Childhood in Elizabethan and Stuart England
The lives of children in Stuart England were much different, in some ways unfathomably different, than the lives of children today. Children, like those who might have grown up within the walls of Agecroft Hall, would have essentially been the extended property of their parents. There would have been an expectation for children to refer to their parents as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ when given the rare opportunity to speak directly to either. The English words ‘mom’ and ‘mama’ may not have even been used until around the 17th or 18th centuries, and even then it would have been considered classless to do so. This indicates a higher level of deference given to adult family members than we are familiar with today, but also indicates a lower tolerance for ‘baby talk’ or typical childhood language development.
In many ways, children living in this time were simply treated as small adults. In lower classes or agricultural families, children were given jobs and household chores around the time they could walk by themselves—usually two or three years old. This was not unusual even within the monarchy or aristocratic classes. Between 1216 and 1547, five children found themselves on the throne of England before the age of thirteen. Mary, Queen of Scots, became the youngest British monarch in 1542 when her reign began at just 6 days old after the death of her father. Henry VI had previously held this distinction, ascending the throne at 8 months and 26 days old in 1422. Additionally, the youngest woman to bear a living heir to the throne of England was Lady Margaret Beaufort, wife of Edmund Tudor, who was just thirteen years old when she gave birth to Henry VII. As monarchs were the model for the society they ruled, then that society’s children facing adult situations early in life was no surprise.
It does not come as any surprise that children were seldom treated as such. The rate of mortality in England, though lower than much of continental Europe due to the country’s geographic isolation, was still remarkably high. People didn’t expect to live very long, and children were especially vulnerable within the first few years of their life. It is understandable then, that life appeared to be much accelerated compared to modern times. However, it was not only in societal expectation that children were treated as miniature adults, but also in the objects specifically designed for their use.
Within Agecroft’s collection, we have three pieces that are intended for children in particular: a cradle, a drinking cup, and a highchair. All of these pieces, while impractically small for use by an adult, boast little difference between objects of the same variety that adults would have actually used. The cradle, for instance, has many of the same features and fashioning as the adult bed. This includes being crafted out of a heavy hardwood, with a partial canopy, and featuring simple wooden ornamentation. The highchair is simply a tall and narrow version of a dining room chair that would have been scooted close to the table to allow the infant access to the meal. The ‘baby’ cup appears in all manner but its name, to be a regular silver cup meant for drinking or perhaps ceremonial purposes. If anything, this cup’s incredibly detailed decoration and use of precious material says to modern viewers that it was certainly not intended to be put in the hands of a child who might promptly toss it onto the floor.
One can assume that childhood is a fairly modern concept, only arising out of a society that was less dictated by the needs of survival—be it from disease, famine, illness, or war. It is also possible that in response to the average life only spanning some sixty years, that there was no time to partition life experiences into the neat categories of infant, toddler, child, adolescent, and adult we use today; instead, it may have been more pressing to quickly acclimate to the pressing demands of survival present even in elite households.