Marriage, sin, and sexuality in Tudor England

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. 

Irrelevant (and note very good) photo: Daffodils. I need to take more pictures. Apologies.

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. 

70 thoughts on “Marriage, sin, and sexuality in Tudor England

  1. In England, the end of the medieval period is generally considered to be 1485, when the last Plantagenet died. It’s a different date in other countries. The Tudor period is, I think, part of what is now called the Early Modern Period. It makes little difference, though. If I wrote about this same subject with regard to the fourteenth century, most of it would be the same.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’ll admit to being vague about the dates when one period ends and another begins. That could pass for sloppiness (and does contain an element of it), but it’s also because life doesn’t work that way, which is more or less what you’ve said. No bell rings, causing everyone to drop the attitudes that their lives, up till then, have ingrained in them and all the economic relationships to suddenly shift. It’s all more complicated–and more interesting.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Very true. I know people who’ve managed (and some who still do) without either, but I’d never underestimate the difficulties.

      With that said, though, I can remember a time when it was even more difficult, and if we go back to Tudor times or the medieval period it was far harder than that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating! I really enjoyed the read, thanks:) What I find interesting and depressing in equal doses is that there are societies where what you described still applies almost fully. Marriage defines a person and they are nothing in the absence of it. The inability (or lack of desire, but then that is not really seen as a thing) to get married is the inability to be a functioning member of society. Oh well:) Deep sigh

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Most of my contemporaries got married because they “had to”. Surprisingly, many of those marriages lasted. One I can think of, registered in 1965, is still going strong today. There were very few single mum’s back then. Except for widows.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The practice of being shamed in front of the parish carried on, certainly in Scotland, until well into the nineteenth century, from what I’ve seen in kirk records up there. Or if not necessarily subjected to punishment, then at least having to acknowledge one’s sin in church, which must have been humiliation enough. But when the parish was the only source of anything like financial support for an illegitimate child, there was no option.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Off of the sexual part of the post, partially, two questions:

    The development of the printing press made books easier to create and distribute, but cost? As you said, they were much cheaper, but could the average Tudor be able to afford them, or were books relegated to the upper classes and the middle classes (business owners, etc.)?

    I had read once, in one of those mass produced books, that a time existed in England where the “Lord of the Manor” had the option to take a bride on her wedding night. Did that actually exist, or was it just a story line? I find it difficult to believe the populace would allow such a thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Question one: They were wildly expensive, but much less wildly expensive than they’d been when they had to be copied by hand–and illustrated. Literacy was limited in any case, although it too was growing. So books being more widely available? Everything’s relative.

      Question two: I haven’t read a single reference to this that says it was real. The consensus (Lord Google tells me) among historians is that it’s a myth, created in later eras, probably by slobbering young lordlings, studentlings, or tutorlins whose despicableness is beneath my powers of description.

      As for what a populace will tolerate, sometimes it’s about what they’ll put up with, sometimes it’s about what they have no choice but to put up with. Consider how deeply ingrained rape was in American slavery.


      • That’s what I figured (1 & 2).

        About 3, the slave population exceeded the owners by manyfold, but the owners had the guns. Get away from the area and few people probably gave slavery a second thought, even if they did few probably thought of it as rape since the slaves were looked upon as property, not people. I’d imagine it was no different in slavery in other countries, America wasn’t the only country involved in it, and it is still going on in some countries.

        Germany is another good example, most of Europe, as well as England, looked the other way when Jews were being exterminated, and handed over Czechoslovakia to Hitler. European countries didn’t get involved until after he started invading Western Europe countries.

        Yes, people will look the other way until something affects them directly.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’d love to argue about that, but I’m afraid you’re right. Most people are looking away from the refugee camps in Greece, from the families held by ICE on the border, from the homeless all around us. We can, though, remember that when we talk about people looking away, we’re talking about other people looking away. From the point of view of the slaves–well, they could not give it a first, second, and third thought.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Sadly, yes. We rarely learn from History. My people were sold out in the 40’s, Crimea was sold out recently. We have Chad, Senegal, the Congo, that we protest, but as long as China provides us with cheap goods we’re willing to look the other way. It’s a sad, sad, world we live in Master Jack.

            Liked by 1 person

            • That’s power politics. Our governments crank us up periodically about people being harmed by governments they want to target, but the people themselves are seldom the point–and aren’t necessarily helped by the interventions.


        • England and France declared war on zGermany when German invaded Poland. I think Poland is in Eastern Europe.
          I don’t believe killing of Jews started until the war was under way. No one could stop it until they fought their war into Germany snd liberated the camps.

