Anne Hathaway The Elizabethan Housewife

Life as an Elizabethan housewife

Life as an Elizabethan housewife

While her husband, William, was working hard in London to support the family, Mrs Shakespeare was working hard, too, in the home in Stratford. In the early days of their marriage it would have been very tiring but, as time went by and the family became more prosperous it would have become easier for her. By the time her husband died she would probably have had servants. He had, of course, been very successful, and died a rich man. Here we take a look at what Anne Hathaway’s life as an Elizabethan housewife would have been like.

Girls, at that time in England, were not given a formal education and weren’t even taught to read at home. Even among the great families that was the case, and a man would have been very advanced if he taught his daughters to read. Sir Thomas Moore, Henry VIII’s chancellor, was notorious for teaching his daughters to read and encouraging them to read philosophy and theology books. The rest of the community considered that scandalous. Queen Elizabeth was also an exception. Being groomed as a possible monarch, she was educated by the best tutors available.

But Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, was illiterate, as were her two daughters. A great deal would have been expected of her, though, as a wife. She was responsible for managing the household which in those days, was far more demanding than it is today. We can get in our cars and go off to a supermarket then unload all manner of foodstuffs from all around the world, take them into our cheap fitted kitchens and prepare them in a matter of minutes, or even seconds if they are already prepared and just need heating up. The rest can all be shoved into the refrigerator, where it will be preserved for the time we need it.

Anne had to cook and preserve the food herself, using equipment that we would consider impossible today.  Acquiring food was in itself an almost full-time job. There were markets, but not nearly as well stocked as markets are today. Poor harvests, such as those that occurred in the 1590s, led to widespread starvation. Most housewives had kitchen gardens where they grew basic vegetables, which were roasted or boiled and served in soups and stews.

If the Shakespeare household was typical there would have been three meals a day. Each member of the family would have had a quarter of a pound of meat, a loaf of bread, home grown vegetables, milk, butter, cheese and ale. When she got hold of a chunk of meat Anne would have had to preserve it in salt or smoke it. Later, as William brought in more money, she would have been able to buy spices to counter the extreme salt taste of the meat or disguise the taste of meat that had gone off.

Preserving meat was a major task. If the family was to have a balanced diet she would have to make sure that they ate meat. She would also have to turn milk into butter and cheese – commodities that didn’t go off as quickly as milk. And she would have to brew ale. It was a very weak ale, but safe from the diseases that water carried. The ordinary Elizabethan didn’t drink water. In London there were water sellers, collecting water from springs and selling it on the streets. That didn’t happen in Stratford and our custom of drinking a glass of water when we’re thirsty would have seemed very strange and dangerous to Anne’s children.

These days, if we’re ill we just go off to the doctor or get something from a pharmacy. Such recourses were unknown to the Elizabethans. There were doctors but they were few and far between and unavailable to ordinary people in small towns and villages. The housewife had to make remedies from herbs, and she had to pass the skill down to her daughters. She also had to know how to set broken bones. Anne had to make clothes for her children, too. Not only did she have to make them but she had to spin wool and flax then weave the fabrics.

Anne had three children, fewer than most of her neighbours would have had, but even then, raising them was a huge job. She had to do everything to keep them alive and well at a time when child mortality was common. Even so, in spite of all her efforts her son, Hamnet, died aged eleven. She had to teach her daughters household skills and she had to make sure that her son had the best education possible. Hamnet’s grandfather and father had both been to school and his mother had an obligation to ensure a good schooling for him as well.

Anne also had to do the household accounting, budgeting, and everything that goes with making ends meet with, perhaps, some treats for the children. Considering that she could not read and write it all had to be done in her head.

When her husband was at home on a visit, and particularly after his retirement, when he lived at home with her, she had to entertain his friends. William made a great number of friends connected with the theatre. He was looked up to by younger playwrights, who sought his help and advice, and came to him in Stratford. It’s known, now, that Shakespeare collaborated with several writers, and they would have taken the trip to Stratford after his retirement, as we know that he didn’t visit London during that time. He also had longstanding friendships with famous writers like Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. It’s an established fact that they both visited him during the week of his death. Anne would have been expected to arrange sleeping accommodation for his guests, good meals and bathing facilities.

What qualities did Anne have to possess to be called a good housewife? Regardless of all her other functions, there were some precise expectations for her presence in the kitchen. In one of the first cookery books published in England, 1615, the author says: now that I proceed unto Cookery it self, which is the dressing and ordering of meat, in good and wholesome manner; to which when our House-wife shall address her self, she shall well understand that these qualities must ever accompany it; First, she must be cleanly both in body and garments, she must have a quick eye, a curious nose, a perfect taste, and ready ear; (she must not be butter-fingred, sweet toothed, nor faint-hearted) for the first will let every thing fall, the seconde will consume what it should encrease; and the last will lose time with too much niceness.

It’s doubtful that Anne had any time for herself in the way that we try and make time for ourselves these days. However, she lived to a good old age, as a widow, and we can take pleasure in the thought that her husband left her well off and that she may have taken it easier once her daughters had grown up.


4 replies
  1. Yvonne Hudson
    Yvonne Hudson says:

    Hello, No Sweat Shakespeare! Indeed, I deal with the challenges of running a house on my own as “Mrs Shakespeare, Willi’s first & last love” in my long-running solo show. I perform in Pittsburgh, PA, and book the show for education, festivals, and other events. Perhaps I could provide a guest blog for Will’s birthday this year? My show is set on his last birthday and employs sonnets, songs and soliloquies woven into my original script. Cheers to the great work you do here!

    • NSS
      NSS says:

      Well hello Mrs Shakespeare 😉 Love the facebook page (have just liked it). We’re always looking for good quality guest bloggers so please feel free to drop me a line using the contact page once you have something!

  2. david schajer
    david schajer says:

    I really liked your article!

    FYI — If you are not aware of her, there is an actress named Yvonne Hudson who has been performing a one-woman show about Mrs. Shakespeare.

  3. Sylvia Morris
    Sylvia Morris says:

    Thanks for your post about life for women in Shakespeare’s time. I’d just like to point out, though, that we don’t know whether Anne was literate but there is one signature by Susanna indicating that she could.. Reading leaves no traces, and just because we have no signature doesn’t mean people couldn’t write.
    I’d also suggest that the Hathaway and Shakespeare households would have had servants, especially when they lived in New Place which was a large house. You didn’t have to be wealthy to have servants as you do now!


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