11 August 2020
Jewels make the Virgin Queen
Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) amassed an extraordinary collection of objects made from and decorated with gold, silver and precious stones, as demonstrated by two inventories that were drawn up during her lifetime. Aside from the regalia that she inherited from her predecessors — such as the imperial crown, sceptre and orb — she received many personalised jewels from her courtiers at the customary presentation of gifts to the queen on New Year’s Day. Very few of these precious objects survive today: her successors James I and Charles I sold or donated her jewels, while the regalia were destroyed after the abolition of the monarchy in 1649.
Luckily, the inventories (Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556) give us detailed descriptions of the more than 1.500 items that were kept in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. These suggest that Elizabeth surrounded herself with objects and imagery that celebrated female leadership and virtue, supporting her unusual position of being only England’s second ruling queen and the first who chose to remain unmarried: a controversial choice since queens were expected to marry in order to create political allegiances, to acquire a husband to handle military affairs, and to produce offspring.
A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I wearing various jewels (northern England, 2nd half of the 16th century): Egerton MS 2572, f. 11r
One of the very few items from the inventories that survives today is the so-called ‘Royal Gold Cup’. The cup is covered in gold, adorned with pearls, and enamelled with scenes from the life of St Agnes, an early Christian who was martyred during the Roman persecution. It was made for the French royal family at the end of the 14th century, but was in the possession of the Tudor monarchy by 1521. As a Protestant, Elizabeth opposed the cult of saints, but the life of St Agnes may have resonated with her on a secular level: like Elizabeth, Agnes rejected a range of suitors and committed herself to a life of virginity.
The Royal Gold Cup described in the Inventory of Jewels [‘a cuppe of golde with Imagerye’] (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 10r
St Agnes, accompanied by her foster-sister St Emerentiana, rejecting a casket of jewels from her suitor Procopius on the cover of the Royal Gold Cup, London, British Museum (image by Fæ / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Elizabeth may have used jewels made from the horn of the unicorn (in reality, narwhal tusk or walrus ivory) to celebrate her unmarried status. The popular belief that the mythical creature could only be captured by a virgin may have made its horn a particularly useful symbol for Elizabeth to reinforce her status as ‘Virgin Queen’. We recently mentioned that she owned a drinking cup made from unicorn’s horn, but our inventories show that she possessed much greater quantities of it. They itemize an unadorned piece of unicorn’s horn (‘pece of unicornes horne not garnished’), a staff from unicorn’s horn featuring a silver-gilt cross with a round crystal (‘Staffe of unycornes horne with a Crosse garnished with silver guylte and a rounde Chyrstall’), and another staff that was made from unicorn’s horn (or bone), adorned with silver, and featuring Elizabeth’s coat of arms.
A unicorn staff [‘one verge of bone or unycorne [...] with the Quenes Armes’] in the Inventory of Jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 33v
Elizabeth’s jewels suggest that she associated herself with Lucretia, a noblewoman from ancient Rome who committed suicide after she had been raped by an Etruscan prince. During the Middle Ages, Lucretia was cited as a paragon of female virtue by authors such as Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) in his De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women), Cristine de Pizan (1364– c.1430) in her Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies), and Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400) in his Legend of Good Women. Elizabeth owned a ewer engraved with an image of ‘Lucrece kylling herself’, two gilt cups with her image, and a wooden cup which may have depicted her suicide, since it is described as having ‘a woman holding a dagger two edged in her handes’.
The rape and suicide of Lucretia (? Paris, 1473–c. 1480): Harley MS 4374/4, f. 210r
Other jewels supported Elizabeth’s status as England’s sole leader through images of virgin goddesses from Classical mythology. For example, the inventories describe a salt vessel (‘Saulte’) that was shaped like a golden globe and was held up by two figures representing the Roman god Jupiter and his daughter Minerva. Elizabeth received it on New Year's Day 1583/4 from Francis Drake (1540–1596), who presented her with many gifts he had raided from Spanish and Portuguese ships. While the globe symbolises England’s imperial aspirations, Minerva, Roman virgin goddess of warfare and defender of the state, was strongly associated with Elizabeth, who was likened by her contemporaries to a ‘new Minerva’.
