How was masculinity conferred and conveyed in the sixteenth century?

From his wide stance, to his beard, to his codpiece, Henry VIII as portrayed in Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Henry VIII is the epitome of masculinity.[1] It is widely regarded that the commission of this portrait was an attempt by Henry VIII to reaffirm his masculinity after the fiasco involving Anne Boleyn.[2] In early modern England, masculinity was not something which was conferred upon a boy at the end of puberty, nor was it something which was fixed once obtained. Although the ways in which masculinity in the 16th century were conferred and conveyed varied depending on social status, masculinity was something which was not conferred at birth, but had to be attained and kept by means of asserting sexual dominance, maintaining household order and controlling one’s own body.

There was a distinction in early modern England between youth and manhood. Manhood was not automatically conferred upon a young man upon reaching maturity. Manhood had to be earned and maintained.[3] Masculinity in early modern England depended on strict adherence to codes of honour and vice versa.[4] The honour codes which defined masculinity involved the qualities a man was expected to embody, namely reason and strength.[5] With regards to this, boys were expected to go to school. Through their studies they learned one of the values of manhood, self control.[6]  Here it is visible that a discrepancy between social classes existed with regards to the conference of masculinity, in that only the gentry were expected to learn Latin. Walter Ong suggests that Latin as that was the language of the male elite, it had a ritual purpose in the education of well to do young men.[7] This shows that although the basics of the honour code of masculinity were applicable to all social classes, there were distinctions between them depending on one’s status.

In Tudor England, as with now, young men spent a great deal of time in alehouses, since consumption of alcohol was significant in the establishment of masculinity.[8] The nature of drinking amongst young men demonstrates that bodily self-control was of the utmost importance in the conference of manliness. Though drinking was an important social aspect to masculinity in the Tudor era, it was expected that a man would be able to hold his drink.[9] If a man were to become too drunk, he would lose control of his bodily functions. In 1607, John Patterson received the insult that he was a “foresworn drunken fellow” and a “spewbeck”.[10] Over-drunkenness was also stigmatised because it robbed men of their sexual self control. As Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, “[drink] provokes the desire but takes away the performance.”[11] The ostracisation of men who are unable to hold their drink is evidence that self-control was paramount in the establishment and conveyance of masculinity in 16th century England.

Another aspect to the establishment of masculinity found in alehouses was the discussion of sexual prowess. Young men acquired their manhood through marriage, and an important aspect of marriage was the sexual dominance of the man over the woman.[12] Boasting in the alehouse to fellow men was a key method of demonstrating a man had sexual dominance.[13] Men bragged about their sexual adventures to raise their “honour” amongst their companions at the tavern, even though sexual promiscuity was not approved of by the population at large.[14] If word of a young man’s sexual misconduct were to escape the alehouse, this would betray his honour, and could be detrimental to his reputation. This happened in 1626 when a young man named George Fenwick confronted a woman named Margaret Sharp. Sharp had been spreading rumours of her sexual relations with Fenwick. Fenwick told Sharp that if she did not desist with these rumours he would, “thereby be utterly ashamed and lose his freedom”.[15] Although sexual dominance was an important part of masculinity, this was not necessarily true for sex itself. Tudor and Stuart writers have claimed that moderate, controlled sex would, “…quickeneth the mind, stirreth up the wit, reneweth the senses, driveth away sadness, madness, anger, melancholy, fury” but that immoral or too frequent sex brought a man to “utter weakness”.[16] These examples demonstrate that displaying sexual dominance in the correct setting was an important part of masculinity in early modern England.

That most men in 16th century England married late (between the ages of 25 and 30),  is a testament to the differences between the class expectations of marriages.[17] Many men could only afford to marry after a long apprenticeship, and thus married late. The gentry typically got married (and thus became men) at a much younger age.[18] Marriage was possibly the most key ritual for establishing a young man into manhood.[19] Marriage conferred a certain social status onto a young man, as married men who started their own household moved into social maturity. [20] In this sense, marriage was the final step in the acquisition of manhood. However men had certain expectations about manhood once it was established, including being able to support a wife and household and establishing sexual dominance over his wife. If these cases could not be upheld, then a man could lose the honour which was representative of his masculinity.[21] Dod and Cleaver wrote that married men were considered the “chiefe govenour(s of his) little commonwealth”. This shows that marriage was an important final step in the conference of masculinity as men as it establishes them in the social order, affording them higher social status.

