Why I'd trade the 21st century for life as a Tudor

Hannah was allowed bacon, eggs, smoked fish, pancakes and porridge as part of her Tudor diet
Hannah was allowed bacon, eggs, smoked fish, pancakes and porridge as part of her Tudor diet Credit: Andrew Crowley

If history is reducible to one era for us Brits, it is the Tudor period. Even before the phenomenon that is Wolf Hall, our favourite version of Ye Olden Dayes was that with codpieces, ruffs, beheadings, and irascible redheads. Blame it on Shakespeare, blame it on 'Enery the Eighth putting the serial killer into serial monogamy, blame it on Good Queen Bess making such a humdinging heroine – but a visiting alien could be forgiven for imagining that British history is the story of gingers acting up. 

My love for those gingers is greater than most. The 1590s were the best years of my life, having spent my twenties studying and teaching Renaissance literature. Ask me the appeal of the period and I can give a clever answer about the affinity between premodern and postmodern cultures, the birth of nationhood, emergent literary identity, and our idea of the self. However, basically I just think it was brilliant.

Despite her hair colour, Hannah is widely taken to be Queen Elizabeth Credit: Andrew Crowley

Historian Ruth Goodman – adviser to the BBC for its acclaimed Wolf Hall, after 10 years in a similar role at the Globe – agrees. “The Tudor period seems larger than life: bright, colourful and exotically different, yet still our past. It moves between the strange and the familiar,” she says. ''It is also the moment when we as a nation were about to launch onto the world stage. It’s an energetic time, a pregnant moment.” Obligingly, in her new book, How to be a Tudor: a Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life, Goodman offers the definitive guide to living the Tudor dream – which is why my editor decided I should try it out.

I admit to feeling pretty smug about my abilities here. I think Tudor, attributing all science to magic. I write Tudor, the letters “s” and “f” flourishing indistinguishably. I even dream Tudor, pomander-scented epics in which the Virgin Queen and I strategise, flirt and swap pearls. 

But, how will I cut it dragging myself up at first light, forsaking tea, coffee and all out-of-season fare, going without gadgets, showers, and sex (being a spinster), then hitting the (literal) sack shortly after nightfall? It is a life in which I will be obliged to dance rather than visit the gym, attend the theatre rather than devour a box set, and pray more than Cardinal Wolsey himself – all of which I find rather less encouraging. For comfort and (relatively) mod cons’ sake, I decide that I am a late-Elizabethan aristo, which at least means I am allowed a bed.

Women's leisure time was generally spent sewing (though probably not in Pret) or at the theatre Credit: Andrew Crowley

I begin my day of living Tudorly with the requisite dawn start, pretending my alarm is a cock’s crow and thanking my lucky stars that this is an autumnal 6.50am, rather than a summery 4am. I am supposed to start with prayer – something of a challenge for a dogmatic atheist who cannot summon even the Lord’s Prayer, so I opt for a simple one written by Anne Wheathill in 1584 that Goodman describes as “Protestant, English and free form”. Happily, I am not struck by lightning.

Time for my ablutions, such as they are. It’s chilly (no central heating allowed), not helped by having to wash my hands and face in cold water. Having no soot with which to scrub them, I clean my teeth with an index finger wrapped in linen. Rather than bathe, which was only a thing for the uber-aristo, I must exfoliate myself clean with rough linen. Hair washing was unusual, an occasional summer rinsing sufficing. Instead, I must make do with fine combing to rid myself of lice and fleas. I feel grimy, my locks lank. I add a jaunty pearl band to keep my look modish.

Goodman makes no mention of slap, but – as a lady – I feel I am allowed a little, not least to emulate the era’s poster girl. Where Elizabeth and her cousin Lettice Knollys (also her love rival for the attentions of Robert Dudley) would have deployed rouge on top of egg whites, alum and white lead to achieve their roses and lilies complexions, I settle for the altogether safer MAC. I resist the Virgin Queen’s later technique of painting on “youthful” blue veins, as my exaggeratedly high forehead and blanched brows and lashes look peculiar enough as it is. I am pretty vampiric in my natural state, but this unearthly luminosity is something else.

