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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5 thoughts on “Domestic Violence – A Tudor Example”
  1. having been involved in work and research with women and families caught up in domestic violence the fighures are truly dreadful and many organisations believe that the known cases; those reported are just the tip of the iceberg; many more women, children and indeed men suffer in silence and fear from being hit or humiliated, beaten and even tortured by spouses, partners, ex partners, parents, and even from siblings and other family members. There are still countries in the world that do very little to help women or any victim of this terrible crime. My last research was speaking with children who had witnessed or knew of others who had witnessed domestic violence and the effects it has on them. It was a harrowing experience.

    The story of the Duke of Norfolk and his Duchess I find very crediable and think I have read this story in a number of sources: cannot be sure; but have definately read it recently. I also purchased a book a few months ago called Marriage and Violence in Early Modern England and some of this looks at the executions of Henry’s wives in the context of violence against women. It raises many questions and examples showing that violence towards women within domestic settings was not only common but accepted in Tudor and older times. It was legal for a husband to beat his wife in some circumstances as long as he did not kill her and nursed her back to health. A terrible state of affairs and one that is still the attitude in some parts of the world today.

  2. A serious problem with domestic violence, either in history, or in present time, is the warping of written scriptural doctrine to justify any act of cruelty or violence against a family member, especially a spouse or child.

    “But it says, RIGHT HERE, that I can use whatever means necessary to keep you in line. You can’t argue with GOD!”

    Never mind that the “quote” from whatever religious text is taken out of context, and/or incomplete, as cited by an abuser.

  3. Interesting, Claire. I did not know of the earlier allegations made while she was pregnant with her daughter. There is the more well-known letters to Cromwell where the Duchess speaks of being held down and beaten and stamped on until her fingernails bled because she protested the Duke’s mistress, Elizabeth Holland. It is also interesting that of her three surviving adult children Henry and Mary are reported to have taken their father’s side and their younger brother, (forget his name) his mothers.

  4. All violence against a physically weaker person is wrong. Milady Blue’s claim that the justification for it comes from The Bible is way off the mark. The teaching of St Paul is that a man must love his wife as Christ loved the Church and she must honour him as the Church honours Christ.
    However I also think the subject is treated sometimes very simplistically and needs to be looked at within the context of the causes for it. violence. It is possible in some cases to wind a person up so much that their only way of dealing with their frustration is to hit out violently. The person cannot help themselves.
    In England one of the bail conditions given to a suspect is not to contact directly or indirectly the victim, but I have lost count of the number of times applicartion have been made in my court by the victim for the bail condition to be lifted as she wants the man back, Furthermore in my experience many women who leave a violent partner frequently end up with a similar man the next time. Violence is wrong but the issue is not a simple one.

  5. Domestic violence is one thing, but I feel that one of the most awful instances was committed by Henry VIII against his own young wife – Anne Boleyn. She could not produce a son, so he tortured and killed people who were acquaintances of hers (Mark Smeaton the lutenlst a classic example), claiming adultery. She was humiliated by Henry and beheaded on his command. i wonder if physicians of the day suspected that you needed a male for a male child. Today we know that the XY genes are essential for a male child. Wonder if Henry’s health problems contributed to that?

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