A busy few weeks.

Its been a few weeks but that’s because I’ve been sewing manically and completing The Little History of Derbyshire which I would have to say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and which will be out next year. In the meantime, The Kingmaker’s Women published by Pen and Sword has gone to print so should be available very soon. I’m extremely excited about this text as I’ve found out more about the Neville family’s links with Cumbria and Carlisle.

The coif has had a minor disaster – an elderly red table cloth which marked the pristine linen. My desire to avoid chemical cleansers went out of the window very swiftly and although the red mark was removed water leached into the fabric and carried the cleaning agent to the silks – which do not, I am sad to say like Dr Beckman’s cleaning agent. After consultation with the other ladies in the group I can only conclude that it reacted to the tannins in the dye and now I have a little seepage. It would have to be said that I wasn’t a happy woman for a good few hours but I now have a plan. More photos will appear as I am now stitching like a mad thing to get all that I want to do done within the time frame available to me – which explains the lack of August posts.

My actual subject for today is Thomas Linacre, pictured at the start of this post, who I began to research as one of Arthur Tudor’s tutors in the spring – He didn’t have long to influence the young prince, if indeed he ever did- but he went on to serve Henry VIII and to found the Royal College of Physicians. For those of you familiar with Linacre Reservoir near Chesterfield, there is a link. He was born in Brampton near Chesterfield although another source gives Canterbury as his birth place.

We don’t even known when exactly he was born, certainly it was around the time that theWars of the Roses took on a bloody hue in 1460 or 1461. he was educated by William Selling of Christchurch, Canterbury – lending to the argument that he was born there but there are other routes for a promising young man to travel from his home to Kent. From there he went to Oxford in 1480 where he studied Greek.

In about 1485 he travelled into Italy with Selling, who was Henry VI’s ambassador. Linacre studied in Bologna before travelling to Florence, where he learned Greek from Demetrius Chalcondylas

After that Linacre journeyed to Padua where he became a Doctor of Medicine and then returned to Oxford. He sent one of his works, published in Italy, to Henry VII in the hope that he would be appointed as one of Arthur’s tutors. In about 1501 he was appointed as Arthur’s physician. He was one of the so-called ‘New Men’ with ‘New Learning’ and corresponded with Erasmus.

He was appointed as King Henry VIII’s, and lived for some of the time with the court where he treated Cardinal Wolsey, William Warham and Richard Fox.

Half way with the 17th century coif – almost.

Time to move the coif along on the frame. It’s taken me longer than I hoped to get to the half way stage and now I need to be careful about over tightening the linen as I don’t want to damage the stitching I’ve done already. I’ve also taken the opportunity to experiment with a grey thread for my plan if I have time to make it my own. Unfortunately, it only gains the depth of colour I want when it is used in satin stitch, so back to the drawing board.  

This will be the last post about my theory with regard to the flowers of the Mary garden – I’m curious as to how the bugs fit in to the story. I know that the cycle of life caterpillar, larva and moth or butterfly provides us with rebirth and resurrection but I’m not sure about the beetles. I do wonder if there’s a linked symbolism that perhaps explains why there are no bees, grasshoppers or snails.

The list of plants:

Borage– (which is about to appear on my canvas) – it was believed borage brings courage – so I can see why it might be an essential. However, back to the concept of the Mary Garden – it also goes by the name St Joseph’s Staff.

Carnation  – is one of the oldest known garden plants. The Romans were rather keen on them.  Pink ones are associated with motherly love. Apparently, they sprang from Mary’s tears as she watched Christ carry the cross. Red ones are symbolic of blood and if you’re Holbein you stick them in pictures as a symbol of betrothal or salvation thanks to Christ’s resurrection. The image below is the portrait of Simon George.

Columbine – see post on Granny’s bonnet. But also known as ‘Our Lady’s shoes’. According to a legend the flowers were said to have sprung up wherever Mary’s foot touched the ground on her way to visit her cousin Elizabeth

Daffodil – see post on daffodil.

Marigold – see post on marigold.

Roses – divine love, martyrdom – associated with Mary, sometimes called the mystical rose. I was thrown art the start of the project because the first thing I thought was Tudor rose, but then I’m not a catholic and I don’t live in the seventeenth century with a handy guidebook.

