'Tudors at Home'
Tuesday 15 March
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Our March meeting was an evening of intrigue and imagination as Simon Partridge invited 40 members of into the world of a wealthy Tudor home, connecting threads which link us together through the centuries. From the accession of Henry VII in 1485 to the death of Elizabeth 1st in 1603 the Tudors lived their lives, very different from ours today, but with much of their language leaking through to our time.
With imagination we peaked inside this wealthy home with Simon as our guide. The living room is dark as windows are very small. At this time in history glass is very expensive and if you moved you could take your glass windows with you. The walls are covered in oak panelling, the smaller the panels the wealthier the family. There’s a large fireplace with a cooking pot steaming ready to be served and joints of roasting meat hanging in the wide chimney. The wealthy would have eaten more meat than anything else whilst the poor lived mainly on vegetables – a much healthier diet!
A board had been placed across trestles where meals are served. As we took another peak we could see a wooden box on the board. Simon explained that this is where cups, made of horn, are kept free of dust and dirt, called a ‘cupboard’. As we glanced around we saw a large box made of boards along one side of the room, called a ‘sideboard’, words we frequently use. Well known sayings which we are familiar with, for example, ‘above board’, and ‘the chairman of the board’ originated at this time. The Tudors loved ‘board games’ like chess and backgammon which have their origins in the 16th century.
Their dirt floor covered with straw seems very primitive to us, but if you were wealthy enough to own a carpet it would have hung on the wall and not laid on the floor.
Our guide took us upstairs to a large four-poster bed, where each night the servants rolled the mattress, enabling the tightening of ropes which make up the base of the bed. The curtains are drawn around the bed for warmth and it’s ‘night night, sleep tight’. The other problem which plagued the Tudors were those bed bugs. The Tudors, of course, had an answer - place a live piglet in the bed. This would warm the bed and attract those pesky bugs away. Thus another saying which we often use today: ‘sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite’! At the bottom of the bed there is a triangular box. This is where the man of the house kept his wig; the more wealthy, the larger the wig, hence the saying ‘big wig’. Wealthy ladies used make up to keep their faces white with powder, made from arsenic and a spot of mercury – another danger of being rich.
Tudor life was difficult, wealthy or poor. Life expectancy was low, especially for the over-fed rich, and many women died in childbirth. The Vagabonds and Beggars act of 1494 stated that “idle folk” be put in the stocks for 3 days after being returned to their parish. The act was reinforced in 1536 stating that offenders could have their right ear cut off!
In spite of hidden risks and much hardship, it was during Tudor times that the English language emerged in the form we recognise today. It was a lively evening and we thank Simon for his informative, humorous and imaginative look through the eyes of the Tudors.
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Above: Oxburgh Hall, north bedroom (National Trust)
Below: Tudor bay window (refurbished)
Above: domestic Tudor panelling, Canons Ashby (National Trust)