The conveyance of manhood in 16th century England depended on both appearances and actions which all orbited the central tenet of establishing masculine honour. In Tudor England, to be honourable was to conform to the ideals of one’s gender.[22] Chief among the actions of establishing masculinity was the establishment of sexual control.[23] The most famous example of masculinity being tied to sexual control in Tudor England was in the case of Queen Anne Boleyn. When Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery and incest in 1536, it was, in the words of Henry VIII “touching our honour, which as you know, we will have hitherto guarded.”[24] Thus the charges of adultery against Anne were of great personal insult to Henry VIII. In Tudor times, it was thought that the governance of a state was akin to the governance of a household.[25] As Jon Dod and Robert Cleaver wrote, “it is impossible for a man to understand how to govern the commonwealth, that doth not know how to govern his own house.”[26] This is an example of Henry having his masculinity challenged through his failure to convey masculinity. This conveyance was indirect, and depended on Anne Boleyn appearing sexually satisfied. In order to maintain his honour, Henry then had to re-establish his masculinity. This reestablishment of masculinity is perfectly summarised by the Hans Holbein’s Portrait of Henry VIII. Hung in the Privy Chamber, Henry’s broad shouldered, wide stance, focusing on his almost comically large codpiece is an embodiment of manliness.[27] Additionally, sporting a beard is, as John Bulwer writes a century after Henry’s death, “a signe of virility.”[28] The fact that even a king has to assert his masculinity in such a conspicuous manner demonstrates the total saturation of the ideals of masculinity throughout early modern England, and the importance of conveying masculinity properly.

Just as Henry was dressed in a masculine manner in Holbein’s portrait, all men were expected to conform to certain appearances in order to convey masculinity.[29] William Fisher notes that after 1540, for every English portrait of a man over the age of 21 in England without a beard, there were 10 portraits of bearded men.[30] Beards were signs of masculinity in themselves. As Thomas Hall wrote in 1610, “A decent growth of the Beard is a signe of Manhood, and given by God to distinguish the Male from the Female sex, this is a badge of Virility”. [31] This demonstrates that a man’s outwards appearance was important in conveying masculinity. The first step on the path to manhood in the life of a young boy in 16th century England was being gifted a pair of breeches at the age of six. If men were not to dress appropriately in the eyes of society, it was thought that there might be a danger of being mistaken for the worst sorts of women.[32] As Barnaby Rich wrote in the early 17th century, “the young man in this age that is not strumpet like attired, doth thinke himselfe quite out of fashion.”[33] These negative commentaries against styles of dress and long hair demonstrate that a man’s masculinity was dependent on the way in which he dressed.

Though there were some universal laws of masculinity such as sexual dominance and maintaining the headship of a household, some rules of masculinity applied only to the gentry.[34] For the gentry, honour was not so much a personal achievement as it was a linkage with their ancestors.[35] Thus it can be seen that for the gentry, masculinity was not only conferred through the rites of passage of marriage and establishing a household, but also by the masculinity of their ancestors. For example, a way in which Gavin Douglas was recruited by the agent of Henry VIII in Scotland was through the promise that his “blood will be made for ever”.[36] Additionally, when the Darce family revolted against Queen Elizabeth I, Leonard Darcy, involved with the uprisings, found himself disinherited and his lands forfeit.[37]This demonstrates that lineage was an important consideration for the gentry, and as honour was inextricably tied to masculinity, the masculine honour of their ancestors could be a large influence on how their own masculinity was portrayed.

Masculinity in 16th century England was not fixed, and established masculinity could be lost if honor was lost. Common causes of losing came from a man being accused of cuckoldry or effeminacy.[38] Referring to a man’s wife as a whore was a particularly grave insult, as it suggested that the man had no sexual control over his wife.[39] It entailed a loss of honour for the man accused of being a cuckold, and this manifested itself through the man being ostracised by the community.[40] The extent to which this was the case was demonstrated in 1610, when Robert Reede informed a church court that his neighbours made the sign of the cuckold (two fingers pointed towards an individual signifying horns) every time they passed him or his wife in the street. This is an example of masculinity being stripped from a man when the conveyance of masculinity (maintaining sexual control) failed, and reaffirms the importance of sexual dominance in the portrayal of masculinity.[41]

