Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir

  The names of many of Elizabeth’s female attendants are known, although it is not possible to determine in what capacity they all served. They are listed in alphabetical order in Appendix II. Some had clearly been appointed at the behest of the King or Margaret Beaufort. Several served Elizabeth for many years, and were later rewarded for good service; some were entrusted with positions in the households of the royal children. The Queen’s personal household, like the court, was composed of people who were often related to her and/or to one another, making it almost a familial organization.

  Elizabeth’s female attendants would have dressed her, for help was essential, given the elaborate clothing worn by high-ranking ladies of the period. Queens were not expected to perform even personal tasks for themselves, so they also washed and bathed her, and attended her when she used the privy or close stool, wiping her with a clean cloth afterward. It was taken for granted that body servants, who were required to be of gentle rank, would be in attendance even for the most intimate of functions.

  It was a mark of rank to look clean and smell pleasant. Since the thirteenth century, kings and queens had the luxury of piped hot and cold water from a cistern, and Elizabeth was fortunate in that she had many servants, but not everyone at court was fastidious, and sanitation was poor: hers was a world scented with herbs, spices, and flowers—variously spread or sprinkled on rush matting, napery, food, bedding, and parts of the body—so that offensive smells might be camouflaged. Good manners dictated that the upper classes washed on rising, before and after meals, and on retiring for the night; the royal chamberlains would be at hand at those times with a basin and a towel of fine Holland cloth. Yet it is not known how often, or how thoroughly, people actually washed themselves. Elizabeth’s father, Edward IV, had his head, hands, and feet washed every Saturday, which suggests there was a difference between the ideal and the reality. The rich did take baths fairly often, using a wooden tub lined with cloth and covered with a canopy. The bather sat on a bed of sponges, which were also used to wash her with herbs, rosewater, and soap, and was attended by servants who spread mats for her to stand on and who stood ready with towels. Toothpicks and cloths were used to clean and buff teeth, and Elizabeth’s attendants would have tidied her hair with an ivory comb.

  All the Queen’s ladies were expected to be expert needlewomen, as much of their time was spent working with costly materials and threads of silk and gold, embroidering altar cloths, hangings, bedding, and garments, or sewing clothing such as fine shirts. These might be given as New Year’s gifts. Elizabeth Lock was the Queen’s silkwoman, and also made items for the King. At Christmas 1502, Elizabeth paid her for “certain bonnets, frontlets, and other stuff of her occupation for her own wearing.”45

  Like many aristocratic women, Elizabeth enjoyed embroidery. She employed a French embroiderer, Robinet, who got board and wages, and hired other embroiderers,46 but embroidered the King’s garter robe herself, using Venetian gold that Henry had purchased,47 and in 1502 she paid 8d. [£16] for an ell of linen cloth “for a sampler.” A sampler at that time was an embroidery specimen or template that could be copied.48

  Much time was devoted by the Queen and her ladies to making, mending, embellishing, or trying on clothes. In an age of outward display, appearance counted for much, and it was expected of them to enhance the splendor of the court by the resplendence of their attire. Elizabeth’s ladies were required to dress almost as lavishly—and expensively—as she did: despite strict sumptuary laws restricting the wearing of certain materials to certain ranks, their dress was to reflect their employer’s status rather than their families’. The rich materials and long trains worn at court reflected the wealth and status of their wearers, for such fabrics were dear. Needless to say, it cost a lot to equip a girl for royal service.

  As Queen, Elizabeth was expected to dress more magnificently than any other woman. The measure of a monarch’s standing was judged by the conspicuous display he and his family maintained, and clothing was an outward sign of rank, which was why sumptuary laws were regularly—and sometimes ineffectively—passed, and anyone wearing apparel above their station was liable to a fine. The King instructed the Great Wardrobe and his own chamber to issue Elizabeth with the more expensive items that she needed, which was a great boon in view of her limited income. The Great Wardrobe also supplied clothing, normally of black or tawny, for the ladies and gentlewomen of the Queen’s household, although peeresses in attendance were expected to wear their own rich attire. The King did not stint on such items, recognizing the importance of outward display,49 but Elizabeth had to pay the cost of transporting her clothes whenever she changed residences.50

