Life of a Tudor Servant

This is the second in a series of blog posts detailing what life would have been like for the servants who worked at Tudor House. This post will focus on the Tudor period, including the Elizabethan era. The previous entry in the series which covered the Medieval period can be found here.

Some of Tudor House’s owners during this period are Sir Richard Lyster and his wife, Lady Isabel Lyster. Sir Richard was Lord Chief Justice of England and Lady Isabel, widow of the house’s prior owner, traded in millstones. The couple, who married in 1528, are known to have had eight servants. As the lady of the house, Isabel would have organised the servants and ensured that the important household tasks were all seen to daily.

It seems that the Lysters truly cared about all their servants, as in Sir Richard’s will they were left five shillings in addition to whatever wages they were due at the time. Sir Richard also asked that each of his servants who accompanied him whenever he went riding be given a fine horse as a gift. If any of these servants didn’t continue to serve the Lyster family, then they would at least have had money for food until they found employment elsewhere.

The many servants that passed through Tudor House during the period would likely have been treated quite well, regardless of who held the property at the time. During Tudor times, working as a servants was seen as a respectable career and many masters saw some of their staff as good friends. Servants generally lived in the home they worked at, and would be provided with food and clothes in addition to lodging. All servants would have also had annual contracts of employment, protecting their rights and ensuring that their employer treated them properly. These contracts would expire around Martinmas, the feast day of Saint Martin. Lucky servants could also expect the lady of the household to write letters of petition on their behalf, in the event that they needed to curry favour with someone. Over 25% of the petitioning letters written duing the Tudor period were on behalf of those outside the writer’s immediate family, including servants.

During the Eliabethan era, roughly a quarter of the population may have worked as servants at any given time. A third or more of households also had servants at any given time. Many different kinds of people worked as servants, and the people who worked at Tudor House could have ended up here for a number of different reasons. Rural starvation and perverty led many to migrate towards urban areas for work. Many young people also spent between five and ten years working as servants until they could set up their own household. Sometimes, young girls were chosen to work as servants in order to improve their education and manners. Widowed women too were often taken in as servants as an act of charity, to save them from the poverty and vagrancy which was rife during the period.

This poverty would have likely been a constant worry for the servants at Tudor House, who would be relieved to have a new employment contract signed each year. Southampton was slowly declining in importance as a mercantile port, being overtaken by Bristol, while across the country both the population and inflation increased. This financial stress was only exacerbated by the reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries. The Catholic monasteries used to provide food for the poor, which would have lessened the impact in the event that someone wasn’t hired for another year.

The servants who worked at Tudor House would have been relatively lucky, having stable income during a fairly turbulent time. If you’d like to read more about this topic or just this period in history, below are a few of the sources used in this post.



Further Reading:

Jonathan Barry’s The Tudor and Stuart Town


R.E. Pritchard’s Shakespeare’s England


Jeffrey Forgeng’s Daily Life in Elizabethan England


G.R. Elton’s England Under the Tudors


James Daybell’s Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England


Alison Sim’s Masters and Servants in Tudor England


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