Tudor Hygiene Part 1- Bathing

“One of the misconceptions of popular history is that concern for hygiene and sanitation is a recent – and decidedly modern – phenomenon.” Simon Thurley

We don’t often think about the Tudors as being particularly hygienic people but they were actually a lot ‘cleaner’ than what we generally give them credit for. They were of course limited by the technology of the time and the challenges associated with disposing of the sewage and rubbish of a growing population but this does not mean that they did not try to keep themselves and their houses clean.

According to Alison Sim, the Tudors washed themselves a lot more often that what is generally thought. How often is not exactly known but the fact that recipes for soap and ‘hand or washing waters’ are included in household instruction manuals illustrate that there was definitely an interest in personal hygiene (Sim, Pg. 47).

Wealthy ladies used a scented toilet soap or ‘castill soap’ for their daily wash. Not all levels of society could use this type of soap, as it was imported and very expensive. The soap was made with ‘olive oil rather than the animal fat used in laundry soap’ (Sim, Pg. 47).

15th century illustration depicting a bath

In Hugh Plat’s Delightes for Ladies, a 14th century household manual, he gives directions for preparing washing water suggesting the use of ‘sage, marjoram, camomile, rosemary and orange peel as possible ingredients.’ He also offers an alternative that is ‘very cheap’ once again suggesting that it was not only the wealthy Tudors that were interested in personal hygiene but people from all levels of society.

In order to have a bath most Tudors would have had to find a wooden tub, line it with sheets, collect buckets of water, heat the water by the fireplace and fill the tub. It’s probably safe to assume that this complicated process probably dissuaded people from bathing daily. There was though nothing stopping them from washing daily. The distinction being that bathing required a person to immerse themselves in a tub and washing was more like a sponge bath.

The only Tudors lucky enough to have permanent plumbing and luxurious bathrooms were royalty.

Because the water-supply determined how long the Court could stay in any one location, Henry VIII decided to overhaul the water supply systems of all of his greater houses.

Improvements made to the water supply led to improved facilities for bathing. Some of the houses Henry inherited already contained luxurious bathrooms such as Edward III’s bathroom at Westminster supplied with “2 large bronze taps for the kings bath to bring hot and cold water into the baths” (Thurley, Pg. 167).

In 1529, Henry VIII ordered a new bathroom built on the first floor of the Bayne Tower at Hampton Court. This tower was Henry VIII’s luxury suite and consisted of an office and strong-room; a bedroom, bathroom and private study and a library and jewel house (Thurley, Pg. 170).

Thurley describes the bathroom in great detail

“The Bathroom had deep window-seats with cupboards beneath and a ceiling decorated with gold battens on a white background. The baths were made by a cooper and were attached to the wall; they were supplied by two taps, one for cold water and one for hot. Directly behind the bathroom, in another small room, was a charcoal- fired stove, or boiler, fed from a cistern on the second floor which was filled by the Coombe conduit.” (Pg. 170)

Other similar bathrooms existed at the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and New Hall.

Later in Henry’s reign he started bathing in sunken baths. Thomas Platter describes Henry’s bath at Woodstock:

“We were shown King Henry VIII’s bathing-tub and bathing room, also a large square lead cistern full of water in which he bathed; the water comes from Rosamund spring, is cold in summer and warm in winter.” (Thurley, Pg. 170)

In the1540’s, Henry VIII installed a bath at Whitehall more luxurious and sophisticated than even the Hampton Court bath but we are still none the wiser as to how often Henry actually used the baths.

Thurley states that Henry, on medical advice, took ‘medicinal herbal baths’ each winter but avoided baths if the sweating sickness reared its ugly head.

A school of though existed at the time that believed that bathing was dangerous and a time that “allowed the venomous airs to enter and destroyeth the lively spirits in man and enfeebleth the body” (Thurley, Pg. 171).

Apart from bathing with scented soap, the wealthier Tudors could also afford to buy perfume. Scents were made using imported spices and so not everyone could afford such a luxury. Alison Sim believes they were used as a demonstration of one’s wealth rather than as a way of masking unpleasant odours. Sim states that if they were used to mask smells at all then it was more likely to have been the clothes rather than the people that smelt.

I imagine that wearing Tudor clothes in peak summer would have been a very sweaty affair and to try and keep the clothes smelling fresh, without the modern conveniences of deodorant, a washing machine or a dry cleaner, would have been very difficult.  One way to try and remain fresh would have involved changing your undergarments as often as possible.

Whether you were wealthy or not you wore a linen undergarment called a smock or shirt (Sim, Pg. 52). The Tudors took great care in ensuring their linen was clean as it was a sign of one’s respectability. In Richard Jones’ book, Heptameron of Civil Discourses, a book about how to have a happy marriage, he says that a woman who does not wear clean linen ‘shal neither be prazed of strangers, or delight her husband’ (Sim, Pg. 52). Most would try and change their linen daily and the wealthier would have changed their linen several times per day.

