In the 1960s and 1970s, in advance of a plan to expand a local road, a team of archaeologists in Coventry excavated the grounds of what had once been a Carmelite friary, founded in 1342 just inside the walls of the medieval city. Of the friary’s ecclesiastical past little remained. “Whitefriars”—as it was familiarly known, to distinguish it from the establishments of the black-robed Dominicans and the gray- or brown-robed Franciscans—had been closed two centuries after its founding, along with the rest of England’s Catholic monasteries, by order of King Henry VIII, as part of the forced reorganization of the English Church. By the 1570s the red sandstone cloisters had been demolished and the steeple of the church allowed to collapse, burying the patterned tile floor and decorative stonework in a heap of rubble.

Also beneath the rubble was a thick layer of detritus from a brief period in the mid-sixteenth century, when the deconsecrated church was repurposed as a free school for the instruction of local boys. According to Coventry city records, the altar was removed and the central choir space transformed into a classroom where, for a span of about ten years, five or six days a week, from six or seven in the morning until five in the afternoon, approximately seventy boys between the ages of seven and sixteen sat in the elaborately carved wooden choir stalls for lessons in Latin grammar and rhetoric, music, arithmetic, and basic accounting.

As the archaeologists discovered, the hollow resonance chambers running beneath the choir stalls, designed to enhance the acoustics of the space, had become a convenient repository for floor sweepings, food scraps, and all manner of childish possessions: wooden-handled penknives and inkwells fashioned from chunks of the crumbling sandstone walls; tokens used in teaching arithmetic; arrowheads for target practice; animal bones from midday meals; belt buckles; a metal mouth harp; a few clay and stone marbles; the frame for a pair of spectacles; and a single molar, considerably worn but with root intact, lost from the mouth of a child between the ages of nine and twelve.

But the bulk of the Whitefriars inventory, by far, consisted of tiny pieces of metal: dozens of hooks; hundreds of tags, aglets, and lace ends; and an extraordinary quantity of pins—1,575 in all—ranging in diameter from fine dressmaker’s pins to sturdy tacks. In a report on the excavation, one of the archaeologists notes that similar stashes of pins had been found in sites in Southampton and Rickmansworth, “but not in these quantities,” and concludes, “It seems likely that they relate to the wearing and pleating of ruffs.” In his new study, Tudor Children, the British historian Nicholas Orme advances an alternate theory. Lacking access to coins, he argues, children in sixteenth-century England invented currencies from what was at hand: pebbles, nuts, cherrystones, seedpods, and any available bit of metal.

“What shall we stake?” asks a child preparing to play a game in a dialogue from a 1583 textbook by Claudius Hollyband, to which his companion answers, “For every point a pin.” In another textbook from the period, by Jacques Bellot, a housemaid scolds a little boy for cutting the metal ends off his laces to use in play, and the boy protests, “I have not, they be broken.” The real-life Richard Fermor, of Oxfordshire, was luckier: an account book kept by the then-six-year-old boy’s guardian records expenditures of threepence “for a dozen of points for him to play with,” and fourpence for “two little boxes to keep his points and counters in.” “Such references are precious,” Orme writes,

because they point to the affection that children might have for their games and possessions. These little insignificant things, and the boxes in which they were kept, testify to the childhood sense of having treasures.

In short, what the archaeologists of Whitefriars had discovered was not merely a rubbish heap but a schoolboy hoard.

The author of more than thirty studies of religious and social history, including books on Cornish saints, medieval churchgoing, medieval schools, early English hospitals, Tudor education, and one titled Early British Swimming, 55 BC–AD 1719 (1983), Orme is a scholar of the long-ago everyday, his writing marked by an engaging plainness and an indefatigable capacity to sift through masses of archival material for hints of forgotten experiences, ideas, and ways of being. Childhood is a long-standing interest of his—in addition to his studies of English schools and schooling, he wrote a wide-ranging study called Medieval Children (2001) that mines nine centuries of vernacular and Latin sources.

In virtually any period of English history, and especially before compulsory schooling began in the second half of the nineteenth century, the historical record is dominated by the interests and affairs of adults. Outside of parish baptismal records and death certificates, the lives of most English children passed unrecorded, and much of what does survive—often buried in the pages of schoolbooks, pedagogical treatises, books of manners and morals, romances, stage plays, jestbooks, expense accounts, diaries, commonplace books, and letters—pertains to the experiences of upper-class boys. To produce what Orme calls “the first general study of childhood in Tudor England” thus requires a keen eye: we are searching for needles in haystacks, pins in rubbish heaps.


