This Week in History: Queen Elizabeth I of England Ascends the Throne

On November 17, 1558, Elizabeth, the daughter of King Henry VIII (1491–1547) and his second wife, Anne Bolyen (circa 1507–1536), finally became Queen of England at the age of 25. Being the daughter of the ill-fated Anne Bolyen came with its own political machinations; being the daughter, not the son, of Henry VIII also was problematic.

November 17, 1558, and the Needlework Connection:

As queen, opulence and splendor were no strangers to Elizabeth I. From her clothes to her jewelry, grandeur reigned. And this included Elizabeth’s embroidered clothing and her knitted silk stockings. How do we know that Elizabeth had embroidered clothing and knitted silk stockings?

One of the grandest, most comprehensive books on textile history tells us she did.

Cover of Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d published by W. S. Maney and Son in England in 1988.

This book, a cherished PieceWork treasure, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, edited and with commentary by the late Janet Arnold, is based on two official inventories prepared in July 1600 (both reprinted in the book), along with contemporary diaries, journals, reports, and letters itemizing the clothing and accessories of Queen Elizabeth I. Within its 376 oversized pages, you’ll find a detailed look at the designs, materials, techniques, and inspirations behind Elizabeth’s wardrobe along with more than 460 photographs.

Published by W. S. Maney and Son in England in 1988, used and new copies of this seminal work are available (affiliate link). I highly recommend it. Some of my best time as PieceWork’s editor is stealing a few moments from the tasks at hand to open Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d and just randomly read several pages and/or immerse myself in the glorious photographs. Here are two brief excerpts that perfectly illustrate the detail you’ll find:

The Queen’s embroiderers, like the tailors, needed little equipment; a clear working area, embroidery frames, a yardstick, paper or parchment for pricking out their patterns, a pair of shears, small scissors or a knife, an iron, pins, needles, thread, with silks and other materials supplied by the silkwoman. Sample patterns of embroidery were prepared for the Queen to make her choice, as this entry in 1571 demonstrates: “Delivered to David Smyth our Enbrauderer one yerde of blak vettat and half a yerde of blak Satten to make samplers. . . .

Henry Herne is described as “our hosier” in the warrants for the Wardrobe of Robes from the beginning of the reign until 1592, when he either died or retired. . . . Herne made hose of both cloth and linen, cut on the cross to stretch round the leg, and there are a few examples of silk hose, some of sarsenet and others knitted. An example of the variety of work is given in the warrant for Michaelmas 1562: “To henry hern oure hosier for making xv paire of Clothe hose stitched in the toppes & clockes with an Irishe stitche and lyned in the toppes with Sarsenet xij paire of lynnen hose & ij paire of Silk knytte hose. . . .

Additional information on silk knitting in Tudor England is in Lesley O’Connell Edwards’ fascinating article—”Knitted Silk in Tudor England”—in the November/December 2016 issue of PieceWork. While Lesley comprehensively documents the topic, she also provides surprising facts: “Silk stockings were not just something to wear; they could be used as a pledge to raise money.” (Another example of why I am so passionate about needlework history—you never know what you’ll discover!)

Pavement inscription for the location of Greenwich Palace, Greenwich, London, England. It marks the site of the former Royal Palace of Greenwich and says: “On this site stood the Tudor Palace of Greenwich. Built by King Henry VII. Birthplace of King Henry VIII in 1491 and his Daughters Queen Mary I in 1516 and Queen Elizabeth I in 1533.” It bears two Tudor Rose designs in the outer ring of text. Photo © whitemay/Getty Images.

Here’s an interesting coincidence: While searching for an image related to Greenwich Palace to go with this post, I came across this article from today’s edition of the Daily Mail: “Inside the Birthplace of King Henry VIII and Elizabeth I: Two Lost Tudor Palace Rooms Are Uncovered in Greenwich in a ‘Remarkable Find’.” History unlock’d, for sure!

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at Wanstead Palace. Photo © Wellcome Images.

After almost 45 years as Queen of England, Elizabeth I died during the early morning of March 24, 1603. A legend in her own time, and a legend in our time—quite an accomplishment. Thank you, Elizabeth I for all.

For more on Queen Elizabeth and needlework, see Joanne Gaudio’s mesmerizing article about Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth, “A Message in Tent Stitch and a Reply,” in the September/October 2001 of PieceWork and in a recent blog post, “Princess Mary Stuart Becomes Mary, Queen of Scots” on the Needlework section of Interweave’s website.


Featured Image: Henry Gillard Glindoni portrait of John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I. Photo © Wellcome Images.

Enjoy more Tudor/needlework resources from PieceWork!

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