Strawberries – the leaf has three parts so might be associated with the Trinity – it’s also called the ‘Fruitful Virgin’.  Medieval art sometimes depicted Mary with strawberry plants (I feel a hunt for an example coming on at some point). In Norse mythology it was associated with the goddess Freya and was simply transferred into Christian culture.  Expanding the theme a little, it is also the emblem of righteous men – the fruit of good works.

Violet – humility, innocence, purity – sometimes known as ‘Our Lady’s Modesty.’  St Bernard described Mary as ‘the violet of humility.’ It can also refer to the passion of Christ.

I don’t think I’ve left anything off the list. I’m still looking for a book or journal article about secular embroidery linked to English Catholicism but am having no joy. I may expand the search into stump work which was popular during the same period. I have discovered a book entitled A Garden Catechism which details 100 plants in Christian tradition which I will be getting.  I think I may be hooked.  

A complete list, should you feel the urge, can be found here and Castle Bolton Garden has a very interesting online article as well:

Ferguson, George, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Gardens, daffodils and embroidery as a statement of faith

Daffodils – I defy anyone not to think of Wordsworth’s lonely wanderings! Or Wales where it translates as St Peter’s leek. Or the Marie Curie Cancer charity – so having established that daffodils play an important part in modern symbolism or romantic ramblings what about the past, setting aside Greek myth?

They have many common names including bell rose, faerie bells and ladies ruffles. More tellingly, thanks to the time they flower, they are also known as lent lilies and lenty cups. Christian lore states that the daffodil first made its appearance in the garden of Gethsemane and to add to my growing picture of a Mary Garden, daffodils are also known as ‘Mary’s star’. It has been suggested that the occurance of daffodils in the wild in England and Wales can be an indicator that there was once a monastic house on  the site- in London, Abbey Wood is the home of wild daffodils and the location of Lesnes Abbey (Phillips, An Encyclopedia of Plants).

In all there are more than one hundred flowering plants associated with Mary. Incluing lavender which also goes by the name of Mary’s drying plant and lily of the valley which are sometimes called Mary’s tears. The frequency of the names is an aid to demonstrating that in medieval England that Mary was deeply revered. There’s even a mystery play about her childhood and betrothal to Joseph. The Wilton Diptych that belonged to Richard II shows him kneeling before her and the angles surrounding her all helpfully wearing the king’s badge of a white heart. 

And then of course, we arrive at the Reformation in Tudor England which saw the vibrant colours and stories of the past white washed away. In the Seventeenth Century, Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads destroyed even more of the iconography that they believed to be idolatrous.

Even so, when Charles II sat upon the throne about 5% of the population, in some parts of the country, was still Catholic. While devotional pieces of the kind owned by Elizabeth Stuart (she married into the Howard family) are rare, as indeed are liturgical clothing. The work of Helena Wintour was born in 1600 is an exceptional collection. Her father Robert and uncle Thomas were executed for their part in the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Helena remained a Catholic throughout her life and set up a secret Catholic School in Worcestershire where she lived so that catholic children could be educated in England rather than having to go abroad.  She designed and embroidered vestments for the Jesuits who visited her home. 

 There seems to have been little written about secular Catholic embroidery that I can find (if anyone can recommend any reading I’d love to hear from you) but it would be logical that if people were planting gardens to link them to their beliefs; hiding priests in holes behind fire places; educating their children in secret and paying huge fines rather than attend the local protestant parish church – it does not seem unreasonable that they were embroidering their faith into the clothes that they wore. 

Father Henry Hawkins, a Jesuit, published a text in 1633 about the symbolism of flowers associated with the Virgin Mary called Sacred Virginity (Partheneia Sacra) which was smuggled into Catholic households enabling them to use the flowers described as a symbol of their faith.



Marigold – Calendula officinalis

Still going! And still not stitching fast enough – though I now have many ideas. Oh well. We’ll see what August brings.

Two marigolds completed and a third underway. It’s another plant with many local names reflecting its widespread cultivation from medieval times onwards. Calendula comes from the Latin for calendar named because the plant can be in flower from spring to autumn. The Lyle Herbal compiled by Anthony Askham in 1550 called them ‘the flower of all months’. It also had associations with the sun – because the flower turns towards it and because of its appearance. One of its common names is ‘bride of the sun’.

