often carried on his trade.

In the 16th century, some women worked spinning cloth. Women were also tailoresses, milliners, dyers, and embroiderers. There were also washerwomen. Some women worked in food preparation such as brewers, bakers, or confectioners. Women also sold foodstuffs in the streets. Furthermore, a very common job for women in the 16th century was a domestic servant. Other women were midwives. However, most women were housewives and they were kept very busy. Most men could not run a farm or a business without their wife’s help.

In the 16th century, most households in the countryside were largely self-sufficient. A housewife (assisted by her servants if she had any) had to bake her family’s bread and brew their beer (it was often not safe to drink water). She was also responsible for curing bacon, salting meat, and making pickles, jellies, and preserves (all of which were essential in an age before fridges and freezers). Very often in the countryside the housewife also made the family candles and their soap. A 16th-century housewife also spun wool and linen.

A farmer’s wife also milked cows, fed animals, and grew herbs and vegetables. She often kept bees. She also took goods to market to sell. On top of that, she had to cook, wash the family’s clothes, and clean the house. A 16th-century housewife was also supposed to have some knowledge of medicine and be able to treat her family’s illnesses. If she could not they would go to a wise woman. Only the wealthy could afford a doctor.

Poor and middle-class wives were kept very busy but rich women were not idle either. In a big house, they had to organize and supervise the servants. Also if her husband was away the woman usually ran the estate. Very often a merchant’s wife did his accounts and if was traveling she looked after the business.

In their spare time, rich women liked to hunt deer and hares with dogs. They also liked hunting with falcons. Wealthy women also played cards.

Women’s education in the 16th century

Girls did not go to grammar schools. However, girls from well-off families were usually educated at home. Tutors taught upper-class girls. Middle-class girls were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and skills like sewing by their mothers. Merchants’ daughters were very often taught to run their father’s businesses. Some women were taught to read by their husbands or by the parish priest.

In the 16th century, some upper-class women were highly educated. Two of Henry VIII’s wives, Catherine of Aragon and Catherine Parr were well-educated. (Catherine Parr was a famous writer). Queen Elizabeth, I was also well-educated and she liked reading. Girls learned music and dancing and needlework. They also learned to read and write. They might also learn languages like Greek and Latin, Spanish, Italian, and French. However, towards the end of the 16th century girls spent less time on academic subjects and more time on skills like music and embroidery.

Queen Elizabeth I

Of course, most children in Tudor England did not go to school. Boys and girls from poor families were expected to start working and contributing to the family income from the time they were about 7 years old. Even in wealthy families, people believed that girls should not be idle. Obviously, they were allowed some time to play but otherwise, they were supposed to work e.g. by weaving or reading suitable books. All children, whether male or female and rich or poor were supposed to obey their parents and treat them with respect. Discipline was harsh. (Although children were precious).

Marriage in the 16th century

Most women in the 16th century were wives and mothers. Life could be hard for spinsters. Often they lived with relatives but they had to work long hours to support themselves.

In the 16th century, marriages were usually arranged, except for the poorest people. Divorce was unknown. (Though marriages were occasionally annulled. That is, it was declared they had never been valid). Legally girls could marry when they were 12 years old. However, normally it was only girls from rich families who married young. The majority of women married in their mid-20s.

Widows could inherit their husband’s property. Bess of Hardwick was widowed 4 times. She became a very rich woman.

Childbirth could be dangerous in the 16th century. Some women died ‘in childbirth’ (actually they usually died after giving birth because the midwife’s hands were dirty and the unfortunate woman became infected). Poor women tended to give birth about once every two years. Rich women gave birth more often, perhaps once a year. That was because poor women breastfed, which reduced their fertility. Rich women gave their babies to wet nurses to breastfeed.

Women and religion in the 16th century

There were many independent-minded women in 16th century Europe with strongly held views on religion. Some of them were martyred including a woman named Anne Askew, who was executed in 1546. Queen Mary was a Catholic and she persecuted Protestants. During her reign, 56 brave women were burned to death for their beliefs.

Women’s clothes in the 16th century

In the 16th century, clothes were usually made of wool or linen. Only rich women could afford cotton and silk. However, there were many grades of wool. You could buy expensive fine wool or cheap, coarse wool.

16th-century 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 a linen apron.

In the late 16th century 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. However, in the 16th century women did not wear knickers.

Rich women enjoyed embroidery. Many of their clothes were embroidered even hats and shoes.

In the 16th century, all women wore hats. The poorest women wore a linen hat called a coif. In the early 16th century, women wore hats called gable hoods (because they looked like the gables on the end of roofs). However, Anne Boleyn introduced the curved French hood into England. Then, in the late 16th century bonnets became fashionable. Rich women wore ostrich feathers in their bonnets.

It was fashionable for wealthy women to have pale skin (if you were sunburned it showed you were poor as you had to work in the hot sun). Women whitened their skin with egg whites or white lead. They reddened their lips and cheeks with cochineal (a dye made from crushed beetles).

From the 14th century to the mid-17th century laws called sumptuary laws laid down what each class could and could not wear. In the 16th century, complicated laws said that only persons of a certain rank 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 ‘sumptuous’ materials even if they wanted to). The laws were supposed to keep the classes distinct and easily recognizable. You were supposed to be able to tell which class somebody belonged to by his or her clothes. However, the sumptuary laws proved to be unenforceable and many people simply ignored them.

My Youtube video about women in the 16th century

Last revised 2022