The Tudors were a dynasty of English kings and queens that lasted from the usurpation of the throne by the future Henry VII in 1485 to the death of the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, in 1603. During that period the Tudors managed to take England from a quarrelsome and divided medieval past into a more confident future that embraced the renaissance and even began to challenge the major powers of Europe at the time - France and Spain. It was of course a major period of religious strife too, but today it is perhaps the most iconic of English dynasties, and tends to be remembered in popular culture and works of fiction as a time of upheaval but also merriment and confidence.
While the Tudor period was certainly not without its wars, it is interesting that this first figure set to specifically cover the era is entirely civilian. Civilian life is naturally vast in scope, and while the population in general follow fashions, individuals often do not, so it is much harder to pinpoint particular features that might be inappropriate in a set such as this. Since no two figures are alike we will spend much of this article looking at each figure individually to decide how well they reflect the era to which they claim to belong.
In our top row we have placed what look to be some of the better off members of society. The first figure is of a well-dressed gentleman or professional, who is very typical of the estate in his mode of dress. He wears a fur-trimmed cloak over a pleated tunic, and on his head he has the classic Tudor flat cap, a development of the French bonnet which had been in vogue until around the last decade of the 15th century. In his left hand he holds a purse, and as he has been placed next to the beggar (on our bottom row) on the box artwork, it seems he is giving alms to this poor man and is holding up a coin.
Next to our wealthy man are two ladies who also seem to be lacking none of life’s comforts. The first has a child in front of her who seems to be embarrassing her by picking his nose - a nice touch. She is quite well dressed with a long gown or kirtle, although at the back there is some sort of fringe around the waist which implies a two-piece outfit, which does not match the appearance at the front. Her gown is square-cut at the neck, which was the fashion, and she wears some form of gable cap, so might serve as the wife of our merchant/professional. The second woman is altogether more grand, and wears a splendid gown with long flowing sleeves and a full gable cap such as the best sort wore during the reign of Henry VIII. Her gown is very fashionably cut, and she has a long chain down the front, presumably hanging from a loose girdle, which generally held a pomander, but here it seems to be a crucifix, so we must assume this is a Catholic lady, probably from before the Reformation. Her otherwise impeccable gable cap has one curiosity - a single cloth tube falling down the back. When such caps were in fashion they often had two such tubes, not one, and later when French hoods were in fashion a single tube descended from the centre, so this looks a bit odd, but again, hard to say it never happened and this elegant lady could easily be nobility or even royalty.
The last two figures in the top row are of course monks or priests, and again look to be Catholic. The first looks to be quite solemn but the second has a tankard in hand and his foot is on a small barrel, so he seems to be enjoying himself, although as we shall see drinking is one of the themes of this set.
Row 2 gets fully into the party mood with a couple of revellers having a good time. A woman is riding the back of a young man with a tankard in hand and her skirts pulled up in what would have been considered a thoroughly indecent pose by respectable women. Her dress is low-cut, and she is clearly having a good time, although since her hair is completely out to one side it does look like she is partying in the teeth of a gale! The man beneath our reveller is dressed in classic garb for the early part of the period, with a very short jacket designed to show the legs to good advantage. On his belt he carries a purse, but does not have a blade when we would have expected such an item on most of the male figures here.
The next figure is of a well-dressed man with a beard. Beards were rare amongst the better classes during the early part of the period (despite Henry himself having one), and when they did become fashionable later they were usually small and neat, as in the Elizabethan period. Much older men often had full beards however, but this figure does not seem especially old, although to be honest we could not decide what to make of him either in costume or pose.
Next comes another young man, again drinking and again dressed to show off. Interestingly he either has a tonsure (unlikely as that was only for clerics) or wears a small skull cap. Next to him is another young man, also fashionably dressed and with a small flat cap placed on his head at a jaunty angle. Like many of the figures in this set his shoes are particularly interesting, for they follow a fashion of the time (early 16th century) for very square, exaggerated toes and a very low upper at the back, partly exposing the heel. This was originally popular with the wealthy classes, but later filtered down to more humble folk too. Next to this man is a musician similarly dressed but with a form of French bonnet decorated with a feather. His shoes are very definitely pointed at the toe, which was the trend at the very start of the Tudor period, but only reappeared after the death of Henry VIII when some of the enlarged square-toed shoes had reached ridiculous proportions.
Before we move on to the lower classes, a word on hair is in order. As you are beginning to see, this set is really appropriate for the early Tudor period, and everything here has largely gone out of fashion by the time Elizabeth gained the throne. During the reigns of the Henrys men's hair has generally quite long and worn lose, but only the musician of the figures we have examined so far has fairly long hair, so the styles look better for the reign of Edward onwards, although again it is impossible to discount individual taste at any particular period. Woman of course were supposed to have hair long but carefully tied up and neatly controlled.
And so finally to the bottom row, and the lower orders in Tudor society. We start with a bearded man wearing cap, tunic and hosen and carrying a basket of something. He wears an apron, so could be serving food or is perhaps a baker or similar. To an extent the ordinary people followed the fashions of the wealthy (hence his wide-toed shoes) but kept things much simpler and less expensive of course, and generally more practical too. Beside this man is a woman also carrying a basket of something, and dressed in quite typical costume for a working woman. Her gown is lower cut to reveal her under-smock, and she has a headrail wrapped round her head to form a cap and wimple.
Next we find the beggar, who is unfortunate enough to have lost the lower part of his left leg but fortunate enough to have survived. He wears simple peasant clothing and seems to hold out his hand to take a donation - such men had little chance of following a trade if they were so handicapped. This man has a large bag, which perhaps contains his clap-dish or clack-dish which he used for cooking and also to attract attention when asking for money. Finally there is another man wearing ordinary but practical outdoor clothing. He has a staff and carries a fowl, so could by a forester, game-keeper, poacher or just an ordinary peasant.
Although the ordinary folk could cover quite a wide time period, the well-off figures all look to be from the period very roughly 1485 to 1550, with nothing here looking very Elizabethan. At this time people looked to the continent for fashion trends, and particularly Italy, but there were differences between what the fashionable wore in England and in France or Flanders, and these figures look much more English than continental, which is fine. Given the room for manoeuvre in such a set we were very happy with the accuracy of all the figures.
Although in style these figures have clearly come from the same Strelets stable as the rest of this range so far, they are a great deal less 'chunky' than those that have gone before, so the limbs are actually quite slender and the heads are not really exaggerated in size at all. This is a big improvement from this manufacturer, and while the detail is still not as good as the best on the market it is really quite good - some of the detail on the ladies' gowns is quite impressive. There is almost no flash, and while the poses are suitable to be made as one piece this does not mean they look flat thanks to the subject matter. All in all a great improvement in quality and something to be warmed applauded.
With a set of soldiers you know where you are - most will probably be in battle and the odd one or two might be marching, in camp etc. With civilians you have an almost unlimited choice of poses, so the question has to be what does a set like this depict? While this one seems to be picked examples from all walks of life, from royalty to beggars, the better off people are enjoying themselves (at least the young are) while the ordinary people are getting on with their lives. Sounds about right for any age. Although we couldn’t be sure of exactly what some of the poses were supposed to be doing, if anything in particular, we thought the poses chosen were perfectly reasonable and at times even fun. Better still the figures are nicely sculpted and well produced, and offer something rather different for the painter and model-builder looking for a change from military subjects. We thought this set hit all the right notes, and marks an improvement in quality from this company, so to borrow a term of approval from the film industry we give it two thumbs up.