Women Builders and the Savoy Hospital

Charlotte Stanford, associate professor of comparative arts and letters, presents the involvement of women in the building guilds in England during the reign of King Henry VIII.

PROVO, Utah (Sept. 14, 2017)—Though it can be difficult to find evidence of their lives in historical records, women did have public personas the middle ages. Inspired by the Tudor architecture of the Savoy Hospital, built between 1512–1520 A.D., Charlotte Stanford, a BYU associate professor of comparative arts and letters, has recently begun investigating women who were involved in the building trades during the reign of Henry VIII. In trying to compete with other Renaissance monarchs, Henry VIII ordered the construction or renovation of over 70 homes throughout his kingdom during his lifetime. “Like many of his contemporary Renaissance monarchs, he believed it was his job to be magnificent,” explained Stanford. The king’s desire to be the most magnificent Renaissance monarch was coupled with the need to legitimize his crown, which he inherited from his father who seized it by leading a military coup d’état against the House of Plantagenet. These two insecurities helped lead to a large number of expensive building projects in an effort to establish himself as a powerful leader.

Looking at the bright faces of young feminists in the women’s studies colloquium, Stanford explained that women were definitively involved in this construction, but in somewhat unconventional ways. Although some artwork from the Renaissance and later centuries depicts fancily dressed women lifting incredibly heavy objects, this was not the role that women would have filled. Stanford referred the audience to the June page of the Book of Hours of Jean Duc du Berry (c.1412–1416) where illustrations show women helping in the fields, conservatively dressed, managing tasks closer to their actual physical abilities than superhuman heavy lifting.

Many women, Stanford explained, would have acted as assistants to their male relatives rather than as a members or apprentices in a guild, because access to official guilds was usually denied them based on their sex. Stanford explained, “Many of the building guilds kept good records that mention women throughout, even though they did not fill the formal roles of members or apprentices. The carpenter’s guild was especially thorough [in record keeping].” Not having guild membership might seem like a disadvantage, but it actually allowed women more freedom in their trades. “Most did not apprentice formally to a guild but worked under the supervision of fathers or husbands and assisted informally, and therefore, off the record,” Stanford said. Guilds were very strict about the work their members could perform. A carpenter, for example, was not allowed to do any sort of plastering or tiling work because those activities were outside of his skillset. This extended as far as the materials a carpenter could buy. “The carpenters could buy wood, but buying nails—that could get tricky,” she explained. Women, because they did not have formal membership in a guild, were important resources for the buying and transportation of materials.

One of these important women was Elizabeth Woodland, who is recorded as providing finished ironwork to the Savoy construction. “I immediately started looking for other Woodlands,” Stanford said. She knew that there would likely be male family members that Elizabeth was working with, and after a little digging she found record of a Robert Woodland who appeared on the payroll as a carpenter. Elizabeth, then, would have worked as a carter with her father to circumvent guild laws about carpenters not being able to cart metalwork. What makes Elizabeth unique is that her first name is included, whereas wives and widows who worked with the carpenters were typically known by the last name of their husband. Stanford found a will contemporary to the Savoy record in which Robert Woodland mentions his children as partial inheritors, two of which were named Elizabeth Woodland. From these two records, Stanford assumes that Elizabeth may have been Robert’s daughter who could have been transporting ironwork either to help with family expenses or build a dowry.

Another way that women were involved in the building trades was through the care of an apprentice after their husband’s death. “Apprenticeships were an investment by the young man’s kin,” said Stanford. Should a master die before an apprentice had completed his training, the widow was bound by financial obligation to see that his training was completed. This practice built a strong connection between the widow and her deceased husband’s apprentice. Furthermore, some apprenticeships lasted longer than was needed strictly for learning, usually 7 years, and the master would receive payment for the work his apprentice completed. The long apprenticeship gave the master a few years of cheap labor and, in the event of the master’s death, an apprentice was bound to the master’s widow to offer the extra financial support that she might have needed.

Though very few of Henry VIII’s building projects survive now, the legacy of these women lives on in the records of the guilds who employed, supported, and used these women as tools to circumvent strict guild laws. They created a useful substructure to allow craftsmen and women work together to complete Henry VIII’s elaborate projects.

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the women’s studies program for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Image: The Limbourg Brothers, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Juin, 1413-16 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons