By Tim Lambert

If we visited Portsmouth in the 16th century we would probably be surprised by its small size. Most of Portsea Island was covered in farmland or wasteland. In the Southwest of the island was a little walled town. In 1500 it probably had a population of 1,500 or less. By 1550 it was not more than about 2,000 and in 1600 still only about 2,500. In Tudor Times Portsmouth was growing but it was still a small and unimportant town.

In Tudor Portsmouth there were 3 main streets, High Street, St Thomas's Street and Penny Street. In the middle was the parish church, The Church of St Thomas. (It was not made a cathedral until the 20th century). To us Tudor Portsmouth would seem small, dirty and crowded. The streets were not lighted at night and they were full of dung from horses and other animals. Many houses were made of wood and glass windows were a luxury. Chimneys were also a luxury and many houses made do with a hole in the roof to let out smoke. However glass windows and chimneys became more common as the 16th century went on. Houses divided into several rooms were also a luxury. Poor people usually lived in just one, two or three rooms. In these dirty, crowded conditions plague was common. It struck in 1563 and it killed 300 people.

The Round Tower dates from the 15th Century. In the 16th century there was a capstan by the Round Tower with a massive chain strung across the harbour mouth to Gosport. The chain could be lowered to allow friendly ships in and raised to keep enemy ships out. Henry VII built the Square Tower at the end of the 15th century. In Early Tudor Times the area called Point or Spice Island was wasteland outside the town walls. No houses were built there till Queen Elizabeth's reign. What is now Southsea Common was marsh in Tudor Times but Henry VIII built Southsea Castle in 1539-44.

In 1212 a stone building called the Domus Dei (House of God) was built at Portsmouth. It was a hospice for pilgrims. However Henry VIII closed the Domus Dei and it was used as an armoury. Later it was made part of the military governor's house. Most importantly Henry VII created Portsmouth Dockyard in 1495. It had the world's first dry dock.

Southsea Castle a Tudor Fort

Life in Tudor Portsmouth

In a wealthy Tudor home furniture was usually made of oak and was heavy and massive. Tudor furniture was expected to last for generations. You expected to pass it on to your children and even your grandchildren. Comfortable beds became more and more common in the 16th century. Chairs were expensive. Even in an upper class home children and servants sat on stools. The poor had to make do with stools and benches.

In wealthy Tudor houses the walls of rooms were lined with oak panelling to keep out drafts. People slept in four-poster beds hung with curtains to reduce drafts. In the 16th century some people had wallpaper but it was very expensive. Other wealthy people hanged tapestries or painted cloth on their walls. In Tudor England carpets were a luxury only the richest people could afford. They were too expensive to put on the floor! Instead they were hung on the wall or over tables. People covered the floors with rushes, reeds or straw, which they strewn with sweet smelling herbs. Once a month or so the floor covering was changed.

In the 16th century prosperous people lit their homes with beeswax candles. However they were expensive. Others made used candles made from tallow (animal fat) which gave off an unpleasant smell and the poorest people made do with rushlights (rushes dipped in animal fat). None of the improvements of the 16th century applied to the poor. They continued to live in simple huts with one or two rooms (occasionally three). Smoke escaped through a hole in the thatched roof. Floors were of hard earth and furniture was very basic, benches, stools, a table and wooden chests. They slept on mattresses stuffed with straw or thistledown. The mattresses lay on ropes strung across a wooden frame.

Rich Tudors ate vast amounts of meat. However they rarely ate vegetables. Poor people ate plenty of vegetables because they had no choice! Vegetables were cheap but meat was a luxury. On certain days by law people had to eat fish instead of meat.

Poor Tudors lived on a dreary diet. In the morning they had bread and cheese and onions. They only had one cooked meal a day. They mixed grain with water and added vegetables and (if they could afford it) strips of meat. All classes ate bread but it varied in quality. Rich peoples bread was made from fine white flour. Poor people ate coarse bread of barley or rye.

In the 16th century many people thought fresh fruit was bad for you. They did eat fruit but usually after it was cooked and made into a tart or pie. The Tudors were also fond of sweet foods (if they could afford them). However in the 16th century sugar was very expensive so most people used honey to sweeten their food.

Nobody drank water in Tudor times because it was too dirty. Young children drank milk. Everyone else drank ale or, if they were rich, wine. From the mid-16th century beer became common. The Tudors also drank cider and perry.

Rich people liked to show off their gold and silver plate. The middle classes would have dishes and bowls made of pewter. The poor made do with wooden plates and bowls. There were no forks in Tudor times. People ate with knives and their fingers or with spoons. Rich Tudors had silver or pewter spoons. The poor used wooden ones.

For rich Tudors fashion was important. For the poor clothes had to be hardwearing and practical. All classes wore wool. However it varied in quality. The rich wore fine quality wool. The poor wore coarse wool. Linen was used to make shirts and underwear. However only the rich could afford cotton and silk. Rich Tudors also embroidered their clothes with silk, gold or silver thread. Rich Tudor women wore silk stockings.

In the 16th century men wore short trouser-like garments called breeches. They also wore tight fitting jackets called doublets. Another jacket called a jerkin was worn over the doublet. Over the jerkin rich men wore a gown, or later in the 16th century a cloak or cape. However instead of a doublet many workingmen wore a loose tunic. It was easier to work in. Some workingmen wore a leather jerkin called a buff-jerkin. Men also wore stockings or wool socks, which were called hose.

Women wore a kind of petticoat called a smock or shift or chemise made of linen or wool and a wool dress over it. A woman's dress was made of two parts, a bodice or corset like garment and a skirt. Sleeves were held on with laces and could be detached. Working women wore a linen apron. In the late 16th century many women wore a frame made of whale bone or wood under their dress called a farthingale. If they could not afford a farthingale women wore a padded roll around their waist called a bum roll. In the 16th century women did not wear knickers. However men sometimes wore linen shorts.

Rich Tudors played board games like chess and backgammon (a backgammon set was found on the wreck of the Mary Rose. It is the same as a modern one). They also tennis with a leather ball stuffed with hair. They also played bowls and skittles. Playing cards were also popular.

All classes gambled. Poor people gambled with dice. They also played games like shuffleboard (shove ha'penny) and nine men's morris. The Tudors also played draughts and fox and geese.

Music and dancing were also very popular. The printing press made books much cheaper so reading was a popular pastime for rich Tudors.

Ordinary people played a rough version of football. There were no rules and the 'pitch' was often a large area including woods and even streams! It was a very rough game. Injuries like broken limbs were common. Cruel 'sports' like cockfighting were also popular in Tudor times. So was bear baiting. A bear was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it.

The Saxons in Portsmouth

Portsmouth in the 18th century

Victorian Portsmouth