What Did Tudor England Look, Smell and Sound Like?

A new book by scholar Amy Licence vividly transports readers back to the 16th century

Elizabeth I procession portrait
Living Like a Tudor draws on the five senses to offer a vivid portrait of Tudor life. Pictured here is a procession overseen by the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Tudor England was much quieter than the modern world. Instead of waking up to a cacophony of traffic and sirens, writes author Amy Licence for History Extra, medieval people lived their lives to the tune of “church bells chiming across the fields, monastic voices singing, animals bleating, the lashing of rain, the notes of a lute, or raised voices in anger or passion.”

More than 400 years after a Tudor last sat on the throne, this ephemeral soundscape is difficult to recapture. But other aspects of long-ago daily life—from feast menus to gruesome medical treatments—are less elusive. In Living Like a Tudor: Woodsmoke and Sage: A Sensory Journey Through Tudor England, out now from Pegasus Books, Licence deftly recreates the medieval landscape, drawing on the five senses to offer a glimpse of the sights, smells and tastes of 15th- through 17th-century England.

Living Like a Tudor: Woodsmoke and Sage: A Sensory Journey Through Tudor England

Take a 500-year journey back in time and experience the Tudor era through the five senses.

“The human experience cannot be understood in its entirety while the daily and mundane are excluded: the shoe that pinches on our walk, the rumbling tummy that prevents us from concentrating, the accidental downpour that soaks us on the way home,” writes Licence, a historian who specializes in the study of medieval and early modern women’s lives, in the book’s introduction. “This is life. If we understand this, we understand that, like us, the Tudors were also continually experiencing their own physicality.”

Living Like a Tudor is divided into five sections, with each dedicated to a different sense. Sight understandably commands the most attention, while smell and sound receive comparatively less space. The book’s overall argument, according to Licence, is that each of the senses contributed to the construction of the Tudor world, serving “literally and metaphorically [as] the building bricks … used to decode the meaning of existence.” Sumptuous clothes and sweet perfumes, for instance, instantly connoted high status; a dinner of meat, peas, beans and onions, meanwhile, was more often found on the table of a lower-class family than that of a well-to-do one.

What Did Tudor England Look, Smell and Sound Like?
Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The book’s exploration of sight begins with an assessment of Hans Holbein’s famed painting The Ambassadors. Created in 1533, the double portrait is known for its rich symbolism. Objects on view behind the painting’s subjects—a globe, a compass, a lute, a hymnal book—are juxtaposed with an eerily grinning skull in what Artsy’s Julia Fiore describes as a meditation on “larger powers at work: death and God’s ultimate salvation.” Licence, for her part, acknowledges this symbolism but is more interested in the artwork as a gateway for understanding material culture. “Everything that [can] be seen, from the rings upon a finger to the shape of a shoe, [is a] coded reference to social hierarchy,” she explains.

“Much has been written about the symbolism of Tudor paintings,” adds historical fiction author Tony Riches in his review of Living Like a Tudor, “but we can learn as much from the ‘props’ used by the artists, the background and even the textures of the clothing they wore.”

In Tudor England, only the wealthiest members of society could afford to have their likenesses captured by Holbein and similarly prestigious painters. When posing for portraits, these patrons deliberately chose their clothing and surroundings to convey high status. In 1567, William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham, had himself, his wife and their six children painted at a table filled with fruit and exotic animals like parrots and monkeys—explicit references to his “success as a progenitor,” or bearer of familial fruit, and involvement in trade in the New World, according to Licence.

What Did Tudor England Look, Smell and Sound Like?
1567 portrait of William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham, and his family Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Outside of portraiture, medieval visual culture took the form of fashion, architecture and the written word (a field buoyed by the rise of the printing press in the late 15th century, as Licence points out for Literary Hub). Strict sumptuary laws dictated what colors and styles of clothing people of different classes could wear. A contributing factor in the fall of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, was his wardrobe of “royal cloth of gold and silver, gold chains, and costly colors that rivaled the appearance of the king himself,” writes Licence for History Extra. In 1575, decades after the duke’s 1521 execution, Elizabeth I reissued a law stipulating that her subjects must dress in accordance with their status in response to the “undoing of a great number of young [men], otherwise serviceable … seeking by apparel to be esteemed as gentlemen.”

