ViolenceToday is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a day to raise awareness about violence against women. According to the UN Women website, domestic violence is still a huge problem in today’s world:

“Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread violations of human rights. According to a 2013 WHO global study, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence. However, some national studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime from an intimate partner.”

I recently came across an example of alleged domestic violence in the Tudor era, while working on the English translation of Edmond Bapst’s French book on George Boleyn and Henry Howard. Bapst recounts the claim of Elizabeth Stafford, Duchess of Norfolk, that her husband had been violent towards her in 1520 while she was recovering from the birth of her daughter Mary. The Duke denied it and Bapst quotes from a letter Norfolk wrote to Cromwell in 1537:

“She hath untrewly slandered me in writing and saying that, when she had ben in chyld-bed of my doghter of Richmond II nights and a day, I shuld draw herout of her bed by the here of the hed about the house and with my dager geve her a wonde in the hed… She had the scarin her hede Xv moneths before she was delyverd of my seid doghter, and the same was cutt by a surgeon of London for a swellyng she had in her hed of drawyng of II teth.”

Bapst did not give any credence to the Duchess’ claims while discussing them in his book. He wrote of her “difficult temper”, the way she “took her imaginings for reality and how the Duke was “too level-headed to be brutal without a motive.” It is, of course, impossible for us today to judge who was telling the truth. As historian Robert Hutchinson points out, “Norfolk was notoriously mean. He may well have handed out alms and food to two hundred poor people every day – this was part and parcel of nobless oblige, after all – and owned more than fifty jewelled rosaries, but he habitually refused to pay anything but the smallest pittances both to his estranged duchess and to his own son and heir, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey.” The Duchess was forced to write to Cromwell with her grievances. Did the Duchess lie or embellish things to try and get sympathy and help, or was she a victim of domestic violence? We will never know, but it is clear that the marriage was very troubled.

In the medieval and Tudor eras there were very different attitudes towards women and also towards the institution of marriage (although perhaps things aren’t so different in some countries today). “Domestic Violence in Medieval Texts”, a book by Eve Salisbury, Georgiana Donavin, and Merrall Llewelyn Price, looks an interesting read for anyone who wants to explore this topic further. The Amazon blurb says that it “addresses a topic critical to our understanding of the medieval past–its notions of childhood and marital relations, its attitudes toward corporal punishment, and its contribution to the shaping of our present-day notions of family values. Using a wide range of late medieval narratives, including poetry, law, sermons, saints’ lives, drama, and iconography, the authors explore the meaning and social effects of punitive violence within the domestic sphere. As the first collection to analyze such early manifestations of a problem still afflicting society today, it will be an insightful reference not only for medievalists but for students of literature, history, sociology, psychology, and law as well.”

If you want to find out more information about the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women then you can visit the UN Women webpage at If you need any help or advice regarding domestic violence then please go to which lists helplines for different countries, as well as offering advice and support. By the way, I’m not forgetting that domestic violence can affect men too, it’s just that today is about violence against women. I also don’t want to belittle anyone’s experience of domestic violence by tying the subject into a Tudor example, I just want to spread the message that domestic violence is not right. My two eldest children are on a school march today to spread the message, is anything happening in your town?

Notes and Spurces

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