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Episode 80: Disability in Tudor Times

How much of our thoughts about those with disabilities comes from the Victorians? Join Hazel Baker as she talks with Phillipa Connelly and disability in the Tudor period.

This podcast explores the world of disability in Tudor times, and highlights some of the challenges faced by those living with a disability as well as the successes of a few remarkable individuals.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022

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Your host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain (Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7).

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly

Today’s Guest: Phillipa Vincent-Connolly an historian, writer, and published author of historical fiction and nonfiction. She is a consultant on many exciting projects across a broad spectrum with a special interest in disability and is becoming the ‘go to’ broadcaster on this subject, especially recently with the publication of her book, ‘Disability and the Tudors’. Published by Pen and Sword currently, this is the first book in a series on disabilities in specific eras, and benefits from Phillipa’s own experience of living with Cerebral Palsy.

She achieved her degree in History and Humanities in 2011 and is currently working towards her PHD at Manchester Metropolitan University specialising in Tudor disability. She has spoken at the National Archive to great acclaim and her experience in teaching makes her an authoritative and engaging public speaker. Among her many interests, she has a deep and abiding love for all things historical, archives, artefacts, architecture, fashion and royalty.

Phillipa is also a keen activist, giving a contemporary voice to disabled people of the past, and those who currently feel disenfranchised. Her own disability has allowed her to identify and empathise with those who have not been heard and she is passionate about equality for the disabled. She lives in Poole, Dorset, but is not solely UK centric, as she has a broad spectrum of knowledge and research on which to draw. A rising star in historical fiction too, with her eagerly awaited second volume in her ‘Timeless Falcon’ historical fiction series due out soon, Phillipa has both the research and writing abilities to adapt to any project, and is the future of the past.

Show notes:

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to our London history podcast, where we share our love of London, its people, places and history. This podcast is designed for you to learn things about London that most Londoners don’t even know, all in 20 minutes. I am your host Hazel Baker, qualified London tour guide and CEO of London Guided Walks.

Our walking tours are for those who love London and want to make the most of their time here, no matter whether it’s for a weekend or a lifetime. We aim to deliver insightful and well-prepared London guided walks with genuine enthusiasm and professionalism. And in this podcast, we try to do exactly the same.

Get that cup of tea, put your feet up and enjoy!

Disability in Tudor Times

Hazel Baker: Joining me  in the studio today is Philippa Vincent Conley and historian writer,  published author of historical fiction, and non-fiction. We’re going to be talking today about disability and the Tudors, which is also the title of her latest book, the first of a series of disabilities in specific areas and benefits from Phillipa’s own experience of living with cerebral palsy.

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: Hi, lovely to be here.

Hazel Baker: This is a very big subject, not just on a historical point, but also how we see and treat disabilities and decide on what kind of society we want them to live in. So you mentioned your own experience with cerebral palsy, but what was it about the Tudors in particular that you wanted to write?

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: I’ve always loved history. I was dragged around every stately home within an hours drive radius from my home in Wimborne Dorset. When I was a child, my mother used to go to work on the weekends and my grandparents used to take me everywhere. We’d go to Athelhampton House, we’d go to Blenheim and we’d go to all sorts of different places.

And I would look at these paintings, all these wonderful people in these glorious clothes. And I would think “There’s nobody there that represents me as a disabled person”. And I thought, “why is that? Why am I down here looking up at them? And I’m not up there being looked at by somebody down here?” And it got me thinking from a really early age and I was fascinated, like everybody, with the drama surrounding Henry VIII and his six wives and him executing two of the women that he supposedly adored. It got me thinking, why did he do that? And then you start doing a bit of research and you start reading books.

And so I started off with Jean Plaidy, like a lot of people in the seventies and early eighties, just reading copious amounts of books on them, even when they weren’t, they were fiction. And also the Tudors looking at the evidence. They were very open, very inclusive. And they thought about disabled people just like everybody else.