Architecture served as another avenue for material expression. Per Ian Mortimer of History Extra, “dimness [was] always an aspect of seeing indoors,” as the high cost and scarcity of glass made installing windows a luxury few could afford. (“Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall,” was a rare exception.) Upper-class family homes might boast exteriors studded with Renaissance pillars and roundels and interiors adorned with wall tapestries and cupboards filled with gold and silver plates. Lower-class citizens, on the other hand, lived in plain spaces designed and decorated for practical purposes. Overall, argues Living Like a Tudor, “Visual ornament was a sign of worth, usually in terms of social standing, and the lack of external clues was interpreted as a lack of substance.”

What Did Tudor England Look, Smell and Sound Like?
The local saying "Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall" aptly summarizes this Tudor estate's appeal. ADTeasdale via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

Sound and smell, though difficult to recreate today, also played central roles in daily medieval life. The noises of Tudor England ranged from the pleasing—string instruments like the lute and choral performances—to the inescapable—the cry of a cockerel outside one’s windows or the chimes of bells signaling when to stop for prayer. “The human voice was the most common sound,” writes Licence for History Extra, with arguments, conversations, speeches, and seditious exchanges easily overheard (and sometimes repeated) by nosy neighbors.

Contrary to popular lore, the Tudors weren’t horrifically unclean. Manuals, receipts and record books suggest that “keeping clean and smelling fresh” were of great importance to the Tudor elite, writes Licence, “but that they went about it in different ways.” Elizabeth I reportedly washed her hands in perfumed water before every meal. Courtiers wore linen undergarments beneath their rich wool, silk and leather clothes and furs; these linen smocks and hose were washed regularly with lye soap and other sweet-smelling products. Because outerwear did not directly touch the body, it was washed far less frequently, instead being turned inside out or treated with herb-based powders. Some members of the court carried perfume bottles or pomanders (boxes or balls filled with herbs and spices) at their side to ward off unwelcome smells. Everyday people might try to clean themselves by taking a dip in a pond or river, but doing so carried the risk of drowning. “The dirtier and smellier an individual,” in other words, “the lower down the social scale they appeared,” according to Licence.

What Did Tudor England Look, Smell and Sound Like?
British school, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, c. 1545 Royal Collection Trust

To understand the tastes of Tudor England, Licence turned to centuries-old recipe books and records. The richest members of society feasted on animals of all kinds, including partridges, pheasants, geese, eels, deer and hogs, as well as sweet desserts and dishes seasoned with spices like cinnamon, ginger, cloves and saffron. At the Field of Cloth of Gold, an over-the-top summit held by Henry VIII and French king Francis I in 1520, revelers enjoyed gilded swans and peacocks, candied orange peels, pears in wine, fruit jellies, Tudor wafers, a spiced drink called Hippocras, gingerbread, porpoises, and even a dolphin

Poorer people, meanwhile, ate thick stews made out of staples like cabbage and leeks, small portions of meat, brown bread, and vegetables and fruits readily grown in gardens. Ale was a common drink of choice for all classes of the kingdom, with beer, wine and syrup-based concoctions emerging as similarly popular options. The Tudors were wary of untreated water, which was thought to carry disease, and believed milk should only be drunk in the morning, ideally by children.

What Did Tudor England Look, Smell and Sound Like?
A woodcut depicting the burnings of Protestant reformers Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley in 1555 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Licence interprets the final sense featured in Living Like a Tudor broadly, exploring touch’s role in disease, pain and suffering, sex and pregnancy, and sports and games. The theory of the four humors (bodily fluids thought to determine individuals’ temperament, features and health) guided many of these activities, with treatments like bloodletting aimed at restoring the humors’ balance. Tudor England was far more violent than modern society, with gruesome forms of execution—like beheading, burning at the stake, and being hung, drawn and quartered—carried out in full view of the public. Accidents, beatings targeting men’s wives and children, street fights, assaults, rape and murder also contributed to the heightened sense of imminent physical violence. On a lighter note, the Tudors took part in a range of recreational sports, from hawking to hunting to archery. Henry VIII famously enjoyed wrestling, even challenging Francis I to a wrestling match at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

“For the Tudors,” writes Licence, “life was an intensely physical experience, its quality dependent upon the health and liberty of the body, and its duration determined by the avoidance of serious illness, disease and accident.”

As Booklist concludes in its review of Living Like a Tudor, “Licence opens a riveting window into the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and overall feel of the age. From portraits to tobacco, from the regular ringing of bells to the foods a melancholy man should avoid, Licence unveils the dynamic reality of Tudor life.”