Since it was generally believed that deadly diseases such as smallpox, the plague and the sweating sickness entered the human body through the open pores of the skin, out of doors it was clearly a common sense precaution to cover as much as possible. Though hot bathing water was unknown to all of Shakespeare’s contemporaries except the nobility, most people were content merely to wash their hands and face with a cold rinse early in the morning and before meals. The only places where Tudors might bathe themselves in heated water were at the public and private baths in the town of Bath.
Queen Elizabeth went to Bath only once in 1574, didn’t like it and never returned. She seems to have disapproved of bathing in thermal waters and only drank from the cold springs there. Queen Anne of Denmark also went to Bath only once in 1613, but her husband King James I did not accompany her. He appears to have feared water of any kind, hot or cold. The main purpose of the aristocracy in going to Bath was medicinal: they travelled there, bathed and drank the waters to cure their ailments, particularly gout. Buxton, the only other spa yet in the country, was favoured mainly by northern Catholics, but again for medical reasons.
The human skin was thought to be the most natural and effective barrier to infection and since wool or leather were difficult to clean they were not allowed direct contact with it. Clean linen underwear was preferred as the best protection: if regularly laundered it would keep the body clean and smell-free. Instead of using water, gentlemen and ladies wiped themselves with linen towels. Those who have experimented on themselves say that after several weeks it’s their underwear that smells not their bodies.
Rosemary and lavender were the most favoured by the well-to-do as sources of perfume.Toothbrushes were unknown, but soot from a wax candle was considered the best for cleaning teeth. In his family history, Sir Hugh Cholmley made a particular point of referring to his father’s “incomparable sweet breath” as “one would have thought it had carried a perfume or sweet odarifferous smell with it.” So even for a gentleman, Sir Richard’s “perfumed” breath was rare.
Close combing with a fine toothed comb was for many a daily morning routine to remove lice and their eggs, but the labouring poor were often described as “lousy”. Washing hair was unusual for all classes because anything that might damage the scalp was regarded as a health hazard. On the other hand, now that few of us wear woollen socks or stockings or all-leather shoes, our feet are much more likely to smell of sweat or harbour fungal infections than those of our Tudor ancestors.
Clothing laws known as Acts of Apparel defined and restricted what men were allowed to wear. Clothing was a certain indication of class or status or, in the words of the time, “the distinction of people according to their estates and degrees”. Only royalty were permitted purple silk; only knights could dress in velvet; and servants and retainers wore tabards displaying their masters’ crests.
Clothing was very costly. Though the English specialised in raising sheep for their wool, most of the best of it was exported to wealthy continental buyers in Flanders and Italy. Yet even homegrown woollens were expensive because from shearing by hand to final scouring, fulling and dyeing the processes were many, skilled and labour-intensive.
The value of a man’s gown indicated his status. As an outer garment it covered his shirt, doublet and hose and was therefore his most conspicuous clothing. Gowns of various quality were frequently mentioned in wills, even those said to be “old” or “used” or “worst”. The richer the owner the more gowns he would possess. Needless to say, poor labouring men never wore gowns.
Headgear was almost compulsory: even today, when it is not, it still usually tells you something about its wearer. In Shakespeare’s time, by his hat or cap a man could be identified as student, lawyer, clergyman, tradesman, sailor or country farmer. Doffing the cap or hat to an elder or social superior was a Tudor requirement. On no account must a “doffer” show the inside of his cap, thereby exposing hair grease or dandruff: that was considered most discourteous.
Apart from hats, stockings and gloves, which could be bought as finished goods in the market, all other clothes were hand-made at home or by tailors or shoemakers who had their own craft guilds. At all levels, the trade in second-hand clothing was huge. Articles were passed down generations or on to buyers of a lower rank. Doublets, hose and shirts were inherited, pawned, given as wages, mended, patched and otherwise perpetuated. Well-cobbled leather shoes lasted a lifetime and were highly valued.
Since even upper-class ladies were excluded from all the professions – from the law, universities, school-teaching, the church, municipal corporations, juries, the military and land ownership – the laws of apparel did not apply to them. They could wear anything that they could afford; but unlike continentals English women did not wear knickers and they needed a multitude of metal pins to tie everything together.
But what did the Tudors wear for bed? First, it should be emphasized that it would be much easier to get up from most Tudor beds than any modern one. Except for the privileged few, they offered neither comfort, warmth nor hygiene. Today’s splendid survivors with four posts, head boards, curtains and canopies, which can be seen at mansions like Burton Agnes Hall, were for the privileged few only. They are misleading examples. Sacks of straw on earthen floors or flock mattresses on wooden platforms, usually lacking sheets, blankets or pillows, were the sleeping places for most. At best, there you would be sharing your space with only mice, fleas or lice. Even as late as 1600 most people slept on the floor fully dressed. That Shakespeare had two beds to leave in his will, one for himself and his wife, the other for honoured guests, shows how prosperous he had become by 1616.