Francis Drake’s ‘Saulte of golde like a Globe standinge uppon [...] Jupiter and Pallas’, in the inventory of Elizabeth’s jewels (London, 1596): Stowe MS 556, f. 23r
Among the inventories, we find one jewel that seems to reflect on Elizabeth’s leadership in a bold and humorous way. It is a dish described as having an engraving of a ‘woman syttinge uppon a man holdinge a whippe in her righte hande and holdinge his heade in her lefte hande’. This unmistakably represents the late medieval tale of Phyllis and Aristotle. The story tells that after Alexander the Great took Phyllis as his wife, he became distracted from state affairs. His mind was turned back to his kingdom and away from his wife when the Greek philosopher Aristotle remonstrated with him. When Phyllis learned the cause of her husband’s changed attitude, she decided to take revenge: she seduced Aristotle and, after he begged her to requite his love, she agreed to do so on condition that he first allowed her to ride upon his back like a horse. The story of Phyllis and Aristotle was part of a ‘Power of Women’ trope in late medieval and early modern art and literature that reflected anxieties over women’s dominance over men. But for Elizabeth it may have been an example of succesful female governance and therefore fitted in well with the rest of her collection.
Phyllis sitting on Aristotle’s back (Metz, 1302–1303): Yates Thompson MS 8, f. 187r
Elizabeth’s jewels played an important role in how she represented herself to the outside world and was perceived by others. Our inventories suggest that her courtiers were aware of their function and carefully selected jewels or had ones made that emphasised her identification with illustrious women and virgin goddesses. These strategically designed jewels were powerful symbols that helped Elizabeth promote the idea of single leadership in England by an unmarried woman.
From golden toothpicks to drinking vessels made from griffin’s eggs, you can now study the newly digitised versions of Stowe MS 555 and Stowe MS 556 on our Digitised Manuscripts website.
23 November 2018
Manuscripts à la mode: Nabil Nayal's new collection
Manuscripts are hot in the fashion world right now! Attendees of the 2018 Met Gala drew inspiration from medieval manuscripts. The actor Ezra Miller recently caused a stir at the UK première of the new Fantastic beasts film (was it inspired by this manuscript in our Harry Potter exhibition?). And this September, the British Library itself hosted a London Fashion Week event: Nabil Nayal’s presentation of his Spring 2019 collection.
Dr Nayal is no stranger to the Library. He did his research here for his PhD in Elizabethan dress, and Elizabeth I and the British Library’s manuscripts were major inspirations for his recent collection. As he said at the launch, he hoped his collection will inspire modern women to ‘stand up for what you believe and be your true self, unleash your inner queen’.
Here are the stories of just a few of the manuscripts that inspired Nabil Nayal.
Nabil Nayal SS19 dress and the page from a 15th-century Book of Hours that inspired it: Harley MS 2971, f. 13r
One of the earliest manuscripts that was featured in Nayal's collection was a Book of Hours made in Paris around the 1450s. This manuscript was possibly made for a woman: a prayer on f. 20v uses the female form 'famule tue' (‘your female servant’), although a prayer a few pages later uses the common masculine form 'miserrimo paccatori' (‘most miserable sinner’). The fine illuminations have been associated with the workshop that produced the Bedford Hours. Nayal’s dress is based on a page that shows St John the Evangelist writing while in exile on Patmos.
Nabil Nayal SS19 dress and a page from the calendar in the Beaufort Hours: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 30v
Meanwhile, Nayal transformed a calendar owned by Margaret Beaufort into a chic suit. The suit is based on the page for June. Notes in the margin record victories won by Margaret’s son, Henry VII, at the battles of Blackheath and Stoke. These notes were not made by Margaret herself — she had dreadful handwriting — but were probably added by members of her household. There are also notes on the birth of her grandson, the future King Henry VIII, on 28 June. A later hand has added a note about Margaret’s own death on 29 June 1509. We love the way Nabil Nayal laid out the jacket so that one side is dominated by the Gothic script of a fine scribe working in the first half of the 15th century, while the other side has the quicker, cursive scripts of the added notes from the late 15th and early 16th century.
