Context is king

Posted By on September 15, 2017

I don’t know why, but recently I’ve been answering lots of emails and comments on social media with a reminder for people to think about the context of the event or person’s actions when they are judging that person or coming to a conclusion. It’s inspired me to write this article which is rather rambling, and for that I apologise.

The Oxford Dictionaries website define “context” as “The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.” Now when we are discussing Tudor history and Tudor people, we are talking about things that happened and people that lived 400-500 years ago. The world was a very different place then, “the circumstances that form the setting” for these people’s lives would be quite alien to us.

How was it different?

Well, that’s a huge question, and it’s hard to answer without being able to travel back in time. Let’s consider just a few differences.

The Tudors were very religious and superstitious. The religious calendar controlled people’s daily lives – when they could eat meat, when they could get married or have sexual relations, when they could work or rest, everything. It also affected the way they thought. They believed in original sin and believed that they were all sinners deserving of death, which is why you have people accepting their fates on the scaffold even if they were innocent of the crime with which they had been charged.

Henry was God’s anointed sovereign, he had been anointed with holy oil at his coronation and he was obviously the monarch that God wanted to lead England, or so he and his people believed. Accusations are often levelled at Anne Boleyn, with her being branded a home-wrecker, and people often ask how Anne could do what she did to Catherine of Aragon. But, if you put yourself in Anne’s shoes, if you consider the context, then you can begin to understand. The King of England chose her. Here was God’s anointed sovereign, the man chosen by God to govern England, telling her that his marriage to Catherine was invalid and wrong, and telling her that he wanted her. Anne rebuffed the king for a time, but I expect that he was very persuasive, and what was she supposed to believe or do? I expect that like Catherine Parr in 1543, Anne accepted the king’s wishes as her destiny, as her path, as God’s will for her.

Although we find it ridiculous that Henry VIII believed that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was cursed, that it was not blessed by God because it was against God’s law, and it appears to be a convenient excuse to annul it, it is highly likely that Henry really believed this. In Henry’s eyes, there must have been a reason for Catherine suffering stillbirths and miscarriages, for little Henry, Duke of Cornwall, dying in infancy: God must not have been happy.

Of course, when Anne produced a girl and the lost two babies it left Henry VIII thinking that God wasn’t happy this time round either.

It’s hard for us today to understand Henry VIII’s obsession with having a son. We live in more enlightened times, we know that women can govern a country just as well as men, but we have to consider context when we look at Henry VIII. England wasn’t long out of a time of civil war, decades of struggles and battles caused by two royal houses fighting for the throne, so Henry VIII needed to make the succession secure, and for that, he needed a son, and a spare to be on the safe side. A girl was no good. Women were seen as incapable of ruling, and if a queen married a foreign prince then her husband, and a foreign power, would control the country. Henry VIII had every reason to want and need a son. And don’t forget that death was all around. People did not expect to live a long life, and so it was important to secure the future of their family, and in Henry VIII’s case the throne.

The Tudors also believed in destiny, fate and omens. Women who were pregnant tried to avoid seeing gruesome sights as it was thought this would affect their unborn child. Eating strawberries while pregnant may cause the baby to have a strawberry birth mark, seeing a hare might cause the baby to have a hare lip… These were superstitious times. No wonder Henry VIII doubted his marriage to Catherine when he was God’s anointed king and should have been blessed with children. Dead babies were surely omens, signs that something wasn’t right.

Then we have the different views on women, children, childhood and education. I realise that our modern world still has some way to go with regard to equality of the sexes, but the role of women was very different back in Tudor times. Girls were brought up to run a household and to care for children. Men like Thomas More, Thomas Boleyn and Anthony Cooke, who educated their daughters to a high standard, were unusual. A father didn’t want to over-educate his daughter as it might put off a husband, it was best to simply give her the skills she needed.

Noble parents would be on the lookout early on for a suitable match for their daughter. Royal and noble betrothals could be conducted with very young children, after all, you wouldn’t want to miss out on securing a match between your daughter and the local heir to a fortune, and marriages could take place around the age of 12-14 for girls and 14 for boys. These boys and girls weren’t seen as children; they were adults. Children under seven were treated as children, they were innocent and incapable of mortal sin, but after seven they began a more formal education and were treated more like mini-adults. By 12-14 they were marriageable, and if they belonged to the lower classes, then they could start an apprenticeship.

We often think of medieval and Tudor parents as harsh, but they loved their children just like we love ours. As Ralph Houlbrooke points out in his book, The English Family, it was believed that spoiling children led to them being physically and morally soft and prone to sickness and vices. It was the parents’ responsibility to ensure that their children were not pampered, but instead strictly controlled for the good of their bodies and souls. Affection and love for children was seen as natural and instinctive, but it was not to be lavished on children. Discipline and restraint were the key elements in bringing up children the right way and many medieval and early Tudor writers urged corporal punishment for correction. Proverbs 13 verse 24 says “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him” and this was taken quite literally. We may think of Tudor parents as abusive; they would see themselves as loving, as doing the best by their children. You didn’t strike your child out of hatred or cruelty (well, most parents didn’t), you did it out of love. You didn’t force your 14-year-old daughter into marriage because you didn’t love her, you were making a good match for her and securing her future. An older man didn’t marry a much younger woman, a girl even, because he was a paedophile, he was doing something that was normal at that time, he was offering a young girl security, status and wealth in return for children.

As I said earlier in this post, the monarch was God’s anointed sovereign, God’s chosen leader for the country. That is what the common people believed, and noble families felt that it was their duty to serve that monarch, it was their destiny. There are often comments today on social media about how families were irresponsible or stupid for sending their children to court to serve the king because of the risk of execution or daughters becoming involved romantically with Henry VIII etc. but that’s nonsense. It was your duty to serve your king, and it was a great honour for your son or daughter to be appointed to serve the king or his queen. If your child or relative was executed as a traitor, then you grieved in private, picked yourself back up and dusted yourself off and got back to serving God’s anointed sovereign as was your duty. You now had to prove your loyalty, and that of your family. You had to put your master and king first, and the future security of your family depended on your loyal service to the king. When Thomas Boleyn returned to court after his children’s executions, he wasn’t heartless, it isn’t proof that he didn’t love them, that he was overambitious or that he was an awful father, he was doing his duty and doing the best by his surviving family.

Here, I am really only scratching the surface. These people lived according to their faith, their routines were controlled by religion, the position of the sun in the sky, the seasons and religious feasts, the farming calendar… Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird tells Scout “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”, and it’s so true. We have absolutely no hope of completely understanding the likes of Henry VIII, Thomas Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, or any Tudor person. We cannot climb into their skin, we cannot walk a mile in their shoes, we can never understand their context, the world they lived in, the lives they led, we’re just too far removed. And if we cannot understand their world then how can we judge them?

Context is king. Context is everything.

I’m sure you can think of other things that we should take into account when we consider life in the Tudor period, so please do share in the comments section below.