Wednesday, 5 May 2010

“[she] changes every day”; Mary Tudor and fashion

(To see this post with original footnotes and with some images, I have created a pdf document which you can read here:

For many, the sixteenth-century French hood is deeply associated with Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. Political allegiances are seen to have been displayed in the way in which individuals of status dressed. Thus the pro-French Anne, whom also spent considerable time in that country, adopted French fashion. Her predecessor and rival, Jane Seymour, is associated with English dress. To reinforce this perception further, in 1537 Lady Lisle attempted to gain a place for one of her daughters in Jane’s household. She succeeded in gaining a place for daughter Anne, but was told that the queen had commanded she lose ‘her French apparel’. Jane, it can be argued, was removing all traces of her predecessor and propagating herself as a modest woman who dressed in the more conservative English fashion than the supposedly bawdy French style.

Yet how distinctively separate were French and English styles viewed by contemporaries? Was English style really conservative? Did those women who espoused it purposely do so to portray themselves as modest women – even as conservatives in religion? And were figures like Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour really that rigid in their dress sense? Could not women adopt English, French, and indeed other continental fashions, because they simply liked the style; because such styles were becoming fashionable elsewhere?

What about Mary Tudor? By looking at her dress sense we can develop some idea of contemporary taste and whether individuals did endorse clothing for political effect or just because the items in question were fashionable at the time.

Mary adored clothes and jewels. During her years of disgrace (1533-1536), a number of her fine gowns and jewels were taken away in punishment over her refusal to recognise her new demoted status. She complained bitterly and was reduced, the imperial ambassador claims, to ‘send[ing] a gentleman to the King, her father, begging him to provide her with the necessary articles.’ Her subsequent vast expenditure on clothes, namely as queen, was in some respects a way of compensating for that experience. Yet there was also a sense of sheer joy in fashion. In 1554 the Venetian ambassador remarked that Mary 'seems to delight above all in arraying herself elegantly and magnificently.’ She ‘changes every day’. In the later years of her father’s reign, when she was back in favour, she would pay great attention to her inventory of jewels. We find her hand in the inventory of 1542-46, carefully documenting all the items bestowed upon her. The pleasure was not only in receiving. Mary indulged in the customary practise of awarding articles of jewellery and clothing as gifts. One ‘grene Tablet garneshed wt golde hauyng the Picture of the trinite in it’ was given to ‘my laday Elizabeth grace’, her half-sister, whilst she granted one Mistress Ryder a ‘rounde tablet blacke enamelled wt the Kings Picture and quene Janes [Seymour]’ on the occasion of this woman’s marriage. Philip also received gifts of clothing from his wife. For their wedding, Philip wore a mantle of gold cloth that Mary had given him. The mantle was set with numerous precious stones.

Evidently Mary inherited her predecessor’s gowns and jewels. This is remarked upon by the Venetian ambassador:

‘She also makes great use of jewels, wearing them both on her chapron and round her neck, and as trimming for her gowns; in which jewels she delights greatly, and although she has a great plenty of them left by her predecessors, yet were she better supplied with money than she is, she would doubtlessly buy many more”.

Given that Mary was already spending a pretty sum on her wardrobe, her desire to spend more indicates the great desire she had to look good.

What type of styles, materials and colours did Mary prefer? Fortunately there exists an excellent study that provides insight into this. Alison Carter, who wrote her MA thesis on Mary’s wardrobe, observes that her accounts as queen reveal huge quantities of velvet and satin. Velvet was the most expensive and Mary frequently called for ‘Jean Duplic’ and ‘Lukes’. ‘Jean Duplic’ was possibly doubled-pilled velvet from Genoa, and ‘Lukes’ was rich velvet from Lucca, Italy. We know that Anne Boleyn had ordered shoes made of this black Genoa velvet. There also appears to be large quantities of crimson and purple velvets ordered for Mary. She also favoured black, again like Anne Boleyn. Alexander Samson remarks that we see ‘a discernable shift from the crimson and murrey dyes popular in 1554 to russet shades by 1557’ throughout her reign. Clearly Mary took notice of contemporary trends.

In the portrait of Mary by ‘Master John’ dated to c.1544 - a portrait which she commissioned – she is depicted in a gown of the French style. As Carter notes,
‘Its characteristics were square neckline, tight-fitting bodice, trained skirt, which from the 1530s had an inverted V opening at centre front, and wide oversleeves worn with ‘false’ foresleeves’.

Though Mary is depicted in the c.1544 portrait wearing this, they first actual reference to a ‘ffrenche gowne’ in her accounts dates to 1546. However five gowns mentioned in accounts of 1538 may have also been in the same style. By 1540 Mary also stops wearing the gable hood; she purchases her last one in January of that year.

