Britain · Pocket Profiles

Pocket Profile – The Tudor Six

Divorced, beheaded, died
Divorced, beheaded, survived

I have been obsessed with Tudor history since I was eleven, when I first read Norah Lofts “The Concubine”, a surprisigly reliable fictional account about Anne Boleyn. I remain obsessed to this day, listening to the “Six” soundtrack day and night and driving my husband nuts. In that vein, I thought we might have a sartorial discussion about the six women who were married to Henry VIII.

(Note: Some of the portraits have tenuous connections to the Queens in question. Often they are identified as “Unknown woman possibly Queen…..” For example, there are no portraits definitively identified with Catherine Howard, which is a pity since her beauty was always remarked on, and she lived such a short life.)

Tudor Style

Sumptuary Laws were in effect during the reign of Henry VIII, and these laws served two primary purposes. They reinforced social heirarchy through controlling dress, preventing the unwashed masses from emulating court style. The laws also supported and provided guidance to the domestic textile trade. The Queens were dressed in accordance with these laws, which advertised to all their rank in society.

All Tudor women wore a linen shift, or smock, as a bottom layer, which could would be changed, and – if the woman was lucky – washed frequently. For those of higher rank, it was a point of pride to have a fresh smock daily, or even more than daily. A petticoat was added over the smock, to add volume. The kirtle was worn over the torso, to provide the correct, rather flat silhouette required for the period. To demonstrate status, Tudor women of higher status would add embellished outer layers and decorated headdresses.

Catherine of Aragon

Royal every minute of her life, Queen Catherine was also, by all accounts, a pretty and pious woman. She brought aristocratic Spanish style with her to the English court, introducing the English to the Spanish farthingale. This undergarment provided a conical shape to the outer layers of the skirt.

She wore blackwork embroidery on the parts of the kirtle which were visible at the neckline and cuffs. In her younger years she wore the European headdress popular in her native Spain (similar to the French hood worn by her successor, Anne Boleyn), and in later life transitioned to the English hood (or gable) style of head covering. Fortunately, her penchant for draping glorious necklaces around her neck never changed. A true, elegant Queen who was divorced, much against her will, after 24 years of devoted marriage – on her part at least.

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn was known as a quick and clever woman. She spent her formative years in the French royal court, and returned to her native England as a young woman with a sophisticated fashion sense. She popularized the French style in the English court, including the softer shaped French hood, which was set further from the face. Never considered a great beauty, her allure was in her charm, style, and lively intelligence. Unfortunately, these qualities withered away for Henry after she failed to provide a son. She was executed on some dubious charges of incest, witchcraft, adultery, with conspiracy against the King thrown in for good measure.

Jane Seymour

Historically considered Henry’s favorite wife, mostly due to bearing him his only son and then quietly dying before any other misfortune could befall her, Jane was a devout woman from a good family. Her style could be considered the Tudor equivalent of “quiet, conventional good taste.” Her greatest style contribution was the transition back to the English, triangular hood, said to be a political move to distance herself from the French style of Anne Boleyn’s court.

Creative Commons through NPG

Anne of Cleves

Do you know someone who consistently photographs well? Anne of Cleves could be considered the Tudor version of that person. The portrait below, attributed to Holbein, shows a lovely woman dressed in opulent good taste.  Her style came from her native Germany. She dressed differently from the English ladies, in high-waisted gowns with wider upper sleeves. Her headdresses had short hoods, and often were embellished with a sheer veil. Unfortunately, Henry did not see the allure in the actual woman and they were quickly divorced. Anne had the last laugh, as she outlived her ex-husband and was the longest lived of all the wives.

Creative Commons Wikimedia

Catherine Howard

Poor Catherine Howard was only married to Henry for a short time, and was beheaded by the time she was (approximately) nineteen years old. Her birthdate has not been officially recorded, and there are no known portraits that are definitively of her. Small consolation that it is, she was said to be the beauty among Henry’s wives, and contemporary accounts say she was exuberantly stylish, and that Henry adorned her with jewels. At the very least, she certainly would have had her share of youthful appeal.

Crative Commons National Portrait Gallery

Katharine Parr

Famous for outliving her notorious husband, Katharine Parr was above all a religious woman. That doesn’t mean she was always plainly attired, as the portrait below suggests. She was a wealthy widow twice over when she married the King, and would have had access to some glorious jewels and sumptuous dresses – the feather below suggests she may have had sartorially adventurous side. She certainly had a love for gorgeous jewels, as the portrait below indicates.

Creative Commons National Portrait Gallery

Which of the six is your sartorial favorite?