MYTHS Vs Facts: 16th Century Tudors

There are two common believes that continue to be proliferated among amateur costumers (those who study and design costuming as a hobby rather than as a profession) and historical reenactors.

  • The first is that 16th Century Tudors had poor hygiene, rarely bathed or washed, and drowned themselves in scents to mask the stench of body odor.
  • The second is that only the nobility wore white linens.

I’m going to address both of these myths simultaneously, as they tend to go hand in hand.

It is widely rumored that people during the Renaissance era had poor personal hygiene and wore filthy, soiled garments. But, why then are there hundreds upon hundreds of recipes that have survived for soaps and cleaning solutions for household use in scouring dishes and use in laundry?

A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the use of perfumes and scents to mask the stench of body odor due to the lack of hygiene, but the more you read and delve into this topic, the more you can see that this was more an exception rather than the rule.

There were a great many books written during the 16tn century for the Tudor House wife that promoted cleanliness, but also professional laundresses or “washerwomen” were in great demand; and in fact, employment as a washerwoman was seen most commonly among the poor.

If you could afford to hire your own laundress you were considered to be wealthy.  However, the use of actual “perfume” was far too costly to be sprinkled on clothes or in the laundry water, but was reserved for the body.  Only the wealthy could afford actual perfumes.  

Recipes for “hand or washing waters” were plentiful, using sage, marjoram, chamomile, rosemary, and orange peel, but as a general rule scents were expensive.  These delicate washing waters would be used at mealtimes to wash your hands.  

Herbs were used for strewing on floors to create a pleasant scent. They were also tucked into stored linens to scent it but more so to try to keep out moths.

Another myth that abounds is that table manners were atrocious. The scene of gnawing a turkey leg with your bare fist without any decorum has been erroneously proliferated by media and films. In truth, great pains were taken to preserve the costly fabrics – especially when dining. Why else would they have washing waters at table? 

It was a common practice to recycle or remake clothing into other pieces. The practice of selling “used” clothing was very popular; and in fact was a booming business!  This offers evidence of the care that was taken to preserve their clothing – and part of that practice was to take great pains in keeping them clean and mended. The remedies that have survived from the 16th Century reveal removing stains from clothes was an extremely complicated affair, which only offers further evidence that the idea that people living in the Tudor era were dirty, unwashed, and unkempt, is simply not true.  If it was true, why would there be a plethora of remedies used during that time period to launder and care for their apparel? 

As it is today, grease stains were particularly troublesome to remove. The fact that is WAS so hard to remove only gives more weight to the concept that Tudor table manners were much better than is often suggested in films and television. Nobody wanted to come away from the table with their expensive clothing ruined, especially those who were at court who were expected to wear their very best. Many nobles went into severe debt, borrowing against their lands, or family fortunes, in order to purchase fine clothing to wear to court.  It’s not likely that you would find them gnawing a turkey leg with their bare fist and wiping their hands on their clothes!

Richard Jones (a Welsh politician who sat in the House of Commons between 1628 and 1640) wrote a book called “Heptameron of Civil Discourse.” (The term Heptameron means ‘something divided into seven parts.’ The term Civil Discourse means a ‘conversation” which is used to enhance understanding). In this publication Jones offers pages of advice to the Tudor Housewife on how to achieve a happy marriage. Washing was predominantly women’s work. 

Jones comments that a woman who does not wear good clean linen, “…shall neither be praised of strangers, nor delight her husband.” In many cases, cleanliness about the household, as well as personal hygiene, was a vital part of 16th Century Tudor culture – and not just among the wealthy or landed gentry.

While it was difficult to keep an ordinary Tudor house clean, with dirt floors still very common in the poorer households, even those who were poor took pains to keep their dwellings and their clothes clean. That’s not to say that there weren’t exceptions to this rule! But not everyone today keeps a fastidious house even with all our modern day conveniences.

An example of how fastidious the Tudors were is demonstrated in the dairies in the countryside where they raised cattle. It was required that dairies be kept spotless in order for the milk, butter, and cheese (a main staple of the 16th Century diet) to remain untainted. It was expected that the dairy must be kept so clean “…that a prince’s bedchamber must not exceed it.”

It was well accepted during the 16th Century there was a known link between dirt and disease; however, the knowledge about bacteria was not discovered until the 19th Century.

Piped water in the 16th Century was very rare, but was available in several monasteries dating back to the 14th Century.  Water was difficult to transport, so it was a well-established trend to take your washing to the water source.  Much of the work was done outside – even in the winter. There were areas designated for washing; In those areas, the grass was kept mowed so that laundry could be spread on the ground to dry. They also draped their laundry on bushes. Clothes lines were not in use at that time. 

While there were sinks indoors that was used for washing, it was more often just a wooden bench on which there sat a tub or basin of water.  Most washing was done outside, because there was a problem of getting rid of the dirty water used indoors as there were no sewage lines like we have in modern times. Often a hole or a “sink hole” was dug outside in which the dirty washing water was deposited, but this meant having to carry the dirty water to the sink hole. This water was then used by the surrounding trees and plants.  However, Allison Sim, in her book “The Tudor Housewife,” makes the statement that this practice was problematic in smaller villages or more populated areas in the city, as this method of getting rid of dirty water resulted in too many “sink holes” being dug in an area which would water log the soil and kill the plants. It wasn’t until later that sewage drains were used.

The picture below is a diagram of the 16th Century “washing machine” known as a “buck tub.” 

Not only were undergarments made of linen, but sheets and tablecloths were also made of linen and would need to be laundered regularly. These larger items would often be cleaned by a process called “bucking.” 

A buck tub was a large tub – that looked more like a half barrel – that stood on a stand that was raised about a foot off the ground. It had a spigot set about an inch above the bottom. A shallow wooden tub was placed under the spigot. Filling thebucking tub – known as laying the buck – was quite a skilled task, as the linen had to be folded and set in such a way that the water would run through all the layers, and the dirty water drained off so as not to leave a dirty mark. Sticks were placed between the bundles of linen so that the water could pass through freely as shown in the diagram above.

Linen is a greyish-cream color when it is first woven, and only becomes white through repeated bleaching.

In the 16th Century, if you could afford to the extra expense, you could purchase linen that was “ready-bleached;” otherwise, the Tudor Housewife or professional Laundress would bleach it themselves. Buying “ready-bleached” linen showed your wealth; therefore, wearing bleached linen smocks and shirts was greatly desired by ALL classes.

Even the most modest household among the commons would have more than one change of underclothes. Anyone who could possibly manage it would have a clean smock or shirt every day. Both women and men alike among the wealthier classes, more specifically nobility, would often change their shirts or smocks several times a day.  

Long before 20th and 21st century advertising for Clorox people who lived in 16th Century England were encouraged to get their wash “…whiter than white.”  (The Tudor Housewife by Allison Sim page 50 – 53).  

In the 16th Century tubs used for bleaching were made of wood - as they had been in medieval times. The bleaching process would have been similar to bucking process described above. It was only when metal vats became common in the 17th Century that bleaching began to involve boiling up the linens. Bleach itself could be an unpleasant task as in the 16th Century it involved the use of human urine - just as it had for centuries. It was cheap and a readily available resource for ammonia. Privies sometimes contained separate tubs set aside to collect it. The urine was usually added to lye.

Read more about Myths vs Facts on my website:—myth-vs-fact.html


Godzilla at Ye Olde Medieval Faire

I had some fun at the Medieval/Ren Faire! Got to eat one of dem giant turkey legs. Wasn’t messy at all. NOPE TOTALLY CLEAN.