For Carter, the ‘grandeur of the French gown lent itself to the rather conservative taste of the English court and more or less fossilized there long after it had passed out of fashionable French dress’. Of course what was considered conservative in England was not necessarily shared elsewhere. Clearly certain Spanish visitors during Mary’s reign did not perceive English women to dress or behave modestly. Furthermore one contemporary remarked that Mary was a saint who dressed very badly, the implication that she overdid it with the grandeur.

As queen Mary took to wearing two sorts of garments – gowns in the French fashion, like before, and looser fitting gowns (she did wear a gown of this type during the period of mourning for her father but starts wearing these more frequently as queen). In 1554 the Venetian ambassador observed that she often wore, ‘a gown such as men wear, but fitting very close, with an under-petticoat which has a very long train; and this is her ordinary costume, being also that of the gentlewomen in England’. The gowns could be fastened at the front. As Alexander Samson summarises, the use of such gowns may have coincided with the period in which she believed herself to be pregnant:

‘This new style was increasingly favoured by Mary, possibly as a result of her phantom pregnancy, the absence of a stomacher making it a more comfortable garment for a woman with a distended abdomen. She was described on the 27th November 1554, appearing at Whitehall: "in the chamber of presence... the Quene sat highest, rychly aparelid, and her belly laid out, that all men might see that she was with child. At this parliament they did laboure was made to haue the kyng crowned and some thought that the Quene for that cause, dyd lay out her belly the more. On the right hand of the Quene sat the king"’.

What was Mary attempting to do with her style of dress? Was she intended to propagate her religious and political sympathies, or just adopting the fashion of the time?

Carter argues that Mary pioneered the ‘Gloriana image’ associated with her predecessor and half-sister, Elizabeth I. ‘Mary was, I believe, a supreme and yet generally unacknowledged exponent of that image, able to dress with the utmost sumptuosity and yet propriety, with a “taste for dress” as Beatrice White perceptively comments “that never degenerated into the baroque or ridiculous”. Mary dressed to impress, and found enjoyment in this. Recently Susan James has argued that Mary lacked any particularly interest in art itself, but was interested in using it for political means. If that was the case, and I think this needs to be questioned, fashion was regarded in a much different light. It was far more ‘personal’ and meaningful to her.

This enjoyment in fashion extended to Mary’s numerous stepmothers, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour included. Jane may have worn the English gable hood, indicated in portraits of her, but there is the possibility that she adopted other headdresses. As her wardrobe accounts as queen are limited, and in fact don’t mention gable hoods at all though we know she must have worn them, we cannot determine with precision that she only wore certain styles of dress. Clearly Jane, like her stepdaughter and her predecessor Anne Boleyn, adored sumptuous materials; she owned numerous gowns and tended to favour tawny, crimson and yellow. As queen Jane readily accepted the jewels and garments of her predecessors. She may have attempted to control what her maids like Anne Basset were wearing, but she could not deter the popularity of French dress in England. She inherited Anne Boleyn’s gowns and jewels and did so gladly, just as Mary, throughout the rest of Henry’s reign and upon her own accession to the throne, inherited the goods of her predecessors. Ultimately Mary went with the fashion. And if the fashion was for French, then she would acquire that style.

What happened though when Mary went to war with France as queen? Would not the wearing of French influenced attire be inappropriate? Alison Carter identifies Philip’s arrival in England with the subsequent popularity of facets of Spanish dress. Spanish styles had, she argues, been incorporated into the few festive displays held at Mary and Philip’s court and this had an impact on its popularity amongst the nobility. Contemporaries remarked that before Philip’s arrival, male dress in England was influenced by the Italian style; after it became more Spanish. Mary too, and her women, were influenced by Spanish dress; her gowns become, Carter states, ‘remarkably similar in style and decoration under a unifying European, but predominately Spanish influence’. Carter portrays Mary as a woman frequently incorporating the most fashionable styles in her own dress, thus she did not move away entirely from French styles. The move to Spanish dress is evident yet predates England’s declaration of war on France in 1557. What dispels the notion that Mary was motivated particularly by political events in her style of dress is that fact that in 1558 she orders seven French kirtles for loose gowns.

A few months after her death, several of Jane Seymour’s ladies returned to wearing the French hood. It was after all the fashion; gable hoods were becoming terribly outdated. Like these women, Mary was aware of current trends and wished to display herself as befitting her status. Mary may have been the monarch’s illegitimate daughter, specifically verified as so in the 1536 Act of Succession, and was for eight following years not included in the succession, but she was nonetheless a leading lady at court and the daughter of the monarch. She dressed well and understood the importance of dressing to impressive. Mary was first lady at court during the rare occasions that her father was without a queen. Did she perhaps take this time to further her knowledge on public presentation? Possibly and this would have been no hardship. For Mary, looking good was a pleasure and a duty.


  1. I have been reading your excellent blog for quite a few weeks now, and I am enjoying your excellent topics about amazing Queen Mary I. Congratulations, and please keep it up. Greetings from Brazil.

  2. Love your blog. Mary has always been a sympathetic figure to me. Reading history, she may have the worst politician among the Tudors but she seemed to have a personal kindnesss and frailty that her grandfather, father and lionized half-sister lacked. Not to mention the fact that I think the whole "Bloody Mary" thing is unfair when compared with the blood spilled by other rulers.

    I've always wondered though exactly what was Mary's status between the 1536 (when she gave in to her father) and she was put back in the Succession. She was no longer a "princess" and just a bastard (declared so by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself) and a merely a "lady" without any title but she was of royal blood on both sides, and many of the populace of England, not to mention much of Europe, considered her still royal. This was something even her half-brother, Richmond, who was made a duke did not have. Yet she was treated horribly when she was made to serve in Elizabeth's household and looked down on by people who were her social inferior in every way.If she had given in to her father from the start what exactly position would she have been in? If she could afford jewels and clothes and the many servants she did as a "bastard" she must have had some status even among Anne's partisans (outside of their fear of her), no?

  3. Thank you both for your comments!

    Jack – Mary's status throughout Henry's reign is interesting. Technically, Mary was not specifically declared illegitimate in the 1534 Act of Succession. It was implied, for it was stated that only Henry VIII’s issue by Anne Boleyn were his legitimate heirs. Probably Henry felt this was sufficient enough to deem his first daughter illegitimate. But clearly it was not, thus in the 1536 Act of Succession, both Mary and Elizabeth were specifically denied a place in the succession. This remained till 1544 when another act was passed that re-included them, albeit they were still the monarch’s illegitimate issue.

    So Mary’s own position from 1533 to 1536 was rather ambiguous. It was clear from Henry’s actions, that after 1533 she was to be regarded as his illegitimate child, and he publicly demoted her status with the dismantling of her household along with the confiscation of many of her goods, jewellery included. But he failed to enshrine this in law.

    After 1536, matters changed, for Mary did comply and did recognise the superior claim of her brother, Edward. It was Mary’s constant efforts to propagate herself as a loyal subject that helped to lead to her subsequent inclusion in the succession. During 1536-1544, Mary was the monarch’s favoured daughter – one historian calls her his ‘trophy daughter’. The fact that she was born from a match which many still regarded as legitimate (hence why Mary found it so easy as queen to revoke her father’s actions), helped her and set her apart from her half-brother, Henry Fitzroy. Officially though from 1536-1544 she was regarded as the monarch’s illegitimate daughter, with no claim to the throne, though nonetheless highly favoured by him.

    Your question of what would have happened had Mary complied from the start is interesting. When Mary learnt of her father’s marriage to Anne Boleyn she did not voice any refusal to recognise the match. In fact, initially she had congratulated her father upon news of his nuptials. It was when Elizabeth was born and she realised that her status was now under attack that she acted the way she did. There were certainly some among Anne’s allies that recognised Mary’s status, hence why a number served both women at respective times. Margaret Douglas, the king’s niece, served Anne and later become good friends with Mary and Mary counted a number of Howard women amongst her confidantes (the Howard were Anne’s maternal relations). Some, I think, were quite willing to bend with the times and had Mary remained favoured by the king owing to her obedience, she would have received the support of diverse individuals.

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  5. I thought I had posted something yesterday but I can't see it! Perhaps I merely previewed it withing posting...

    Just wanted to say - another great post by LMS! Made for a very informative and enjoyable read. Thanks!

    It is definitely very interesting to speculate what might have happened had Mary acquiesced earlier than she did. I wonder if Henry would have arranged a foreign marriage for her in that case - Anne might have encouraged it since she would have felt a lot safer with Mary out of the way. Perhaps a Scottish marriage as her aunt Queen Margaret had hoped for?

    And re: the other Margaret, her daughter the Countess of Lennox, I thought she and Mary went way back - right from the time they were kids. They were first cousins after all, only a few months apart, and I believe Margaret was raised at court with Mary under Henry's close supervision. So they would have been friends long before Margaret served Anne Boleyn.

    I think Mary was also friends with Jane Parker, Lady Rochford. She was sent to the Tower for her public expressions of support for Mary & Katherine in 1535.

  6. Sorry for the duplicate post - I did not see the other one earlier.