A blog about the British Renaissance and modern Renaissance Faires.
Sharon Kraftchak, a performer and educator at the Virginia Renaissance Faire, contributed the information for this blog. Connie Teunis edited.
The Role of Noble Women in Elizabethan Society
Before the reign of Elizabeth I, which took place from 1558 – 1603, and was the latter part of the Renaissance, women were seen primarily as chattel. Wives were expected to produce heirs and were considered possessions of their husbands. Nobel women in particular, such as Anne Boleyn who was Elizabeth’s mother, were used to better their family’s position in society. A woman or girl could marry or be betrothed to a man of higher status, such as a Baron, and would then be elevated to a Baroness. However, a son, such as the son of a knight, was unlikely to improve his own or his family’s position, unless he proved himself worthy and was elevated by the monarch. Even if a knight married a woman of higher status, he could not take her title such as when Sir Christopher Blount married the widowed Countess of Leicester, Lettice Knollys.
Most parents of noble daughters encouraged and required daughters to “improve” themselves in the many social graces which would make them a better potential wife for a man of higher social standing. Beauty was, of course, a highly desirable feature, but other qualities such as dancing, singing, sewing, playing an instrument, entertaining, being well spoken, and educated were considered equally important, especially during Elizabeth’s time.
Many noble wives were expected to be able to run the manor and care for their husbands’ money when Elizabeth called their husbands to Court or to battle. This meant noblewomen had to be educated. During Elizabeth’s time, there was a marked increase in the number of educated women, especially among noblewomen.
To receive an education, noblemen would typically to go to University, particularly if they planned to become a lawyer, philosopher, or astronomer. Men’s Clubs have their origins in these universities. However, women, noble or common, did not go to University because it was considered unseemly for a woman to enter these male sanctums. Rather, a noblewoman would have been educated at home by a tutor who may have lived in the noble’s home, or she might have been sent to the home of a higher-ranking noble to live and learn. Sometimes commoner children, whose parents were part of a Noble’s retinue, would come to the Lord’s home to receive a basic education. However, most commoner children were apprenticed to tradesman or craft masters at a young age and only received the minimal education needed to accomplish their trade or craft, which didn’t necessarily include basic reading and math. This is why most business signs of the time period had pictures- so people who could not read knew what business was being advertised. For example, the sign for the Red Pig Tavern would show a picture of a red pig holding a mug of beer.
As part of a noblewoman’s education, it was important for her to learn to speak multiple languages. For example, Elizabeth spoke not only English, but French, Spanish, Latin, Italian, and Greek. It was not uncommon for nobles to entertain foreign visitors at their manors or at Court. To accomplish this, noble children were occasionally sent to live and learn in foreign courts, as well as to make political connections. An accomplished lady, with refined foreign court manners and well-fostered connections was sure to catch the eye of a high-ranking nobleman.
Besides languages, fine manners and political connections, it was important for a noblewoman to be schooled in the ‘gentile’ arts. Doing fine needlework, often displayed on her garments, presented an aura of wealth and refinement. Singing and dancing would be expected so she could entertain her husband and his guests. Of these two, dancing was especially important because this was a very public and acceptable way for proper ladies and gentlemen to mingle socially.
How dancing partners touched indicated both one’s status or class, and one’s interest in one’s dancing partner. Among commoners, dancing partners might hook elbows or clasp each other’s forearms displaying a very familiar contact. However, the detailing of a noble’s ornate garments would likely be damaged or soiled by touching this way. Among nobility, dancers would touch hands, but in specific ways. When a nobleman held his hand palm up, and a noblewoman placed her palm on his, the woman was making a very intimate gesture and showing she was interested in her partner. However, if the noblewoman placed the back of her hand to the back of the man’s hand, this was considered a very proper and chaste gesture, showing she was either not available or not interested. So unless he was being flirtatious, a nobleman usually presented his hand palm down as a sign of respect and courtesy for a lady. This can be seen at Faire when Elizabeth calls for a choice of partner for dance. Some present their hands palm up and some palm down. Watch closely who Elizabeth, always a Lady, selects as her partner!
