I decided to research Tudor birth control after reading Catherine Howard’s words in a book. Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, was thought to have had sexual relations with her music tutor Henry Maddox, her sweetheart Francis Dereham and a junior member of Henry’s Privy Chamber, Thomas Culpepper, yet she managed to avoid pregnancy. When warned about the possible consequences, Catherine said:
“…a woman might meddle with a man and yet conceive no child unless she would her-self.”
Whatever method of birth control or old wives tale Catherine put her trust in, it obviously worked for her!
But what did the Tudors use as contraception?
Well, in Tudor times, contraception was illegal as it was believed that sexual intercourse was for procreation, not for pleasure. Even in the 18th century, Daniel Defoe was comparing contraception to infanticide, and today the Catholic Church only believes in natural methods of contraception and is of the opinion that contraception is “intrinsically evil” because it goes against natural law.
The only sure way of not getting pregnant in those days was to abstain, but then isn’t that true for today?! Although contraception and abortion were both illegal, and therefore not written about (hence the lack of information and historical sources on the subject), there were methods of contraception that were practised by some people in Tudor times. These included:-
- Coitus Interruptus – Also known as the “withdrawal method”, this method of contraception involved the man withdrawing before ejaculation. Obviously a lot of self control was needed for this method!
- The “rhythm method” – This is a method that is still used today and one which depends on a woman’s knowledge of her body and her menstrual cycle. This method relies on a woman abstaining from sexual intercourse when she is at her most fertile, i.e in the middle of her menstrual cycle when ovulation tends to happen. Although this method can be used quite successfully today because there are products on the market to identify when a woman is fertile, in those days it was very hit and miss.
- Breastfeeding/lactation – Fertility tends to be reduced when a woman is breastfeeding but many of us know that this does not stop you getting pregnant!
- Herbal remedies – Natural contraceptives or “abortants” included oil of mint, oil of rue, oil of savin and honeysuckles juice. Women would ingest these natural remedies in the hope of preventing conception or causing miscarriage.
- Vaginal inserts – There are records of Ancient Egyptian women using vaginal inserts or pessaries made of acidic substances to kill sperm and Tudor women did make use of inserts like wool soaked in vinegar or bundles of herbs which aimed at killing the sperm or making the woman’s body less hospitable. Barrier methods like wooden blocks, stones and beeswax were also used as cervical caps- ouch!
- Charms and amulets – It was thought that wearing amulets made of particular animal body parts, like weasel testicles, or out of herbs would protect the wearer from conceiving.
Condoms made out of animal intestines did appear in some countries in the 17th century but it does not appear that Tudor men made use of them.
Women relied on word-of-mouth for learning about contraception and it was never spoken of in public because it was illegal. The use of herbs and amulets could be construed as witchcraft and anyone who sought to use contraception or cause miscarriage or abortion could get in big trouble and even be executed. Many of the women who were hanged for witchcraft were simply people with knowledge of herbs and nature who were accused of helping women have abortions or of promoting contraceptive devices or aids.
PhD Historian over at TudorHistory.org Q&A
Tudor England by Peter Brimacombe