I do grow marigolds – the petals are a substitute for saffron so can be used as a dye as well as being edible. In medieval times they were used to treat wounds and as a treatment for sore teeth (optimistic I know). Modern herbalism recognises that they have anti-inflammatory properties. And yes I do partake of a pot of marigold tea on occasion – not sure whether it helps the rheumatism or not but there’s a sense of achievement in using something you’ve grown yourself at any rate. Medieval, Tudor and Stuart herbalists thought that it might protect you from a fever and even from the plague…I’m not prepared to guarantee that though!

Inevitably there is rather a lot of folklore associated with the bloom. Picked at noon it strengthens the heart and drives away melancholy. And if you want to discover the love of your life, stick it under your pillow at Halloween so that you will dream of them…I always thought that was apple peels thrown over your shoulder but it’s always good to have a variety of pre-internet dating methodologies available! To avoid being accused of witchcraft when gathering the flower, advice was also often provided as to what prayers to use. And nothing is not going to scream witch like someone mumbling to themselves while they pick flowers from the herb garden. I’m not sure that sentence works but you get the drift.

And talking of religious respectability, in Christian legend one of the names for the flower is ‘Mary’s gold’ because while the Holy Family were fleeing to Egypt, Mary’s purse was stolen. When the thieves opened it all they found were petals. Early Christians placed the flowers around statues of Mary as offerings in place of coins. By medieval times it became popular to plant Mary gardens with plants associated with the Virgin Mary, of which marigold was one. By the seventeenth century a similar collection of flowers had more subversive undertones so far as the State was concerned. Catholics planted so-called Mary gardens as a means of connecting to their beliefs. An alternative name to Mary’s gold, if you need another, was holy gold.

Mary’s gold became something of a pun for Mary Queen of Scots who used the image as a personal device on occasion. Marigolds can be found in the Oxburgh hangings at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk (check whether they’re back in situ from their restoration at the V and A before going). Marigolds turning to the sun represented courage in adversity and the Scottish Queen certainly needed plenty of that. The flowers feature next to her monogram. The marigold was perhaps the least conspiratorial of the messages contained in the images on the Oxburgh hangings…no prizes for working out who the caterpillars might represent.


Columbines, granny’s bonnet, Aquilegia…call it what you will.

Eight hours it took me to stitch the first granny’s bonnet on the coif and that’s not counting the two hours it took me to unpick my first effort – we won’t go into how many hours I’d already spent on it or the amount of time taken by the leaves. I am admittedly quite pleased with the end result but that could just be relief to have completed it!

Aquilegia were first listed as a garden plant by Hildegard of Bingen at Rupertsberg. She used it as a tincture to cure fever. The plant appears as an illustration in many medieval breviaries and psalters across Europe as a quick search will reveal.

To the medieval mind those fluttery petals were akin to bird’s wings – the association stuck. Columbine from the Latin columba meaning dove gives us the link to the Holy Spirit while aquila gives us the eagle – and Christ in the form of an eagle soaring heavenwards. Which makes me wonder if the bird on the left of the flower on the coif is in fact an eagle and the smaller one above it is supposed to be a dove (albeit a rather sooty looking one.)

The plant does have other common names because it it is indigenous to Britain. I’ve always known the flower as a granny’s bonnet – my mother comes from East Anglia – but it is also called boots-and-shoes; Dolly’s bonnet; lion’s herb’ rags and tatters and widows weeds among many others.

Wild columbines are largely blue and this was the colour of royal mourning in France – so the plant became associated with widows and the sorrows of Mary- the idea travelled. As if that weren’t enough apparently it was also known as herba leonis because there was a belief that lions favoured them as a light snack (don’t ask). As a consequence, carrying the flowers or even rubbing some sap into your hands was supposed to imbue a person with courage and fearlessness – qualities associated with lions.

The Hall family of Coventry are recorded as using columbines on their coat of arms – presumably so that they could be as gentle as the Holy Spirit, as warlike as an eagle, as brave as lions and as forlorn as deserted lovers (yup- yet another association).

