Superstitions in Tudor England

Posted By on January 13, 2012

SuperstitionsYou may have noticed that it’s Friday 13th today, a day said to be ‘bad luck’ which it obviously is if you’re not the good-looking hero/heroine of a slasher movie and don’t have a contract for the next film.

Now, I’m not at all superstitious and I will carry on my day as usual today, but I thought this was the ideal opportunity to look at the beliefs that Tudor and Elizabethan people held, which we would call ‘superstitions’ today.

As it says in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, “the belief in fetishes, totems, the evil eye, luck-bones, folk-remedies, love charms and nefarious magic was rampant in England” at this time so let’s have a look at some of those superstitions, beliefs and customs:-

  • Strange sights, miracles and portents were often reported – “We read of children born without arms and legs, a monstrous pig with a dolphin’s head, a child born with ruffs, and another having “the mouth slitted on the right side like a libarde’s (leopard’s) mouth, terrible to beholde” and these were taken as “the manifestations of God’s wrath and to repent”.
    In his Chronicles, Raphael Holinshed writes of the year 1562: “This yeare in England were manic monstruous births. In March a mare brought Tuene foorth a foalc with one bodie and two heads, and as it were a long taile growing out betweene the two heads. Also a sow t’arowed a pig with foure legs like to the armes of a manchild with armes and fingers, etc. In Aprill a sow farrowed a pig with two bodies, eight feet, and but one head: manie calves and lambs were monstruous, some with collars of skin growing about their necks, like to the double ruffes of shirts and neckerchers then vsed. The foure and twentith of Maie, a manchild was borne at Chichester in Sussex, the head armes, and legs whereof were like to an anatomie, the breast and bellie monstruous big, from the nauill as it were a long string hanging: about the necke a great collar of flesh and skin growing like the ruffe of a shirt or neckercher, comming vp aboue the eares pleited and folded.”

  • Witchcraft and sorcery – The belief in the prevalence of witchcraft and women who had enjoyed “a carnal union with the devil” and were wreaking havoc on society with their sorcery. Various acts of Parliament against sorcery were enacted in Tudor times.
  • Remedies – BBC Horrible Histories lists some of the wackier remedies used by Tudor people: “Got a headache? Then rub your forehead a rope that was used to hang a criminal. Suffer from rheumatism? Then wear the skin of a donkey. In pain with gout? Boil a red-haired dog in oil, add worms and the marrow from pig bones. Rub the mixture in. A painful liver? Drink a pint of ale every morning for a week – with nine head-lice drowned in it. Are you bald? Use a shampoo made from the juice of crushed beetles. When the head is clean then rub in grease made from the fat of a dead fox. Are you a martyr to asthma? Swallow young frogs or live spiders, cover them in butter to help them slide down easier. Other crazy cures included powdered human skull, bone-marrow mixed with sweat, a stone that has killed a she-bear and fresh cream mixed with the blood of a black cat’s tail.” Don’t try any of those at home!
  • A witch and her familiars, 1579

  • Ghosts – Obviously there are many people today who believe in ghosts and I’m not questioning that belief, but most Tudors believed in ghosts and Tim Lambert writes “The dead might return to haunt the living for a number of reasons but it was believed that suicides were very likely to return as ghosts. For this reason suicides were very often buried by a crossroads with a stake through their heart. (That was believed to prevent their ghost ‘walking’)” and also explains the common superstition of ‘sin-eating’: “You passed bread and beer over a dead body to a hired sin-eater. It was believed that when he ate and drank he took the dead person’s sins on himself.”
  • Sneezing – Ever wondered why your automatic response when someone sneezes is to say “Bless you”? Well, it allegedly stems from the Elizabethan era when people would say “God bless you” after someone had sneezed to protect the person from the Devil entering their open mouth.
  • Lucky and unlucky things – Alyson Paige, in “Devil Superstitions of the Elizabethan Times” writes of how cats were seen as unlucky, whereas fire, silver, iron and salt were seen as being lucky.
  • Charms – People could buy charms from wise men or women to ward off evil, to bring good luck, to cure illness, to prevent drunkenness, to find lost property, to get rid of vermin, to get children to sleep, to make someone fall in love with you, to determine the sex of a baby, to put out fires and all other manner of things. They were part of everyday life and not seen as evil or incompatible with religion.
  • Miracles associated with religious relics and shrines – Obviously these were religious beliefs rather than superstitions.
  • Prophecies – Examples: The Holy Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, prophesied that Henry VIII would meet disaster if he divorced Catherine of Aragon, the book of prophecy that Anne Boleyn found in her apartments which depicted Henry, Catherine of Aragon and Anne, but the figure of Anne was missing its head, and then Mrs Amadas claiming that Henry VIII was Mouldwarp from the old prophecy and legends.
  • Enchantments – The belief that illnesses and deaths could be caused by enchantments
  • Omens – The belief that natural phenomena like comets and solar eclipses were omens