Nabil Nayal SS19 outfit and a page from the Tilbury Speech: Harley MS 6798
The manuscript that inspired the most outfits was Harley MS 6798. It records the Tilbury Speech, which Queen Elizabeth I supposedly delivered in 1588 at Tilbury Camp ahead of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. It includes such memorable lines as 'Let tyrants fear!' and 'I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm …' You can read the whole speech here.
Nayal has said he used this manuscript repeatedly in his collection because it ‘was so important for me to remind people of this speech. It's the moment she revealed herself to be a strong, defiant woman who was going to overcome the obstacles she faced.'
Nabil Nayal SS19 coat, that has both a similar design to garments worn in depictions of Elizabeth I's funeral and also reproduces a contemporary image of part of Elizabeth's funeral procession: Add MS 35324
Elizabeth I remained in remarkably good health into old age, but even the most powerful of queens had to contend with mortality. Depressed after the death of her second cousin and chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber, Katherine Howard, countess of Nottingham, Elizabeth stopped eating and lost the ability to speak. She died in the early of hours of 24 March 1603 at Richmond Palace in Surrey. Her funeral took place at Westminster Abbey on 28 April. The total cost of her funeral and burial was about £3,000.
Nayal’s collection included a coat inspired by drawings of Elizabeth I’s elaborate funeral procession, now in Add MS 35324. The coat features the part of the manuscript that depicts Elizabeth’s coffin draped in purple velvet, carried by six knights and surrounded by twelve barons, who bore banners displaying her pedigree. Atop the coffin is her funeral effigy, constructed of wax, wood and straw, which in turn was based on her death mask. She wore her parliament robes, with a crown on her head and a sceptre in her hand. We can get a sense of what that effigy looked like from other sources. Between 1605-7 her successor, James I, employed the Frenchman Maximilian Colt to construct Elizabeth a tomb and effigy at a cost of £965. The effigy in white marble was based on her funeral effigy, which survived until the mid-18th-century, when a reconstruction was made (still housed at Westminster Abbey). The original corset worn by the effigy also survives, and was probably one worn by the queen in life.
If you're feeling inspired, the British Library has launched a new Fashion web resource. In collaboration with the British Fashion Council and its Council of Colleges, we hope to encourage design students to use our unique collections.
Alison Ray, Alan Bryson, Alison Hudson
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14 September 2018
Wynflaed and the price of fashion
Some of the most interesting texts in the British Library’s collections have deceptively unassuming appearances. For example, this fragile piece of parchment is the closest equivalent of the Vogue wardrobe for early medieval England. Written in Old English, it is one of the earliest wills which survive from England in the name of a woman only. It details bequests made by a noblewoman called Wynflæd sometime before the late 10th or early 11th century, and it describes her wardrobe as well as her estates, slaves, metalwork, livestock and familial relationships.
Will of Wynflæd, England, late 10th or early 11th century: Cotton Ch VIII 38
We can’t be sure as to Wynflæd's exact identity. One of King Edgar’s grandmothers was called Wynflæd, but this will could pertain to someone else with the same name. What we do know is that our Wynflaed was a widow, and that she had a daughter called Æthelflæd and a son called Eadmer. We also know that she was rich. Her will mentions several estates, bands of tamed and untamed horses, slaves, many coins, livestock, items in gold and silver, and even books (annoyingly for us, no further information is given). The compiler of her will described some of the other items, such as Wynflæd's ‘wooden cups decorated with dots’ and her ‘red tent’. Anglo-Saxon nobles often travelled around — Wynflæd may have had to travel to manage her estates — and they stayed in tents when doing so. The Durham Collectar, for instance (Durham Cathedral Library MS A.IV.19), mentions that some of its text was written before tierce (around 9 a.m.) on Wednesday, 10 August 10, ‘for Ælfsige the bishop [of the community of St Cuthbert] in his tent’ while he was travelling in Dorset.
