Friday, January 13, 2012

Orphans, Stepchildren and Step-parents in Tudor and Elizabethan England

The revolving door of King Henry VIII’s wives and mistresses is, of course, the exception, rather than the rule of Tudor family life. But one, if not multiple step-parents, and inherited stepchildren were relatively common in the 16th century for a variety of reasons. Many children lost one or both parent’s to illness, some of which we can now determine were probably influenza, smallpox, typhus, malaria, dysentery, bubonic plague, scurvy and syphilis.

A composite image of the Six Wives of Henry VIII. Image created by Inor19 on Flickr.

            In 1599 in Ealing (West London), ¼ of all children had lost at least one natural parent, if not both. Step-parents were common, particularly if the surviving spouse was still able to produce more children, or if a male heir was lacking; therefore they would have good reason to marry again. But sometimes people simply remarried again for love late in life, such as the great Elizabethan matriarch Bess of Hardwick.

Portrait of Bess of Hardwick. If you look closely on the left-hand side of the painting, the sitter was once falsely identified as "Maria Regina"-Queen Mary I! It has since been identified as Bess of Hardwick. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons Image public domain.

         Many orphaned noble children benefited from the Court of Wards, which arranged for them to be fostered by other families until they came into their majority. Smaller towns and parishes set up ward programs of a similar structure for orphans who were not of the upper classes. Lord Burghley fostered the young Edward de Vere, later the 17th Earl of Oxford, until he came into his inheritance. Wisely, Burghley married Oxford to his daughter Anne, to keep the lands and money of his Earldom in the family. Despite the children growing up together, the marriage was a complete disaster.

Detail of a portrait of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, by Marcus Gheeraerts. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons Image public domain.

Sometimes, children were fostered by family members, including when a parent was still alive. This was typical of noble families, stemming from the longstanding tradition of sending children away at the youthful age of six or seven to begin training for knighthood as a page. In England in the 16th century, if an affluent relative was in a better position to raise a child and give him or her opportunities, it was wise to send the child to that relative. This was certainly the case when Queen Anne Boleyn fostered her nephew, (and possible stepson, if his father truly was King Henry VIII) Henry Carey. Queen Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn, was still living, but Anne was able to give little Henry the benefits of an education in the royal household, alongside other children of powerful families, dress him in fine clothes, and ensure him a future in the king’s household. Henry Carey would eventually become a close, trusted, and loyal servant of his cousin, (or half-sister? This was contemporary gossip of the time; he was even called “the queen’s brother” on more than one occasion) Queen Elizabeth.

Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, by Steven van Herwijk. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons Image public domain.

 Whether he was a sibling or not is irrelevant, though; Elizabeth kept all her Carey and many of her less ambitious Howard relatives close to her. She was undoubtedly trying to fill the void of not knowing her mother by becoming close with her maternal family.

Henry Carey, created Baron Hunsdon by Elizabeth I

Step-families were prevalent in 16th century, as they are now, though for arguably very different reasons. There are many accounts of happily “blended” families in Elizabethan England, but also many horror stories as well. And like today, many children benefited from state/social programs, like the Court of Wards, and were brought up with great success by foster families or well-connected relatives.