Beards and Status in Tudor Times | History Hit

Beards and Status in Tudor Times

Amy Irvine

04 Jan 2023
Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley, by Nicolas Denizot (from 1547 until 1549)

In the 16th and 17th centuries, roughly 90% of men had some sort of facial hair. Having a beard was seen as a sign of manliness, whereas being clean-shaven was viewed as a sign of effeminacy, with beardless men usually either young or clerics.

Why were beards considered so important in the early modern period, and what styles were the key trends?

Dr Eleanor Rycroft joined Prof. Suzannah Lipscomb on the Not Just the Tudors podcast to talk about this fascinating topic. This article presents a digest of Rycroft’s work and all facts included are from the podcast discussion.

For the Tudors and Elizabethans, a beard denoted masculinity while beardlessness indicated boyhood or effeminacy. How a man wore his beard - or not - said a lot about his power and position in society. In this edition of Not Just the Tudors, Professor Suzannah Lipscomb talks to theatre historian Dr. Eleanor Rycroft about her hirsute pursuits, analysing the depiction of beards in portraits and on stage, what their various colours, shapes and sizes meant, and what they tell us about gender attitudes in early modern England.
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The beard as a defining feature of a man

The Renaissance was a moment of great economic and global upheaval. During a crisis in authority, focus often falls on gender roles and ‘what it means to be a man’, so beards became a facet of the body in navigating this change.

Britain was moving towards colonialism and slavery, and displays of ‘dominance’ became more widespread, such as enforcing beard/hair removal over those being colonised or ruled over (e.g. during Henry VIII’s ruling over the Irish) to create an adult male/child, leader/subservience dynamic.

The Tudors believed facial hair was the result of male sexual heat. During puberty, the male body was thought to heat up, pushing out hair into the face as a form of bodily excrement. Beards thus acted as a visual sign that a man was highly virile and fertile. It was thought that if you can produce hairs you can produce heirs – the two going in tandem. Men thus wore their beards as a mark of pride. To pull a man’s beard in Tudor England was considered an insult.

On the whole, there was limited technology for shaving in the Renaissance, so shaving was more of an effort. Men who shaved and those who couldn’t grow a beard were perceived as having their masculinity compromised, seen as effeminate or as a youth and infantilised – described as a ‘beardless boy’, even if in their thirties.

Concepts of gender fluidity

The beard’s relationship to the humoral body was viewed as significant – men were viewed as being hot and dry, women as colder and wetter. During adolescence, humors and gender were seen as more fluid. However it was also thought you could control your humours, with external factors and environments also altering your humoral make-up, such as diet, exercise and air.

Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh by William Segar, 1598.

Image Credit: National Gallery of Ireland / Public Domain

Beard styles

As evidenced by Tudor portraiture, there were a variety of different beard styles. A popular style was a ‘peak de bon‘ – a small pointy beard that a lot of Elizabeth I’s courtiers grew, along with figures such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh. Elizabeth ran her court as if all courtiers were suitors, thus this style of beard became associated with a man wooing a woman.

Beards later became smaller and thinner – the ‘stiletto beard’ – a style worn by Charles I and the cavaliers. A ‘swallow tail’ beard was more associated with the clergy, whereas a ‘square’ or ‘spade beard’ was associated with soldiers and greater masculinity.

Sometimes beards were used to signify different types of ‘manliness’ at different times in someone’s life. The Earl of Essex started off with a ‘peak de bon‘, but as he became more powerful he grew his more into a square cut beard to signify his move away from court.

Communicating identity

Beards also acted as an important way in which men communicated their identity to world to indicate what kind of man people were dealing with. For example, Catholics tended more towards hair removal, so Protestant reformers deliberately grew heavy beards to differentiate themselves.

Moderation was key however – men still needed to show they had access to grooming and barbering. Overly hirsute men were viewed as exceeding civil masculinity. Men needed enough hair, but not too much.

Portrait of Henry VIII (1491-1547) by Hans Holbein the Younger in 1540

Image Credit: Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica / Public Domain

Beard colour also indicated identity. Black hair had connotations that a man’s body was too hot and aggressive, and their hair had become burnt. At the time this was associated with kingliness, and the Ottomans. Brown hair was seen as the ideal, with red hair associated with deceptiveness (after the Judas’ red beard), and blonde hair associated with younger men. (Blonde hair was also the fashion for women, being a sign of youthfulness and fertility).

Grey hair was inevitably associated with older men, symbolising accumulated wisdom but also the degeneration of manliness, sometimes a cause of derision at the time.

The visual medium of theatre meant the use of lots of different prosthetic beards was common in Tudor times. Hair was a direct and clear way of communicating different types of identity quickly to an audience. However, not much was written about the beards themselves – perhaps indicating their style and meaning were a given, or that masculinity was only interesting to playwrights if low or excessive.

Amy Irvine