The Private Lives of the Tudors

It gives me great pleasure to share with you this fascinating guest article by historian Tracy Borman, whose new book, The Private Lives of the Tudors, was published by Hodder & Stoughton on 19 May.


Inside Story article

What the Tudors wouldn’t want you to know

By Tracy Borman

As a Tudor historian, I count myself very lucky indeed to work at what is arguably the greatest surviving Tudor palace in the world: Hampton Court.  For centuries, visitors to Hampton Court have marvelled at the splendour of this most sumptuous of Tudor palaces.  This was Henry VIII’s showpiece, the place where he liked to display the magnificence of himself and his court.  Although it has been greatly altered over the years, the heart of the Tudor palace remains. Visitors can still experience the same sense of awe as they enter the Great Hall, with its exquisite hammer-beam ceiling, or follow the royal processional route, lavishly decorated with rich fabrics and priceless works of art.

Hampton Court Palace

That is all very well, of course, but what modern-day visitors really want to know about Henry and his fellow Tudor monarchs is rather more basic.  Where did they go to the toilet?  How did they wash their clothes?  Where did they sleep?  The frequency with which I have heard these questions asked during my years at the palace inspired my latest book, The Private Lives of the Tudors.

Imagine if you could follow Henry, Elizabeth and the rest as they left the throng of the public court and entered their private apartments.  Well, this is exactly what I did when researching the book.  And what I discovered was very surprising.  Suffice it to say that, stripped of their courtly finery and manners, the Tudors appear altogether different from the image that they liked to portray to their subjects.  And it wasn’t always a pretty sight.

The monarch who changed the most for me when conducting my research was Henry VIII.  At six feet two inches tall, he was an imposing, athletic figure – at least for the early part of his reign.  But behind this impressive façade lay a hypochondriac who was regularly thrown into a panic at any sign of illness at court.  The king willingly subjected himself to the examination of his physicians every morning, and also concocted remedies of his own from the cabinet of medicines that he kept hidden in his private apartments.  A visitor to these apartments described the publicly magnificent sovereign as ‘the most timid person you could meet.’

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1536

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1536

The private correspondence of Henry’s most personal body servant, Thomas Heneage, Groom of the Stool, reveals that he suffered from a number of embarrassing ailments.  His love of red meat and lack of exercise led to severe constipation, which necessitated prolonged and often painful visits to his close stool – each of which were witnessed and carefully recorded by Heneage.

Henry’s precious son Edward also underwent something of a transformation in private.  He has long been portrayed as the fragile boy king, dominated by the overbearing presence of the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland.   But he was made of sterner stuff than that.  In fact, he was a chip off the old block.  Far from being a sickly child, Edward was a robust little boy and, as Thomas Cromwell put it, ‘sucketh like a child of his puissance.’  Living in a succession of luxurious nurseries, as prince he was regularly indulged with priceless gifts and allowed to indulge in a diet of rich foods.  Little wonder that he grew up to be something of a spoilt brat and displayed flashes of his father’s notoriously savage temper.  Reginald Pole, later Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed that in a fit of rage, the young prince once tore a living falcon into four pieces in front of his tutors.  Edward also kept a private diary (the only one of the Tudors to do so), which hints at a cold, uncompromising nature.  If he had not been struck down by illness after just six years on the throne, he might well have grown into an even greater tyrant than his father.

Edward VI of England, by William Scrots, c. 1550

Edward VI of England, by William Scrots, c. 1550

There was an even more dramatic contrast between the public and private self of Henry’s younger daughter Elizabeth.  Celebrated and admired as the ageless Virgin Queen, during the later years of her reign it took an increasing amount of effort to maintain the ‘mask of youth’.  Behind the scenes, Elizabeth’s ladies would spend several hours every day applying thick layers of makeup and other adornments to conceal the marks of age.

The Queen’s thinning, grey hair was covered up with wigs that matched the famed auburn locks of her youth.  Meanwhile, her entire face, neck and hands were painted with ceruse (a mixture of white lead and vinegar) in order to achieve the palest possible complexion.  This may also have been used to conceal the pockmarks from the bout of smallpox that Elizabeth contracted at Hampton Court early in her reign – and that almost killed her.  Although they helped to conceal the ravages of time, some of these concoctions were so toxic that they did more damage to the skin than ageing ever could.

Elizabeth I

The Pelican Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard

Only the Queen’s private attendants knew what lay beneath this carefully constructed visage, but on one notorious occasion her impetuous favourite, the Earl of Essex, burst into her bedchamber before she was dressed.  Aghast to see his royal mistress ‘unadorned’, he secretly laughed at her ‘crooked carcass’ with his friends.  Elizabeth had the last laugh, though: she had him executed shortly afterwards.

Exploring the lives that the iconic Tudor monarchs lived behind closed doors was therefore little short of a revelation for me.  I was naïve enough to think that, having studied these fascinating personalities and their courts for many years, I knew them inside out.  But their magnificent public personas are only the beginning of the story.  What lay beneath was altogether more intriguing.

TracybormanTracy Borman’s Website:

Follow Tracy on Twitter: @TracyBorman

Order your copy of The Private Lives of the Tudors:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

The Book Depository 

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  1. Lori Thomas says:

    Sounds like a very very interesting book.

  2. Raquel from JC says:

    I love makeup and these little details about Elizabeth’s beauty secrets makes me giggle! Thanks for the review!

  3. Sounds interesting, added to my reading list

  4. What a fantastic blog! Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I can’t wait to read this book!

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