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Elizabethan Women


Elizabethan Family

Elizabethan Family
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A man was considered to be the head of a marriage, and he had the legal right to chastise his wife. However, it is important to understand what this "headship" meant. It did not mean, as if often supposed, that the husband was able to command his wife to do anything he pleased, in other words, be a petty tyrant. He was expected to take care of her, make sure she had everything she needed, and most importantly to love her and be a good father to any children they had. If a husband felt the need to chastise his wife, then he was not allowed to be cruel or inflict bodily harm. If he did abuse his wife, then he could be prosecuted or prevented from living with her. There was no divorce (as we know it) in Elizabethan times. Marriage generally lasted as long as the couple both lived. If a couple did want to separate, then they needed to obtain an annulment, which, if granted, meant that their marriage had never been lawful. Despite having been married six times, Henry VIII only regarded Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr as his legal wives.

It is probably fair to say that, despite the limitations, women had more freedom in the Elizabethan period than they had had previously and would have again for some time. The Renaissance brought with it a new way of thinking. It was thought men and women could do anything and be anything they wanted to be, that their capacity for knowledge was limitless. Thus, noble women, as well as men, were given an impressive education in the classics, mathematics, and all other academic subjects of the day. Elizabeth being on the throne also encouraged noble men to educate their daughters, as they did not want them to look dim in the presence of their very intelligent and highly educated queen.

Women who perhaps suffered most in this period were, ironically, those like the Queen who did not wish to marry. Tudor society did not have many avenues open to single women and, following the Reformation, those avenues were even less. Before, women were able to become nuns and look forward to a rewarding life in convents, perhaps be a Mother Superior one day. But with the Reformation, the convents were closed. Wealthy single women (heiresses of property) could look forward to being mistress of their estates and wield the power in the community this would bring, but for poor women, the only long-term "career" really open to them was domestic service. It was not surprising, therefore, that most women married. Marriage was seen as the desirable state for both men and women, and single women were sometimes looked upon with suspicion. It was mainly single women who were accused of being witches by their neighbours.

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