  The chief item of dress worn by women was the gown, which had a fitted bodice, a natural waistline, and a flowing skirt. Sleeves were usually narrow until ca. 1500, when they became fashionably wider; in 1502, Elizabeth ordered her tailor, Robert Ragdale, to line a gown of black velvet with wide sleeves with black sarcenet.51 Narrow sleeves had cuffs, sometimes of fur, as can be seen in Elizabeth’s portraits, and fur was often used to trim the neckline, line the gown, or as a border on the skirt. During Elizabeth’s lifetime the square neck replaced the boat-shaped or V-shaped necklines of her younger years. She seems to have favored black above other colors, black then being one of the costliest dyeing processes and therefore a symbol of status, but she also owned gowns of crimson, purple, gold, and other hues.52 Some of her gowns were of wool; some had a deep contrasting border at the hem, as can be seen in the Whitehall mural (see Appendix I), where it is of ermine, or purfils, which were decorative edgings. One russet velvet gown had a purfil of cloth of gold and damask; another of purple velvet had a purfil of cloth of gold.53

  Beneath the gown was worn an undergown called a kirtle. Kirtles were not usually made of the rich fabrics in gowns, unless they were on display when trains were looped up at the back: they could be of silk or worsted, and like outer gowns were often lined with wool. Elizabeth’s privy purse expenses show payments for several kirtles and the hemming of one of damask.54

  Gowns and kirtles were made for the Queen and her ladies by tailors of the Great Wardrobe, or by professional tailors. Elizabeth’s tailors were Robert Johnson of the Merchant Adventurers’ Company, Robert Ragdale, Stephen Higham, and Robert Addington; Thomas Staunton was her cutter.55 However, she and the women attendant on her made their own body linen, which comprised smocks (the basic undergarment), kerchiefs (for the neck or nose), and head rails (coifs). Heavy fabrics could only be brushed or sponged, so smocks were worn next to the skin to preserve gowns and kirtles from sweat stains and keep them fresh. Smocks could be changed and laundered frequently, although that might have meant weekly. The Queen’s laundress, Agnes Dean, was paid £3.6s.8d. [£1,620] a year.56 In 1486, Thomas Fuller, mercer of London, provided Elizabeth with “linen cloth” for body linen such as smocks; this cost £8.2s. [£4,000].57 She also owned petticoats of scarlet and linen, and socks of white fustian.58

  It has long been thought that women in this period wore no undergarments apart from smocks and hose, but in 2012 well-preserved linen underclothing resembling a bra and (male?) thong, thought to date from ca. 1480, were found in a vault in Lengberg Castle, East Tyrol. Hilary Davidson, fashion curator at the Museum of London, believes it is “entirely probable” that similar garments were worn in late medieval England.59 If so, it is credible that Elizabeth might have owned something similar. One would not normally expect to find any surviving due to their flimsy nature, so the Austrian undergarments are unique examples.

  Coifs were worn beneath hoods, which were usually in the English gable style. During this period they had long lappets, frontlets, and a black veil, and were usually of black velvet or silk with decorative, sometimes bejeweled, trims. “Frontlets of gold” are itemized in Elizabeth’s privy purse expenses,60 and Henry VII once made her a gift of them.61 Elizabeth’s headdresses were usually bought from Mrs. Lock, her silkwoman, who made her bonnets, hoods, and frontlets. Joan Wil
cock of Yorkshire, another silkwoman, supplied the Queen with a bonnet on May 25, 1502, and “certain bonnets, frontlets, and other stuff” in January 1503, for which she was paid £20 of a bill totaling £60.6s.5d. [£29,300], Elizabeth signing the bill with her own hand.62

  Cloaks were worn as outer wear. Elizabeth owned several, and her privy purse accounts also mention stoles (large shawls). She also purchased laces, ribbon, and lengths of sarcenet in eight colors to make girdles and tippets (shoulder capes). Late in 1502, Richard Weston brought her “certain harnesses of girdles” from France costing £4.10s. [£2,190].63 The Queen’s shoes were bought by the dozen, single- or double-soled pairs with tin or latten (copper alloy, like brass) buckles costing a shilling [£25]. It is often claimed that she could not afford expensive buckles for her shoes, but in fact she bought the same kind as her wealthy mother-in-law. At Christmas 1502 she bought buskins, which were knee-high boots of leather or silk, usually with turned-down tops.64

