The meeting of Grace O'Malley and Queen Elizabeth I of England.

The meeting of Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I of England.

When you think of Tudor England, you probably jump to some of its most famous girls: Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I, or Mary Queen of Scots. These were all noble girls, whose opportunities were greater because of their families’ wealth. Yet, though history has made them infamous, these girls still faced the stereotypes and challenges that all Tudor girls did.

These challenges arose mostly from religion. Christianity–whether Catholic or Protestant–governed England. Women were seen as inferior to men: they had caused original sin and were more easily swayed by the devil. Girls across all classes were taught that since they were inferior, they had to obey their fathers and husbands without question. They were to be modest and charitable, and their chief task was to care for their home and family.

Many Tudor girls did not receive an education. Even in the upper classes, only a handful of women were fully literate: two of Henry VIII’s wives could barely read. Most of their lessons revolved around religion and household tasks. Girls learned about meal preparation, food storage, yarn spinning, weaving, brewing, plants and medicinal herbs, and making candles and soap. Some girls, especially upper nobility or merchants’ daughters, might learn enough to write letters or handle their husbands’ affairs when he was traveling or at war. It wasn’t until the Renaissance, however, that education became more common for girls.

Some Tudor girls did end up having careers. Lower class girls as young as 7 worked as street vendors, bakers, milliners, tailors, brewery workers, textile workers, household servants, or seamstresses. Noble women might also have careers, usually as ladies-in-waiting or governesses to upper nobility. Some royal women even stepped in to rule while their husbands were away, as Catherine of Aragon did for Henry VIII. Others became infamous: the pirate queen Grace O’Malley or the never-married Queen Elizabeth I.

For the most part, however, Tudor girls were confined to home. Girls spent their days learning from their mothers about the acceptable behavior for their station in life. Some might become governesses, ladies-in-waiting, or have careers as seamstresses and textile workers. They would be married by the age of 15, and often became mothers shortly thereafter. Lower class girls were more likely to marry for love, or at least have a degree of choice in the matter, but girls from the nobility often were forced into marriages that benefited their families.

It was only through persistence and circumstance that some girls–like Grace O’Malley or Queen Elizabeth I–were able to transcend the rules set for them and become legends in their own right. It was these girls who helped question women’s proper place in society, and who would set the spark in Renaissance minds that perhaps home life was not all that awaited young girls.

-Tiffany Piotti
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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