Guide to the Tudor Period: why was it important and best historic sites to visit
The dramatic and bloody rule of the Tudor period saw religious persecution, rampant profiteering, astonishing opulence and widespread deprivation – our guide looks back on the reign of the Tudors in England
When was the Tudor period?
The Tudor era began in 1485 when Henry VII’s troops demolished Richard III on a battlefield near Bosworth. The period ended in 1603 when a wrinkled and imperious queen finally allowed herself to sleep. And although they died centuries ago, the Tudors – whether much-married monarch or unmarried Virgin queen – still impress themselves upon our imaginations today.
Facts about the Tudors
- The population of England was around 2.5m in 1525, rising to 4m by 1600. London had 60,000 people in 1524, more than trebling to 200,000 by 1600. Other towns also grew dramatically: both Plymouth and Newcastle doubled in size. Still, only 20 towns in England had a population of more than 5,000.
- Very few people were city-dwellers: most lived in rural surroundings in towns and villages of fewer than 400 people.
- 76% of the population of England worked in agriculture.
How did the Tudors change religion in Britain?
The Tudor sovereigns oversaw far-reaching changes that affected the whole country. To marry Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII broke off ties with the Roman Catholic church and made himself the head of a new Church of England. The subsequent religious reforms may not all have been desired by Henry but some of them made him rich. In the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-1541), more than 800 religious houses were ‘dissolved’ and their lands expropriated by the Crown.
The largest rebellion of the period occurred in 1536 and was a direct reaction by ordinary people who rejected Henry’s religious changes. His Catholic daughter, Mary I, later presided over the burning of nearly 300 Protestant heretics. Her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth I, subsequently responded by persecuting Catholic priests. What you believed had become a matter of life and death.
What was life like in the Tudor period?
For the wealthy, Tudor architecture provided spectacular housing. For instance, Little Moreton Hall, pictured above is a wonderfully wonky house; a gorgeous example of decorative timber-frame architecture. It was the sort of house fashionable for 16th-century gentry. Moated and three storeys high, the building contained 37,000 leaded panes of glass in its windows.
Glass was also a luxury material, widely used in Tudor windows as a status symbol. Due to its expense, only tiny panes were produced, held together by lead in a 'criss-cross' or lattice pattern.
How was life like for ordinary people?
However, for the majority of people, home was simple houses built on a couple of pairs of ‘cruck-frames’ or wooden arches. Around this timber frame, the walls were made of wattle-and-daub – that is, woven hazel branches slathered with a mixture of mud, dung, horsehair and straw. Over time, the timbers faded to silver and the walls took on an ochre shade; it was the Victorians who decided to render them black and white.
Basic houses, then, had two rooms on one earthen floor – a hall with a hearth and a chamber with a bed. In the Tudor age, central fires were gradually replaced by fireplaces on inner walls, meaning rooms could be built on the floors above. Glass windows were a luxury. They had few others. Robert Holland, a day-labourer of Hampton Poyle in Oxfordshire, died in 1568 and left behind a cow, a heifer, a sheep, three kettles, one little brass pot, four platters, a saucer, one bedstead, one coffer, a sack, two pairs of sheets, one bolster, and one twill cloth. The value of his estate amounted to 19 shillings, or about £162 in today’s terms.
People mostly ate pottage – a vegetable stew. Those with more money would vary this with ‘white meats’ (dairy products) and bread (the whiter, the more expensive). Only the very rich subsisted on a diet of daily meat.
The rich also tended to marry younger than the poor. Ordinary people married at a similar age to today – in their mid- to late-20s. Once married, women were, on average, pregnant every other year. There was no reliable contraception, and the risks of dying in childbirth were great. The risks for the child were even greater: a quarter of all children died in the first year of life, another quarter by the age of 10. But if you made it to 20, you might well live to a ripe old age – that’s if famine, plague or the noose didn’t get you first.