Wynflæd's will also gives details about her attire, from her engraved bracelet to linen gowns to caps and headbands. Such detailed descriptions of clothes are relatively unusual in Old English texts. A particularly striking item among Wynflæd’s clothes is a ‘twilibrocenan cyrtel’. This garment has been alternatively interpreted as a ‘badger-skin dress’, an embroidered dress or even a dress that was only worn twice. Gale Owen-Crocker and Kate Thomas have already discussed Wynflæd’s clothes, if you’d like to learn more.
A badger? Detail of a decoration around a flaw in parchment, from the Tollemache Orosius, England (Winchester?), late 9th or early 10th century: Add MS 47967, f. 62v
Wynflæd may have taken religious vows towards the end of her life, but that does not seem to have impeded her fashion sense. Her will mentions a ‘holy veil’ and at the beginning it focuses on her donations to an unspecified church. This church seems to have housed women, since the first part of the will also specifies bequests to ‘slaves of God’ there with female names such as Ceolthryth, Othelbriht and Elsa. At least one of these names appears again towards the end of the will as the recipient of some of the finer pieces in Wynflæd's wardrobe: Ceolthryth was to receive ‘whichever she prefers of her black tunics and her best holy veil and best headband’ (translated by D. Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, Cambridge, 1930, p. 15). Nor were these the only fashionable religious women or nuns in late 10th-century England, if later stories about St Edith are to be believed.
A holy veil? An angel presents Queen Emma with a veil, from the New Minster Liber Vitae: Stowe MS 944, f. 6r
Wynflæd’s will highlights another important aspect of fashion history: who made the clothes. Wynflæd not only bequeathed her clothes to her relatives, but she also bequeathed the people who made them. To Eadgifu (possibly her granddaughter), she gave ‘a woman-weaver and a seamstress, the one [also] called Eadgifu, the other called Æthelgifu’. One gets the impression that her granddaughter Eadgifu was a favourite: she also received the ‘best bed-curtain’, ‘best dun tunic’, best cloak and an ‘old filigree brooch’, among other objects.
Eadgifu the weaver and Æthelgifu the seamstress were not so lucky. While Wynflæd freed some of her slaves in her will, these two may have been condemned by their skill. They are two of only four slaves whose professions are specified in the will, the others being a wright and a cook called Ælfsige. Wynflæd was — and is — not alone in exploiting garment makers. To this day, the fashion industry has an uncomfortably close relationship with exploitation and poor labour conditions in many parts of the world.
Detail of the names of Eadgifu (Edgyfu) and Æthelgifu (Æþelyfu): Cotton Ch VIII 38
Although Cotton Ch VIII 38 is a copy of the original will, it shows signs of how such a document might have been used. It is a single sheet, folded carefully in half, then lengthways, and then again into thirds, as if it has been used and been put away for safe keeping. The interlinear additions to the text are also intriguing: as these are meaningful pieces of text, rather than occasional words, they are clearly not just the result of scribal error, but were intended as clarifications, or to add extra information. For example, when Wynflaed bequeaths her cloak, an extra word is added to specify which one: it is 'hyre beteran mentel' (her better cloak). Many of these additions are concerned with what would happen to Wynflaed's slaves. The will specifies that 'at Faccombe Eadhelm and Man and Johanna and Sprow and his wife … and Gersand and Snel are to be freed,' with Sprow and his wife added between the lines; while elsewhere, where 'aelfferes dohtor' (Aelffere's daughter) is given to Aethelflaed, someone has added 'þa geonran' (the younger) between the lines, specifying which one of his daughters was to be Aethelflaed's slave. Needless to say, these additions had serious consequences for the futures of Sprow, his wife, and of Aelffere's daughter.
Detail of folds and interlinear additions: Cotton Ch VIII 38
The British Library's major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, opens on 19 October 2018.
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