Daily Life in the Elizabethan Era
Historians studying the Elizabethan Era, the period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) that is often considered to be a golden age in English history, have focused mainly on the lives of the era's wealthy nobles. (Nobles were the elite men and women who held social titles.) The nobles held great power and frequently lived colorful and extravagant lives, but they made up only about 3 percent of the population. Although the vast majority of the Elizabethan population was quite poor, few firsthand historical records of their daily lives have survived. Members of the lower classes in England were mainly uneducated, so they did not usually keep journals or written records describing their own lives. They could not afford to have their portraits painted nor to preserve their humble homes for future generations. Historians agree, though, that daily life for the majority of Elizabethans had little to do with courtly life, and much to do with working hard to earn a meager living.
From a feudal to commercial economy
The working classes of England had always had a difficult life. Under the feudal system of the Middle Ages (the period in European history lasting from c. 500 to c. 1500), powerful lords owned and governed local districts, which were usually made up of peasant families and ranged from fifty to a few hundred people. (Peasants were farmers who worked in the fields owned by wealthy lords.) About 95 percent of the population of England lived in these rural districts. The peasant farmers performed almost all of the labor. They farmed the land: about one-third of the land solely for the lord; a portion to support the local church; and the rest for their own use. Their daily lives were regulated by the seasons, and they tended to work from sunup to sundown, rarely traveling beyond their own village. The sick and elderly relied on the kindness of the lord for Page 182 | Top of Articlesurvival. Peasant life was usually fairly stable, but there was almost no chance of escaping the grinding toil from one generation to the next.
England's farming economy was forever changed by the outbreak of a terrible plague, or infectious disease, that arrived on the European continent in 1348, killing more than one-fourth of the population in a few years. Continued outbreaks of the plague are estimated to have killed from one-third to one-half of Europe's population by 1400. So many people died that many villages were left without lords, fields were left without farmers, and children were left without parents. With so many laborers dead, lords no longer had an easy supply of labor to farm their lands. By the early sixteenth century laborers found they could demand more money and better working conditions. For the first time it became possible for some enterprising peasants to take over the lands made vacant by the plague and become landowners themselves.
Another economic change took place in the early sixteenth century. England had developed a huge and highly profitable cloth-making industry. At first the industry relied on imported material to make Page 183 | Top of Articlecloth, but by the sixteenth century English landowners discovered that there was more profit to be made raising sheep for wool than in planting crops. Many peasants lost their livelihoods when the lands they had farmed were fenced off for sheep. They moved to the cities, which were prospering because of the new cloth industry and the other growing trades. However, the new industries provided few jobs for unskilled laborers. The peasants who were lucky enough to find work in the cities earned extremely low wages that barely fed them, and many of them were unable to find employment at all.
The rise of cities and towns
When Elizabeth I (1533–1603) became queen there were about 2.8 million people in England. The population rose significantly during her reign, to about 4.1 million. Many people lived in the countryside, but in the sixteenth century the town population grew at a greater rate. Prior to Elizabethan times, only about 5 percent of the population lived in cities and towns, but during her reign, about 15 percent of the rapidly growing population had become urban. As businesses and industries developed, a new middle class consisting of successful merchants and craftsman arose. These businesspeople thrived in the cities and often served in the urban government. During Elizabeth's reign, as never before, it was possible for city merchants to become extremely wealthy and rise in social status.
England's capital and largest city, London, underwent remarkable changes, growing to about two hundred thousand people during Elizabeth's reign. (The next largest English city, by comparison, was only about fifteen thousand people.) London's population was divided. It included a small but powerful population of wealthy nobles, a prospering middle class, and a large and impoverished lower class living in miserable conditions. In the filthy, crowded neighborhoods of the poor, raw sewage (waste matter) ran through the streets. Disease and crime were widespread. Laborers who came to London from the country frequently failed to find jobs. Homeless, they wandered in search of a way to feed themselves. Many turned to small crime, such as begging, picking pockets, and prostitution, simply to avoid starvation. There was little help for the sick, elderly, and orphans. The life expectancy, or average life span, of an Elizabethan was only 42 years, but it was much lower among the urban poor. English people of all classes feared the arrival of gangs of Page 184 | Top of Articlebeggars and drifters in their towns and villages, bringing crime and immoral behavior into an otherwise hardworking and orderly society.