In some respects, they treated it like an everyday occurrence. And which is why a lot of detail isn’t recorded and they hadn’t categorised disabled people. So they’d literally written down what they saw. So, if they saw somebody who was a cripple, they would write cripple or lame or blind or deaf and all these isms we have now.

And all these syndromes we have now. One written about, cause they didn’t even exist in the way that they exist now. Yes, they existed, but they hadn’t, we didn’t have the medical knowledge back then to be able to relate to that. Describe it. So you were just categorised as either having some sort of intellectual disability, learning disability, mental disability, or even madness.

And that’s how it was. It was very simply defined. Which makes it really difficult because you can type in those keywords into a database or a research platform and not a lot comes up. That’s the difficulty with researching disability history, especially in the early modern era. It gets easier when you’re talking about maybe the Georgians, the Victorians don’t get me started on the Victorians.

Cause that’s when it goes terribly wrong and terribly pear-shaped. And why we carry around, or society, carries around the attitudes towards the disabled that it’s got today. We have namely the Victorians to blame.

Hazel Baker: Philippa, tell us a bit about Jane Foole.

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: We don’t know anything about her; what age she was when she was born or how she came to be an ambulance household, but she certainly was an ambulance household because there’s a painting of her.

Anybody that visits Hampton Court Palace can go to The Haunted Gallery, just at the side of where the Chapel Royal entrance is, they can see this particular painting of the family of Henry VIII sat there in the middle, and they were all his finery with Jane Seymour, with prince Edward, and then the two princesses, either side of them. But on the far side of the paintings, you’ve got these two people who weren’t blood relatives. You’ve got Will Somers, who is a companion tan with the eights who was deemed what they’d call a natural fall, who had a learning disability. And then you had on the far left-hand side, if you’re facing the painting, a woman dressed up in fallen clothing who was Jane Foole.

Hazel Baker:  And for our listeners, I include a link to the image.

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: So you can actually see the painting for yourself. Jane has got a shaven head and a coy, a cotton linen coy phone. So, we think the reason why she might’ve had her head shaved is to help prevent her from getting headlights possibly or a hygiene problem and also to make her feel as if she was closer to God. From a religious point of view; she was a conduit for the holy spirit, for God to speak through. Same with Will Somers. These people weren’t called jesters. Jane, who was in Anne Boleyn’s household, had a learning disability. She was in Anne Boleyn’s coronation procession and she just shouted out “Why aren’t you cheering for the queen? Why aren’t you saying God Save the queen?” Somebody with a learning disability got no filter. So they’re just going to say exactly what’s on their mind, which is what Jane fall actually did. And because I’ve got that understanding. I can see exactly that whole scenario playing out on what happened.

And when she said what she said, because they spoke the truth, like I said before, because they hadn’t, they filter. And they said exactly what was on their minds. They were prized for their companionship and friendship because they had no agenda about getting up the greasy pole of power, like every other courtier and noble. So that was the difference. And that was why. And people I can liked these natural fools closer too, because there was no barrier there for that to be a problem in the relationship in the friendship. So the king could also say exactly what he wanted too. Some are as well, which I found absolutely lovely. These people were prized for their honesty. And the fact that they spoke their truth was worth its weight in gold.

Hazel Baker: If you think of a position being king or queen, or indeed a politician, dare I say,  that you don’t have any friends. And people that know you always wanting something from you. So it’s very lonely existence because not only are they wanting something from you, but you can’t ctually get anything from them for it, with a true word.

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: Yeah. And what actually upsets me is that all of that thinking more or less is shunted aside. As soon as disabled people become institutionalised after the industrial revolution, because they’re seen as not giving anything back to society because they can’t do these mechanised jobs and repetitive things time after time, the whole situation with disabled people completely changes.

