Effigy Bodies: did they really belong to Elizabeth I? | Speculating about the appearance of Gloriana through Dress Reconstruction

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After blogging about the process of reconstructing the earliest pair of surviving English bodies that were found on the 1603 effigy of Queen Elizabeth I at Westminster Abbey, one of the most frequent questions that I received was: do you think these bodies actually belong to the Queen?

My answer: no… and yes, maybe.

Funerary records from the time list that an effigy “representing her late Majestie with a paire of straight bodies…” was ordered from a man called John Colte, and these ‘straight bodies’ were probably made by the Queen’s tailor William Jones. Although the Queen never wore these bodies, considering their hasty construction between Elizabeth’s death and her funerary procession, it is probable that their size, design and construction was based on styles of bodies (and thus measurements) that Jones had previously made for the Queen.[1] Yet, as some people have pointed out, they could also have been made purely for the effigy – as the two were ordered together. To me though, it would seem easier to make a garment from pre-existing measurements and patterns, and simply construct the effigy to fit the garments, rather than the other way around. Certainly, an effigy would probably be much faster to construct than the garments that sat over it.

Surprisingly, the process of trying my reconstruction of these bodies on a model seemed to confirm contemporary accounts about Elizabeth I’s appearance, which leads me to believe that they were made according to previous measurements and patterns that her tailor had taken.

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The average height of women during the Tudor era was approximately 158cm and my model was an AU size 6 (UK 6 / US 2) and 156cm (5’2”) tall, so just a tad shorter than the average height during this period.[2] When my model was laced into the bodies they nearly fit her around the torso, with only an inch gap between the centre front openings. However, the underarms cut into her, the shoulder straps were far too big and the back jutted up past shoulder height. This indicates that I need a taller model to accurately fit these bodies.

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Shoulder straps come up way past the shoulderline

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Gaping at the back due to straps being too big

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Pulling the shoulder straps down at the front to fit model

In 1557 the Venetian ambassador, Giovanni Michiel, described Elizabeth who was then 23 years old as “tall and well formed.”[3] Later Francis Bacon stated that she was “tall of stature” and John Hayward described that she “was slender and straight…”[4] The findings from my experiment of placing the bodies on a slender but petite model seems then to confirm that these bodies were tailored for a woman who was not only slender but also tall and long in the torso, just as Elizabeth is described as being.

by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, oil on canvas, circa 1592

Ditchley Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, oil on canvas, circa 1592

Okay, so the bodies were designed to fit a taller woman (or effigy), but what about the size of the bodies. Surely, they are far too small for someone (besides a child) to have actually worn them?? As I mentioned previously, the bodies did fit my model around her torso, with only a small gap at the front (when laced very tightly). However, as the portrait of the Countess of Southampton indicates, they were probably designed to be worn with the centre front pieces touching side by side, which means my model was just a tad too big for them.

Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, 1595-1600. Unknown Artist. Boughton House

Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, 1595-1600. Unknown Artist. Boughton House

Although Elizabeth was described as being tall for the time, the tiny size of her waist was not unique, rather, it seems she was quite average. My reconstruction of the effigy bodies measures 53.4cm (21”) in the waist and 73.6cm (29”) in the bust, placing the wearer as an AU size 4 (UK 4 / US 0) or smaller. Some commentators (and my supervisor) have commented that maybe this was because the Queen was quite sick in the last few months of her life. Whilst this is true, Janet Arnold records that another pair of bodies dated earlier to 1598 from Germany, known as the von Neuburg bodies, had an even smaller waist measurement of 50.8cm (20”) and bust of 71.1cm (28”).[5]  A much later bodice, which would have been worn to court, from the 1660s at the Museum of London has an even smaller 48cm (19”) waist measurement![6] Numerous other seventeenth-century bodies and bodices in other collections all show similar measurements, which means that the size of the effigy bodies is not an anomaly.

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So did these bodies belong to Elizabeth I?
No they didn’t, as we have certain proof that were commissioned after she died for her effigy. However, I am inclined to believe that they were made from previous patterns taken from the Queen’s own measurements… although we will never know for sure.

 

* If you’d like to see a much more thorough and detailed use of historical reconstruction to learn about past historical figures, dress historian Hilary Davidson has written an excellent piece Reconstructing Jane Austen’s Silk Pelisse, 1812-1814 in the Journal of Costume.

 

REFERENCES

[1] Janet Arnold, ‘The ‘pair of straight bodies’ and ‘a pair of drawers’ dating from 1603 which Clothe the Effigy of Queen Elizabeth I in Westminster Abbey’, Costume, Vol. 41 (2007), p. 1.

[2] Ninya Mikaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies, The Tudor tailor: Reconstructing 16th-century Dress (London: Batsford, 2006), p. 9.

[3] ‘Venice: May 1557, 11-15’, in Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 6, 1555-1558, ed. Rawdon Brown (London, 1877), pp. 1041-1095. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/venice/vol6/pp1041-1095 [accessed 10 July 2016].

[4] Francis Bacon, The felicity of Queen Elizabeth: and her times, with other things; by the Right Honorable Francis Ld Bacon Viscount St Alban. (LONDON: Printed by T. Newcomb, for George Latham at the Bishops Head in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1651), p. 18; John Hayward, Annals of the First Four Years of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, Volume 7, John Bruce, ed. (London: Camden Society, 1840), p. 7.

[5] Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 3: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women, c. 1560-1620 (London: MacMillan, 1985), p. 127.

[6] Measurement courtesy of Tim Long, Curator at the Museum of London: https://twitter.com/Fashion_Curator/status/702785825386459136

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One thought on “Effigy Bodies: did they really belong to Elizabeth I? | Speculating about the appearance of Gloriana through Dress Reconstruction

  1. Sharmyn says:

    Great read, Sarah and a fascinating topic. Wish we could really know the right answer but maybe one day you will find it.

    Like

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