In this beautifully illustrated and characteristically lively account, leading historian Nicholas Orme provides a rich survey of childhood in the period. Beginning with birth and infancy, he explores all aspects of children’s experiences, including the games they played, such as Blind Man’s Bluff and Mumble-the-Peg, and the songs they sang, such as “Three Blind Mice” and “Jack Boy, Ho Boy.” He shows how social status determined everything from the food children ate and the clothes they wore to the education they received and the work they undertook.
Although childhood and adolescence could be challenging and even hazardous, it was also, as Nicholas Orme shows, a treasured time of learning and development. By looking at the lives of Tudor children we can gain a richer understanding of the era as a whole.
I’m Nicholas Orme, the author of the recent book, Tudor Children.
Why write a book about Tudor children? One reason is that nobody ever has, despite all the amount of books that has been written about every aspect of Tudor England. We think of the Royal Family or naval history exploration, politics, society, drama and so on, but not children.
There is a reason for this and that is because the history of childhood before say, the nineteenth century, is very difficult to reconstruct. It’s a question of looking at every possible source, whether it’s literary or visual or archaeological, and gathering little bits of information and then piecing them together like a mosaic to make up a picture. That’s not something that you can give a PhD student to do. And most people have found it easier to spend their time on a more concentrated subject where the sources are very obvious.
But it has always interested me, throughout my life, to collect little bits and pieces. In my youth I was a stamp collector. Some of my enemies might say “Well, he’s never really done anything else, but do that”. So I had a template in mind because I’d already written a book on medieval children. And in fact I conceived this at the beginning of COVID as something I could do during COVID because nowadays a lot of the source material is online and during COVID I couldn’t go to them.
And I roughed out a scheme of the things that I wanted to cover. Obviously, how children were born and looked after in the first year or so of their lives. What advice was given to mothers before birth, what understanding there was about children’s diets and sleeping practices, and then I went on to think about childhood at home and how a child grew up in a family in sixteenth century England. How large families would have been. There was, by modern standards, a considerable amount of child mortality. And at one time in the 1960s it was fashionable to consider that the emotions of parents towards children would be different in the past because parents were likely to lose children and therefore couldn’t bond emotionally with them. That turns out to be entirely wrong and such evidence as we’ve got of parents mourning their children shows they did indeed and were very grieved by their loss, just as our parents would be today.
Then I thought about how children would have played. And this turns out to be a very big subject, it is probably the richest aspect of this topic. There are all sorts of games ranging from things you do with your hands, little toys that you play with. There was a toy industry in fact in the sixteenth century making dolls and little metal figures, metal implements and then there’s all the card games and the games you play with. Things like Five Stones and Nine Men’s Morris and then there are the active games which there are a lot as well including the ancestors of football and tennis.
Then it was a religious age, so I had to consider how children were brought up in religion and this turned out to be interesting because in fact the church authorities and the secular authorities did not actually insist on children going to church although they encouraged it. It’s not until you passed the age of puberty that you became an adult and therefore you had to fulfil religious obligations. But children lived in a religious environment and so they picked up a good deal about how church worship was organised and of course that changed in enormously during the sixteenth century. And children probably adapted to it better than adults did in fact. So the children born after the Reformation adopted it whereas adults who were rooted in pre-reformation Catholic religion were much slower to abandon it.
Then there was the question of going to school which has been one of my interests throughout my life. There’s far more schooling, far more literacy in the past than anybody considers. A lot of children go to elementary education. Far fewer to any secondary education, learning Latin. But very many going to school to learn the alphabet and to do absolutely basic reading.
And then there was a question of what other culture children would have had. There are the things that children liked before the invention mobile phones like reading nursery rhymes, songs, that kind of thing and there turns out to be quite a lot of evidence about this about stories that they read. Tending actually to be ancestors of the comics of my youth, the stories of Robin Hood, Guy of Warwick and Tales of derring-do, romances, nursery rhymes, popular songs. A lot of evidence for those, one or two 3 blind mice, Ding-dong Bell is actually found in Tudor versions.
And then last of all, I considered how children would have grown up. When did they stop being children. This again, 50 or 60 years ago was considered to be very early. But when you think about it, a child can’t do proper work until the age of puberty. So although they’ll be doing tasks around the house and around the farm, light tasks like feeding animals, say, or bird scaring, it’s only from puberty that they can do actual agricultural work or indeed, get apprenticed and learn to do craft work.
And then in their teams they go through the period that we all go through of bonding with others of their kind and so you get a lot of evidence about teenage boys, and their goings on, their collective disturbances, and then of course finally they begin to open themselves to the opposite sex, and there’s a question of sexual relations and social relations across the sexes becomes a matter that you can study as well.
How do I summarise it all? Well, there were children, there were actually more children as a percentage of the population in the sixteenth century than there are today. So we’re talking about somewhere between a quarter and a third of the population because people died earlier.
They’re there. And yet, people have not really looked for them. So almost all Tudor history is adult history and what I hope my book will have done is to put the children into the picture as well and to say, well, okay, they were not in authority, but they were there, they had needs, they had wishes and these did actually have an impact on what Tudor England was like.