As you can see, the Tudor era was a very superstitious age and a time when religion, superstition and things like astrology were all mixed together in a big melting pot. Interesting times!

You can read more about this in the following articles:-

Do you have any superstitions?

Notes and Sources

51 thoughts on “Superstitions in Tudor England”

  1. Tamise says:

    Conjoined twin girls born in the summer of 1553 were said to represent the situation of Lady Jane Grey and Mary I.

    1. Claire says:

      Wow! Thanks, Tamise, for sharing that.

      1. teresea says:

        is that a sarcastic comment because i think that tamise actually gave me some good information

        1. Claire says:

          Sarcastic?! No! I was thanking Tamise. Tamise is a good friend of mine and she knows so much about the reign of Lady Jane Grey, she runs a blog on her, Why would I be sarcastic?

  2. Nancy says:

    I woke up this morning with 4 black cats crossing my path – my 3 big boys, Boo (18 pounds, 15 ounces); Ebony (not exactly sure of his weight, but I’m sure he’s over 16 pounds); Licorice (18 pounds, 6 ounces); and my newest addition, Anne Boo-Lynne (aka Annie), who is very petite and cute and only weighs about 5 pounds but does the woman she’s named after proud – she’s very feisty and doesn’t let any of the others push her around. Fortunately after I fed them they went back to sleep!

    1. Claire says:

      I love the name of your new cat! I’ve had a black cat sat on my desk this morning!

    2. Eliza says:

      I second that, Claire!! Lovely name, Anne Boo-Lynne!! 🙂

    3. Anne's Fan says:

      Give Anne-Boo-Lynne a scratch around the ears for me – oh I LOVE that name! You are very clever!

  3. Bridgett says:

    LOL! Some of these ideas are crazy. Thanks for sharing.

  4. jillian says:

    I’m not sure if I saw this on the Dr. Janina’s newest Illuminations series (part 1) or if it was from the 6 or 7 part series on Netflix about the Tower. Anyway, they found a mummified black cat buried in one of the walls. They still have it preserved and it is said the black cats were actually seen as GOOD omens and so its’ quite possibly that most homes had a mummified black cat buried in their walls or foundations for luck and prosperity.
    Totally different than the superstitions I know of black cats!

  5. Anne Barnhill says:

    Wow, I love those cures–talk about the cure being worse than the disease! Do you think people really DID that stuff? I cannot imagine swalloowing a live anything–yuck! I am quite interestedin the visions and omens, though. And just remember all the panic about the year 2000? Hmmm, maybe we have not come so far after all.
    Great article as always! Thanks!

  6. henry says:

    I still believe in the evil eye and carry a cornu blessed by a strega to ward it off. Have you ever listened to George Noury on the radio? People still love to hear and listen to the fantastic.

  7. Bridgett says:

    Oh no! This is too funny! I watched the video and laughed out loud! Had to show my 11 yr old son! Now he is off to study up more on the Tudors! Who knew? Thank you for helping to bring the Tudors yet to another generation! I have talked to my kids about it before, but nothing was as interesting as the buttered spiders! 😀

  8. Magdalena says:

    Did you know that Friday 13 is unlucky because
    on that day in October 1307 the Templars were
    arrested?

    1. Claire says:

      Yes, I had read that as a possible meaning behind it, very interesting! Thanks, Magdalena!