And that’s, what’s so sad, but also that’s, what’s so enlightening about the Tudors with disabled people is that they were actually like this, that they did help hold them in high esteem. But also on the other hand, from a religious point of view, if the child is born with a severe deformity, for example, then, what’s the mother looked at well, she was pregnant, what’s what have the parents been involved with?

Is it slightly satanic? Is it slightly witchcraft? Is it, there’s all these ideas of superstition that will creep in as well. So, it’s a very weird Seesaw of attitudes during that time, but then you also had the monasteries who would take in disabled people who couldn’t be looked after in the families or communities.

And then once the reclamation came along then and the Commonwealth swept all that support or what. Those people couldn’t really go anywhere. He did start to bring in the poor laws. There were almshouses built. There was a lack of hospitals that was Bedlam for the mad things like that.

That was a system of welfare slowly being brought in, but it didn’t really replace the monasteries in their entirety. So, it’s all very interesting from a social point of view as well.

Hazel Baker: Yeah. I hadn’t actually made that connection before. That’s a really good point.

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: That’s I mean it’s and there are individuals that are really interesting to learn about. Thomas Moore, for example, took in a fool with a learning disability called Henry Pattinson who actually looked very similar to Henry the eighth from the portrait. If you look at the family portrait of Thomas Moore, Henry Patterson stood there in all his finery in gold clothes, gold coloured clothing and every bit as resplendent; like the king. He was included in the family portrait, like a family member. He sat around at meal times with them, got involved in political discussions. Actually, at one point he did actually advise Thomas Moore to sign the oath so he didn’t get thrown in the Tower of London and executed. But obviously Thomas Moore didn’t listen to him at that point. That was an education. Henry Patterson to a degree. And that was another way that religion helped people in the Tudor period, because it was all about charitable giving and all of that. And, you’d get to happen through good works and doing things for people, less fortunate than you.

The religious aspect of it had so many different connotations for disabled people at that time. Which is really interesting. And then you had people like Queen Claude, for example, not English, but she was waited on by ambulance before Anne Boleyn came back to join the English court. And she had scoliosis, she had one leg shorter than the other. She had a strong bussas, which was the defect with her eyes. She had all sorts of minor disabilities and she was. Quite overweight as well. And they did actually take the mickey out of her, in the French court to integrate with how she looked and everything, because she wasn’t really fashionable. And, but she was very pious and very religious and she managed to actually have seven children for the French king. So she didn’t do too badly at all.

Hazel Baker: She did her job.

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: Exactly. And then you’ve got people like Lady Mary Gray, who, the sister of queen Jane, the nine days queen, who was short in stature and had scoliosis.

There were other people who had scoliosis as well. Some people will log you. That’s not really a disability, but then I would say it depends on how that condition affects your everyday life and your ability to do normal everyday activities. And that’s what I based my description of disability on, because you could argue that being fertile could also be a disability in the Tudor period, because if you couldn’t produce an heir. Then you didn’t get very far there. So, there’s all sorts of different ways that you can look at it. But I basically looked at the equality act of 2010 and looked at the descriptors of what that says about disability. And it’s all about how far you can lead a normal life and what stops you and doesn’t stop you. And that’s what I looked at with the Tudors in comparison to try and get a benchmark.

Hazel Baker: That’s an interesting way, because even how to live a normal life, like what you were saying about the Victorians’ normal life was very different, right? To time then it was, when the post industrial revolution with it,

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: with the Victorians, like I said, you were just put in institutions and out of sight, out of mind, if you couldn’t contribute in any way financially to society, then they didn’t want to know you basically.

And if they couldn’t care for you, then that was the best place for you. Rated from your family, you weren’t allowed to be living with anyone of the opposite sex in case you had children who had sex, which they didn’t want. It was also the start of the gen X movement. So that’s where thanks things obviously really changed there as well.

