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Toys & Games of Tudor England

From Barbies to basketball, jump ropes to Jenga, children of today have a seemingly endless variety of toys and games with which to play. Today, no childhood would be complete without numerous stories of beloved toys that were lost to time and the games which bonded friends over hours of play. But how did the Langley and Dauntesey children who lived in Agecroft centuries ago amuse themselves? While Tudor England certainly did not advocate for children to enjoy childhood as we know it today, there were still toys and games to allow children brief moments of playfulness in an environment pushing them quickly to adulthood. For an insight into the Tudor and Stuart view of childhood, take a look at the double portrait in the Great Parlour which shows a father and daughter from the Clarke family. At the age of only seven, the young girl is already dressed in an elaborate gown with a perfectly coiffed hairdo. She looks more like a small adult than a first grade student.

Figure 1: Portrait of Gentleman and His Daughter. 1616. Agecroft Hall & Gardens. AH2019.0002.

As a result of this outlook, Tudor parents would encourage certain games as training for a productive adulthood. Play fighting for boys with things like hobby horses and dried bladders for throwing were seen as training for both hunting and future military exploits. Young girls were encouraged to play with dolls as an introduction to childcare.

 

While many of these toys are recognizable today, it was often necessary for children to be creative in sourcing their materials – particularly if they were poor. Balls were created from dried and inflated pig bladders, marbles were made of baked clay, and dolls could be whittled from spare wood. In this way, even the poorest children of the time could participate in some of the same games played by children of wealthier classes.

Figure 2: Pieter Bruegel. Children’s Games. 1560. Oil on Panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

 

Perhaps one of the toys most indicative of a child’s wealth and status was the hobby horse. Horses were an integral part of everyday life. While children of today also admire animal toys, Tudor England was an equestrian society in which people were incredibly reliant on horses for travel, agriculture, hunting, and military exploits. Wealthy parents often custom ordered hobby horses made to certain specifications with specialized carvings and embellishments (head, ears, chest, and mane), while children from poorer families often made do with a simple stick.

 

One child’s hobby horse is mentioned in a story from the late fifteenth century, in which he sees a vision of the dead King Henry VI. The king tells him to make a pilgrimage to his shrine to cure an affliction. When telling his mother, he reportedly specifies that the king wished him to travel ‘riding with you, and not on my wooden horse.’

 

While toys such as the hobby horse were seen to encourage physical prowess, board games were believed to teach strategy and memory. During the Tudor period, one of the most popular games enjoyed by children of all classes was Nine Men’s Morris. Few materials were required, as the board could be drawn or marked out in sand, and stones could be substituted for any specialized counters. The board included twenty-four intersections and both players were given nine counters to use. Each player would take turns placing their counters on the intersections, with the goal of getting three counters in a row. If a player succeeded in getting three counters in a row, they could remove one of their opponent’s pieces from play. Players then took turns sliding their pieces along the lines of the board in order to again, get three counters in a row. Once a player had only three counters remaining, that player then had the ability to move his counters from any intersection to another one, to stave off the other player. The game was finished when one player had only two counters in play remaining, and their opponent was declared the winner.

Figure 3: Hans Weiditz. Trostpiegel in Glück und Unglüeck by Francesco Petrarca. 1596. Woodcut.

Other popular board games included backgammon, fox and geese, and draughts, but chess was the preferred choice of the nobility. It was believed to be the most educational, as well as symbolic of society in general. In the game, the king, queen, knights, judges, and rooks each had their own function and were most effective when working together in their given roles. Games such as Nine Men’s Morris had a lower status because they were appealing and available to lower classes. It was also thought to require less strategy, which is why the image above depicts two monkeys playing the game while the men play games of skill.

 

All these toys and games provided much needed amusement for children who were expected to function at an adult level as soon as possible. A 16th century Italian scholar described the attitude of the English to their children as somewhat apathetic. Generally parents sent their children away, frequently to hard service in other homes, by the age of 7 or 8. While wealthier children escaped slavish apprenticeships, parents still sent them away to the homes of other nobility to continue their education. Even the Royal Court employed children as pages and servants.

 

Overall, Tudor England preferred to imagine their children as the adults they would eventually become, rather than as playful tots. Games were designed to strengthen both body and mind and so toys for Tudor children were just as important for the training they provided as for the fun they offered. Many of the Tudor toys and games have come down through the centuries largely unchanged, but what is fundamentally different today are parents’ expectations. Certainly there are teaching toys today, but there is also an expectation that some games should be played for simple enjoyment, and that children should be children without the pressures of adulthood for as long as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images

 

Figure 1: Portrait of Gentleman and His Daughter. 1616. Agecroft Hall & Gardens. AH2019.0002.


Figure 2: Pieter Bruegel. Children’s Games. 1560. Oil on Panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.


Figure 3: Hans Weiditz. Trostpiegel in Glück und Unglüeck by Francesco Petrarca. 1596. Woodcut.

 

 

 

 

References

 

Grosjean, Paul. Henrici VI Angliae Regis Miracula Postuma. Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1935.

 

Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Children. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

 

Ridgway, Claire. “Tudor Fun and Games.” On the Tudor Trail. 2018. https://onthetudortrail.com/Blog/2018/12/15/tudor-fun-and-games/

 

Sim, Alison. “Pleasures & Pastimes in Tudor England.” On the Tudor Trail. 2014.

 

“Tudor Childhood--Tudor Tuesdays.” Hever Castle & Gardens. Kent, United Kingdom. https://www.hevercastle.co.uk/news/tudor-childhood-tudor-tuesdays/

                      

 

 

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