Even if you know nothing more about English history than Henry VIII and his assorted wives, you will have figured out that people back then had sex. Throughout history, people mostly did. But how did they think about it? Because how people think about it colors everything.
I’m working largely from Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor here. Hence the lack of links.
The late Tudor period was a time of increasing literacy. Printed books–in English, yet, as opposed to Latin–were increasingly available, and they included advice books. It’s one of the oddities of human nature that no matter how little a person knows on a subject, someone will turn to them for advice. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that in any society and any time period, some fixed number of the people who know nothing, next to nothing, or less than nothing will offer themselves up as experts. These days they’re all over the internet. Back then, they were limited to print.
But of course, printed books were the internet of their day.
Goodman draws from both advice books and popular songs–another era-appropriate version of the internet. Ballads were printed and sold relatively cheaply. She describes some being plastered to ale-house walls. Even then, the English sang when they drank.
She also draws from writings that educated men circulated among themselves, some of which were downright salacious, and from the sexual language, both positive and negative, that was in use.
The Tudor period wasn’t entirely medieval, so we can’t just plaster medieval attitudes (to the extent that we know what they were) over the era. But it wasn’t entirely not medieval either. By Henry VIII’s time, the hermit crab of English history was poking its head out of the medieval shell it had been living in and thinking it might be time to find something more comfortable. And not just because the country was shifting from Catholicism to Protestantism. The economy, education, and government also needed a bigger shell.
Inevitably, there were holdovers from the medieval period, including a belief in the purity of virginity and of chastity in general. But even so, most people married, and married sex was considered chaste.
I had assumed–the belief is so deeply embedded in our culture that all you have to do is breathe for bits of it to lodge in your lungs–that it was only unmarried women that society had no place for, but it turns out not to have had much use for unmarried men either. To be fully adult, you had to marry. An unmarried man couldn’t head up a household any more than an unmarried woman could, and like an unmarried woman he faced a lifetime of living in other people’s households–a spare part from a bit of machinery that had long since been lost.
He also couldn’t take on an apprentice or hold public office. Marriage that central to how society was organized.
The culture appreciated sex, not just for procreation–which was the only kind of sex the Catholic Church approved of–but for its ability to hold a couple together. It was the sweetness in a marriage, the source of love that helped a couple get through its difficulties. And they expected both partners to find pleasure in it. Both had a right to expect it, each owed it to the other, and a marriage that wasn’t consummated could be annulled.
Medical experts disagreed on what it took to produce a child. One group saw the woman’s womb as a field where the man’s seed could take root. The other believed that both the man and the woman had to produce a seed. From that second theory it followed that if the woman didn’t have an orgasm, she didn’t produce a seed. And with no seed, there was no baby.
On the positive side, this meant that everyone involved (and they didn’t share our concept of privacy) had an incentive for the woman to enjoy herself. Even the Catholic Church–and England was Catholic for a fair part of the Tudor era–had an interest in it. On the negative side, it followed that if woman became pregnant after being raped, she was must have enjoyed consensual sex.
Some days–some whole eras–you just can’t win.
For at least for part of this time, marriage wasn’t entirely in the hands of the church. Starting in late medieval times, the church had been pushing toward taking control of it, and it had made inroads, but still, if two people said some version of “I marry you” and then had sex, they were married. It was legal, it was binding, and it didn’t need witnesses or a written record. But it was also hard to prove if one party decided to ride off into the sunset claiming to still be single.
Marriages didn’t have to happen in the church, although most couples did go to the church door and have a ceremony.
Not everyone talked openly about sex, but some people did. The Victorian era it wasn’t. A man might be boastful about sex outside of marriage, but a woman pretty much had to find extenuating circumstances, because the consequences were harsher for her. In spite of acknowledging that women enjoyed sex, and even needing them to enjoy it, society was still patriarchal. Children born outside of marriage had no legal father and were seen as a drain on society’s resources, because men controlled the resources. It was somewhere between impossible and next to impossible for a single woman to raise a child without the support of the parish–that’s the local government–and that in turn meant the support of the people who paid taxes. So they had an interest in there being as few children as possible born outside of marriage, and in fact there weren’t that many of them. Communities were still small enough that policing people’s sexual activity was, for the most part, possible. And if I know what a village is like, the task was undertaken enthusiastically by at least some residents.
Any child born inside a marriage was legally the husband’s, even if he’d been away for two years, so society as a whole was less concerned about them.
If Henry VIII is any guide, aristocrats–or at least the king and his lovers–weren’t held to the same standard as the average person. Contemporary accounts show Henry VII as faithful to his wife, but Henry VIII was open about his mistresses.
As were wealthy men in Wales. Goodman has found wills men they left property to their “base born” children–something that wasn’t typical in England. Welsh legal tradition had allowed them to inherit if their fathers acknowledged them, but in 1536 English law replaced it and the wills she found may have been made by men looking for a way around the change.
Social attitudes were slower to change than the law was. The mistress of an elite man was in a better social position if she lived in Wales than she would have been in England. There was a grudging acceptance of long-term extra-marital relationships. The Church didn’t approve, but it didn’t yet have control.
Where it did have control, though, it was relentless. Church courts could convict people of sexual offenses and sentence them to physical punishment or to public shaming. Goodman mentions people having to kneel in front of the congregation for weeks, in their underwear, holding a candle.
In general, there was no scale of sexual misbehavior that made one offense worse than some other. They were all bad–from thought to act–but the person who strayed often was worse than the person who only wandered off the path once, then skittered back to safety. Although homosexuality was a sin, it was also not a category. A person might have sex with the wrong flavor of human, and that was a sin, but that was as far as thinking on the subject seemed to go. The division wasn’t between straight and gay but between chaste and not chaste, and the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah was about all sorts of sexual sin, not homosexual sex alone.
Sex between men, though, did seem to get people riled, and it became illegal under Henry VIII. The penalty was death, but it wasn’t clear exactly what act had been made illegal. Both prosecutions and accusations were rare.
Sex between women seems to have been invisible. It shows up very little in writing and not at all in the courts.
In spite of all that emphasis on chastity, prostitution was often tolerated. It was most common in cities, where women were more likely to be away from family support and become desperate (men controlled the resources, remember), where enough potential clients could be found, and where some level of anonymity made it simpler.
In the first half of the Tudor era, licensed brothels worked just outside of London under the protection of the Bishop of Winchester. Yes indeed, kids, the world’s a strange place and sometimes it’s even stranger than that. They were closed in 1546 out of fears about venereal disease and a new outbreak of the plague.
At times, the authorities would crack down on prostitution, parading women through the streets and pillorying them, but a brothel with a powerful patron would be able to operate relatively freely.
There are references to be found to male stews–which is what they called brothels–but that’s about all the record has to offer us.