Later, ladies who wished to find an example to turn into an embroidery might have used Gerard’s Herbal first published in 1597. Gerard described some of the variations to be found in the aquilegia as well as methods for their cultivation, indicating the move towards a more scientific approach. He noted that medieval medicine did not use it as a cure (he clearly hadn’t seen Hildegard’s thoughts on the subject) but he suggested:

Most in these days following others by tradition, do use to boil the leaves in milk against the soreness of the throat, falling and excoriation of the uvula: but the ancient writers have said nothing hereof. Ruellius reporteth, that the flowers of Columbines are not used in medicine: yet some there be that do affirm they are good against the stopping of the liver, which effect the leaves do also perform.            

Clusius saith, that Dr. Francis Rapard a physician of Bruges in Flanders, told him that the seed of this common Columbine very finely beaten to powder, and given in wine, was a singular medicine to be given to women to hasten and facilitate their labour, and if the first taking it were not suffficiently effectual; that then they should repeat it again.

I wouldn’t suggest trying it. For other sources the so-called Tudor Pattern Book of 1504 held by the Bodleian Library is part bestiary part herbal. The formalised image on the coif seems more Tudor than Stuart in form so I shall be taking myself off to Hardwick Hall to see if I can spot an embroidered slip that has a similar look.


Crows….in heraldry and their symbolism

Medieval bestiaries included birds and there are some examples that remain well known. Pelicans were thought to draw blood from their own breasts to feed their chicks – this translated as Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of mankind. It’s a popular carving in churches. Doves haven’t changed very much and eagles were a symbol of resurrection because of its high flying.

Crows were devoted family birds and on occasion were described as an example of good parenting practise although they were also associated with death and war – something of a mixed message. The Twa Corbies was a popular medieval ballad and Shakespeare got in on the act as well -with crows and ravens as harbingers not only of death but also of defeat and planned murder. So I don’t think that the crow like bird on the unstitched coif is linked to any of those particular images – apart from the good parenting – I can’t imagine many women would want to associate themselves with war or defeat.

Ravens are, of course, rather important in the Tower of London as it is said that if they depart that England will fall. It derives from the idea of ravens keeping guard – making them much more benevolent than the ones that turn up in dreams and on battlefields.

There is a possibility my bird might be a heraldic image – corbie rampant regardant (standing upright looking back over its shoulder). A Complete Guide to Heraldry by Fox Davies identifies the raven as a significant bird. The Corbet family of the Welsh Marches have a raven on their coat of arms from the French Le Corbeau – it’s a canting allusion i.e. a pun. And the arms of the Yorkshire Creyke family is also a raven or crow as is the Korwin arms (think you can see the theme here). Unfortunately the Corbet ‘corbeau’ isn’t looking over its shoulder and the Creyke crest looks like an angry eagle with a hint of swan (probably a bad image I’m studying). The Isle of Anglesey has some very fine crows on its coat of arms and I love the raven on the arms of the episcopal see of Manchester (see below) but I don’t think that the bird on the unstitched coif is a heraldic bird although I did when I first saw it.

The next option is that it comes from an existing book of the period in much the same way that many of Mary Queen of Scots designs come from Gessner’s Icones Animalium, published in Zurich, 1560. The problem is that the coif dates to the seventeenth century by which time there was a wider range of printed material available for someone to use as inspiration for their own embroidery.

Of course, it might not be a corvid – it could be something else entirely?

Miller, Dean, Animals and Animal Symbols in World Culture

Holbein – random facts and a squirrel

Hans Holbein, who was born in Augsburg in about 1497, has a needlework stitch named after him- not that he ever knew it. Double running stitch involves running a thread in one direction but leaving sufficient space to repeat the process on the return journey. It ensures the pattern at the back of the fabric and the pattern on the front are identical and it is often used in blackwork embroidery. The name stems from the amount of embroidery of the style depicted by Holbein in his portraits.

Young Hans learned his trade from his father Holbein the Elder and, in all likelihood, from the town’s goldsmiths then went to Basel in about 1514 where he set about creating murals in the town hall and also created a set of woodcuts to illustrate the ‘Dance of Death’. Basically the message was that you can be having a lovely time but Death is just around the corner (cheery).

