The Private Lives of the Tudors

by Tracy Borman

Chapter 1: ‘The Public Self and the Private’

The Tudors were never alone. As monarchs, they were constantly surrounded by an army of attendants, courtiers, ministers and place-seekers. Even in their most private moments, they were accompanied by a servant specifically appointed for the task. A groom of the stool would stand patiently by as Henry VIII performed his daily purges, and when Elizabeth I retired for the evening, one of her female servants would sleep at the end of her bed. Little wonder that in protesting her innocence of any sexual misdemeanor, Elizabeth I protested: ‘I do not live in a corner. A thousand eyes see all I do.’

It might seem a little odd, then, that my new book is all about the private lives of this most famous royal dynasty. But if the Tudors were rarely alone, they did lead a very different life behind closed doors to the one that most of their subjects witnessed. Here, they were dressed and undressed, washed and groomed, took most of their meals, and found refuge in music, cards and other entertainments. As the sixteenth century progressed, so these ‘private’ hours, and the court department that supported them, evolved into a distinct and tightly run institution that reflected the needs and personality of the reigning monarch.

I have studied the Tudors for many years, but much of what I discovered during my research for this book challenged, and sometimes transformed, my view of the iconic monarchs who I thought I knew so well. 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 was not always a pretty sight.

The Architecture of Privacy

By the dawn of the Tudor period, the private life of the monarchy had long been subject to a strict order of routine, tradition, ceremony and etiquette. This was reflected by the structure of the court and the architecture of the royal palaces. The creation of a private suite of chambers for the king or queen can be traced to as early as the twelfth century. But it was only 300 years later, during the reign of Edward IV, that this development was accelerated when the King transformed all of the royal residences in order to provide himself and his family with separate, private lodgings known as the Chamber. This was a deliberate strategy by the Yorkist king to control access to the royal person, and in so doing to centralise power in his hands. Separating the King from his subjects in this way enhanced the mystique of monarchy, and elevated those who were allowed to penetrate the architectural divide and gain access to the royal presence.

By the end of Edward’s reign, the Chamber comprised the Great or Guard Chamber, which was the first of the ceremonial rooms en route to the King and was staffed by his personal bodyguard; the Presence Chamber (or throne room), where the King dined in state, received important visitors and met his council; and the Privy Chamber, which was both the King’s bedroom and private lodgings, and the name of the organisation that populated and governed these inner rooms. The Privy Chamber was not as private as the name suggests but, in common with the more public-facing rooms beyond, it was subject to a great deal of formal ceremony.

Keen to emphasise the continuity of the royal succession, and thus his own place within it, the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, was content to retain the structure, and some of the personnel, that he had inherited from his Yorkist forbears. Although he was naturally introverted and preferred the company of a few trusted advisers, the new king appreciated the need to appear as much as possible in the public court. During the early years of his reign, he invested considerable sums in the trappings of monarchy, including commissioning lavish attire for himself, his family and attendants, and building or rebuilding splendid palaces, such as Richmond and Greenwich.

But as Henry’s reign progressed and he became ever more preoccupied by threats from rival claimants, he increasingly retreated into the privacy of his apartments at court. The threat from the second ‘pretender’, Perkin Warbeck, from 1494, drove the King into ever greater seclusion. Now that he was spending more time in the privacy of his ‘secret’ chamber, Henry expanded into a more luxurious suite of rooms, where his every private whim was catered for.

First among these rooms was the Privy Chamber itself – usually a medium-sized apartment richly decorated with tapestries, carpets and a chair of estate. Beyond it lay a small complex of inner chambers or privy lodgings that varied in size and number in each palace. They included at least one bedchamber with a garderobe leading off it, a bathroom, a withdrawing room, a robing chamber, a closet or oratory for the King’s private devotions, and a study or library filled with his most precious and well-thumbed books.

The rooms were often lined with wooden linenfold panelling, which made them rather gloomy and heightened the feeling of privacy. They were usually linked to the public rooms of court by a short corridor or gallery, and to the Queen’s apartments by another gallery or privy stair. Here, the King and his intimates could walk and talk in confidence and comfort, shielded from both the elements and the public world of the court.

This new structure remained in place, with a few enhancements, for the rest of the Tudor period. As well as making the monarch less accessible, this ritualised their appearances in public. The result was that their courtiers fought more fiercely for the monarch’s attention than they had been obliged to before.