Historical/ Modern Renaissance Faire/ The Renaissance

The British Renaissance and Renaissance Faires: Embellished Garments and Chief Woman of the Bedchamber

A blog about the British Renaissance and modern Renaissance Faires.

Lady Catherine Carey Knollys, Chief Woman of the Bedchamber and first cousin to Queen Elizabeth, aka Lee Ann Brown, the 27 generations granddaughter of Lady Knollys, a performer and educator at the Virginia Renaissance Faire, contributed the information for this blog. Connie Teunis, me! edited this blog.

For visitors to a Renaissance Faire, one of the most striking features of the faire are the “shiny people,”-  the Royalty, nobles and wealthy merchants who are wearing elaborate, bejeweled, decorated garments. Silk bodices, doublets, capes, pouches and skirts are woven with silk thread, studded with pearls and gems and decorated with silk embroidery. Delicate lace and silk embroidery enhance the sleeves and collars. These garments shine when in sunlight. And yes, when its 90 degrees in the shade, the people dressed in these garments are quite warm. So why are they wearing such elaborate clothing?

Part 1: Embellished Garments

Before the Elizabethan Age, garments were primarily functional. Embellishments, such as gold, fur trim and beading were seen only among the clergy, nobility and royalty.

Among the clergy, elaborate embroidery, gold and silver thread, pearls and precious stones were seen in Ecclesiastical fabrics. These fabrics included religious vestments, such as robes and stoles, altar covers and wall hangings. When Henry VIII disbanded the Catholic Church in England, such elaborate ecclesiastical fabrics were hidden. However, they became popular again when Mary, a Catholic, ascended to the throne and even more so when her half-sister, Elizabeth was crowned Queen.

Elizabeth loved beautiful garments, especially intricately decorated garments. Inventories were kept of her possessions. Among her possessions were thousands of embroidered and bejeweled bodices, gloves, chemises, nightcaps, skirts and more.

Embroidered and beaded bodice.
Embroidered and beaded corset.

All the embroidery work at this time used only 4 stitches: Chain stitch, Running Stitch, Satin Stitch and French Knot

Silk thread would have been used for the embroidery for Elizabeth and her nobles. And as embroidery was a “woman’s art,” Elizabeth and her Ladies-in-Waiting would have embroidered and beaded small items, such as collars, handkerchiefs, pouches and sweet bags. Tops of all gloves were embroidered. However, most of the embroidery on Elizabeth’s garments would have been performed by women hired for this purpose.

Elizabeth’s clothing may have also been decorated with oil or lead paint. At this time, a common technique used in mainland Europe was to float oil or lead paint on water. Silk clothes and kerchiefs were then laid on top of the paint and would thus pick up the paint as they were lifted off the water.It is likely that the nobility’s seamstresses learned this technique from their European counterparts and employed it to embellish garments.

Examples of paint on silk technique.

Wealthy townsfolk may have also embroidered some garments. However, townsfolk would have used wool or cotton embroidery thread. Cotton thread was imported from the middle east and was considered contraband because of the need to support the British wool industry. At this time, much of Britain’s wealth revolved around the wool industry, therefore, people living in Great Britain were expected to support the wool industry by using wool thread. However, even though cotton was considered contraband, it was tolerated.

When in public, Elizabeth dressed in elaborate gowns. However, in private, she also supported the wool industry by wearing plain, comfortable wool dressing gowns.

Most shepherds had a small cottage industry that involved spinning wool from their sheared sheep. They typically had both spinning wheels and drop spindles. Elizabeth and her inner circle of women would have also spun wool. They would have then used the wool thread to embroider Elizabeth’s wool pillows and bedclothes. England was undergoing a mini ice age. Wool sleepwear was essential for keeping warm during the night. Travel cloaks would have also been made from wool as wool is warm and water repellent. These cloaks would have been lined with fur for additional warmth and comfort.

As Queen of England, Elizabeth’s garments needed to be immaculately clean. Her seamstresses and laundresses, under supervision of the Mistress of Robes (see Part 2), were responsible for cleaning the garments. Her seamstresses would remove every bead and embellishment and place them in rows so that they knew exactly were each bead or gem went. The Mistress of Robes would keep an accounting of every bead and gem. The laundresses would clean and dry the garments. The garments were then returned to the seamstresses who would sew every bead and embellishment back onto the gown in its proper place. The garments would then be folded and stored in trunks with herbs to keep them smelling fresh and to keep bacteria from growing. Some herbs that prevent the growth of bacteria include Thyme, Oregano and Rosemary.

