Thursday, September 11, 2008

Question from Kelly - Heavy alcohol consumption

Did any of the Tudors beside Henry VIII drink heavily?

[Ed. note - We've already covered this for the wives, but any other comments are welcome.]

Previous thread:


Foose said...

In some accounts it seems that Henry Darnley, Mary Queen of Scots' second husband, had an alcohol problem. But it was fairly acceptable for men to drink heavily, so I'm not sure whether he definitely had a problem, by the standards of the day, or if designating him an "alcoholic" is applying a modern label to his behavior.

I'm very interested in why there don't seem to be more aristocratic or royal female alcoholics of the period -- does anyone know of one? I've read that the wine often had a very low alcohol content, so you'd have to drink a lot before getting drunk. But still -- alcohol was pretty available, and women had to deal with being constantly subordinated, suffering possibly chronic pain (toothache and arthritis and the aftereffects of childbirth and whatnot) and physical discomfort (no central heating), and in the case of Tudor women, experiencing high levels of anxiety and even grief when their family members or friends were executed or died young. Mary Queen of Scots was penned up for more than 20 years; you'd think it might have driven her to drink. Religion may have helped but recourse to alcohol should have been very tempting.

I'm guessing that there may have been a very strong cultural taboo against female drunkenness. But I wonder if the taboo was so strong that contemporary accounts of women's "illnesses" may have actually masked or reframed an alcoholic dependency -- that people of the period just wouldn't and couldn't see a noblewoman as drunk, but ill or mad; cf. Mary "Rose" Tudor's long retirement in the country or Lady Lisle's insanity. Any thoughts?

Foose said...

By the way, I'm not sure that Henry VIII did "drink heavily," or if this just a popular image of him derived from such films as "The Private Life of Henry VIII." You don't see any contemporary accounts that mention him behaving drunkenly. It could be because it was a normative behavior for Englishmen, males and male royalty to get drunk and no one "noticed" it or considered it sufficiently out of the ordinary to mention it in a despatch. Or perhaps people regarded mentioning such behavior as lese-majeste.

But the period he lived in was full of guidebooks and manuals, heavily influenced by Italy, on proper conduct for a prince, even a tyrant-prince. Drunkenness in a ruler -- a lack of control -- was considered infra dig. Henry's court, moreover, was recognized as being extremely ceremonial and observant of etiquette; the new book "The Contending Kingdoms" has an essay that mentions how irksome visiting Frenchmen found all the rules and distance and grovelling subservience that surrounded Henry, as their own monarch operated in an environment that was much more relaxed and accessible. Henry undoubtedly set the tone and indulging in public drunkenness would have undermined his carefully constructed image of the perpetually vigilant prince with complete governance of his court.

PhD Historian said...

As usual, Foose, you raise some very interesting points! So much so that I have to ask who you are and what your academic background is.

I think it would be very inappropriate to use the term “alcoholic” in a sixteenth-century context. “Drunken-ness” appears to be culturally determined, and it is therefore courting anachronism to try to apply subjective labels to sixteenth-century drinking habits. After all, in the US today, different states have widely differing standards for what blood alcohol level constitutes “under the influence.” There is no single scientific number used universally, so how can we attempt to set a standard retroactively and without scientific testing? Too, cultural differences can be highlighted by contrasting modern “pub culture” and alcohol consumption habits in the UK with average US alcohol consumption. The US is relatively “dry” by comparison, despite the stereotype of the drunken redneck or sports fan. And remember, the US once foolishly tried to impose a constitutional ban on all forms of alcoholic beverages, again suggesting a huge cultural difference between the US and the UK. I have to imagine that a similar difference exists between the modern UK and Tudor England.

I also think it is very important to note that alcohol consumption was a daily habit for people of all ages in Tudor England. As I noted in the post on the effect of alcohol on women’s pregnancies, low-alcohol-content ale was a staple of the diet of working people in England during the period. A major portion of an individual’s daily caloric intake was derived from that ale. And while the wealthy drank wine “straight,” it was more commonly diluted with water, lowering the alcohol-to-volume content.

But as you note, the prescriptive behavior manuals of the era do comment on drunken-ness and on the need to maintain control over one’s behavior. What we would today recognize as drunken-ness therefore certainly occurred. But I have to suspect that the friendlier chroniclers and observers seldom comment on it out of some kind of unwritten concession to etiquette, just as they seldom comment on many other less-than-acceptable public social habits.

I absolutely agree that any modern perception of Henry VIII as a heavy drinker is certainly a product of Hollywood and the propensity of the film industry to revise history. Henry probably did drink to excess on occasion, along with his courtiers, male and female. But Henry The Drunk is a creation of the actor Charles Laughton and not supported by the primary sources. I have no doubt that had Henry been a habitual drunk by Tudor-era standards, the non-friendly chroniclers and observers would have recorded the fact.