Indeed, so scanty is the archive of premodern childhood that until relatively recently historians were inclined to think that it didn’t exist. In his influential 1960 study, L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime, or, as it was translated in English, Centuries of Childhood, the French social historian Philippe Ariès pronounced childhood to be a distinctly modern construct; before the seventeenth century, he argued, high rates of infant and child mortality, a general vagueness around biographical recordkeeping, and the lack of any distinctive notion of child psychology combined to produce a shared sense of children as small and somewhat defective versions of adults. Subsequent studies by feminist historians like Shulamith Shahar, Barbara Hanawalt, and Sally Crawford and folklorists like Iona and Peter Opie revealed the inadequacy of that assumption: premodern European societies (and premodern European parents) were, as it turned out, perfectly capable of understanding, educating, amusing, nurturing, disciplining, and, all too often, mourning children, not in exactly the ways we do today, but in many we can recognize and sympathize with.

Orme wrote Medieval Children in the aftermath of that revisionary movement; as he declares of its subjects in the opening pages, “I believe them to have been ourselves, five hundred or a thousand years ago.” But the narrower scope of this new book, from the coronation of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, in 1485 to the death of the last, Elizabeth I, in 1603, heightens the sense of historical particularity: in addition to examining what childhood was like in the sixteenth century, Orme allows us to glimpse what the sixteenth century was like for children.

Orme has a medievalist’s healthy suspicion of attributing to the so-called early modern period a radical (often implicitly progressive) difference from the centuries leading up to it. Despite the ruptures implied by epochal terms like “Renaissance” and “Reformation,” he writes, “much survived from the past throughout the Tudor years up to 1603. It was far from being the new age so often assumed.” Nonetheless, the century-plus period over which the Tudors presided was, by any reckoning, one of the most eventful and consequential in English history. Just ten years before Henry VII ascended to the throne, putting an end to the long-simmering conflict between Lancaster and York, a Kentish merchant named William Caxton brought the first English printing press to London’s Westminster. In the next decades, as the volume and range of English print increased, so did the influence of humanist scholarship, the gravity of religious controversy, and the prestige of vernacular literature, which flourished in new forms under classical and continental influences.

A metal toy of a pikeman from the Tudor era

Museum of London

A metal toy of a pikeman from the Tudor era

There were the first purpose-built playhouses, the first English sonnets, and the first blank verse tragedies. London’s population grew exponentially, as did overseas trade and an emergent “middling” class of merchants and professionals. In the 1530s the English Church broke with the Church of Rome, and the authority of the pope was reassigned to the Crown. Legally and economically, too, Henry VIII and his heirs tightened the monarchy’s grasp on power, goaded by rivalries with Spain, Portugal, and France and enriched—if largely in tantalizing prospect—by colonial plantations in Ireland and the Americas. There were military conflicts in the Netherlands and Calais, and the constant threat of war with Spain.

Children, of course, were there for it all, as bystanders, onlookers, and—at times—agents and participants. In 1548, Orme reports, at the start of the brief and staunchly Protestant reign of Edward VI, the young scholars of Bodmin School in Cornwall came up with a novel and exciting idea for their outside games, assigning one group of boys to play for the old Catholic faith and the others for the new. As the Cornish antiquarian Richard Carew recalled decades later, their mock wars of religion rapidly intensified, “each party knowing and still keeping the same companions and captain,” until finally a boy fashioned a firearm from a candlestick stuffed with gunpowder and a stone and—“through mischance, or vngraciousnesse”—tried it out on a calf. The calf died, the owner complained, the schoolmaster distributed whippings all around, and, Carew wrote, “the diuision ended.”

The divisions of the actual English Reformation proved a good deal harder to resolve, though they were also in some sense wrought by Tudor children—which is to say, by the children the Tudors themselves did and didn’t manage to bear and raise to adulthood. When the eldest son of Henry VII died in his teens, the throne passed to his younger brother instead; when the sons of that king, Henry VIII, also died, the throne passed to his daughters: first Mary, a devout Catholic, and then her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s refusal to marry and supply the realm with an heir would eventually end the Tudor dynasty; when she died in 1603, the throne passed to her Stuart cousin James.


Given the rigors of sixteenth-century pregnancy and childbirth, virginity might well have appealed to Elizabeth as a survival strategy. Orme gathers insight into the earliest stages of sixteenth-century life from a book curiously enmeshed in the Tudor family drama, The Byrth of Mankynde (1540), a Latin treatise on pregnancy, childbirth, and infant care by the German physician Eucharius Rösslin. The book’s translator into English, Richard Jonas, was a member of the entourage that accompanied Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife, from Germany to England in December 1539, and he no doubt intended to make a present of the translation to the queen.