In the next part of our Tudor hygiene article we will look at how the Tudors brushed their teeth, the clothes washing practices of the day and how general household cleaning was done.

References

Sim, A. The Tudor Housewife, 2010.

Thurley, S. The Royal Palaces of Tudor England: Architecture and Court Life, 1993.

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Comments

  1. Sarah says:

    VERY interesting hun! I can understand why bathing was not done daily – such a chore!

    I’m still fascinated how they used rushes on the floor in many of the wealthier houses and felt as though it was alright to urinate on said rushes! *SHUDDER* at least they replaced them every few days!

    • Natalie says:

      Thank you Sarah! Lots more information and facts to come :)

    • Dorothy says:

      LOL! I read that during the marriage of Henry VIII and Katherine/Catherine of Aragon, that the men urinated in the hallways, wherever, and one particular pet peeve of the Queen was that the men urinated in the fireplaces either during the fire or before fires were built in them, and causing the stench to be horrible, so that she banned urinating in the fireplaces. I don’t recall if she banned urinating in the public hallways and rooms, but I do know she banned it from fireplaces. I was flabbergasted to say the least. Who would think that such men, who were supposed to be bred with courtly manners would just flip themselves out in public and urinate all over the place. That’s why I love the internet. I continue to be amazed and learn. HAHA!

  2. Robert Parry says:

    Great article.

  3. kate says:

    Excellent article, thanks Natalie.I cant wait for part 2.

  4. Clare says:

    Great article….cant wait for the next installment !!!

  5. Shucky says:

    He also offers an alternative that is ‘very cheap’ once again suggesting that it was not only the wealthy Tudors that were interested in personal hygiene but people from all levels of society….

    I would love to know what the alternative was, as it sounds like something other than herbal waters. I know the Elizabethans used to make soap balls from grated soap and herbs, but they would not be as efficient as a bar of Castile soap, which is very hard and if not machine-extruded, would last a long time (I made some, one bar of which I used in the laundry room, and tossed it after five years. I even had complaints about my soap lasting so long).

    Is there anything about hair washing, and the problem of lice? I know the Victorians sometimes sewed pockets alongside their night caps for stuffing them with lavender against lice, or hops to ease insomnia…

  6. Fascinating article! Thanks so much. I do know Elizabeth I used her pomanders and perfumes because she really did hate a stench–don’t know so much about Henry. This is all so helpful! Can’t wait for more!

    • Dorothy says:

      Your comment gave me a chuckle about Queen Elizabeth hating stinks/stench, when she herself probably smelled to high heaven since she bathed only once a month, “whether she needed it or not”. Maybe it was herself she was smelling and used the pomanders and stuff to keep herself from smelling herself, which I think would be hard to do anyway. I wonder where Queen Elizabeth got such bad hygiene practices from, if the Tudor people bathed a lot more than we give them credit for? Just wanted to comment and I know it is three years ago you wrote your comment and probably won’t see it, but I just found this site today. Happy New Year!

  7. Kt Mehers says:

    I would have thought that a cheaper alternative would have been to use herbs like Soaproot (Chlorogalium Pomeridianum) which as the name suggests can be pulverised to release sapoins found in the roots.

  8. Patty Blackwell says:

    Great article. I so enjoy learning new things about the Tudor time period. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Ted says:

    Did they have sanitation systems, sewers, or any means of waste disposal at all?

    • maggie says:

      The “toilets” of the day in a castle were built against an outside wall and the “waste” either dropped straight down and out or ran through a sort of gutter and into a hole into the moat or elsewhere. In cities the sewer has the street! Bedpans & chamber pots were dumped from the houses’ windows, giving us the term “HEADS UP!” as fair warning to passers-by. Gross, huh?

    • maggie says:

      * I might add, the castle “toilets” were little more than outhouse “holes”, not actual contraptions.. a top with a hole to sit on, and the bottom had a “way out” for the waste. The toilet as we know it (or its ancestor) was developed in the latter 1500s by courtier John Harrington as a gift to QE I.

  10. Re: How often Henry Tudor bathed.

    He certainly washed every day. By all accounts he was considered a hygiene freak by the standards of the time. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree in terms of his younger daughter.

  11. Dawn says:

    Get reading, I have read Anne was very hygenic personally too, when is the next part coming Natalie, its very interesting….

  12. Sarah says:

    Why were sheets put in the tubs?

  13. Amy says:

    So that they didn’t get splinters from the wooden tubs

  14. kalinda says:

    Very helpful article, extremely interesting. Helped a lot with my homework(:

  15. Louise says:

    very interesting article. The Tudor Housewife is a fascinating book, I learnt a lot from it.