Acting in an effeminate manner was perhaps an even more effective way of losing the masculinity one had acquired. In Tudor times, homosexuality was not necessarily associated with effeminacy as it is today, so fear of effeminacy came from a fear of being seen to become subordinate to women.[42] Effeminate qualities included weakness, softness, delicacy and self-indulgence. It was worried that effeminate men could literally become women, just as the legend which says that a young woman from Chaumont-en-Bassigni supposedly became male through acting masculine. Thus a man acting effeminate meant that he ran the risk of losing his masculinity altogether, so an important part of conveying masculine was refraining from acting feminine. Such was the fear of effeminacy amongst men that parents would describe their infant children in terms of their masculinity. Adam Martindale wrote that his two year old son was “very manly for his age” just as Mary Verney wrote to her husband that their new son was, “a brave and lusty boy”.[43] This urgency of parents to establish the masculinity of their sons demonstrated the fear which surrounded losing honour and being labeled effeminate and losing this masculinity.

Despite the fact that the honour which symbolises masculinity could vary somewhat between the social classes, the core of masculinity in the 16th century revolved around honour codes. For a man  to be honourable was for him to have control over his body, actions and wife’s sexuality. This honour was not conferred upon men automatically, nor was it necessarily permanent once established. The avoidance of circumstances which could take away a man’s masculinity were paramount in masculinity’s very conveyance.







Fisher, W. 2001) The Renaissance Beard: Masculinity in Early Modern England. Renaissance Quarterly. Vol. 54 No.1, p 155-187.


Fletcher, A. (1995) Gender, Sex & Subordination in England  1500-1800. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Fletcher, A. (1999) Manhood, the Male Body, Courtship and the Household in Early Modern England. Oxford and Malden: Blackwell Publishers.


Foyster, E.A. (1999) Manhood in Early Modern England: Honour, Sex and Marriage. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.


Hall, T. (1610) Comarum akosmia the loathsomnesse of long haire… Accessed via English Early Modern Books Online. URL:;submit=Go;subview=detail;type=simple;view=fulltext;q1=beard


Holbein, H. (1537) Portrait of Henry VIII. At: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.


James, M. (1986) Society, Politics and Culture: Studies in Early Modern England. Melbourne and New York: Cambridge University Press.


Lipscomb, S. (2013) The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Crisis in Gender Relations. In Betteridge, T. (ed) Henry VIII and the Court: Art, Politics and Performance. Burlington and Surrey: Ashgate.


Macfarlane, A. The Informal Control of Marriage in Seventeenth Century England; Some Preliminary Notes.


Shakespeare, W. (1606) Macbeth. Dubai: Cambridge University Press 2015 edition.


Shepard, A. (2003) Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England. New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] Holbein. Portrait of Henry VIII

[2] Lipscomb. The Fall of Anne Boleyn. p. 304

[3] Shepard. Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England. p. 23

[4] Lipscomb. p. 300

[5] Foyster. Manhood in Early Modern England. p. 31

[6] Fletcher. Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800 p.297

[7] Ibid. p. 302

[8] Foyster. 40

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. p. 41

[11] Shakespeare. Macbeth. p. 49

[12] Shepard. p. 74

[13] Foyster. p. 40

[14] Ibid. p. 43

[15] Ibid.

[16] Fletcher, Manhood, the Male Body, Courtship and the Household in Early Modern England. p. 404

[17] Macfarlane. The Informal Control of Marriage in Seventeenth Century England; Some Preliminary Notes. p. 110

[18] Ibid.

[19] Shepard. p. 74

[20] Ibid. p. 75

[21] Foyster. p. 106-108

[22] Lipscomb. p. 305

[23] Foyster. p. 55

[24] Lipscomb. p. 300

[25] Ibid. p. 303

[26] Ibid.

[27] Holbein

[28] Fisher. The Renaissance Beard: Masculinity in Early Modern England. p. 178

[29] Fisher. Renaissance Beard.

[30] Ibid. Interestingly, the date Fisher sets for the emergence of beards in portraiture is the same date in which the portrait of King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein was painted.

[31] Hall. Comarum akosmia the loathsomeness of long haire. p. 48

[32] Shepard. p. 29

[33] Ibid.

[34] Foyster. p. 126

[35] Fletcher. Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500 – 1800. p. 127

[36] James. Society, Politics and Culture. p. 326

[37] Ibid. p. 325 – 326

[38] Foyster. p. 56- 57

[39] Ibid. p. 67

[40] Ibid. p. 107

[41] Ibid. p. 108

[42] Foyster. p. 58

[43] Fletcher. Gender, Sex and Subordination. p. 87


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