Historical novelists are sometimes suspected of importing twenty-first century values into sixteenth century novels. While it’s true that most authors seek to connect their readers with their novel’s women of the past, it isn’t necessary to ascribe new values to past women.
They valued education. Although medieval women’s education was often limited to gentler feminine arts such as dance, needlework, and playing of the lute or virginals, by the beginning of the Tudor era women were much more interested and involved in intellectual education. Queen Catherine of Aragon ensured that her daughter, Mary, had a strict regimen of demanding studies in accordance with her own upbringing. Sir Thomas More is often credited with putting practice to the idea that non-royal women deserved as much education as noble or highborn men. His daughters undertook an education complete in classical studies, languages, geography, astronomy, and mathematics.
Queen Kateryn Parr
Queen Kateryn Parr’s mother, Maude, educated her own daughters in accordance with More’s program for his children, eventually running a kind of “school for highborn girls” after she was widowed. Eventually, educating one’s daughters was seen as a social necessity and men expected their wives to be able to play chess with them, discuss poetry and devotional works, and be conversant in the issues of the day.
They knew they couldn’t marry for love – the first time – but desired it anyway. Most historical readers understand that women in the Tudor era were chattel, legally controlled by their fathers and then their husbands. They married for dynastic or financial reasons; marriage was an alliance of families and strategy and not of the hearts. And yet, these women, too, had read Song of Songs wherein a husband and wife declare their passion for one another. Classically educated as they were, Tudor women had surely come across the Greek myths, including Eros and Psyche, and perhaps had even read the medieval French love poem, Roman de la Rose.
Mary Rose Tudor
If a woman was left widowed – and that happened quite often – she was free to remain widowed and under her own authority or to marry whom she wished. Henry VIII’s sister Mary, married first King Louis XII of France, for duty. When he died, she married Charles Brandon, for love. After Mary’s death, Brandon married his ward, Katherine Willoughby, her duty. Later, she married Richard Bertie for love. Kateryn Parr married three times for duty, including her third husband, King Henry VIII. Her fourth marriage, to Thomas Seymour, was for love.
They were working women. High born women were often ladies in waiting to the queen, a demanding, full time job with little pay and time off. They ran the accounts for their husband’s properties and juggled household management. Kateryn Parr’s sister, Anne, served in the household of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. Some highborn women, such as Lady Bryan, became governesses. Lower born women were lady maids, seamstresses, nurses, servants, or baby maids in addition to helping their husbands as fishmongers or in the fields.
Although there are some notable differences, we have much more in common with our high born sisters of five hundred years ago than one may think!
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