The turbulent Tudor age never fails to capture the imagination. But what was it actually like to be a woman during this period? This was a time when death in infancy or during childbirth was rife; when marriage was usually a legal contract, not a matter for love, and the education of women was minimal at best. Yet the Tudor century was also dominated by powerful and characterful women in a way that
no era had been before.
To Transform Human Creatures – Extract from The Lives of Tudor Women
Elizabeth I famously attempted to turn back time with the ample use of cosmetics. Later portraits, such as the anonymous ‘Darnley portrait’, which may have been painted from life, show a white, wax-like face which may not have been entirely the result of artistic flattery. (In the years since it was painted, pigment fading has further increased the effect of paleness.) A pale, line-free skin was much admired at the time, and many women, both young and old, would go to some lengths to achieve it.
|The Darnley Portrait, c. 1575(Wikimedia Commons)|
But this use of cosmetics was widely mocked in the period, too, with one work – published in 1616 – calling the practice ‘paintings laid one upon another, in such sort that a man might easily cut off a curd or cheese cake from either of their cheeks’. Some women, the author added, had applied so many concoctions that ‘they have made their faces of a thousand colours’. It was irreligious, since by covering ‘her natural face’, a woman was defying God. Although this Discourse Against Painting and Tincturing of Women was written by a man, its transmission was aided and abetted by a woman named Elizabeth Arnold, who translated it from the Spanish.
In spite of this sort of disapproval, many women continued to use make-up to improve their appearance, particularly as they aged. To achieve a smooth white complexion, such potions as bacon grease mixed with egg whites and a little powder were applied. Another recipe used ground-up pig bones.
For the wealthiest members of the society, there was the mixture of white lead and vinegar, which was known as ’ceruse’. This highly toxic compound gave the skin the desired lustre when applied, but also caused considerable skin problems. After a time, the skin could become grey and wrinkled, further exacerbating the need for cosmetics. One early seventeenth-century writer, Thomas Tuke, considered that ‘white lead, wherewith women use to paint themselves was, without doubt, brought in use by the Devil, the capital enemy of nature, therewith to transform human creatures, of fair, making them ugly, enormous and abominable’. But for Elizabeth I, who, like many women, had smallpox pits and later wrinkles and other blemishes to cover, the attraction of white lead was perfectly understandable.
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