  In the first year of their marriage, Henry VII saw to it that Elizabeth was suitably accoutred as befit a queen. On February 10, 1486, she was provided with ten yards of black velvet at 16s. [£400] a yard, and twelve yards of purple velvet at 21s. [£510] a yard, for two gowns. For the first Easter after her marriage, she was lavishly supplied with luxury fabrics and trimmings. Hildebrand Vannonhawe, furrier, was paid £44.2s. [£21,500] for “forty-nine timbers of ermines, for the furring of one gown of the Lady Elizabeth, Queen of England, at 18s. [£440] the timber.” The Queen’s skinner, Richard Story, was paid £31.14s. [£1,600] for powdering these ermines65 and stitching them to the gown. Elizabeth had gowns and kirtles of white damask cloth of gold trimmed with powdered ermines.66 In 1502 another of the Queen’s skinners, Master Hayward, was paid for furring a crimson gown for Princess Margaret and adding cuffs of pampilion, a fur that may have come from Pamplona, Navarre.67 John Exnyng, grocer of London, supplied three yards of green cloth of gold “for the use of the lady the Queen” for £13.10s. [£6,600]; and Richard Smythe, yeoman of her wardrobe, bought Elizabeth “black silk of damask and crimson satin” costing £11.5s.6d. [£5,500]. Above this, the King commanded his wife to be given “ten verges [yards] of crimson velvet” and the sum of £90 [£44,000].68 Such prices give us a good idea of how expensive—and sumptuous—the clothing of the upper classes was in Tudor times.

  Four months later, in July, Elizabeth’s wardrobe was further embellished. Hildebrand Vannonhawe received £42.2s. [£20,500] for forty-nine “timbers of ermines for a gown for the Queen,” and another fifteen timbers were bought for the same gown for £10 [£4,860] from Gerard Venmar. Both were probably Flemish merchants. John Exnyng was paid £13.10s. [£6,600] for three yards of green cloth of gold, all “to the Queen’s use.” Richard Smythe bought “divers silks” for £11.5s.6d. [£5,500]. By 1487 there were “divers workers and furriers working for the lady the Queen,” all of whom were paid wages.69

  Over the years, the King gave Elizabeth occasional, sometimes very personal gifts of money, jewels, ornaments, furs, gowns, frontlets, crimson satin for a kirtle, robes furred with miniver, fur-lined night boots, gold wire for trimmings, a communion cloth, beds, and household essentials such as hammers. He also purchased a lion “for the Queen’s Grace,” costing £2.13s.4d. [£1,300], which was no doubt sent straight to the royal menagerie in the Tower.70 But having outlaid a fortune on his wife’s wardrobe, Henry evidently expected her to make things last, and her accounts show that her gowns were continually mended, turned, “new-bodied,” or newly trimmed, for which her tailor, Robert Addington, was paid 4d. [£8], and rehemmed for 2d. [£4].71 A degree of contriving must have gone into ensuring that she did not disappoint when she appeared in public.


  “Unbounded Love”

  Elizabeth was family orientated to a high degree. She gave “unbounded love”1 and support to her children, her sisters, and other relations, and always interested herself in their affairs. She kept her sisters with her at court before they wed, and sometimes after, and they were usually included in the royal celebrations of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun.

  Cecily of York, who had played such a prominent role at the coronation, was the first of the Queen’s sisters to marry. Henry VII was aware that while Edward IV’s daughters might be assets to him in terms of making advantageous marriages, they were also a threat by virtue of their Yorkist lineage. In 1486, determined to neutralize their dynastic claims by marrying them to his loyal supporters, Henry had Cecily’s marriage to Richard III’s adherent Ralph Scrope dissolved, and between November 25 and December 31, 1487, Cecily was married to Margaret Beaufort’s half brother, John, Viscount Welles. Margaret, who was always a good friend to Cecily,2 probably had a hand in brokering the marriage.

  Welles had been in high favor with Edward IV and was one of those who watched over his body after his death.3 An opponent of Richard III, he had joined Henry Tudor in Brittany after Buckingham’s rebellion. He was a favorite of the King, and had been rewarded with his title in 1485. He was probably about thirty-seven, and his bride eighteen. The King and Queen attended their wedding.4

  Cecily was described as being “not so fortunate as fair.”5 She got on well with the Lady Margaret, whom she took to visiting at Collyweston, and Margaret would later protect her from the consequences of an ill-advised second marriage, and pay toward her funeral expenses.6 Sadly, Cecily’s two daughters by Welles were to die young. After she married, her next sister, Anne of York, now twelve, became the Queen’s chief lady-in-waiting, and was constantly in attendance on her.

  In the months following her coronation, Elizabeth received various financial and material gifts. On December 21, Henry granted her “the next presentation to the deanery of the College of St. Stephen in the Palace of Westminster.”7 Five days later “our dearest wife the Queen” received a grant—backdated to February 20—of some of Elizabeth Wydeville’s lordships and manors that appear to have been overlooked earlier, namely “Waltham Magna, Baddow, Mashbury, Dunmow, [Great] Leighs, and Farnham, all in Essex,” with the offices of feodary8 and bailiff9 in each. With that, the transfer of land from queen to queen was complete.10

  On March 6, 1488, a charter was given “to the King’s very dear consort, that she may have and take for her life all the goods and chattels of all her men and tenants being either fugitives or felons, or persons condemned and convicted of felony”; she also received “liberties and immunities in all her castles, lordships, etc.” This charter was granted “at the suit of the Queen herself.”11 At Easter, 100 marks [£15,500] were paid to her “for the maintenance of her state.” She also received a tun of wine “by way of reward.” On May 8 a royal writ was issued to the mayor and burgesses of Bristol “requiring them to render to Elizabeth, the Queen consort, the arrears, and also the half-yearly payments [of rents], as they become due.” Another writ was sent “to the men of the town of Bedford in respect of an annuity of £20 [£10,000] out of the farm [rents] of the town, granted to the Queen from February 20 last past.”12

  The Christmas of 1487 was kept “full honorably” at Greenwich. The King presided over the customary feast in the great hall of the palace, while the Queen dined with her mother—clearly Elizabeth Wydeville was still welcome at court—and the Lady Margaret in her chamber. Cecily, “the noble princess, sister of the Queen, our sovereign lady,” and her new husband, Viscount Welles, joined the festivities. The court stayed at Greenwich for a week after Christmas, and on New Year’s Day largesse was cried in the great hall, where Henry and Elizabeth distributed gifts to members of their households, with the Welleses following suit; and there was a banquet and “a goodly disguising” in the evening.

  When the King and Queen wore their crowns in public on Twelfth Day, January 5, Elizabeth and Margaret Beaufort appeared in identical mantles and surcoats of estate, Margaret wearing “a rich coronal” on her head. “And when the High Mass was done, the King went to his chamber and from thence to the hall, and there kept his estate, crowned with a rich cr
own of gold set with pearl and precious stones, and under [a] marvelous rich cloth of estate. The Queen, also crowned under a cloth of estate, hanging somewhat lower than the King’s, on his left hand, and my lady the King’s mother on her left hand, with all four estates were served covered.” During the feast, the Earl of Ormond, Elizabeth’s chamberlain, kneeling, held her crown, while the Earl of Oxford held the King’s.13

  In March 1488 negotiations were opened for the marriage of Prince Arthur to the Spanish Infanta, Katherine of Aragon. Katherine had been born on December 16, 1485. Her parents, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, had not only united Spain by their marriage, but were now winning a centuries-long war to recapture the kingdom from the occupying Moors. For this, the Pope would award them the title “their Most Catholic Majesties,” and they were already renowned and respected throughout Christendom. An alliance with Spain would undoubtedly bolster Henry VII’s standing both at home and in Europe, for by agreeing to marry their daughter to his son, Ferdinand and Isabella were endorsing his right to the crown.

  That spring, Rodrigo de Puebla, at the time the new Spanish ambassador, was sent to England, his first task being to inspect the two-year-old Prince Arthur. He was much taken with the young prince, reporting: “We find in him so many excellent qualities as no one would believe.” He was a child “of remarkable beauty and grace” and “taller than his age would warrant.” Puebla also extolled Elizabeth’s beauty and magnificence in his dispatches.14

  But the ambassador had reservations about the match. “Bearing in mind what happens every day to the kings of England, it is surprising that Ferdinand and Isabella should dare to give their daughter at all,” he observed, referring to the dynastic crises and rebellions of the past few years. Nevertheless, on April 13 his sovereigns authorized him to conclude a treaty of marriage between the Infanta and Prince Arthur, and thereafter negotiations proceeded.15

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