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Elizabeth Norton: The Lives of Tudor Women (Guest Blog)

Elizabeth Norton

Elizabeth Norton is a historian of the queens of England and the Tudor period. She is the author of biographies of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleaves and Catherine Parr, and of England’s Queens: The Biography


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The turbulent Tudor age never fails to capture the imagination. But what was it actually like to be a woman during this period? This was a time when death in infancy or during childbirth was rife; when marriage was usually a legal contract, not a matter for love, and the education of women was minimal at best. Yet the Tudor century was also dominated by powerful and characterful women in a way that no era had been before.

Elizabeth Norton explores the seven ages of the Tudor woman, from childhood to old age, through the diverging examples of women such as Elizabeth Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister who died in infancy; Cecily Burbage, Elizabeth’s wet nurse; Mary Howard, widowed but influential at court; Elizabeth Boleyn, mother of a controversial queen; and Elizabeth Barton, a peasant girl who would be lauded as a prophetess. Their stories are interwoven with studies of topics ranging from Tudor toys to contraception to witchcraft, painting a portrait of the lives of queens and serving maids, nuns and harlots, widows and chaperones.

The Lives of Tudor Women – Extract: The Manifold Number of Scolding Women

Tudor society generally looked askance at women who spoke out of turn, and when it was deemed to have gone beyond what was acceptable – action was taken.

Visitors to the parish church in Leominster in Herefordshire are often struck by a wooden see-saw like device, with wheels at one end and a seat perched at the other. This is a cucking, or ducking, stool and was one of the last used in England. It was finally retired in 1809, following the punishment of one Jenny Pipes for using abusive language. In the Tudor period, cucking stools were features of most towns and villages – and they were contraptions used almost entirely on women.

Vocal women were often seen as a threat in the local community. And women’s gossip, and its ability make or break reputations, was regarded as challenge to the social order, which could undermine the power of the authorities. ‘Scolds’ were accordingly seen as turbulent, subversive individuals and their verbal abuse of their families and neighbours as a disturbance to the peace. ‘Scolding’ was regarded, almost exclusively, as a female crime.

The punishment for scolding became noticeably more severe after 1550. Previously, penance or a fine had been the usual method of dealing with such women. By the mid-sixteenth century, however, cucking had become the favoured punishment. A number of popular legal handbooks, including John Kitchin’s Court Leet, et Court Baron of 1580, considered that every manor had a duty to keep a cucking stool.

One popular early seventeenth-century text, The Cucking of the Scold, outlined just what the punishment entailed. In this fiction, it was to be meted out on a woman who ‘lacked no tongue’ and would ‘scold with anyone’. This ‘little devil, with her unquiet tongue’ scolded all her neighbours and made a ‘brawl’ against the constable, before she was apprehended. After being sentenced by a justice of the peace, she was taken, under the guard of a hundred armed men, and carried in a wheel barrow. She was stripped down to her smock, ‘Then fast within the chair/ she was most finely bound,/ which made her scold excessively,/ and said she should be drowned’. She was ducked repeatedly into the cold and muddy water, appearing like ‘a drowned rat’ to observers. It was not a punishment to be taken lightly.

The local cucking stool could get considerable use. By 1579, the one in the town ditch in Southampton had broken, which was deemed ‘a great lack’ because of its usefulness for ‘the punishment and terror of harlots, scolds and other malefactors’. It urgently required fixing, but then it broke again in 1601, thanks to being left ‘standing abroad’ in the salty sea air. Repairs were again somewhat makeshift, and the wooden device broke again two years later. This time, it could not be mended. A replacement was quickly required, considered the town authorities, ‘to punish the manifold number of scolding women that be in this town and other evil living women’. They took the opportunity to order an improved model, equipped with wheels so that the scold could be collected from the door of her house. She could then be paraded through the streets during the journey to the town ditch, all the while receiving the jeers of her neighbours. It should be made quickly, it was decided, since the mayor was ‘daily troubled with such brawls’.

Cucking was not the only punishment meted out to a scolding woman. The well-known scold’s bridle, or brank, consisted of a metal frame attached to scold’s head, with a clamp to hold down her tongue. It was first recorded in Scotland, and also made its appearance in the sixteenth century. After the Tudor period, it became a popular method of punishment in England and Scotland.

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