05 April 2023
Inside a Tudor woman's home
Have you ever wondered how a woman’s home in 16th-century England would be decorated? What rooms, furniture and furnishings might it have had? Two manuscripts digitised for the British Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project reveal just that.
Egerton Roll 8797 and a contemporary copy, Egerton Roll 8798, are inventories of the London house of Alice Smythe, drawn up soon after her death in 1593. Alice came from an important merchant family. Her father was Sir Andrew Judde (c. 1492–1555), mayor of London in 1550 and a master of the Skinners Company. In 1555, she married another Skinner, Thomas Smythe (1522–1591), an MP and a successful merchant himself. Three years later, Thomas became the customs collector for the port of London, a government role that brought him vast riches and the nickname Customer Smythe. We can easily see the couple’s wealth in this inventory of their home, drawn up after Alice died, two years after Thomas’ own death.
Portrait of Alice Smythe by Cornelius Ketel, c. 1580: Private Collection
On 30 June that year, Richard Rogers, a goldsmith, Richard Osborne, a draper, and two merchant tailors, William Greenway and Hugh Sherriot, citizens of London, appraised Alice’s house and its contents. The inventory they created goes room by room through her house in Fenchurch Street, London, beginning with the entrance hall. This had a couple of long tables, two candlesticks, and a picture of the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth (2 shillings). Next were two parlours: the folks’ parlour, for everyday use, had a fireplace, chairs and a Bible, but the ‘best’ parlour had more elaborate decor. As well as leather chairs and green curtains, the room also had three ‘Turkey carpets’ (£2 16s 8d). Textiles like this from Turkey and elsewhere in the Islamic world were a sign of wealth and could be found in many prosperous Tudor homes.
The beginning of the inventory of Alice’s house: Egerton Roll 8797
The bedroom above the best parlour was decorated with tapestries and a painting of Moses meeting with Pharaoh (10 shillings). In the next room, which had a matted floor, was a painting of Henry VIII and one of Cupid and Venus (6 shillings each). Beside this was a painted bedroom with a featherbed, green rugs and curtains, and a virginal, a type of small harpsichord.
Many of the other rooms upstairs were equally well decorated, with more ‘Turkey’ carpets, featherbeds, and green or red curtains. There was a gallery filled with paintings and stained glass. In the room within the gallery was another sitting room with fourteen paintings of Alice and Thomas and their children, suggesting the importance she placed upon her family. Alongside these was a painting of the Roman heroine Lucretia, chests, and velvet and taffeta chairs.
Other artworks in the house were an Arras tapestry of Joseph, and paintings of Death and Pride, Christ as a shepherd, and the Last Supper. The great chamber had an embroidered coat of arms and portraits of Queen Elizabeth, William Cecil, Lord Treasurer, the Virgin Mary on stained glass, and Holofernes. Alice’s home, with its collection of paintings depicting Biblical figures, Classical myths and Tudor monarchs, is typical of a prosperous English house in this period. The great chamber’s contents came to £14 16s 10d. In contrast, the bedrooms of the three maids totalled just £4 19s 2d. Alice had at least seven other servants each with their own room. Outside the main house was a tennis court, a stable, a wash house and a still house. In the yard were a few weapons: two billhooks and three pikes.
Among Alice’s valuables were £23 10s 8d of rings including one with a diamond and twenty-two rubies. Her other jewellery and plate came to £183 14s 7d. One of these was diamond jewellery in the shape of an ‘A’, probably used by Alice herself. Alongside this was £177 9s in ready money.
Title page of Thomas Bentley’s The Monument of Matrones, 1582: British Library G.12047-49.
Alice also gives the impression of having been a literate woman. She had 35s 8d of books, including two chronicles, a few Bibles, the Book of Common Prayer, and Thomas Bentley’s The Monument of Matrones. Published in 1582, this volume contained prayers written by and for women, including Queen Elizabeth. While the other books may have been shared by Alice with her husband, this one would almost certainly have been her own.
In all, Alice’s possessions came to £1084 17s 1d, plus £1248 that was received from the executors of her husband’s will. The total would be worth almost £700,000 today and this didn’t include the value of the house itself or any other property she owned elsewhere. She owed debts of £76 14s to various individuals, mostly wages for her servants, the fee for having her will written, and money for her doctor. Alice left £438 17s 5d in funeral expenses.
This inventory takes us inside the house of a wealthy Elizabethan widow, giving us an insight into her interests, lifestyle and beliefs. The imported ‘Turkey’ rugs and Arras tapestries hint at London’s international ties in the late 1500s, while the copy of Bentley’s Monument of Matrones tells us about Alice’s personal spirituality; her paintings of classical figures and stories suggest an interest in the Greek and Roman past. It helps us recover the story of a woman who has often been overshadowed by her husband and who did not leave us many documents in her own voice.
We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.
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