Lastly, because I specialize in women’s history, I need to comment again on the issue of women’s alcohol consumption. You ask about recorded instances of aristocratic and noble women “alcoholics.” I am not aware, off the top of my head, of more than a handful of instances in which wealthy women were accused of drinking alcohol to excess. But again, I suspect that may be the result of chroniclers simply not mentioning it out of some kind of concession to etiquette. I AM aware of a larger number of working class women being accused of intemperate drinking, however, but those mentions are almost always a result of the drinking leading to legal consequences, especially public misbehavior. And like you, I tend to suspect that many of the illnesses experienced by both women AND MEN were either the result of or exacerbated by daily alcohol consumption, and that excess alcohol consumption was often “reframed” as physical illness. But I am not convinced that that reframing was conscious or deliberate. Given the universal daily presence of alcoholic beverages as a staple of the Tudor-era diet, I tend to suspect that perception of the cause-effect link was sufficiently fuzzy to limit distinction between illness/madness and what we would today call alcoholism. I wonder if the omni-presence of alcohol might have, in essence, blinded observers to many of its effects other than simple episodic and acute drunken-ness, but not to what we would today recognize as chronic alcoholism.

But I must take issue with your observation that women “had to deal with being constantly subordinated” and the implication that their experience of chronic pain or grief was somehow qualitatively different from that of men. First, it appears that men suffered many of the same pains and the same intensity of grief as did women, judging by men’s accounts of such in the primary sources. But more importantly, it is anachronistic to employ modern standards in an effort to measure how Tudor-era women reacted to their gender status. There has been a great deal of scholarship published arguing that women not only accepted their “subordinate” status, but that they also actually aided in maintaining and reinforcing it (see, for example, “Domestic Dangers” by Laura Gowing). In other words, women so thoroughly “bought into” the social system that rendered them inferior to men that they (women) were all but unable to conceive of an alternative. Even in those instances when women challenged some aspect of the gender role, e.g. by speaking or acting publicly, they seem to have done so ad hoc, and not in a conscious or deliberate effort to “overcome” some perceived socially imposed limitation. I therefore suspect that women’s status, generically, played little role in whether or not they drank to excess, though it is entirely likely that individual women experienced personal circumstances (bad marriages, social isolation) that led them to seek symptomatic relief through intoxication.

Foose said...

Phd historian, you pay me a great compliment. I must confess I am only an "independent scholar," having been discouraged in my undergraduate days from pursuing Tudor history as a career by all the obstacles you so ably pointed out in your reply to Olivia last month, along with a general disinclination to starve while I studied for years. O frail and contemptible flesh!

Regarding your interesting reply, I do not discount the pains and griefs suffered by aristocratic and gentry men, but I think they had a far greater range of outlets for their emotions - roistering in Southwark, going abroad, taking up a new position, plotting treason -- whereas their women seem to have been confined to channeling their stresses into religion and needlework, rather sedentary activities that tend to encourage introspection to a potentially harmful degree.

Regarding the subordination I mentioned, I was thinking of it more on a personal rather than a social-patriarchal level. There seems to be a persistent trope in the culture that widows were best off, which suggests that many women found it onerous to have to spend a lifetime adapting themselves to a husband's whims, preferences, stupidities, cruelties, all legally, religiously and familially endorsed. It is interesting that the more famous aristocratic widows of the period -- the Duchess of Somerset, both Duchesses of Suffolk (Frances Brandon and Katherine Willoughby), and Henry's two sisters, even Mary Boleyn -- all chose to remarry considerably beneath them, when their rank and status and property (even with various attainders) entitled them to husbands of greater standing. Perhaps they sought a level of familiar comfort and/or good looks, but maybe they wanted (even if they did not actually get, at least in Margaret Tudor's case) a relationship where at last they would be the one in control, where their wishes (and yes, whims and preferences and stupidities and cruelties) would be considered first.

kb said...


So the very, although not exclusively, British past time of binge drinking would be the definition of drunken-ness while constant low-level consumption of alcohol with meals and as participation in acts of hospitality would just be avoiding the dangers of polluted water.

The perception of Henry VIII as a drunk is merely a transposition of gluttony mixed with Laughton's performance (as phd historian notes).

RE: Darnley - nice example foose!

I believe that Darnley was sloppy. He was sloppy emotionally, politically, physically and his relationship with alcohol was the same. The inability to control his behaviour would single him out for criticism and alcohol would have been merely one of the catalogued faults.

Mary Queen of Scots turned to conspiracy and religiosity over alcohol. Those activities were how she made it through the days when she wasn't embroidering hidden messages.

I think there were probably just as many female as male alcoholics but they chose different environments for their drinking. And drunks tend to forget to leave archival sources or future historians.

Foose said...

Sir John Harington reported that under James, when his brother-in-law the Danish king paid a visit in 1611, "I think the Dane hath strangely wrought on our good English nobles; for those, whom I never could get to taste good liquor, now follow the fashion, and wallow in beastly delights.

