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Women’s Work in the Tudor Era – Guest Post by Amy McElroy

Birthing scene: a woman in bed recovering from childbirth, a midwife washes the baby while another attendant looks after the mother
Birthing scene: a woman in bed recovering from childbirth, a midwife washes the baby while another attendant looks after the mother (Wellcome Collection, public domain mark)

I am thrilled to be welcoming Amy McElroy back to the blog – she was here right after she released her first book (Educating the Tudors), which shed light on the differences in education between males and females and the differing classes. Now she has expanded her focus, releasing her second book, Women’s Lives in the Tudor Era – which has received high praise and wonderful reviews for its level of detail and analysis. I found it fascinating, and was so grateful that she has prepared a post for us, drawing from Chapters Five (Motherhood) and Six (Working Women) to illuminate the most widespread of the professions available to women of the time.

Without further ado, I turn this post over to Amy. Enjoy!


[Thank you so much Janet for welcoming me once more to your blog! I am so gratified about the level of interest in women’s roles!]

The Tudor era was a largely patriarchal society, women were essentially the property of the male relatives in their lives. When growing up, their aim was to support their family according to their class and once older, marry, bear children, and again support their family. This could be through working, assisting their mother with the home and when older the cooking, cleaning and anything else required. For the wealthy women, they were also responsible for managing servants, keeping accounts for the household and dealing with produce such as arrangements for market purchases, managing the dairy, and their own produce gardens.

One role that was restricted largely to women was that of midwives. Midwives could be highly sought after if they had managed to assist a wealthy woman who would then reward her and often refer others to her. Midwives learned largely through experience and would pass on their skills to others. Most towns and villages had a midwife, though for many this was insufficient as a sole income so would supplement other work. Midwives would assist women in labour even if they were unlikely to receive a monetary reward. Some were not fortunate enough to have the means to offer payment and may instead offer an alternative such as food or cloth. For the more fortunate, a successful birth could result in a career, they may be asked to remain to care for the child or become a governess within a wealthy household.

Careers in domestic service were very common amongst the Tudors and was an occupation amongst all classes, even the extremely wealthy may be asked to serve someone of a higher rank and even the poorer classes may have a single servant. Roles varied amongst the classes from a maid who completed a huge number of roles to a lady’s maid responsible for dressing and keeping her mistress company. Those fortunate enough to serve in an aristocratic or royal household may not have undertaken as much manual labour but that does not mean they were idle. They were kept busy with charitable work and ensuring the household of their mistress was run like clockwork.

Woman spinning, woodcut by an unknown artist (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Others found employment through spinning, laundering and the trade of produce. Produce could vary from dairy products, hucksters selling items from baskets such as pies and fish, and alewives. Brewing was not dissimilar to today’s technique but without all the technology to help! Ale was the most common drink as it was deemed safer than water. Women frequently brewed ale for their family or purchased from others. Some would simply brew an extra jug or two and sell the additional ale for a little money to purchase other goods. There were also alehouses, taverns and inns that all sold ale with women being the primary brewers. Their spouse was usually the business owner as married women were not allowed to own a business. As with everything there were exceptions; women could apply for sole femme status (with their husband’s permission of course!) which meant they could run a business in their own name. Women could also remain a member of her husband’s guild if he died but otherwise were barred from joining. The closest thing to a female guild was that of the silkwomen. The silkwomen were highly skilled in using silk to create intricate tassels, ribbons and button work amongst other things and their work was highly thought of and valued.

Married women also could not write a Last Will and Testament without their husbands’ approval. As a woman’s goods became the property of her spouse upon marriage, the majority of women did not have much property to bequeath, but those who did write a will leave us much insight into their thoughts. I have included excerpts of wills in my book and find them fascinating regarding what they gifted and to whom. Many chose to ensure the women in their lives were provided for; women sticking together.

[Researching and writing Women’s Lives in the Tudor Era has been fascinating and I do hope readers enjoy it and find it as interesting as I did writing it!]


If you loved the post, you can check out Amy’s website or follow her Facebook page – or, even better, check out the book! Definitely bookmark something, since Amy is currently in the last stages of writing her second book and has a third on Mary Tudor, Queen of France and fourth, Desiderius Erasmus in the pipeline with a few more ideas up her sleeves for the future.

(And of course, feel free to show my own books some love as well! My Seymour Saga trilogy tells the gripping story of the short-lived dynasty that shaped the Tudor Era. Jane the Quene skews romantic, The Path to Somerset is pure Game of Thrones (without the dragons), and The Boy King is a noir coming-of-age. Get them now through AmazonBarnes & NobleKobo, and Apple, or even your local independent bookstore!)

Women\'s Work in the Tudor Era - Guest Post by Amy McElroy
Published inOn This Day

One Comment

  1. Barbara Cross-Nicolosi Barbara Cross-Nicolosi

    Thank you, Amy, for your insight on women’s roles in the Tudor era. Women have always found a way to be relevant; even when restricted by men and governing bodies. And thanks, Janet for bringing us this guest post.

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