When Elizabeth was traveling, her elaborate, highly decorative garments were typically left in London. Instead, she would wear serviceable clothing that was warm and easy to clean. One exception to “warm and easy to clean” clothing was when she travelled to Tilbury to address the troops and sailors gathered to repel the Spanish Armada. As she stood before her soldiers, she encouraged them with her personal resolve: “…and therefore, I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England, too (and should any Prince of Europe) dare to invade the borders of my realm….I myself will take up arms….” (See note 1)

As she said these famous words which have inspired the British for centuries, she was dressed in armor.

Part 2: Chief Woman of the Bedchamber

Elizabeth had a small, intimate circle of women who were responsible for helping her maintain a regal appearance in public and a proper appearance in private. These were the women who would have commonly joined Elizabeth in her bedchamber to spin wool or embroider. This circle consisted of her nanny, Kat Ashley, who married Sir John Ashley, cousin to Anne Boleyn; Blanche Perry, who began her service to Elizabeth the day Elizabeth was born and continued until Elizabeth’s death; Dorothy Stafford, who was the second wife of Sir William Stafford, widower of Mary Boleyn; and Catherine Carey Knollys, wife of Sir Francis Knollys, daughter of Mary Boleyn and first cousin to Elizabeth.

These four noblewomen shared responsibility for Elizabeth’s toiletries, bathing (Elizabeth bathed once a month), dress, care and maintenance of all garments and jewels, and maintaining inventories of Elizabeth’s personal possessions. They maintained lists of the gifts that were given to Elizabeth and who gave the gifts. They also determined who had access to the Queen, received money on behalf of the Queen, and even wrote letters for the Queen.

Given their closeness to the Queen and their positions of power, they were all given titles representative of that closeness. Dorothy Stafford was named Mistress of Robes, and all four at some point held the title of Chief Woman (or First Lady) of the Bedchamber.

As Chief Woman of the Bedchamber, Catherine Knollys coordinated everything in Elizabeth’s personal life. She was responsible for keeping Elizabeth sacred and safe. When Elizabeth wished to entertain intimate friends in her private chambers, Catherine Knollys would have chaperoned. At night, Catherine or one of the other intimately close ladies or a trusted maid would have slept with Elizabeth to keep her warm and safe. And when Elizabeth had trouble sleeping, as she often did, the lady sharing her bed that night would entertain her.

Modern Renaissance Faires

At the Virginia Renaissance Faire, visitors will have many opportunities to see and interact with the “shiny people.” Members of the Court, the Nobility and the Queen dress in a manner faithful to the garments worn by their historic counterparts during the time of Elizabeth 1. And like their historic counterparts, their garments are handmade and embellished by hand. The Ladies in the Nobility Circle have created their own garb and like Elizabeth, who made a book cover for Kathryn Parr, our Queen Elizabeth has done her own embroidery. (She’s also designed and created her own garments- yes, she is incredibly talented!)

Lee Ann Brown, aka Lady Catherine Carey Knollys, Chief Woman of the Bedchamber (see part 2) demonstrates, discusses and teaches about embroidery and bead working when she is not attending the Queen. Like her ancestor, Lady Catherine Knollys, Lee Ann has continued the family tradition of sewing and handmade embellishments. She has a handmade bedspread that has been worked on by six generations of women in her family. Her Great-Great-Grandmother initially started this as a baby blanket decorated with a star. Each successive generation has added to it, transforming it into a twin-size spread, then Full, Queen and King. And Lee Ann’s daughter has worked on it by resewing some seams.

When you come to the Virginia Renaissance Faire, please be sure to seek out this remarkable woman as she teaches about embroidery and bead working during the Renaissance.

  1. The British Library, Speech by Elizabeth 1 in present day English


To learn more about the Virginia Renaissance Faire, please go to: www.VaRF.org. The Virginia Renaissance Faire runs for five weekends from Mother’s Day weekend through early June. We hope to see you there!

The Virginia Renaissance Faire is produced by Out of the Woodwork Productions, a 501C(3) non-profit. To make a tax deductible contribution, please go to  www.paypal.me/VaRenFaire

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