But by the time he had finished the task, Anne’s six-month-long marriage to the king had already been annulled—so, with admirable dispatch, Jonas dedicated the volume to her replacement, Catherine Howard. Within a year and a half, that marriage was over, too, Catherine having been tried, convicted, and executed on charges of adultery. The unluckiness of its dedication notwithstanding, The Byrth of Mankynde proved enduringly popular among English readers, being reprinted at least eight times over the course of the sixteenth century, perhaps because it offered copious, confident advice about a joint enterprise—having a child; being born—that frequently ended in disaster.

Childbirth in pre-Reformation Europe was attended with sacramental ceremony: in recognition of its life-giving, life-threatening power, expectant mothers traditionally confessed, received absolution, and took communion before labor commenced, and midwives were trained to administer emergency baptisms as needed. Rösslin’s treatise, written a few years before Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, hints at the rise of a secularized and newly professionalized approach to the ordeal, offering instruction on subjects ranging from eating in the days leading up to a birth (sweet, mildly flavored foods are preferable; anything sour, desiccating, or binding is to be avoided) to distinguishing productive from unproductive labor, setting the ideal temperature for a birth chamber, delivering breech babies and twins, tying and cutting the umbilical cord (a width of three fingers above the navel is recommended), delivering the placenta (“to sneese helpeth muche to this matter”), and encouraging the production of breast milk, or, failing that, selecting a good wet nurse.

All this was assuming things went more or less well—which, as Rösslin’s treatise makes harrowingly clear, they very often did not. Factors that might make childbirth “more paynfull, cruell, and dolorous” included the physical and psychological condition of the mother, the size and position of the baby, and the timing or positioning of the delivery: “By those and diuers other wayes, the woman susteyneth greate doloure payne and anguysh.” Remedies were limited: herbal concoctions, warm plasters, and oil of lilies, which appears throughout as an all-purpose unguent and disinfectant. Grim, explicit sections on late-term miscarriage, stillbirth, hemorrhage, uterine rupture, infection, puerperal fever, and posthumous surgical extraction underscore the terrors that must have attended even the most longed-for pregnancy and birth.

Tudor obstetric treatises lavish attention on childbirth and infancy precisely because they were such high-risk propositions: Orme suggests that around 17 percent of children born in the late sixteenth century died in the first year of life, many from infections aggravated by malnutrition and inadequate shelter. Children who arrived safely at their first birthdays had significantly better odds of survival, and those who made it to age four better still. Even so, some 30 percent died of injury or illness before the age of sixteen—a staggering figure by modern standards and, Orme makes clear, a painful loss to families, who, when they could afford to, erected burial memorials to deceased children. One such monument, to seven-year-old John Shorlond of Suffolk, who died in 1601, remembers him as “one double fayre in minde and face…whom men did love for grace and wit.” A grammar school lesson from the 1490s features a boy who recalls his mother’s grief at the loss of one of his siblings: “There is nobody which would not be sorry if he had seen her weeping.”

Society took such losses seriously, too: deaths by misadventure were investigated by coroner’s inquest, and the church warned parents about the risks of bed-sharing, commended maternal breastfeeding, and tasked godparents with intervening in cases of neglect. And mortality rates for sixteenth-century children were actually lower than in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when they worsened for infants and very young children by as much as 19 percent; as Orme notes, “Survival was not necessarily worse the further back in time that we can trace it.” Throughout the sixteenth century, most English children did live to adulthood—that is, to the ages when they were legally permitted to marry and own property, typically in their later teens and early twenties—and, at any given moment, children between infancy and adolescence constituted up to a third of the population as a whole, though they are hardly to be found in most standard histories of the period.

“This partly reflects the difficulty of collecting material,” Orme writes, “but also comes from an assumption—as old as academic history—that the history of any particular topic is a history of adults.” To be fair, except to those who love them, children don’t often seem noteworthy. It isn’t only modern historians who have tended to leave them out of their books; sixteenth-century writers rarely considered them either. Outside of medical treatises on infancy, the printed archive of sixteenth-century childhood is not only small but distinctly homogeneous, being preoccupied by questions of education—specifically, the education of the wealthy and aristocratic boys (and, in rare instances, girls) on whose learning, virtue, and latinity the future of the nation was understood to depend.