    2. I thought it was a reference to Judas Iscariot being the 13th person at the Last Supper, going on to betray Jesus.

      1. Claire says:

        Yes, there are theories that it’s to do with Good Friday and Judas as the 13th too.

  9. emma says:

    Were they the same Templars that cursed the King’s descendants for several generations ?

    1. Eliza says:

      Yes, I have watched a French miniseries about this story “Les Rois Maudits”, it was great! Here’s the story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_de_Molay#Curse

  10. Violetta says:

    Is very interesting to say that here in Mexico most of Tudor period superstitions were quite alike to aztec’s beliefs, in fact the falling of aztec empire was “announced” by a ghost named “weeping woman” who was seen by astec people previous spanish invasion, she said “what shall I do to not loose my children”. Besides a solar eclipse was announced the arrival of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered Serpent who was a white god. He would arrive in order to punish the aztec empire due their lack of respect towards him. This eclipse is seen in aztec calendar as the 5th sun rising.

  11. Some of these are funny! The only one that makes a bit of sense is wearing a donkey skin (assuming it’s ‘fresh’) for rheumatism. The warmth would ease the ache of arthritic joints. Good thing we have hot wax (paraffin) treatments for hands and feet these days!

    I wouldn’t eat a dead spider, much less a live one – even covered in butter. Ick!

    Why “God bless you” only for sneezing? Could the devil only enter your open mouth then? What about eating or talking? Maybe it had something to do with your eyes closing when you sneeze? Who knows?

    1. christina says:

      I was told by my grandmother(13th desendant of Henry Carey) that your body was the most suseptable after a sneeze for evil to enter.

    2. kipper says:

      I always understood that ‘God bless you’ was a response to a sneeze because sneezing was a symptom of the plague, from which you were unlikely to recover! There are probably many theories about all of these superstitions, but my mum always used to say that many are based, unknowingly, on fact, and she is the wisest woman I have ever met!

      1. Pen Bunny says:

        I know the sneeze thing as “bless you” for the first sneeze, and “and spare” for the next. I seem to recall it was from where they believed that the devil was making u sneeze in order to get to your soul (hence you shut your “window to the souls”…) and so the devil is warded off someone blesses and spares your soul

  12. Debra says:

    Love reading about the remedies. I am a pharmacy technician and while working with medications all day, this made me smile. I think I will print this off and give it to my pharmacists and let them have a chuckle. Oh, I have 2 black cats as well. They are my little ones and I do not even think about bad luck with them around.

    1. Emma says:

      It’s odd that black cats are considered unlucky in America but in Britain they are thought to be lucky. I remember when I did my exams at school I took my little lucky black cat ornament to sit on my desk.

      1. Leonie says:

        Like the UK, black cats are lucky in Australia as well, I remember being surprised finding out in the US they are the opposite. We have a popular Lucky Lottery here in NSW with a black cat as the symbol.

  13. Lisa Davis says:

    I never remember that anything is special about Friday the 13th. I go to work as usual and it just does not occur to me until I come home and watch the news. That video is really funny. Tudor medicine is definitely worse than the problem.

  14. Fiz says:

    Yes, they are the same Templars, Emma.

  15. Magdalena says:

    Emma At the time of the death of Master of the
    Templars, he predicted that the king and the
    pope will die within a year and so it happened.

  16. Lori says:

    If you have good luck on Friday the 13th is that an omen?

  17. Black cats may have been lucky for the people who killed them and stuffed them into walls and foundations, but it wasn’t so lucky for the cats! I have two black cats and consider them to be lucky alive and living with me. Anyone who even tried to harm them would have to deal with ME in an “Old Testament” frame of mind. Kidding! (sorta).

    1. Nancy says:

      I’m with you. Anyone who tried to harm a hair on Boo, Ebony, Licorice or Anne Boo-lynne’s body (or any of my other 7 cats or little dog, Frankie) would have to deal with ME, too. NOT kidding.

  18. Baroness Von Reis says:

    Claire,Cats have always been good luck not just in Mid-Evil periods ,in the days of Celopatra and the Kings of Eygpt cats were very good luck and worshiped, the dogs werenot alouded in the palaces cats were.I have work all my lfe with animals there all wonderful,so for all you cat lovers they are good luck. Also people believed that if a person was on fire they where poezest by the devil,my grandmothers night dress was to close to the fire, and yes she was on fire,my great grandfather said that she was poezest by the devil.Needless to say she was not. Regards

  19. Nancy says:

    Just one more thing about black cats: during the Middle Ages, superstitions led people to kill black cats. This had the unintended consequence of increasing the rat population and the spread of the Black Death (bubonic plague) and other diseases carried by rodents. So maybe black cats were luckier than people thought that they were!

    1. Baroness Von Reis says:

      Namcy,Very good and smart,your so right back then had they kown cat feast on rats,what a shame as so many poor souls could had lived. Regards

    2. Mary the Quene says:

      Nancy, I get very excited to learn “twisted history” facts, such as the one about killing the black cats – with far-reaching (possibly) consequences! Thank you.

  20. Baroness Von Reis says:

    Spelling malfuction Nancy sorry.

  21. Dawn 1st says:

    ‘Friggatriskaidekaphobia’… one of the words to describe the fear of Friday 13th.
    ‘Frigga’ the norse goddess whom Friday is named after, and ‘Triskaidekaphobia’ the word used for the fear of the number 13.
    Apparently, and you Claire will probably know if this has any truth, that Spanish speaking countries see Tuesday 13th as the unlucky day instead of Fridays…the Greeks too, who knows, but from the bits and bobs I have read about this dreaded day, it seems to be a fairly modern ‘invention’, circa 19th century, based on numerology, and bad events that have happened on the 13th day of the month, whether or not it was on a Friday or not, but never the less an interesting superstition as the rest are above.

    1. Dawn1st says:

      Did you do that Claire? put this old post of mine on…or is it some weird happening, on this most dreaded of days 🙂

      1. Dawn1st says:

        DOH!! just realised I’m on the wrong page…silly me.
        Must be the date playing tricks with me…haha

  22. Linda M. Hart says:

    Hello all,

    I have my own superstition that has been passed down in my family. The women in my family never, ever turn over a calendar page until the actual month begins.

    Before I retired, a co-worker turned my calendar to the next month at the end of the day before the new month was to begin and I damn near took his head off! I taped the “old” page down and told my friend to never, ever, EVER do that again. Of course the poor man looked at me like I had lost what little was left of my mind.

    To this day, no one in the house goes near the calendar…

    1. Dawn 1st says:

      Hi Linda
      That supersition was one of my Gran’s too, it was even a bigger omen if the New Year calender was place up before mid-night, one that I now carry on….

  23. Row says:

    I believe the Devil contacts you when you are dying. Gives you a chance to live again, without pain, terror, the key to eternal life. those not meant to die, murdur, suicide, he gives you gifts, see those who are dead, peoples fates, when they die and make people they dislike die. LIVING PEOPLE CAN HAUNT YOU !!!

  24. Mary the Quene says:

    I believe that if I see a hundred-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk that I am supposed to pick it up. (-:

  25. Michael Leaver says:

    I never thought myself a superstitious person…but I walked past a black cat today on the way to work…and walked home without a job after almost 8 years..Plenty of time for reading need a break. 🙂

    1. Claire says:

      Oh no! So sorry and I hope there’s something better just round the corner.

  26. Mary the Quene says:

    I feel quite rebellious if I give a rocking chair a little push when nobody is sitting in it; my grandmother used to freak out if we did that as kids. Now I figure if a ghost is in the chair, it might be my gran, and she is always welcome at my house. 🙂

  27. Kelly says:

    Anyone have the “no new shoes on the table” superstition? It’s been in my family for at least 3-4 generations and I just don’t know where it comes from.

  28. Susan Lutz says:

    I always heard that shoes on a table are bad luck, but never knew that it was “new” shoes. I NEVER put any shoes on a table, but don’t know the origin of the superstition or what kind of bad luck it would invite.

  29. I just love this stuff. Thanks for reporting!

Please note: Comment moderation is currently enabled so there will be a delay between when you post your comment and when it shows up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *