Today we're delighted to be hosting the blog tour for Carol McGrath's The Woman in the Shadows, the story of Elizabeth Cromwell, the wife of Tudor statesman Thomas, with a piece from the author on the role of women in Tudor times ...
Elizabeth Cromwell and Women in Tudor Times
My new novel The Woman in the Shadows will be published on 4th August. This novel’s protagonist is Thomas Cromwell’s wife Elizabeth Cromwell. It was difficult to find recorded history about Elizabeth Cromwell, so to bring the wife of Henry VIII’s infamous statesman to the page, I undertook an enormous amount of research into the lives of Tudor women and, in particular, into the lives of women belonging to London’s merchant class. Here are snippets of what I discovered and integrated into the world of The Woman in the Shadows.
Elizabeth was a young widow when she married Thomas Cromwell circa 1514. The age at which a first marriage took place varied depending on social background. The average would have been twenty to twenty-six. I suggest twenty-two. He would have been twenty-eight. A marriage was the joining of whole families and, as the Cromwells business interests expanded, relatives were drawn in. In fact, it was a relative who helped Cromwell get employed by Cardinal Wolsey. Widows could choose their second husband. They could inherit their husband’s business interests and a third portion if they had children by that husband. Once married, her property became her husband’s property even if they parted. I like to think there was love and mutual respect between Elizabeth and Thomas. It is recorded fact that his friends admired Elizabeth.
This was an important function of marriage. Elizabeth was not continually pregnant but she had three children with Thomas Cromwell. There was little pre-natal care. Dietary advice was based on the humours. Fish and milk, for instance, were considered phlegmatic. On birth the belief in talismans was common. Eagle-stones and the St Catherine’s belt were popular. Many churches apparently possessed this reliquary or its imitation and lent the belt out to women for their labour. A pregnant woman took to her chamber four weeks before the birth. It was hung with best hangings and the shutters were fastened up against fresh air. After the birth, the mother was confined to bed for three days and then to her chamber until her churching, a simple thanksgiving service, over a month later.
Both middle-class boys and girls had an informal education including instruction in religion. Girls were taught to be good, obedient faithful wives and to raise children as devout Christians. Children of Elizabeth’s class were taught to make themselves pleasing in company and useful to those above them. Even apprentices were taught good manners. Elizabeth had to be capable of looking after her house and children properly, and above all to have a care for her husband’s comfort. She was, as many women were, involved in their business interests, even if Thomas was the main bread-earner. Even though she could be a female merchant the professions such as the legal professions were closed to her. Women often did the accounts, and she may well have done these in the early days of their marriage. Yet, even if she was clever she was expected to be soft and delicate, and could never think of herself as a man’s equal.
Tudors washed more frequently than given credit for. Bathing was a wooden tub for most. They strip-washed every day and it was a matter of pride to have clean linen. Women made scented washing balls from expensive imported olive oil soap by adding herbs and flower scents to them. A respectable Tudor never sat down to eat without washing hands first as they ate with fingers. Cleanliness about the household was vital. The dairy especially must be clean. General cleaning was an extremely time-consuming task. Elizabeth would have had servants and cooks but it was her responsibility to train them.
Food and Cooking
A good display at meal times was important. Thomas Cromwell was exceptionally social and apparently good company. He was witty and possessed a phenomenal memory. The family would lose face if the house-wife could not present guests with a variety of dishes. These would include plain boiled and roasted meats accompanied with fancy spiced sauces. Exotic ingredients could be found in Elizabeth’s kitchen. One example mentioned in the novel is Russian isinglass - an expensive, pure form of gelatin found in the swim bladders of sturgeon. White leach was made by boiling new milk with isinglass and leaving it to cool and set firm until it could be cut into squares that might be gilded.
There is much, much more and limited space here. The book’s world is packed with a woman’s life in the Early Tudor period. At this time the exact nature of a woman was under debate as was the effect of education on women. I like to think that as a Humanist, a man of the new learning, a Renaissance man, Thomas Cromwell was enlightened and in favour of education for women, just like Thomas More who famously had his daughters educated. Tudor women, in general, none the less, had skills that even though not completely acknowledged, were as essential to society as those belonging to their brothers, fathers, and husbands. They, like today’s women, were true multi-taskers. They were both similar and different, and, for me, incorporating this concept into Elizabeth’s story was the novel’s real challenge.