Such eminences as the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, the diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot, and Roger Ascham, tutor to the future Queen Elizabeth, wrote books dedicated to the instruction of the youthful English elite, offering advice on matters ranging from the merits of dancing and longbow shooting to the best strategies for mastering Ciceronian style—the theoretical hallmarks of an educated male. In practice, however, such treatises do not fully capture the experiences of even the slender and rarefied slice of the population with which they were concerned. By Erasmus’s own report, young Henry VIII thrived under the instruction of the poet John Skelton, and Henry’s son, Edward VI, was tutored by John Cheke, Cambridge’s Regius chair in ancient Greek, but poor Gregory Cromwell, son of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, struggled to acquire even basic Latin grammar and was the subject of dismal reports from his Cambridge tutors.

And for the majority of sixteenth-century children—especially girls and poor and working-class children—schooling was a negligible feature of childhood, being either optional or unattainable. If a parent knew how to read, basic literacy might be acquired at home or in a village “petty” school, with the help of hornbook and primer, but further instruction cost more money than most families could spare; even “free” grammar schools like the one at Whitefriars required students to obtain a black gown, pens, paper, ink, and schoolbooks. Those who did attend school typically did so for three or four years, just long enough to get a handle on the so-called accidents of Latin grammar that were the chief object of study, acquire some competency in mathematics, history, literature, and geography, and—crucially—secure the reputation of having been educated. For the rest of the young population, work took the place of school: they labored alongside their parents at home or in the fields, or, when they got a bit older, served in wealthier households or as apprentices to shopkeepers, craftsmen, and merchants.

Legal codes, school curricula, court records, guild archives, and household accounts help to fill in the outlines of Tudor children’s official business. Figuring out what they did, discussed, and thought about in their spare time, however limited, is a more difficult enterprise—and one at which Orme excels. Tudor Children reveals traces of child experience and child culture in all sorts of unexpected corners of the archive, from chronicle histories to jest and riddle books. For instance, a catalog in William Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britain (1605), a learned antiquarian study, reveals the sway of both the Renaissance and the Reformation on sixteenth-century English baby names: alongside such familiar favorites as Henry, John, Robert, and Thomas, Anne, Elizabeth, Mary, and Jane—which Camden sniffs at as a trendy update of plain old Joan—the antiquarian lists classically inflected names like Maximilian and Sylvanus or Diana, Cassandra, and Penelope, and cites with some alarm “the new names” preferred by the more radical Protestant reformers: “Free-gift, Reformation, Earth, Dust, Ashes, Delivery, More Fruite, Tribulation, The Lord Is Neare, More Triall, Discipline, Ioy Againe, [and] From Above.”

Orme also makes puckishly perverse use of treatises on morality: the sort of men who named their children Dust and Tribulation sometimes wrote extravagant polemics against papist idolatry, sexual immorality, unruly women, cross-dressing actors, May games, drunkenness, dice-playing, fancy hats, embroidered stockings, and so on—all manner of grown-up fun and a good deal of childish fun, too. From Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses (1583) Orme extracts detailed descriptions of such pernicious pastimes as ragdolls, puppet plays, Christmas celebrations, and football matches. He derives similar insights from Reginald Scot’s catalog of scary folktales in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), which classes the popular belief in witches alongside “Robin Goodfellow, the sporne, the mare, the man in the oak, the hell-wain, the fire-drake, the puckle, Tom Thumb, Hob Goblin, Tom Tumbler, boneless, and other such bugs,” invented by nursemaids to make their young charges “afraid when we hear one cry ‘Bough.’”

Children also peep from the literal and figurative margins of the literary canon. Rosencrantz’s complaint to Hamlet about the rise of children’s playing companies in London, where they “are most tyrannically clapped for,” testifies to the spread of grammar school theatricals onto public and semipublic stages—a performance outlet for boys who, before the Reformation, might have sung in cathedral and abbey choirs. (In one sensational case, the manager of the children’s playing company at Blackfriars was charged with kidnapping young Thomas Clifton from school to put him onstage.) Boy actors appeared on the professional stage as well, in female roles and the occasional child part: young Mamillius gives The Winter’s Tale its title by whispering a “sad tale…of sprites and goblins” in his mother’s ear in act 2. (Shortly thereafter he falls sick and dies: another child-prince gone before his time.)

And child culture could be used to signify innocence or antic wildness in adults: in the third act of King Lear, Edgar, disguised as the beggar Poor Tom, chants snatches of nursery rhymes—“Fie, foh, and fum,/I smell the blood of a British man”—and lines from Bevis of Hampton. The latter poem, based on a romance popular in England since the fourteenth century, was a staple of what Orme says “should arguably be called ‘shared’ not ‘adult’ literature”: a cluster of popular and cheaply printed genres—romances, ballads, outlaw tales, jestbooks, and riddle books—that young people might consume alongside their elders. A 1503 illustrated edition of Bevis now in Oxford’s Bodleian Library bears traces of such shared enjoyment: in addition to annotations left by adult readers, its pages are marked with scribbles, scraps of schoolboy Latin, drawings of a dog’s head and a man in a Tudor hat, and a trio of childish signatures.