Elizabethan poor laws
Parliament, the English legislative body, passed several poor laws during Elizabeth's reign. The poor laws assigned the responsibility for maintaining the poor to the local church districts, or parishes (England was divided into fifteen thousand parishes). Local officials assessed how much money was needed to support their district's poor and then collected these funds from property owners. Elizabethan poor laws distinguished between the "deserving poor," such as the sick, elderly, and orphans, and the "undeserving poor"—those who were capable of working but chose not to. The undeserving poor were to be punished, while the deserving poor would receive some kind of local support in the form of food, money, clothing, or a stay at the local orphanage or poorhouse, a building maintained by parish funding to house the needy.
To enforce the poor laws, each community needed to be able to keep track of its own poor. Thus, the new laws required that every English citizen have a place that was legally designated as their home. It was nearly impossible for anyone without proof of a permanent job or lots of money to establish a new place of residence. There was little tolerance for vagrants, people who wander from town to town without a home or steady employment. Vagrants were taken into custody, punished with a public whipping, and then returned to their home village.
An extensive educational system developed in England during Elizabeth's reign, and the rate of literacy, or the ability of individuals to read and write, rose considerably. Only about one-fifth of the population could sign their own names at the beginning of the era, but by Elizabeth's death about one-third of the population was literate.
Education was by no means available to everyone, nor were all schools equal in quality. The children of nobility continued to receive their education in their homes from some of England's top scholars, who were hired at considerable expense as tutors. For the sons of the growing middle classes, though, there was an increasing opportunity for education in the country's public schools. (Girls were usually educated at home in the arts of homemaking.) Public schools were not free. The term "public" referred to the fact that the student went out into the world for his Page 185 | Top of Articleeducation rather than being schooled at home. Poor children usually began working at very young ages and had neither the time to receive an education nor the money to pay for it.
Education was more widespread in the cities, where the middle classes were larger. Even some working-class parents in the cities were successful enough to be able to spare their sons from working full-time, and a growing number of working-class boys went to school for at least a couple of years—long enough to learn the basics of reading and writing in the English language.
Petty and grammar schools
Boys—and a few girls—from the ages of about five to seven attended petty schools. A petty school was run by an educated local woman, usually the wife of a town noble, in her own home. The children in petty school were taught to read and write English. They also received instruction about being good Christians, as well as other lessons in proper behavior, including such practical matters as table manners. The schools were rigorous, beginning at 6:00 or 7:00 AM and continuing until sundown. Beatings were commonly used to motivate the children to learn. Petty schools prepared their students for grammar schools.
Children attended grammar schools from the ages of seven to fourteen. In these schools children were taught to read and write in Page 186 | Top of ArticleLatin. Literacy in Latin prepared them to continue their educations at the university level, where all schoolwork was done in the Latin language. In grammar schools the works of the notable classical Latin playwrights and historians were used only for the purpose of teaching Latin grammar. Subjects like science and music were not taught, and only a small amount of arithmetic was presented.
At the age of fourteen upper- and middle-class boys who could afford to continue their education entered a university. During Elizabeth's time, universities educated more middle-class boys than ever before, and even some sons of very humble craftsmen were able to attend the universities on scholarships. Students at the universities studied in several areas: liberal arts, which included grammar, logic (the science that deals with the principles of reasoning), music, astronomy (the scientific study of the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies), and arithmetic; the arts, consisting of philosophy, rhetoric (the study of expressing one's self elegantly in writing and in the spoken word), and poetry; natural history (the study of nature); religion; medicine; and law.
The Elizabethan Era is known for the elaborate outfits that men and women wore to court and elite social functions. Extremely detailed portraits of the wealthy have given us a clear idea of how they dressed. The wealthy wore furs and jewels, and the cloth of their garments featured extravagant embroidery. But theirs was not the typical fashion of the times. The poor and even the middle classes dressed more simply. However, few detailed portraits or records of the clothing of the poor remain.
In Elizabethan England one's clothing provided an observer with instant knowledge of one's social status. With a growing middle class, the rich and powerful clung to their age-old distinction of wearing clothes that made it immediately clear that they outranked others. Sumptuary laws, or statutes regulating how extravagantly people of the various social classes could dress, had been in effect for many years in England. Soon after taking the throne Elizabeth passed her own sumptuary acts, preserving the old standards and setting out in great detail what the different social ranks were allowed to wear.
By Elizabeth's acts, only royalty could wear the color purple and only the highest nobility could wear the color red. Ermine, a type of fur, was to be worn only by the royal family, gold could be worn only by nobles of the rank of earl or higher, and fur trims of any type were limited to people whose incomes were extremely high. The amount of detail in the sumptuary acts was remarkable, as can be seen in this excerpt from the act regarding women's clothing, as quoted on the Elizabethan Era Web site:
None shall wear Any cloth of gold, tissue, nor fur of sables: except duchesses, marquises, and countesses in their gowns, kirtles [underskirts], partlets [garments, usually made of lace, that filled the opening in the front of a dress and had a collar attached], and sleeves; cloth of gold, silver, tinseled satin, silk, or cloth mixed or embroidered with gold or silver or pearl, saving silk mixed with gold or silver in linings of cowls [a draped neckline], partlets, and sleeves: except all degrees above viscountesses, and viscountesses, baronesses, and other personages of like degrees in their kirtles and sleeves.
Elizabeth claimed the purpose of the sumptuary laws was to prohibit her subjects from wasting huge amounts of money on clothes. But the laws were also intended to preserve the existing order of social classes. As the incomes of the middle class increased, they were able to afford to live and dress like aristocrats. Thus it became increasingly important to regulate the garments of the various classes in order to maintain the established social order. The queen, as the highest-ranking person in the nation, was dressed the most elaborately, and she took this outward display of her position seriously. Although the punishment for wearing clothing prohibited by the sumptuary laws was a fine or worse, the laws were generally not enforced anywhere but in the royal court. However, purple and red dyes, velvet, gold cloth, and other forbidden garb were highly expensive, and poverty excluded the poor majority from wearing them. The poor, by necessity, dressed for their work: men wore boots, pants, a vest, shirt, and hat, while women wore an under skirt with an outer skirt over it, a bodice (the upper part of a woman's dress), shirt, and hat.
Young boys and girls alike were dressed in skirts until the age of about six. After that age children were dressed in smaller versions of adult clothing.
Food and drink
Wealthy English households usually ate large quantities of meat, such as beef, mutton (sheep), pork, venison (deer meat), and rabbit. Elizabethans tended to cook their meats with fruits, preferring the sweet taste. At social gatherings many varieties of meats and other foods were served. Because there were no refrigerators, meat was usually preserved in salt to last throughout the winter; the taste of old or spoiled meat was covered up with spices imported from Asia.
Meat was a rare luxury for the poorer classes. Their meals typically featured bread, eggs, and dairy products. Vegetables were also fairly rare in their diet.
Elizabethans rarely drank water because it was impure and could lead to sickness. Instead, people of all ages and classes drank wine, flat beer, or weak ale, even with their morning meal. Both classes ate bread, but not the same type. The wealthy usually ate a refined white wheat bread called manchet, while the poor were more likely to eat black or brown breads made from rye or barley.
The nuclear family consisting only of a father, a mother, and their children made up the most common households in England, although very wealthy households sometimes included members of the extended family, such as aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, and almost always included a large staff of live-in servants.
Among farm laborers and craftspeople, families were viewed as working units. Each member of the family had a task. On a farm, a young boy might be in charge of shooing birds away from the crops, an older boy might herd sheep, and the wife was in charge of maintaining the home, feeding the family, and helping her husband with raising and harvesting the crops. Girls usually were trained by their mothers to help take care of the household. Similarly, families in the cloth industry often worked in their homes and divided up the labor of spinning and weaving the cloth. For working people, it was a time-honored tradition that the son would take on the same career as his father.
There were few single people in Elizabethan England—all were expected to marry. In fact, women who did not marry were regarded with suspicion; some were even called witches. Married women were almost always homemakers, though poor women often had to work for pay as well. Almost all Elizabethans considered women to be inferior to
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men. Except in special circumstances, women could not inherit the family property. They were expected to obey their male relatives and had few rights. It was equally expected that men would marry. Those who remained single had no legal claim as head of their household, and thus were not eligible for public office or to inherit from their families. Marriages were often arranged by parents. Most marriages were not made for romantic love, but for social or financial purposes. Divorce and separation were rare and required an act of Parliament. Only the very wealthy could even consider this option.
Almost all Elizabethan couples desired to have children. With a high mortality rate, or the frequency of deaths in proportion to a specific population, couples often had many children, knowing some would not survive. Generally, children were raised to be respectful and to serve their parents. They were viewed as the property of their fathers, and beatings Page 190 | Top of Articleand other severe punishments were a normal means of discipline in Elizabethan households. Parents' approaches to child rearing were very different from one another, however. Just as is the case today, some Elizabethan parents were prone to spoiling their children while others could be very strict.
Holidays and celebrations
England had a long and much beloved holiday tradition. For most Elizabethan workers, the workweek was long and hard; times for socializing and being entertained were eagerly anticipated. Many of the traditional English holidays were actually holy days, days honoring the lives of the saints (deceased people who, due to their exceptionally good behavior during life, receive the official blessing of the Catholic Church and are believed to be capable of interceding with God to protect people on earth) or events in the life of Jesus Christ. Holidays were celebrated within the parish, often with feasting and games as well as prayers.
The Reformation (the sixteenth-century religious movement that aimed to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the establishment of Protestant churches) brought about a change in the holidays celebrated in England and in the ways they were celebrated. The Anglican Church, the official Protestant church of England, and especially the Puritans (a group of Protestants who follow strict religious standards), wanted to eliminate the Catholic holidays, and they were far more rigid in their ideas of acceptable celebration behavior than the Catholic Church had been. In 1552 Elizabeth abolished most saints' days and issued an official Anglican list of the annual holy days.
Twelve Days of Christmas
One of the most popular holidays of the year was Christmas, which began on Christmas eve, December 24, and continued through January 6, the Twelfth Day (or Night). Christmas was preceded by a four-week period called Advent in which Elizabethans prayed and fasted, or refrained from eating certain foods at certain times. Advent ended with a Christmas Eve fast. On Christmas morning all attended a church service, and afterward the long fast was at last broken with a great feast. Celebrants went wassailing, going from house to house singing Christmas carols and enjoying a drink or treat at each stop. Music and other festivities continued for the next four days—all days off
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work. January 1, another work holiday, was the day of gift-giving. It was also celebrated with feasts and wassailing and other forms of merriment. The next and last Christmas holiday was the Twelfth Day or Night, also called Epiphany, which celebrated the arrival of the Three Magi, or wise men, at the manger of the infant Christ. The feast and revelries on the Twelfth Day were the most extravagant of the year.
After Christmas, Shrovetide was the next major celebration. Shrovetide was the period consisting of the Sunday through the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, or the forty-day period of fasting before Easter. Shrovetide celebrations included great feasts and many amusements; Shrovetide is the origin of the Mardi Gras celebrations that still take place today in many parts of the world.
The coming of summer was celebrated on May 1, also called May Day. Although it was officially a holiday in honor of two saints, Philip and Jacob, by custom it was mainly celebrated as a secular holiday. On the
Page 193 | Top of Articlenight before May Day, the youth of the village or town went out into the woods to gather mayflowers. The flowers were used to decorate houses, but most villages also used them to decorate a pole that the young men and women danced around the next day. The maypole dance is said to have involved kissing, and the Puritans worried that the holiday encouraged immoral behavior among the English youth. Although Elizabeth did not ban the traditional May Day celebrations, many local church leaders did. Still, it remained a popular holiday for many years to come.
Beginning on November 17, 1570, and continuing on that day annually, the English celebrated Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne of England. Accession Day (also called Queen's Day) was one of the few entirely secular holidays of the year. The highlight of the day was the tilting tournaments performed in London for the queen, in which young nobles on horseback armed with lances, or long spears, charged at one another in an attempt to throw their opponent from his horse. Accession Day celebrated the queen's annual return to her London palaces for winter, and London became the site of great parades, music, dramatic presentations, and religious services dedicated to thanksgiving. Throughout England the day was celebrated with bonfires and the ringing of church bells. Though wealthy nobles had private celebrations, the Queen's Day was joyously celebrated among many working-class people. Throughout her reign Elizabeth had cultivated her image as the loving, and yet supremely regal, mother to her people—the Virgin Queen whose life was dedicated solely to caring for and protecting the English population. Though she had enemies among her subjects, Elizabeth was generally beloved and the holiday in her honor was a heartfelt celebration of the queen. The holiday was celebrated for nearly two hundred years after her death.
For More Information
Palliser, D. M. The Age of Elizabeth: England Under the Later Tudors, 1547–1603. 2d ed. London and New York: Longman, 1992.
Picard, Liza. Elizabeth's London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2003.
Wagner, John A. Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World: Britain, Ireland, Europe, and America. New York: Checkmark Books, 2002.
Wrightson, Keith. English Society: 1580–1680. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1982.
Elizabethan Era. http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/elizabethan-clothing-laws-women.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).
Monson, Shelly. Elizabethan Holiday Customs, http://guildofstgeorge.com/holiday.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).