How was individual identity expressed materially in Tudor England?

This essay will argue that different forms of material culture allowed the people of Tudor England to express different aspects of their individual identity. A persons ‘identity’ is influenced by several different affiliations. The people of Tudor England were associated with concepts such as heraldry and social standing, religion, and gender. Each of these different concepts were expressed through different material means. Firstly, this essay will examine how architecture allowed the Tudors to express their social identity. Secondly, the essay will discuss how books allows the Tudors to express their religious identity. Thirdly, the essay will recognise that activities, such as needlework, allowed people to assert their gender identity. By studying material culture, historians can understand the individual identities of the people of Tudor England.

It was the inclusion of heraldic imagery within architecture that allowed the Tudors to express their social identity.  ‘Social identity’ refers to how people relate to different social groups within society. Examples of heraldic images can be seen in what Sir John Summerson calls ‘prodigy houses.’ This describes large houses that were built to house, and impress, Elizabeth I and her entourage when she toured the country on progresses. John Guy notes that, courtiers competed to build more impressive houses, with the aim of winning the favour of the queen. This is demonstrated by Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, which was designed by Robert Smythson for Bess Hardwick, and was built between 1590 and 1597. The chimney piece boasts Bess of Hardwick’s coat of arms, which appears several times throughout the building. They also appear on the house’s exterior in stone. By including this image throughout the hall, Hardwick expresses her social identity, as she is clearly pointing out her familial heritage using visual imagery. Those who recognised the crest would have ascertained that Hardwick came from a rich and respected family. Due to this, Hardwick’s inclusion of her family crest allows her to express her social superiority to her contemporaries.

In the High Great Chamber, Hardwick included the royal coat of arms of Elizabeth I. The High Great Chamber was used to receive important guests, and the presence of the arms would have indicated to them that Hardwick herself was affiliated with the crown. This connection to the crown would have enhanced Hardwick’s social status further. As well as asserting her own authority amongst her peers through this royal connection, Hardwick’s inclusion of the royal arms also demonstrates her loyalty to Elizabeth I. Tara Hamling notes that displays of the royal coat of arms were common in urban areas, especially in gentry houses. This allowed members of the gentry to assert their higher social standing in contrast to others within the locality. The use of heraldic devices allowed Hardwick and members of the gentry to enhance their social authority within the community, as this was elevated by their connections to the crown.

A stained-glass window at Montacute House in Somerset also demonstrates that architecture was used to express social identity. The house was owned by Edward Phelips, designed by William Arnold and built in 1598. The window depicts the coats of arms of fourteen local families. This visual imagery allowed Phelips to demonstrate his multiple social connections, which he had acquired through numerous familial marriages. As well as displaying his connections, this window would have encouraged people to recognise the authority and influence that Phelips held within the community. The placing of the shields on a window meant that they were clearly visible to all who walked past, meaning that Phelip showcased his social identity. To understand which arms represented which families, people would have needed a book of heraldry. Inclusion in such a book would only enhance one’s social status within the community, as it would only validate the families’ respectability.

Books were used to express religious identity. An example of this is a Book of Hours, which was popular before the Henrician reformation. These decorative books would contain prayers and psalms, as well as instructions as to when these prayers should be recited during the day. Books of Hours were created for the purpose of private religious practises. They were usually owned by members of the elite, who would have them personalised. An example is Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, which was made in Paris in 1500 and is currently held in the British Library. The pages are parchment and are particularly notable due to the personal messages inscribed inside. On a page depicting Christ suffering from the wounds of his crucifixion, Henry VIII wrote in French ‘If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall hardly be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry R forever.’ Henry implies that his yearning for Anne is of a similar pain to Christ’s afflictions. Anne Boleyn replies with ‘by daily proof you shall me find, To be to you both loving and kind.’ This is inscribed on an image of the angel Gabriel telling the Virgin Mary that she will birth the son of God. Anne is using this religious imagery to tell Henry VIII that she is loyal and faithful to him, and that she will deliver him a son. As well as facilitating her romance with Henry, this book allowed Anne to privately express her religious identity and piety.

Following the reformation, Puritans, such as Nehemiah Wallington used notebooks to express their religious identity. Wallington filled fifty notebooks from 1618 to 1684, and detailed sermon notes to divine judgements. ‘A Record of Gods Marcys, or a Thankfull Remembrance’ was written by Wallington during the 1620s and 1630s, and was part diary and part commonplace book. In it, Wallington writes that he has ‘lived in sinne all my childhood heitherto. Likwise I knew that these sinnes were against the expres commandment of God in Exodus 20.’ Jonathan Willis recognises that Wallington’s focus on the Decalogue speaks to the Puritan desire to follow the word of God, which Puritans believed should be considered in all aspects of life. Wallington’s writings uphold the Puritan belief that they should be introspective about the word of God and their own lives. Andrew Cambers recognises that keeping notebooks was a ‘key component’ of Puritanism, as notebooks facilitated their deep contemplation of faith, as they provided Puritans with a space to write their feelings down. Wallington’s activities validate this idea, and prove that material objects were essential to the construction of religious identity. Books facilitated the expression of peoples’ religious identity by allowing them to engage in private devotion.

Susan Frye recognises that undertaking of activities allowed individuals to express their gender identity. This is supported by a linen needlework sampler, sewn in 1598 by Jane Bostocke. It is held in the V&A, and measures 42.6cm by 36.2 cm. It was made to commemorate the birth of her cousin, Alice Lee, two years earlier, and contains imagery relating to the Lee and Bostocke family crests. There are also demonstrations of different stitches. The V&A recognises that originally, samplers were used as reference pieces, but during the seventeenth century, they were used as a way of recording the maker’s skill. Embroidery was an encouraged occupation for young girls in gentry families. They would begin with samplers, then progress to caskets and embroidered pictures. Frye notes that needlework was seen as an exclusively domestic pursuit, which allowed young women to express agency and identity. Such an activity inculcates gender roles, as the domesticity that this activity encouraged informed girls of their place within the home: as the housewife. Susan Dwyer Amussen recognises the family as the basis for political and social order, suggesting that this was the reason women were encouraged to undertake tasks that educated them in domesticity from a young age. Matthew Johnson argues that gender roles were performed through action, and this sampler examples this.

Johnson provides another example of how performative action allowed people to express their gender identity. Johnson describes a folk custom from the Yorkshire Dales in which women would clean the flagged stone floor of their threshold with sand. Wives would lay out the sand in different patterns, which would remain until they were cleared in the afternoon. Johnson argues that the preservation of these patterns establishes the integrity of the household and wife, which is made visible to the community. Even though these patterns do not survive, Johnson’s recounting of this activity provides an example in which women expressed their gender identity, and drew authority from their role as housewife.

I have demonstrated that different forms of material culture were essential to expressing different aspects of individual identity. Architecture, specifically heraldic imagery, was used to express peoples’ social identity and peoples’ authority within the community. Books, in facilitating people’s worship and contemplation, allowed people to express their religious identity. Certain activities, such as needlework allowed people to express their gender identity. This proves value of studying material culture, and how it can be used to improve current historians’ understanding of the people living within Tudor England.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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