There is at least one genre of early English book that was unquestionably for and—as Orme reveals—often about children themselves: dictionaries and phrasebooks intended to teach children how to read (and possibly speak) other languages, easing them into fluency by way of short sentences and miniature dialogues written in a child-friendly voice. Adults could also use these books, of course, but multilingual Tudor primers like those by Claudius Hollyband and Jacques Bellot or the ever-popular English-to-Latin Vulgaria puerorum display a remarkable attentiveness to the cadence and content of children’s speech. Paging through the Vulgaria is, indeed, as close as one can get to eavesdropping on a pack of Tudor schoolboys:

Reach me bread. I am weary of study. Thou stinkest. I beshrew thee. Thou art a false knave. Thou art worthy to be hanged. His nose is like a shoeing horn. What the devil dost thou here? I shall kill thee with thine own knife. Thou art a blab. He is the veriest coward that ever pissed.

Multilingual dictionaries like the Promptorium parvulorum, compiled for school use in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, supply Orme with instances of the otherwise unrecoverable dialect of play: games like “check-stones,” “conkers,” “knuckle-bones,” and “bowls”; “loggats” and “throwing the sledge”; “stool-ball,” “trap-out,” “trap-ball,” “knur and spell”; “gresco,” “hazard,” “mumchance,” “passage,” “dalies,” and “even and odd.” There was an elaborate taxonomy of spinning toys, from simple “tops” to threaded, geared, and buzzing “prills,” “spilcocks,” “whirligigs,” “scopperils,” “spilquerns,” and “whirlbones”: a linguistic hoard of “words that circulated”—like the pins, pebbles, and cherrystones for which they played—“almost wholly among children themselves.”

The chapter on “play” is in many ways the highlight of Orme’s book, packed with ingeniously sourced, sensitively explicated accounts of Tudor children “right busy,” as a fifteenth-century Scottish poem has it:

With flowers for to jape and play,
With sticks and spales small
To build up chamber, spence, and hall,
To make a white horse of a stick,
Of broken bread a sailing ship,
A bunweed to a burly spear
And of a sedge a sword of war,
A comely lady of a clout
And be right busy thereabout….

Some of their occupations are familiar—shooting marbles, throwing darts, running bases, and playing with dolls and doll furniture—while others, like the games “buckle-pit,” “spurn-point,” and “cob-nut” fleetingly referenced in Thomas More’s religious polemic, The Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer (1532), remain obscure. A distressing minority involve cruelty to animals, recalling the eyeless Gloucester’s mournful observation in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/They kill us for their sport.” There are pictures, as well: one image from a sixteenth-century Book of Hours shows two boys in the middle of a game of catch—charmingly ordinary, were it not for the allegorical figure of Death that has just grabbed one of them from behind.

That sense of the ordinary seized by strangeness—or, conversely, of strangeness punctured by recognition—captures exactly the experience of Tudor Children, which immerses us in a world at once remote from our own and uncannily familiar. Encountering his subjects feels like time traveling in a double sense: they are versions of ourselves five hundred years ago and yesterday. Telling their stories takes enterprise, imagination, and tact—a capacity for hovering on the verge of childhood, looking as closely, sympathetically, and unsentimentally as possible without disturbing the scene. Orme does it beautifully, and he allows us to join him at it.

My favorite image in the book, taken from the chapter on childbirth, shows a placid domestic scene, the idealized aftermath of a successful delivery: in the background a woman tends a fire, aided by a delivery of kindling from an older boy in tunic and hose; in the foreground, a dog curls up for a nap while a neatly swaddled baby sleeps in a cradle rocked by a child still in petticoats. Off in the lower-left corner of the page, however, is another child—somewhere between four and six, at a guess; past infancy and too young for school or work, the interval in which children are hardest to locate in any archive at all—bent over on all fours, hands and feet on the ground, with its bottom thrust vigorously in the air. A paddle and ball lie nearby, so perhaps the pose is part of a game, or possibly it’s a performance for the child in petticoats, what my older daughter at a similar age called “doing a trick.” But it appears to be a solitary exercise, pursued for no reason beyond impulse and the pleasure of acting on it: how wonderful to remember what that was like.