Scandalous stories of love and sex in Tudor England

From a male prostitute arrested after having sex with monks to sparrow brains as a cure for impotence, fascinating book explores the VERY unsavoury history of sex in Tudor England

  • Author Carol McGrath explores sex and sexuality in Tudor England in a new book
  • Reveals how men of all classes relied on aphrodisiacs and love potions to woo
  • Also tells how women were torn over whether to grow out their pubic hair
  • There was strict thought around sex positions and only missionary was approved

From rudimentary contraception fashioned from cleaned out fish guts to love potions baked with blood and bodily fluids, a new book explores the grimy history of sex in Tudor England. 

Author Carol McGrath, a History and English graduate best known for writing historical fiction, delves into contemporary sources to uncover the laws and beliefs surrounding bedroom antics during the 16th century. 

Starting with the methods of seduction, McGrath describes how, led by Henry VIII, men would use their figure-hugging hose to accentuate their desirable shapely calves and employ a system of colour-coding to communicate their intentions. 

Meanwhile women paid close attention to how much pubic hair they had, if any. A thick tuft was a sign of ferti

Getting down and dirty: Author Carol McGrath, a History and English graduate best known for writing historical fiction, delves into contemporary sources to uncover the laws and beliefs surrounding bedroom antics during the 16th century. Above, a 1505 illustration

lity and youth, but it could also give rise to the dreaded pubic lice. 

However a lack of pubic hair might indicate that a woman was being treated for syphilis – a sure-fire way to put off a potential paramour. 

Once inside the bedroom, Tudor couples relied on basic methods of contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancy and the spread of venereal disease. 

There were also rules on the sex positions that were and were not appropriate, even in a marital bed. Missionary with the man on top was the only approved position, everything else was feared to ignite lust in a man.

Alongside this, McGrath shares fascinating tidbits on individual people who are remembered for their sexual dalliances, including a male prostitute who, when arrested, bragged about having sex with monks, nuns and married women. 

Here, ahead of the publication of Sex and Sexuality In Tudor England on 30 January, FEMAIL reveals some of the scintillating insights…

‘Sweat cakes’ made of blood and bodily fluids to attract a woman 

Her father’s fatal end? A homemade aphrodisiac is rumoured to led to the death of f Ferdinand of Aragon, the father of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon (pictured)

Did a love potion kill Catherine of Aragon’s father? 

Death by aphrodisiac? Ferdinand of Aragon

Spanish fly, an emerald green chemical derived from blister beetles, was a common ingredient added to aphrodisiacs. 

The rationale was that as the solution caused feelings of warmth within the body, this would lead to a stimulation of sexual desire. 

However it was also potentially fatal.

Rumours suggest it could have led to the death of Ferdinand of Aragon, the father of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. 

Following the death of his first wife, Isabella I of Castile, Ferdinand, then 54, married the 18-year-old Germaine of Foix. 

It is said he tried to counteract his advancing age with homemade aphrodisiacs, including one containing Spanish fly.    

Ferdinand eventually died in 1516, aged 63. 

If a Tudor man wanted to up his performance in the bedroom, he could simply look in one of the widely available handbooks that addressed the topic. 

Ingredients like the brains of a small sparrow, the grease from the kidneys of a freshly slaughtered Billy goat or cloves in milk and blueberry juice were said to help cure impotence. 

There were also concoctions that were said to help a man if he wanted to repress his lust, for example if he found himself attracted to a person he shouldn’t be. One such mixture involved stirring cauliflower seeds in lentil water. 

It was said camphor, a powder from the bark and wood of the camphor tree, could be rubbed on a penis to make it flaccid, although this ingredient, originally from Asia, would have been difficult for the majority of men in Tudor England to come by.

For men who couldn’t rely on wealth, looks or charm alone, there were also love potions, although during Tudor times they were only available underground due to their association with witchcraft.  

‘One love charm was to plant marigolds in the footsteps where the object of one’s love had walked,’ McGrath writes. ‘Mashed worms and herbs could work equally as well. 

‘Sacramental bread, believed to turn into the body of Christ during the rite of the Eucharist, was also considered to possess magical qualities to aid love.’

However there were also far less savoury options, like the so-called ‘sweaty cakes’, which were made from blood and bodily fluids and were said to make the recipient fall head-over-heels in love. 

Meanwhile women might want to dab their linens in rose or musk to create a sensual feeling. 

Initially only available in an expensive oil form, apothecaries later devised a way to produced much cheaper distilled waters, scented with trendy fragrances like roses. 

‘Rose oil made by distillation became popular at King Henry’s court, not just to arouse the senses or because the smell was pleasant, but because the rose was a symbol of the Tudor dynasty,’ McGrath writes.

It fell in popularity when Elizabeth I ascended the throne, perhaps due to its widespread availability lessening its exclusivity. 

Figure-hugging hose to accentuate the calf in colours that communicated a message 

Fashion-conscious King: Led by the style-savvy King Henry VIII (pictured far left), doublets and hose soon became in vogue during the Tudor period

Led by the fashion-conscious King Henry VIII, doublets and hose soon became in vogue. 

The hose was two separate stockings that stretched from waist to toe. They were suspended by cord tied to the doublet – a short, fitted jacket – which kept the material taut and prevented unsightly wrinkles from forming. 

If the hose was joined too loosely to the doublet, it could gape at the back, causing the equivalent of a builder’s bum. However if the ties were too tight, it could limit the wearer’s mobility. 

As might be expected for a monarch who had six wives and bedded countless women, Henry VIII liked his hose to be tight-fitting and figure-hugging. 

A garter was tied just below the knees to ensure the material remained close to the shapely calf – a highly desirable and attractive body part – while remaining loose enough around the knee to allow the wearer to move. 

The colour of the hose was also important: green hose suggested youthful vigour while red suggested passion.

… and a codpiece to show off the manhood     

Eye-catching: Men of Henry VIII’s court began expressing their personalities through clothing

‘As Henry’s reign progressed, and shorter coats became fashionable, the protective codpiece men wore became even more noticeable than ever,’ McGrath explains. And the Tudors took the trend and ran with it. 

The codpiece started life in the Middle Ages as a triangular flap of material designed to preserve the male modesty by covering the gap between the two separate pieces of men’s stockings. 

In battle, this loose material was swapped for a metal version which provided a shield the delicate area. 

By the 16th century, the codpiece had  become a fashion statement and could be made from luxurious materials and decorated with adornments like ribbons and bobbles.   

‘Tudor men could mix and match their codpieces,’ explains McGrath. ‘A manly man could also strut around court in a garment that mimicked male genitals, drawing attention to them and exaggerating them to an absurd degree. 

‘His codpiece might be stuffed with straw to make it shapelier. Its hollow chamber had another use since it could also protect the lovely outer surface of stockings from the nasty sullying mercury-based ointment used to treat syphilis.’

Codpieces could also be used to store essentials like a pincushion – pins were needed to keep complex outfits in place – money or a handkerchief.    

Lemon slices, wool soaked in wine and fish gut: Rudimentary forms of contraception 

The purpose of marriage was to procreate but for the times the Tudors didn’t want to fall pregnant, there were rudimentary forms of contraception they could use. 

Basic condoms made from a cleaned out fish gut or sheep’s intestine turned inside out. The gut would be cut to size and dried out, then soaked in milk or water in order to rehydrrate. 

They would be fastened to the penis with a ribbon or fine string. After sex, these condoms could be washed and used again.

Although these had some success in preventing unwanted pregnancy, they were also essential in stopping the spread of venereal diseases like syphilis, which was rampant during the Tudor period. 

There were other bizarre contraception methods available. A lemon slice, for example, could be inserted as a cervical cap, while a wad of wool soaked in wine or honey was used to form a barrier. Rock salt mixed with an oily material was believed to destroy sperm.  

Among the more dangerous approaches were drinking tincture of lead or eating seeds of the caster oil plant, both of which could lead to fatal poisoning. 

Pubic hair: Left long or faked 

Pubic hair – or the ‘fleece’, ‘flush’, ‘moss’, as it’s otherwise known – was much admired among some, if not all, Tudors, according to McGrath.

‘An abundance of pubic hair on the other hand was a sign of youth, health and sexual vitality,’ she writes, while ‘women in bathhouses used homemade, and often dangerous dilapidory creams, and whores plucked their eyebrows’.

All coming up roses! How women carried a pomander to stay smelling sweet 

As well as essential oils, another way for the Tudors to smell more appealing without bathing regularly was to carry a pomander. 

The pomander was made from a mix of fragrant herbs and spices mixed with a bonding agent like a lump of wax. 

This solid ball was then placed in a perforated box and worn on a cord, which could be worn over clothing. 

McGrath writes: ‘If a woman wore her pomander on a long cord suspended from her girdle it would knock against her skirt as she moved, creating pleasant wafting scent about her person.’

A loss of pubic hair could also signal a woman had been given mercury to treat syphilis. 

However, longer pubic hair also meant the potential for pubic lice, which could only be completely eliminated by shaving or removing the hair in another way, such as with homemade dilapidory creams.  

Those wanting to create the illusion of pubic hair could put together a merkin, a pubic hair wig first designed in 1450. 

The malkin, or merkin, was made from hair that was attached to the pubic area with a dainty ribbon.

The Tudors also preferred a more natural approach when it came to personal hygiene. While douching first appeared in the ancient world, the Tudors avoided it, believing it was unnecessary. 

‘It was sexier to smell whiffy in that area or perhaps they picked up on the fact the vagina is self-cleaning,’ McGrath writes. 

However some texts informed women that a severe vaginal odour would be enough to put off a male sexual partner and suggested solutions to tackle such an issue.

‘A prescription used by Muslim women suggests a redolent water mixture that constricts the vagina and represses the odour,’ the author continues. 

‘These instructions include detailed instructions on how to apply the concoction before intercourse using a powder that the lady is to rub on her chest, breasts and genitalia

‘She is to wash her partner’s privates using a cloth sprinkled with the same sweet-smelling powder. An example suggests taking powder of blackberry and placing it inside to constrict the vagina.’

The dos and don’ts of sex positions (and it’s only missionary allowed)

Sex was for procreation and pleasure was secondary. 

As such, intercourse that was not for the purpose of procreation was seen as wicked by many churchmen. 

Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England by Carol McGrath, published by Pen & Sword Books

It also influenced the ways in which couples had sex, both within and outside of wedlock. 

There were clear views as to the improper and improper ways to have sex, with missionary with the man on top considered the only acceptable position for a husband and wife.

Other positions were rejected for fear they might incite lust.

McGrath continues: ‘Any approach from behind was condemned because it suggested man was imitating the behaviour of animals. 

‘Any position with the woman on top was frowned upon as it inverted sex roles making the woman the dominant partner. Also, the Tudors believed, it reduced the possibility of conception. 

‘Use of unnatural orifices such as the mouth or anus and contraceptive notions such as coitus interruptus or the newly invented Venus glove (a crude early condom) was forbidden.’              

The male prostitute arrested after having sex with monks 

Pushing gay men underground: Although male prostitution definitely existed during the Tudor period, examples are more difficult to come across. This is due to Thomas Cromwell, pictured, introducing the Buggery Act in 1533, a law making sodomy illegal for the first time

Although male prostitution definitely existed during the Tudor period, examples are more difficult to come across. 

This is due to Thomas Cromwell, the king’s infamous minister, introducing the Buggery Act in 1533, a law making sodomy illegal for the first time. Prior to this, sexual offences such as buggery were dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts.

Throughout Europe, the persecution of homosexuals coincided with the persecution of witches. 

Both were considered un-godly and a threat to the stability of a Christian society.  

However there is one documented case of a male prostitute who was arrested while offering his services between London and Oxford in the very late 14th century, 100 years before the birth of Henry VIII. 

The man in question was dressed as a woman and was arrested after being caught having sexual relations with another man. 

Under questioning, he admitted to having sex with two Franciscans at a pub. He also boasted of having sex with travellers, nuns and married women. 

Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England by Carol McGrath, published by Pen & Sword Books on January 30 

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