The Tudors - A Century of Change

7. Sources

The Tudor period is rich in documentary and other kinds of evidence. The advent of the Tudors coincided with the invention of printing. This, together with the spread of secular education which 'turned every man into a lawyer' led to the publication of the first popular history of England: the chronicle of Edward Hall. It was largely based on the work of an Italian scholar called Polydore Vergil who had been retained by Henry VII to write a history of England from the Tudor point of view. Whereas Vergil's history was written in Latin and was intended for the educated elite, Hall wrote in English and his book reached a very wide audience.

Earlier chronicles had generally been the work of monks and reflect their view of the world. Often they survive in a very few manuscript copies and owe their preservation to the activities of Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury during most of Elizabeth's reign. When the monasteries were dissolved (1536-9) the contents of their libraries were dispersed; Parker recovered as much as he could and published first editions of many key texts such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Another important collector of early manuscripts and records was Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631). It was he who acquired the chronicle of Crowland Abbey, whose continuation by a senior cleric staying at the abbey in 1486 provides us with our most reliable account of the reign of Richard III.

In addition to chronicles, the growing amount of diplomatic activity during the period gave rise to a flow of ambassadors' reports which give us detailed descriptions of Tudor monarchs and their courtiers. Travelling merchants and scholars have also left us their impressions of England and the English (see Introduction). However, these accounts seldom allow us to see into the minds of individuals, though they do sometimes give us tantalising clues. For this kind of insight we need personal letters, diaries and memoires, of which there are an increasing number in the Tudor period. They include two unique collections - the Paston Letters and Lisle Letters. We also have such moving documents as the 'confession' of Perkin Warbeck, made on the scaffold minutes before his death; Thomas Cromwell's memoranda as he determined the lives and fates of those whom fate and the king had brought within his power: and the recollections of the unknown Tower official who recorded the last words of Lady Jane Grey. The diary of Edward VI gives us a view of Tudor society from one who occupied its highest position whilst trial records give a tantalising glimpse of the lives of those at the other end of the social scale. Take this short extract from cases heard in Surrey in Elizabeth's reign:

  • LUXFORD, William, of London, labourer, indicted for grand larceny. On 15th April last, at Godstone, he stole a cow worth 26 shilings and eightpence from John Bedyll. Guilty: allowed benefit of clergy.
  • HOLLYDAY, William, of Croydon, labourer, indicted for highway robbery. On 31 March last, he assaulted Robert Ware in the highway at Lambeth and stole from him 15 shillings in money, a black cloak worth 7 shillings and a dagger worth 3 shillings and fourpence. Guilty: to hang.
  • SURE, Joan, of Battersea, spinster, indicted for grand larceny. On 14th May last she stole a shirt wirth one shilling, a smock worth one shilling, a green woolllen carpet worth one shilling, two linen aprons worth one shilling, a hat worth one shilling and a pair of woman's hose, worth eightpence, from William Trewe. On the same day she stole three shillings and one penny in money from William Mouncker. Guilty: remanded because pregnant (and pardoned by general pardon in 1581).
  • BROCKHALL, George, of Betchworth, clerk, indicted for witchcraft. On 19th July at Betchworth he bewitched to death a bull worth two pounds belonging to William Pounder. At large: tried in February 1577 and found not guilty.
  • TARRENTEN, Simon, of London, silkweaver, indicted for murder. By an inquisition held at St Saviour, Southwark on 26th June last, before Thomas Agar, coroner, on the body of Joan Smith aged 15 years, the jury found that on 20th December 1575, in Golden Lane Middlesex, the said Tarrenten assaulted Smith, his servant, with a bedstaff, inflicting injuries to several parts of her body. She was taken to the house of Helen Hudson, her mother, in St Saviour's parish and then to St Thomas's Hospital in Southwark, where she died on15th January 1576. Not guilty..

(Lockyer R., 1993, Tudor England, Longmans, pp 78-9)

What tragic lives can be imagined to lie behind these few short lines! Another way of understanding how Tudor society functioned is to study the registers of births, deaths and marriages thst every parish was obliged to keep after 1534. These can provide the first evidence of a particular family's ancestry whilst wills can give us the best description of a piece of property at a particular time.

However, all these sources pale into consideration beside the comprehensive picture of Tudor life and thought given to us in the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe. As we have seen, Shakespeare used history to teach moral lessons; in doing so he tells us a great deal about the politics of his own time - a point Queen Elizabeth understood when she rebuked her keeper of records for uncovering documents relating to the deposition of Richard II in 1399. 'Know ye not that I am Richard II' she is said to have stormed. She, at least, knew the value of history.