The so-called 'Ditchley Portrait’ of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger – complete with cosmetic 'veins’

Instead of deodorant, I am allowed perfume: anointing myself with rosemary, lavender, marjoram and roses, which I rather enjoy, despite the effect being reminiscent of a casserole. Costume wise, I’m doing the full Gloriana rig-out – multiple skirts, a seriously weighty velvet and fur robe, laced over bound breasts, bum roll, ruff and ropes of pearls – aloft knee socks held up by garters and no knickers (the latter being not yet invented).

Even ditching the corset, it proves impossible to do this without aid, so my valiant editor arrives to act as lady’s maid and help cram breasts into bodice. The weighted arms and shoulders of the garment force one’s arms and hands into a decorous rectangle, and I immediately feel myself doing not selfie, but portrait face: stately, haughty, unsmiling. No longer chilled, I am now positively glowing and am forced to throw open windows.

All this has taken until 8am, but at least my time has been my own, rather than the hour’s housework and milking that the average woman put in before breakfast. Bread and ale were the mainstay of the Tudor diet, some nunneries recording that their inmates consumed several pints a day; a sign of insanitary water rather than alcoholism. I am also allowed hot food – bacon and eggs, smoked fish, pancakes, or porridge. I nibble at a kipper, washing it down with non-alcoholic beer – a truly vomitous combination.

'I really was born in the wrong century' says Hannah, pictured at her local pub with her copy of Spenser's 'The Fairie Queene' Credit: Andrew Crowley

Still queasy, I set myself the task of moving like a Tudor. According to Goodman, I must walk with a bell-like movement from the hip without bending my knees, tucking in my chin, but with my upper body inclined backwards. Think Frankenstein’s monster in a ruff. I should stand with my feet together and toes turned out in a balletic first position. For greeting purposes, I must keep my head perfectly erect while gazing downwards, executing a plié. The postman seems suitably impressed.

Dancing was popular, the Queen a partaker before breakfast, just as today’s power women head to the gym. Goodman likes to think of herself being lobbed five feet into the air doing a volta. I opt for a galliard, Elizabeth’s favourite dance – comprised of hops, leaps and jumps – which she would perform into her mid-50s. Even at 44, it’s a struggle, not least in an outfit so hefty that the effect is akin to hot yoga. Still, at least I haven’t had to be cleaning floors since dawn like my serving wenches.

'I make my pease (dried peas) pottage over the hob, adding onion, carrot and turnip. It’s all a bit Blackadder.'
Hannah Betts

Dinner – that is, lunch – can be as early as 10am, or 11am, but noon is typical. It is a formal affair, the biggest meal of the day, featuring prayer, more bread (had they not heard of Atkins?), salt, and wine for those inclined.

Food was good – meat, fish, pottages (stews), fruit, cheese and nuts – but not plentiful given the perils of poor harvests. I have abstained from constructing an outdoor oven, so cheat by making my pease (dried peas) pottage over the hob, adding onion, carrot and turnip. It’s all a bit Blackadder. One can see why the arrival of the potato proved such a revelation back in the late 1580s.

Male leisure pursuits were legion: archery, bowling, gambling, tennis, drinking, whoring, cockfighting, bear and bull-baiting. Female options would appear to be sewing, or the theatre.  I try a bit of cross stitch; but merely threading the needle reduces me to tears. Theatre it shall be. Naturally, I am drawn to the Globe. However its rather too 21st-century functionaries will not admit a non-thespian Tudor over the threshold for fear of being “off-brand”. Furthermore, there is no Marlowe, Kyd, Greene, or Lyly on the bill, so I settle for a matinee at the National.


How To Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life by Ruth Goodman is published by Viking (£20). To order call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk