A portrait of “the diverse lives enjoyed—or endured—by women living in Tudor England, and together constituting a multifaceted impression of female humanity of the period.”
British historian Norton (The Temptation of Elizabeth Tudor: Elizabeth I, Thomas Seymour, and the Making of a Virgin Queen, 2015) delivers less a social history than a well-researched description of the lives of women in 16th-century Britain. Inevitably, archival documents emphasize rulers, the rich, and the lurid, so Norton has much to say about royalty, aristocrats, female entrepreneurs, criminals, and martyrs. Readers may squirm to learn how badly Tudor law, religion, and custom treated women; almost every woman accepted this, and only a small number prospered. The author has a predilection for namesakes, so she recounts the royal nursery routine of Elizabeth Tudor. Little of Queen Elizabeth I’s life was hidden, but readers will learn perhaps more than they want to know about her relentless rejection of suitors and struggles against aging. Elizabeth Boleyn reached the top of the greasy pole of court politics, surviving even the infamous beheading of her daughter, Anne. Elizabeth Barton, the “Nun of Kent,” was wildly popular in a time when religion was a matter of life and death. For almost a decade, she heard the voice of God until her execution by Henry VIII; her pronouncements opposed his wishes. Those in search of a genuine social history of this era should turn to Ian Mortimer’s A Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England (2017). Norton occasionally digresses into subjects like Tudor diet, hygiene, and morals, but mostly she writes minibiographies of women who struggled with varying degrees of success in an unjust man’s world.
Readers with a low toleration for outrage will have a difficult time, but most will find this a satisfying series of historical vignettes.