Yeah. Talking about the Victorians. I am starting to write a book about disability in the Victorian period, actually, to continue with the topic. And I’m sure I’m going to find that a lot more of a challenge, not because of the sources or anything like that, but because of the attitude. Because I myself was institutionalised from the age three, up until nine years old. When my parents literally lived 10 minutes down the road, and I was at boarding school with other disabled children who were far more disabled than I was. So it was always me who was the healthy one. Who’d be running down the corridor in the middle of the night, trying to find a nest to help somebody falling out of bed or needing a nurse at nighttime and things like that. Lights out at 6.30pm, no TV, and that was in the mid 1970s. It was still very much Victorian living. And then which is why I’ve got such an activist hat on me. I try to stay out of the political sort of thing, but it’s very difficult, because you want to make things better. I want to make things better, not just for myself, but for other disabled people like me so that we don’t always come up against the same barriers all the time with ableism, discrimination and all that.

Hazel Baker: I think what’s nice, especially if you’re talking about the Tudors and them being more accepting and finding roles and responsibilities that people could do. It reminds people that there are other ways there isn’t just one way of. Doing something. So that is nice. With Jane Foole and Anne Boleyn, I have recently been researching about Greenwich palace myself. So 1536 she had her last shopping trip. She’d bought some material and some of some frills and that including for, I think, for Jane Foole.

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: She bought yellow silk for Jane Foole for a gown,  green silk for a cap, all sorts of things. And that’s another reason why we can see that Jane fallout actually existed in Anne Boleyn’s household. Besides the coronation incident, because there are these accounts of items being bought for J and that’s another reason why we can realise that Janesville had some sort of disability, because she didn’t have the capabilities to buy an order, her own clothes.

And look after the money herself the Tudor, disabled people, if they were in a wealthy family, would have what we’d call keepers of equivalent of carers. And that’s how the Tudors used to do it, which is very straightforward forward thinking. Can I quite normal when you look at it, because although, and had responsibility for Jane for being in a household, she also made that the job of some of our other ladies in waiting for example, or her, how members of a household to actually look after Jane with.

Hazel Baker: And what happened to Jane when Ann was taken to the tower?

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: She was passed from pillar to post, bless her heart, princess Mary, first of all, who looked after her and the reason why we know that. Princess Mary and her household accounts paid for Jane’s hair to be shaved on several occasions, and paid for medicine for Jane when she’s not well.

Then later on when Catherine Parr comes on the scene, the final sixth queen Catherine Parr, she buys Jane Foole of flock of geese to herd around the grounds and gardens at Whitehall Palace or Hampton Court to give Jane Foole some responsibility and to keep her occupied, which are things absolutely wonderful as well. What a lovely thing to do, you could imagine at tying all these beautiful ribbons around their necks and giving them names kind of thing. Do you know what I mean? So, she completely disappears from the records. We don’t know when she died, where she went, what happened to her at all, which is really sad because we’ve only got those household accounts and that particular painting to show that she existed.

Hazel Baker: Do we know what happened to WIll Somers?

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: Oh gosh. We know a lot more about because he stayed in the court of Henry VIII throughout Henry’s reign and he also stayed in the court of his successor, Edward VI. Will Somers died just as Queen Elizabeth I ascended so he’d had a flipping good innings. He couldn’t continue that kind of relationship with the monarchs as he got older, because he had to be cared for a lot more, but Henry VIII certainly ordered lots of clothes for him. He didn’t dress him as a service. He had quite expensive velvets bought for him, but he wasn’t dressed as a noble.

He had leather work for horses, bought for him, stirrups bought for him. He was taken on progress. He and there is an account of Wilson actually following Henry VIII funeral procession and being in the row at the very front. So, he was a big part of the King’s line. And the only thing that’s wonderful because it shows such an openness from a man that you wouldn’t have thought would have been that forgiving and that encouraging and that supportive would you?

Hazel Baker: Maybe that’s just our reflection on Henry and that we’ve not actually thought about that before.

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly: Yeah.

Hazel Baker:  Thanks very much for that. That’s all for now. See you next time.

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