          Liked by 1 person

          • In January 1933, some 522,000 Jews lived in Germany. After the Nazis took power and implemented their antisemitic ideology and policies, the Jewish community was increasingly persecuted. About 60% (numbering around 304,000) emigrated during the first six years of the Nazi dictatorship. In 1933, persecution of the Jews became an official Nazi policy. In 1935 and 1936, the pace of antisemitic persecution increased. In 1936, Jews were banned from all professional jobs, effectively preventing them from participating in education, politics, higher education and industry. The Schutzstaffel (SS) ordered the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) the night of November 9–10, 1938. The storefronts of Jewish shops and offices were smashed and vandalized, and many synagogues were destroyed by fire. Only roughly 214,000 Jews were left in Germany proper (1937 borders) on the eve of World War II.

            On September 3, 1939, in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain and France, both allies of the overrun nation declare war on Germany. As for Britain’s response, it was initially no more than the dropping of anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets—13 tons of them—over Germany. The first casualty of that declaration was not German—but the British ocean liner Athenia, which was sunk by a German U-30 submarine that had assumed the liner was armed and belligerent.

            They had plenty of time to react to the persecution of the Jews before WWII began. Poland was an ally of England and France, even so their initial reaction was weak. It wasn’t until the bombing of the Athenia that England began their offensive.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I see your point. It wasn’t until their own interests were threatened that they acted, and even then it was to protect their interests, not the Jews’ and not Poland’s. And Germany’s antisemitism coincided quite neatly with their own, although it was far stronger.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Concentration camp construction started in 1933. First inmates were political. . Persecution of Jews was severe in the thirties snd there were deportation snd other things as you mention. The final solution meaning killing in the camps by gas and shootings started in 1941 and continued until 1945 and the end of the waf.

              My comment did not address persecution only the extermination by death.

              I agree the persecution in the thirties was ignored.

              Liked by 1 person

  6. Historic attitudes and practices relating to sex and sexuality are endlessly fascinating. My Gran used to tell me stories of her Shetland ancestors when I was wee and that got my into researching Scottish customs in my teens, including the ones about sex and marriage. Handfasting and bundling are the two that immediately spring to mind. Then there is magically wooing men with baking containing menstrual blood. But I digress. Thanks for the education on Tudor sexuality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ack! Menstrual blood? Those women didn’t fool around, did they? I mean, I knew someone in the 1970s who made art using her own menstrual blood. Or at least she said it was art. But if she ever baked with it, she kept it to herself.

      I’d have loved to listen to your gran’s stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow. The whole discussion has ranged pretty widely here. So I only have a couple things to add. One is that there is a tendency in history toward what’s called decadization–the 20’s, the thirties, etc. It is really hard to define certain periods clearly (unless you’ve got one monarchical family replacing another or the meteorite hits and the dinosaurs die) because trends and causal factors can be traced back into the decade or period before. A historian of the twenties (gah, who was it) said they were like the Sargasso Sea, where currents flow from all over. So timing isn’t important, really. The second is that I was at a wedding once where the priest (Episcopal) said “Marriage is a vocation. Not everyone is called to it.” Something a few more people likely need to hear…but the church has come to that only recently.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That plants an uneasy and absurd picture in my mind of one of the about-to-be-married pair saying, “Oh! I never thought of that” and running down the aisle the other way.

      Not, I’m sure, what the priest had in mind. Or what happened. Once you make all those plans, invite all those people, and spend all that money, you have to go through with it.

      And yes, it has ranged widely. I’m not quite sure how it got there. But the word “decadization” is a new one on me, and useful. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The Tudors & Stuarts did a good line in woodcut illustrations to aid the understanding of the written word. I would guess that those that could read would also read aloud to others and so “literacy” spread further than those who could actually read, if you see what I mean. Fascinating blog. I always loved History because i) people in the past had very different thoughts and beliefs to us but ii) people are people and therefore not much different from people today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s the contradictory combination of 1) and 2) that draw me to it–the fascinating ways that people looked at the same things we see and saw them differently. And similarly.

      That’s interesting about the woodcuts. I knew literacy was growing at that period. I never thought about who encouraged it and why, but I’m sure all the Protestant focus on reading the Bible had an impact–and was a motive.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Today, public shaming takes place on Facebook, for anything from the wrong kind of sex to owning the wrong car. Closer in, the powers once vested in the church hierarchy are now granted to the homeowners association.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m going to have to take your word on that. I’ve never lived anywhere with a homeowners association–by mutual agreement. But living in a village has given me a sense of the power of the group. No one where I live gives a rip who people sleep with or how (or if they do, it’s not to disapprove but to have something to gossip about), but it can kick in on other topics and be fierce.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Marriage, sin, and sexuality in Tudor England – Reblog #History – Library of Erana

  11. Pingback: Marriage, sin, and sexuality in Tudor England — – My Writer's Vault

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