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If we were to take a stroll through the narrow, thatched town streets of sixteenth century England, it's inevitable that we'd hear a sprinkling of swear words hanging in the air. Through the markets, inside the inns and even in the glittering royal court as you back away, bowing frantically, away from an angry, red-faced Tudor monarch.
Want to learn to swear, Tudor style? Here you go...
The Tudors were deeply religious and indeed worship was intertwined with many of their daily duties. And so it's perhaps not surprising that this was used as inspiration for some of their swear words. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were both known to exclaim 'God's Wounds!' when they were angry. Elizabeth called out 'God's Pestilence!' when she found out she had smallpox in 1562. Other examples that the Tudors cried out generally, include: 'God's Hat', 'God's Blood' and 'God's Foot'. The words would be blended together into one, too: so 'Zounds' was exclaimed instead of 'God's Wounds' and, as in Shakespeare's Othello, 'S'blood' instead of God's Blood'. Martyrs were know to yell 'Mercy!' and sometimes 'Jesus!' while they were being burned alive, and probably not out of religious enthusiasm. Religious cussing was frowned upon though, and such was the extent of it by the end of Elizabeth's reign that James I tried to put a lid on it with legislation in 1606 - and again in 1622. (1)
'I Don't Give a Fart'
When the knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail movie shouts out the insult: 'I fart in your general direction' from the top of a castle, they hadn't made it all up. In 1595, towards the end of Elizabeth I's reign, Elizabeth Wheeler cried out to the court at Stratford upon Avon: 'Goodes woonds, a plague of God on you all, a fart of ons ars for you'. She was promptly removed. (2) As well as being a general insult, the word 'fart' was also used to denote a lack of care. In the corporation records of the town of Reading in Berkshire of 1626 a Goodwife Russell is said to have shouted that 'she did not care a fart for Mr Mayour'. (3) And a vicar in 1607 called John Corne was said to have 'cared not a fart for any of the doctors of this church.' (4)
Henry VIII seemed particularly fond of this one. He shouted it out to Wriothesley when he came to arrest Katherine Parr in 1546, before boxing his ears a little and sending him away. He also used it to describe to Archbishop Cranmer in 1543 the 'false knaves' that could be brought to stand as witnesses against him. Knave was the Tudor word for 'idiot', or a dishonest, sneaky person. Use it accordingly. Has greater meaning if you puff up your chest a little, grow a red beard and bellow in a deep voice. 'Fool' or 'beast' works, too.
I think we can all figure out what this means. Shakespeare uses it in Henry IV Part 1 (Act 2, Scene 4) in probably the mother of all insults, and definitely one we should all memorise in case we need it: "You starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish. O for breath to utter what is like thee! You tailor's-yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck!"
'A plague upon you!'
We already heard this in the case of Elizabeth Wheeler in 1595 in Stratford upon Avon, but the Tudors used the swear word 'plague' to great effect. It's also in Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well (Act 4, Scene 3) as: 'a plague upon him!' Modern uses might include: 'A plague upon mine iPhone, for its battery doth no longer charge.'
I'll add more to this list as I find them. Do you know any other Tudor swear words? Let me know in the comments below!
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1. Cummings, Brian. 'Swearing in Public: More and Shakespeare.' English Literary Renaissance 27, no. 2 (1997): 197-232. Accessed May 28, 2020.
3. Guilding, J. Melville. Reading Records: Diary of the Corporation.
4. Historical Manuscripts Commission 'Acts and Accounts 1600-1610' in Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Dean and Chapter of Wells: Vol 2. London, 1914. British History Online. Accessed 28 May 2020.
5. Robert Hutchinson, The Decline and Fall of a Tyrant, 2019. p258