Elizabeth I’s rainbow dress

Elizabeth-1-Rainbow-Portrait.jpgTudor fashion for noble women such as Elizabeth I was complicated it involved the basic smock or shift that was changed every day. Over this were layered and laced a body and a kirtle; then came the farthing gale with its stiffened hoops which gave the silhouette; then petticoats.  The top petticoat would be embroidered. Over the underskirts came the gown which was composed of a skirt and bodice.  If that weren’t enough sometimes an overgrown might also be worn especially if it was very cold in which case it would probably be lined with fur.  As if that weren’t enough there was also a stomacher to conceal all the joins and just in case you wanted a different colour combo the sleeves of the bodice were interchangeable so they would need lacing into place as well. Then just for good measure there was the ruff.  Needless to say getting into the royal get up took substantial amounts of time.  It has been calculated that getting dressed each morning took Elizabeth I two hours.

Clothes, once they’d served their purpose, were handed down to servants or poorer members of your extended family.  If they were too far gone to be handed down any further they might be “ripped” – that is to say they were cut up and used to make other things – hangings, cushion covers and altar clothes for example – and that brings me to today’s post via Bacton Church in Herefordshire, the Radio 4 news this morning and a quick trawl of the Internet.

It turns out, according to The Telegraph that Eleri Lynn a curator of historic dress at Hampton Court spotted something significant in Bacton. The beautiful sixteenth century altar cloth made from cloth of silver with its embroidered flowers is part of Elizabeth I’s frock, possibly the one she wore for the Rainbow Portrait.  So how did it get to Bacton and how did Ms Lynn spot it.

The story of its discovery took someone with expert knowledge of England’s sumptuary laws.  Or put another way what we could and couldn’t wear without getting into trouble in the past.  Henry VIII passed rather a lot of sumptuary laws including the one that anyone below the rank of knight was forbidden to wear a pleated shirt! Another law was that only members of the royal family could wear cloth of silver.The altar cloth at Bacton was made from cloth of silver.

A bit of digging around reveals that Blanche Parry was born at Bacton and that there’s a memorial to her there.  She was one of Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting. Well, actually, she was the keeper of her jewels and chief of the ladies after  Ashley died.William Cecil was Blanche’s cousin (I keep telling you that they’re all related). It’s been tricky finding anything out about her even though there’s a website dedicated to her. She began her career as a royal nursery maid and progressed to the role of friend and trustee.  She accrued wealth without marrying and maintained an interest in her home at Bacton throughout her life.  It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the dress was given to Parry and that she in turn handed it or the completed cloth over to the church at Bacton. The Telegraph has an interesting article which may be accessed here.

Ironically the dress’s disappearance from the royal wardrobe is probably what saved it from complete destruction.  Jewels and pearls would have been removed once Elizabeth had finished with the dress and then the garment stored by the Wardrobe which was not a small wooden cupboard but a department hence the capitalisation. Oliver Cromwell came along and sold the lot off in the aftermath of the English Civil War.

On a personal note, and I may just be getting old and grumpy so feel free to ignore this bit, whilst the cloth has been preserved by professionals and whilst it is important historically speaking it has been in Bacton for the last five hundred years. Whoever cared for it managed to preserve it from moths, roundheads and all the other fates that could have befallen it. Consequentially,  I fail to see why it has to be kept at Hampton Court from now on- couldn’t it stay in Herefordshire? As I understand it History has very occasionally occurred beyond the confines of the M25. There are even some of us who rather enjoy looking at the aforementioned History in situ ( or as clause as possible)  as well as exploring the countryside rather than traipsing to London to be charged an arm and a leg for the privilege. Hey ho – rant over.

10 thoughts on “Elizabeth I’s rainbow dress

  1. no not grumpy i agree they will cahrge us all dear when we had it for free and all could go ans see it? Mind you I had no idea it was there and i lived not six miles from there in Herefordshire for four years working for Government. Good article as womens wear hardly features in history so well done you for pointing it out.

  2. If this cloth really is that originally from the Rainbow Portrait-it is a piece of cloth which is highly significant-Hampton Court Palace has the facility to conserve it to the best possible standard- they also have ‘The Royal School of Needlework’ resident there? You cannot get better Guardians! A lot of Historic Palaces are run as Charities withe none or hardly any monies given by Central Government- they have to raise revenue for the upkeep of these artifacts and their upkeep, and also to pay the highly skilled staff to research and conserve important items. I do not know if this item will ever be on show to the public because of atmospheric/sunlight issues-I can only say that I’m glad its in the safe hands of the best experts!

    • While that is all true – it demonstrates how Londoncentric this country is. The conservators are in Hampton Court, very true but they could conserve and then travel for upkeep. They have branches in Durham and Rugby (not that I’m sure of the arrangements they make with the organisations where they deliver their sessions) – I’m a keen needlewoman and the RSN are without parallel so they are undoubtedly exceptional guardians. Their experts travel all over the world. I would suggest, as with so much else, that the system is adrift. I believe that I have read that the fabric was due to be shown to the public – if they can afford to travel to and stay in London as well as pay to get into Hampton Court. Again, whilst all you say is true about conservation it makes History the preserve of the affluent which hardly seems to be helpful or very fair.

      • I agree, but it has to go somewhere, and if it were in central or Northern England, then you would have the Southerners/London tourists complaining! I wonder if it will ever be on show? I volunteer at Hampton Court, and even I would find it almost impossible to view!

  3. Love the final comments and do not find them the rants of a grumpy lady. Our heritage belongs to us all. Leave well alone in this case would have been my approach.

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