  16. lulu says:

    erm that wa s a gr8 artical plz could u add facts about other rooms eg:bedroom bathroom

  17. Alessandra says:

    This is a fascinating article! I have always been curious to how clean the Tudors were and how they went about cleaning.

  18. Kate says:

    Hello! I love all things Merry Old England :-)
    About Tudor hygiene: Henry VIII hated stench and was repulsed by smelly women and there were many smelly women AND men in those times. While perspiration odors (armpit stinks) were commonplace and hardly avoidable, perfumes and herbs and spices were used to couneract the smell, which could be violent. As far as bathing one’s “private parts” was concerned, it was often hit or miss and, even among the higher and Royal classes, body odor, especially given the fabrics, furs and weighty robes, was pretty bad, which is why pomanders were worn, filled with aromatics, around the neck, to emit and mask stinks of various kinds. Sprigs of lavender, sage and fragrant bouquets were carried by many, to sniff and wave, to banish stinks. Sponge baths were done, but, for some reason, many avoided washing their ‘privates.’ Perhaps the …um…smell…was aphrodesiac…as it remains so even today, in some cultures (ugh!) But many who were sensitive to…smells…did wash ALL body parts, to be fresh, even applying fragrant oils to ‘those areas’ to freshen their scent. Sachets were placed in small pockets, sewn into garments and that practice was used all the way into more contemporary times. Old dresses from Southern Belles, known for daintiness, had those tiny sachet pockets sewn into the underarm, hip and seat areas. Peeing in the fireplace was done and, though disgusting to consider, it was a necessary convenience (ugh). The poor usually ‘toileted’ outside the doorway or in a ravine, common to the neighborhood. The rich or upper crust ‘toileted’ in receptacles, either looking like pottys or wide and deep enough to accomodate their…butt-ends. Dirty pottys were emptied into any waterway available or just outside the rear doors. Needless to say, houses of all classes smelled pretty foul, especially in winter and water was polluted by wastes and the ground was foul, as well, from dumping, which is where the expression, “taking a dump” may have originated…. The mats throughout homes were loaded with fleas, lice and nasty things (snug as a bug in a rug) and they STUNK, so they were changed often, in richer households or aired in sunshine, when able. Poorer homes had just dirt floors, were it was common to dump things and just sweep, as needed. Lice, bugs, vermin were all expected and they thrived everywhere. By the way…one of the main reasons fur-trim was used on garments was to attract body lice away from the wearer…even the hugher classes, because body vermin was so common.
    Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, was fastidious, she hated stinks and bathed daily, including her hair, which she cut short, preferring wigs, which were free of bugs…there is SO much of interest about those far away times! :-)

    • Cherie says:

      It is known that castles often used rushes, a plant found near bodies of water much like cattails in America to lay down on the floors of castles. They were used to soak up moisture that was a common place where stone was the building material of homes. I don’t know when this practiced ceased though? Makes sense to me, after reading this article that this plant material was also used to soak up bodily fluids from guests during a celebration…a disgusting thought. It never occurred to me as well, how those whose breeding was considered “upper crust”, yet take a pee inside the home of your king?.go figure… Just thinking how the commoners lived and performed their own hygiene? I mean, I know chamber pots were dumped outside their doors and windows. What about those on farms? How long have outhouses been in use? I suppose it might shock a few here, I’m 55 years old and I was potty trained on a potty, or chamber pot and outhouse. It was a farmhouse, did have running water with hot and cold. of course, but there wasn’t an inside toilet. We didn’t get an inside toilet until we moved to town when I was 5 years old. My brother and I kept running into the bathroom to flush the toilet on the day we moved in to our house in town.

  19. Kate says:

    Please excuse my typos! I am an atrocious keyboarder! :-)

    • Dawn says:

      I’m of an age with you Cherie, and I’m not shocked at all at your loo being outside. I grew up in a small town in England, in 2 up 2 down house has they were called with my grandparents, with no bathroom. We had a chamber pot under the bed at night, and we had a tin bath that was brought in on a Saturday and placed in front of the kitchen range. The hot water was ladled in, and ladled out when we had finished, the water was shared and topped up…luckily there was just the 3 of us sharing the water lol, one at a time of course.There was also a lot of ‘strip washing’ that went on at the big butler sink too in-between baths. Unbelievable to the modern world perhaps that that was still going on in the 1960′s but it was, and for many years later in some cases. But we were never dirty or smelly. The memories of the tin bath in front of the fire are still vivid, precious almost, and make me very grateful for being able to go into a warm bathroom, at any time and take a shower or bath without all the physical effort. Aren’t we so lucky… as for outhouses I have one in my garden now and I live in a farm house perhaps 150+ year old in parts. It has nothing left inside any more, it appears that it was never a ‘flushing’ toilet, but one that would need to be emptied. It looks as old as the rest of the house, so I would think outhouses go quite away back. We also have a huge attic where the diary maids used to sleep when all milking was done by hand!!

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