When we see paintings of Tudor children they tend to be dressed as mini adults – think for a moment of the paintings of Princesses Mary and Elizabeth, and their younger brother Edward. Building on these visual cues, some influential theorists writing in the 1960s claimed that childhood didn’t exist in early modern England, and some even suggested children were not cherished.
But recent studies have turned these ideas about childhood on their head. Here are six facts that may change stereotypical perceptions of Tudor childhood.
1. Parents were more affectionate toward their children than commonly perceived
Passages of Latin given to school children in 1500 contain phrases denoting care such as ‘Since my brother died a year ago, my mother has been weeping constantly’, and ‘I will buy a rattle to still my baby for crying’. Letters written by parents show that when children were ill parents were very worried about their children’s health.
While some 17% of babies died before they reached the age of one, and 30% of children died before they reached 15, the nearness of death did not desensitise parents to their offspring. Among wealthier families, children’s birthdays were noted in family books, including the time of day and gifts they were given. Family mausoleums depict the images of children who died, cast in stone to last forever. Family graves also show that children with severe disabilities grew into adulthood, suggesting they were cared for despite considerable challenges.
2. Children’s names were not chosen by their parents
If it seems unloving that parents reused the names of children who died (or even named two living children with the same name) the fact is that children’s names were not chosen by parents but by godparents. As a result, the same name could be chosen for children if it was significant to two different sets of godparents.
3. There was plenty of advice available for new parents
Today, some 21% of the UK population are children, while in Tudor England it was around 30%, in part because there were fewer people who lived to old age, and there was a great deal of advice on how to care for them. Mothers passed wisdom to daughters and there were textbooks, such as The Boke of Chyldren written by Thomas Phare, which aimed ‘to do them good which have most need, that is to say children’.
Breastfeeding was a hot topic of advice, just as it remains to this day. Wealthy mothers were encouraged to send their babies away to a wet nurse owing to a prevailing view that it was the healthiest start for the mother and child. But most women breastfed their own child following the example set in the Bible – the ultimate Tudor advice manual. The Countess of Lincoln who had many children sent away to a wet nurse commented in hindsight that she wished she had breastfed, and wrote a book encouraging the practice among new mothers.
4. There was support for abandoned children
Not all parents could care for their children and so some babies and children were abandoned. It is thought that those in poverty without support and immigrants who had no networks were most likely to abandon their young.
Sometimes a child was left on the doorstep of an affluent household in the hope that the inhabitants would help the child, but most children ended up in boarding houses overseen by parish churchwardens or in orphanages such as Christ’s Hospital in London where up to 396 children were looked after from 1552. Records of churchwardens and Christ’s Hospital show children were clothed, fed, given medicine when needed, and were even brought toys and games.
5. Tudor children had toys and had fun
Although wooden and fabric toys have rarely survived, excavations on the foreshore of the River Thames in London have found metal toys including figurines such as knights on horseback. These toys came from moulds suggesting mass production. Excavations have also found little bowls and plates as if made for a children’s doll’s house. We also know children had rattles thanks to paintings and lists of gifts.
Excavations of a former school site in Coventry have unearthed cherry stones, believed to be used as marbles, and pins thought to be used as betting money or tags to show who was winning.
A fascinating source is the list of imports into Tudor England that show dolls on customs lists coming from Holland and Germany. A conversation manual (an early modern method to learn a new language) features a husband and wife discussing buying babies for their children before they went home, suggesting such toys were part of everyday life. Paintings of wealthier families show children enjoying draughts, chess, and playing cards.
6. Children were disciplined
Society believed in corporal punishment and Tudor writers emphasised the need for parents to ‘punish sharply’ to ensure children showed their parents and schoolmasters respect, just as subjects should show respect to their monarch.
John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s advisor and court astronomer, wrote in his diary in 1589 of an incident when his wife struck their daughter on her ear, causing her nose to bleed. Agnes Paston, a wealthy noble, was so severe on her daughter, Elizabeth, that a concerned relative raised concerns in a letter.
For the wealthier families who could read and who could afford to buy them, discipline texts also regarded personal hygiene, meals, and how to treat others, suggesting that guidance was not all punitive.