"The ladies abandon their sobriety, and seem to roll about in intoxication." This was also the occasion of the famous masque where "The entertainment and show went forward, and most of the presenters went back-ward, or fell down; wine did so occupy their upper chambers. Now did appear, in rich dress, Hope, Faith, and Charity. Hope did essay to speak, but wine rendered her endeavours so feeble that she withdrew, and hoped the king would excuse her brevity; Faith was then all alone, for I am certain she was not joined with good works, and left the court in a staggering condition ..." I don't think you would seen this happen at masques presented to Henry or any of his children. Maybe Charles Laughton should have played King James!

One 16th-century aristocratic-royal woman whose downfall seems to be associated with excessive drinking is Anna of Saxony, the second wife of the prince of Orange. In her case the drinking seems to be strongly identified as both a cause and symptom of her "insanity," also signalled by a taste for "dishonorable company," adultery (leading to an illegitimate child), extravagance and outbursts of temper. kb, you characterize Henry Darnley as "sloppy," but perhaps another way of describing it is "out of control," and that is how Anna comes across as well to her contemporaries. Perhaps, in a highly rigid, hierarchical and formal society where decorum and impassivity was admired, habitual drunkenness signalled being "out of control" but as part of a constellation of behaviors affecting the subject, as you say, "emotionally, politically, physically."

PhD Historian said...

Just to throw something more into the mix, KB, I am of the opinion that a majority of the English (and even European) population in the Tudor era were indeed probably physiological alcoholics. By that I mean that their bodies were physically addicted to the daily consumption of low to moderate amounts of alcohol. We see it today in medical settings: little old ladies who have one glass of wine or sherry each and every evening for years on end, then when that daily wine or sherry is removed, they go into full-blown DTs. They've never been "drunk" a day in their life, yet they are physiologically dependent on alcohol. I have to suspect that the daily consumption of alcoholic beverages, even low-alcohol ales, led over time to physiological dependence. And I agree that the women equalled the men in numbers. I'm just not convinced that self-perceptions of their gender roles played any significant part in their alcoholism.

Your citation of James I is useful. In looking at his portraits, especially from his later years, he has the stereotypical facial features of an old alcoholic!

Foose, I agree with you re: widows perceiving themselves as better off, but I am not sure whether that is beause those widows, usually wealthy, had been in arranged and non-companionate marriages or whether it was indeed largely or solely due to self-perceptions of subordination. The primary sources are largely limited to women of the wealthier strata of society, where marriages were so often contracted for financial and familial reasons, not for reasons of personal attraction. It is therefore logical to assume that inter-spousal conflict occured more often in those non-companionate marriages. I suspect the issue for those women was less one of gender subordination than it was of subordination to someone they sometimes did not much like. The women were perhaps not chafing at subordination to men generally, but rather to a specific man. The second or subsequent marriages that you cite each seem to have been companionate matches, i.e., the woman actually chose her husband, rather than him being chosen for her. I tend to doubt that the women sought those specific partners in order to be "in control." I am instead inclined to think they sought their specific second or subsequent partner in an effort to have a husband that they could actually live with in relative inter-personal comfort.

Anonymous said...

re: foose and male and female outlets:

I think that there were more outlets available to women than religion and needlework. Although those activities were the ones most heavily advocated in manuals and other published works, don't forget the gap between theory and practice. In theory, women were meant to be "chaste, silent, and obedient"; in practice they could be heavily involved in public affairs and relationships, even if not in any "official" capacity. The best examples I have are women writers: from the 1570s onward there was a growing number of women who circulated their writing among family and friends as well as had their work published. Isabella Whitney, Mary Sidney, Aemelia Lanyer, Elizabeth Cary, Ann Clifford, and Rachel Speght come to mind first. Im not saying that the Renaissance was a paradise for women in terms of education and dissemination of ideas, but these women were out there and we luckily have some of their texts today. I cant imagine how many may have been lost....

My point (I think I may have one) is that while women were repeatedly told how they should behave, there were a decent number who did something different (not just writers; they happen to be the ones Im most familiar with). The Tudor period was one filled with limitations and restrictions on opportunities for women, and I love reading about the ones who quietly (and not so quietly) worked with, through and around those rules.

On roistering in Southwark: Moll Cutpurse could roister with the best of them. And Isabella Whitney's poetic romp through London's streets and neighborhoods comes close.


PhD Historian said...

Again on outlets for women, I recommend reading Barbara Harris's "English Aristocratic Women: Marriage and Family, Property and Careers, 1450-1550." It details the many, many ways in which women were able to find outlets for their talents and energies, often in direct contradiction to their theoretical prescribed gender role. I also recommend Marjorie Keniston McIntosh's "Working Women in English Society, 1300-1620" for a similar approach to non-aristocratic women. Together the two books demonstrate Kate's assertion very well: theoretical ideals were often very different from real practice.