He became part of the cultural scene of Basel and received commissions from the humanist scholar Bonifacius Amberach and of the Dutch scholar Erasmus. However, the world was becoming more difficult for artists in Basel. The regime began to impose a strict censorship on the press.

Armed with a letter of introduction from the humanist Erasmus to Thomas More, Holbein arrived in England in about 1526. He worked in England for two years before returning briefly to Basel. In 1532 he returned once more to England where he spent the last eleven years of his life, having left his wife and children in Basel. During that time he painted approximately 150 portraits -including Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Many of the portraits include detailed observations of fabrics decorated by blackwork embroidery made popular in the court of Henry VIII by his first wife Catherine of Aragon who famously stitched her husband’s shirts for him.

Henry’s third queen, Jane Seymour, is pictured wearing a chemise with blackwork embroidery on the cuffs under her gown and brocade sleeves. In fact Holbein was asked to paint all of Harry’s wives de jour while he was Henry’s court painter. A sketch of an unknown woman may be Anne Boleyn – in which case someone either has a very valuable portrait tucked away in their attic somewhere or when Henry had her arrested and executed it ended up on a bonfire. He was sent off to paint portraits of potential brides including a full length portrait of Christina of Denmark which looks very demure until you realise that the widowed Duchess of Milan has removed her gloves which in a polite world symbolises intimacy. More famously he painted the picture of Anne of Cleves causing Henry to ‘swipe right’ in modern language. Holbein obviously saw something in Anne that Henry didn’t as the image and the reality didn’t match up in Henry’s mind. It was probably just as well that executing artists wasn’t the done thing! Holbein also provided a portrait of Catherine Howard.

Inevitably Holbein’s patronage by the Crown meant that everyone wished to sit for their portrait and since blackwork embroidery was fashionable ruffs and cuffs abound in embroidery. Everything about Holbein’s portraits makes a statement and for later art historians the symbols contained in his works have often helped to identify the sitters or given a clue as to the way that they identified themselves in Henry’s renaissance world. It turns out that they weren’t all courtiers. Many of them were merchants from the Hanseatic league sending portraits home to their families. Jane Pemberton, pictured below, with blackwork collar and cuffs, was the wife of a cloth merchant.

And the man couldn’t resist a pun – A lady with a squirrel and a starling is likely to be Anne Lovell of East Harling. I’ve posted about her before : https://thehistoryjar.com/tag/anne-lovell .

Squirrels feature on the Lovell coat of arms and Harling and starling rhyme – pushing it a bit I know but it does demonstrate the lengths educated Renaissance types went to to make a point. And people did keep squirrels as pets. They even turn up in everything from the Lutterell Psalter to depictions of eighteenth century children with their pet squirrel. Inevitably they have a range of meanings apart from identifying anonymous ladies in quilted hats. Which brings me to the tricky element of symbolism which depends on context – diligence, infidelity, greed, voraciousness and in some medieval bestiaries a squirrel was such an angry creature that on occasion it might even die from rage…presumably because a some wit made an inappropriate pun about cracking nuts – and I’ll leave you to work out the symbolism to go with that!

Squirrel hair- vair -from the backs and bellies of the winter coat of squirrels (it was combed out) was very popular at the court of King John but I have no idea how I know that! It is also theorised that all these pet squirrels and nifty winter squirrel fur outfits contributed to the spread of leprosy in medieval Europe.

Back to Holbein – he is likely to have died from plague in 1543 and is buried in an unmarked grave – probably somewhere in Aldgate where he lived which means that cross-rail has probably disturbed his final resting place. His will is dated the 29 November and it provides for two illegitimate children in England.

And why this particular post – well, I’ve arrived at the point where I’ve got to embroider a squirrel into the blackwork coif (#unstitched coif). I know some stitchers have opted for an acorn motif while another prefers pinecones. I’m still making my mind up but I think I want to use a stitch that create the impression of a luxuriant tail and tufty ears – I’m not sure I can come up with a motif that would be appropriate for a small angry creature that might expire from rage.

Foister, Susan, Holbein in England, (London: Tate Publishing, 2006)

Walker-Meikle, Kathleen, Medieval Pets, (Boydell Press, 2012)

Werness, Hope, Animal Symbolism in Art (London: Continuum, 2006)