1500 Stitches: diverse arts of Margaret Wolseley

English Noblewoman's Dress in 1500

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Documenting Dress during the Reign of Elizabeth of York, 1486 to 1503

Objective: to collect information about the clothing, especially the bonnets, typically worn by noblewomen during the reign of Elizabeth of York, Henry VII's queen and mother to Henry VIII.

Possible Information Sources: Illuminated Books and Manuscripts

When people who have used medieval illuminated manuscripts to document changing fashions ask me why I do not consult these resources I usually explain that I cannot because there are no English manuscripts. This is certainly an oversimplification, as manuscripts produced in England exist, but they are usually not the stunning artwork with graceful images of people that a student of fifteenth and sixteenth century illumination would expect. Rickert explains concisely what influenced the fall of native English painting:

During the last three-quarters of the fifteenth century, English art was markedly affected by two waves of direct Continental influence, both initiated by political events. The first was French, and occurred during the period of the regency of John, Duke of Bedford, uncle to the infant Henry VI (born 1421), who, soon after the death of his father in 1422, fell heir also to the kingdom of France through his mother, daughter of King Charles VI. … During this time the Duke took advantage of his opportunities to acquire many treasures from the royal collections, including illuminated manuscripts; he also employed Parisian illuminators to make books for him, such as the magnificent Bedford Missal (Brit Mus, Add. MS. 18850). French influence in illumination was not limited to work done in France, but French scribes and illuminators also came to England. The results of this French fashion are apparent in English illumination after 1425, in the more conventional types of figures and the formal border decoration.

...From the exile of Edward IV (1470-1), which was spent mostly in Bruges, came the second main stream of Continental influence on English art in the late fifteenth century; for Edward bought and ordered in Bruges manuscripts painted in the highly realistic Flemish manner of the developed Northern Renaissance. It seems likely that English illuminators worked side by side with Flemish painters during this time, for there are many late fifteenth century manuscripts with Flemish miniatures and borders in the florid, rather coarse English manner. Certain it is that Flemish painters returned with Edward to England, and much work, both in manuscripts and in panels, and painted glass bears witness to their activities. If French influence was, on the whole, devitalizing in its effect on English work in the early part of the century - since the charm of English art ever depended on its originality and informality - Flemish realism of the end of the century was disastrous, for the English painter could neither assimilate it nor ignore it. With the advent of Flemish influence, therefore, English medieval painting came to an inglorious end. (pp 180-181)

The English appetite for illuminated books was not snuffed, but the production was outsourced, for “substantial numbers of books of hours with liturgical features for use in England were imported from the continent, particularly from Flanders.” (Backhouse p150) Continental illuminators depicted women in the fashions familiar to them which are similar, but not identical to, English fashion. The gable or pedimental headdress, in particularly, is not seen outside of England, and thus not recorded in illumination.

As English illumination declined, England printing blossomed. William Caxton established a printshop in Westminster in 1476 and began translating books for English readers. Printed books were sometimes then individually illuminated, and sometimes illustrated by block printing. Even “Henry [VII] appears quite genuinely to have preferred French workmanship and to have printed books from choice, though one or two very handsome Flemish manuscripts certainly belonged to him.” (Backhouse p 206)

This tangled web of politics, art styles, fashion, and circumstance combined to create a situation in which few illuminated images of English women have been preserved for modern historians to peruse.



Backhouse, Janet. The Illuminated Page: ten centuries of Manuscript Painting in the British Libary. London: British Library, 1997.

Rickert, Margaret Josephine. Painting in Britain: the Middle Ages. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.