A father, or in his absence an older brother or uncle, would be responsible for arranging a suitable marriage for his daughters. Often arranged even before a girl was of childbearing age, these ‘betrothals’ were designed to improve a family’s status or political connections and had little to do with love. The feelings and choices of girls were rarely considered and were certainly not to be expressed. Once a woman was of childbearing age, perhaps as young as 12, she would be married and then be governed by her husband. Occasionally, a family’s attempt to elevate their status through marriage would backfire, as was the case with Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
As soon as a woman was married, she was expected to produce an “heir and a spare”. This ensured the male line of succession both in family name and in hereditary titles, such as in Royalty, Earldoms, and Baronies. To ensure this, women often had as many children as they could because life expectancy during the Renaissance was only 39.7 years, due in part to disease and poor sanitation. The average number of pregnancies a woman could survive, (childbirth was quite a risky ordeal) was between 5 and 7, with some reaching as high as 12 or 13. However, with a 25% infant mortality rate before age one, many children were required to ensure succession. (While this was an average, some Nobles who had better sanitation, food and an easier life overall, lived well into their 60s, like Elizabeth I who died at 69.)
One exception to the emotionally distant marriages among the Nobility was that of Thomas and Cecily Sackville, the Baron and Baroness of Buckhurst. Baron Thomas Sackville so loved his wife that he left all his possessions to her. This was highly unusual as women usually did not own property. Another lady who owned property and was fabulously wealthy, only second to the Queen, was Bess of Hardwick the Countess of Shrewsbury.
Although women would run businesses or estates, the business or estate typically belonged to the man. Most women had status only if they were married. Unmarried women had no status. If a woman became widowed, she, or a male relative, would try to find her another husband as soon as possible, because male family members could claim the business or estate and looked at an unmarried female as a liability. With no prospective husband, male family members could choose to send the widow to a nunnery or make her a servant.
Women who were mistreated by their husbands or other male family members rarely had any recourse other than to accept the mistreatment. At this time, males (who dominated the law) in society assumed that if a woman was beaten, it was because she had done something to deserve it. This is where the “Rule of thumb” came from. A man could not choose a switch larger than his thumb to punish a woman.
However, if a noble woman was actually guilty of wrong-doing, it was likely she’d be punished in private to avoid shame on the family or loss of status. By contrast, most commoners would be punished and shamed publicly.
The rules for how women were treated changed dramatically when Elizabeth I became the English Sovereign as an unmarried woman with no direct heir.
Modern Renaissance Faires
Most visitors to the Virginia Renaissance Faire are awed by the elaborate detailing on the exquisite gowns of the Noblewomen surrounding Queen Elizabeth. This demonstrates how Elizabeth’s Maids of Honor and the Noblewomen who served in her Privy Chamber, where private meetings with Nobles might have been conducted, or her Bedchamber, which was her private living quarters where only the closest attendants were permitted, were expected to dress finely as a reflection on the Queen and also as “an extension of Elizabeth’s self”.
Queen Elizabeth and her Ladies conduct the business of Court on Progress, including presentations of nobles and dignitaries, the Queen’s Feast, masques, entertainment and presentations, as well as Knighting of the youngsters of the Shire at or near the Noble’s Glade. However, the Queen loves to be among her people and enjoys visiting and shopping around Staffordshire.
A visitor to VaRF may see Noblewomen and Maids of Honor working on their needlework. The Maids of Honor also often invite visitors to play “Shut the Box,” a game that involves math ability and reasoning and demonstrates a noblewoman’s education. But beware, this game is addicting!
Margaret Douglas, the Countess of Lennox, can often be found on a bench across from the Glade. As one would expect from a Countess and the grandmother of James VI of Scotland, her gowns and her demeanor are exquisite. James, as one of Elizabeth’s closest living relatives, was chosen by the Queen on her deathbed to succeed her and assume the Crown and became James I of England. He is best known for the King James version of the Bible.
Sharon Kraftchak has been on cast for fourteen years with the Virginia Renaissance Faire and has portrayed a number of Noblewomen who were influential in Elizabeth’s Court, including: Lady Cecily Sackville, Baroness Buckhurst; Lady Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester; Lady Jane Neville, Countess of Westmoreland; Queen Elizabeth as the understudy; and currently portrays Lady Anne Dudley, Countess of Warwick (who is married to Ambrose, the older brother of Sir Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester who was also the apple of Elizabeth’s eye). As one would expect from a highly educated, “high-ranking Noblewoman,” when Sharon is not busy with VaRF, she volunteers as a Girl Scout Educator and works for the Fairfax County Public Library. She is also a fantasy/ science fiction author.
To learn more about the Virginia Renaissance Faire, please go to: www.VaRF.org. The Virginia Renaissance Faire runs for five weekends from Mother’s Day weekend through early June. We hope to see you there!