Sex in Sixteenth Century England

March 5, 2016 in General

While 1530 marked the passage of the Buggery Act and the beginnings of the secular criminalisation of male homosexuality in the United Kingdom, how did others fare during this period of history? Sarah Bryson tells us that during the sixteenth century, the precursors of gay men weren’t the only unlucky ones.

Religious institutions had far greater influence over when someone was able to have sex. It was an erotophobic time and women’s sexual agency was affected by the presence of dualism between the Virgin Mary and Eve, which meant that asceticism and celibacy were initially privileged until the arrival of the English Reformation after the recognition of Henry VIII’s marital problems over the lack of male heirs to his Crown.

According to the church calendar, even married couples couldn’t have sex during Lent, Advent, Feast Days, Fast Days, Easter Week, Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays! Women couldn’t have sex during their menstrual periods, pregnant, for forty days after birth or when they were breastfeeding. As for sex itself, it was only to occur in the missionary position, with men on top. No other positions were permitted. At least women were encouraged to orgasm during this process, as it was felt to provide incentives for effective conception and future pregnancy. The age of consent and minimum marital age was twelve, although couples were encouraged to wait for a young woman’s fourteenth to sixteenth birthdays before they tried for children. One exception was Margaret Beaufort, mother to Henry VII, who gave birth to him at thirteen. However, that nearly killed her and insured her future infertility. If straight extramarital sex occurred, the culprits could be excommunicated and flogged. Men could and did take mistresses while their wives were pregnant, however- most obviously, Henry VIII and his first three wives. However, Elizabeth Vavasour, one of Elizabeth I’s maids, wasn’t so lucky, as she gave birth to a child outside wedlock to the then Earl of Oxford at sixteen, leading to a brief interval in the Tower of London for both parties.

As for contraception, while technically illegal, it consisted of withdrawal before ejaculation, or else herbal remedies like pepper, wool soaked in vinegar, or bundles of herbs were used as spermicides. The oral use of herbs and oils such as oil of mint, oil of rue, oil of savin and honeysuckles juice also occurred. Finally, a woman might also insert beeswax to cover the entrance to the cervix. The man could also use a type of condom made of lambskin, which was known as a ‘Venus Glove’. Illegitimacy was a source of social stigma, even though such children could be later legitimised. If no such acknowledgement occurred, women suffered from the stigma of such births, unless they went to church to prove paternity to insure the putative father paid child support.

Recommended:

Sarah Bryson: “Sexual Intercourse in Tudor Times” Tudor Society: October 2015: https://www.tudorsociety.com/sex-in-tudor-times-by-sarah-bryson/

Amy Licence: “Naughty Tudors: The Historical Reality of Sex Outside Marriage:” History, Her Story: 21.10.2011: http://authorherstorianparent.blogspot.co.nz/2011/10/naughty-tudors-historical-realities-of.html

Claire Ridgway: “Tudor Contraception” The Elizabeth Files: 2009: http://www.elizabethfiles.com/info/tudor-life/tudor-contraception/

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