Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII by Maria Hayward : A Book Review

   Dress in the court King Henry VIII as an historical figure needs no introduction. The story of his desire to produce a male heir, while aspiring to cement himself as a legitimate ruler over people with better hereditary claims to the same crown, is pretty well known.  The question is, why would a scholarly study of his wardrobe and personal effects be necessary and what would we expect it to tell us?

    Reading this book  to write a review, I was struck by the idea that here was an entire tome dedicated to a topic of which nearly nothing extant that remains.1 But what a fascinating book this is!

    Before this I was appreciative of the fact that richly dyed and sumptuously patterned textiles were their own currency for secular and ecclesiastical use since the Middle Ages. That is why they were eagerly sought, produced and procured at great expense. During the period covered here, the utilization of lavish fabrics in dress and interior decoration became an emblematic and visual affirmation of power and statement of rank during the key ceremonies throughout the calendar year at the English court.

Payments in dress and fabrics to members of the court, retainers and donations for charity were as diligently recorded as any other financial transaction. This was as true for the entire royal household, which includes Henry’s wives and his children. In other words, while the prerogative of giving such gifts was part of the accepted social contract that existed at the time between rulers and those who served them, reading this book one learns how deeply it was embedded into the everyday existence.    

Unique to this story are the painted images, particularly those by Hans Holbein the Younger, recording in meticulous detail the abundance of ornament on the dress used by Henry VIII and his court. There are several pages of colored plates of these paintings in the front of the book which I now look at with an entirely different sensibility. Being an embroiderer, I would only zero in on the type, amount and use of it on the garment. Now I am aware of the profusion of other kinds of details that needed attention by the Keepers of the Great Wardrobe to manage, provision and maintain such an opulent level of dress as a result of  Ms. Hayward's research.  

Also, sprinkled throughout the book are photographs of the cut of surviving period garments, accessories, and other examples of embroidered ornament from other museum collections that provide a visual frame of reference to what is discussed. One of my favorites is on page 354, which illustrates the use of a silk lacing cord that closed the bodice of an Italian dress from 1562. A common practice that enabled bodices to be shaped to a person’s body; the eyelet holes were usually embroidered in buttonhole stitch.


But, there is another story here.  It is a human one that peeks out of the edges of what other reviewers have characterized as dry commentary and endless enumerations of garments, which makes me surmise they did not read the book very carefully.  For example, I was interested to learn Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife continued to make his linen shirts long after he had instituted contact with Rome for an annulment of their marriage. “Shirt making was considered a wifely task, suitable even for a queen to perform.” (pg. 111)  The future-wife-in-waiting Anne Boleyn, discovered someone taking linen cambric to Catherine and took the matter in hand herself and hired someone to make the king’s shirts. 

Another example is the motto Anne Boleyn had embroidered on her household livery at Christmas 1530, during the period the request for annulment was proceeding, which translated from the Latin meant:  That is how it is going to be, however much people grumble.  (pg. 306)

Dr. Maria Hayward unabashedly informs the reader she has modeled the format of her book on Henry VIII on the groundbreaking “Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d” by Janet Arnold that was published in 1988. Using the “Inventories of the Wardrobe of the Robes” prepared in 1600 as a springboard, Ms. Arnold’s commentary elucidated and expounded on every aspect of the clothing actually worn by Queen Elizabeth I, setting a new standard on the caliber of dress scholarship that stood on the shoulders so to speak of publications on historic costume that preceded it.

Prior to this most books on period dress were organized around a general topic, such as the Cunnington’s “Handbook of 18th Century Costume.”2 These books usually contained brief quotations from some primary source documents, black and white reproductions of paintings or drawings from funeral statuary, accompanied by the author’s observations. However, not all of the authors writing books on historical costume were very scrupulous looking at the primary sources themselves. In some instances they would quote or attribute the wrong detail about some aspect, which would be picked up and repeated by someone else.   

Nonetheless, it is the author’s intention, using another “Inventory of the Wardrobe of Robes” from 1521, to take the analysis on the contents of this primary source document a bit farther than Janet Arnold did. In her narrative she amply illustrates how Henry VIII used dress as a tool for political advantage and assertion of status throughout his life. We may view him as a Renaissance figure, but his life and the times in which he lived were actually more shaped by Western European medieval court custom and the ritual of  religious observance. This is not a story that moves in a straight line, and it will appear that certain things are repeated. The theme of the chapters, whether it is on dressing for ceremony (such as weddings, coronations and funerals) or the caring for the clothes; covers not just Henry VIII individually, but his father, children, and wives where documentation exists.

This is Dr. Hayward’s second book on King Henry VIII.  Her first, “The 1542 Inventory of Whitehall the Palace and its Keeper” is a two volume work published in 2004.  She trained as a textile conservator and did her PhD., ‘The Possessions of Henry VIII, a Study of Inventories’, at the London School of Economics. She has also written several scholarly articles in books and journals. Should you purchase this book from one of our retailers, you can request them to procure from us a bibliographic listing of Dr. Hayward’s other publications.

This is by no means the definitive material culture work on embroidery in the Tudor and Stuart era. That book remains to be written. However, Dress at the Court of Henry VIII is well worth your time and attention if you are interested in time period.

Other books  and articles of interest related to this topic stocked by Access Commodities:

Renaissance Clothing Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, edited by Ann Rosalind Jones & Peter Stallybrass (2000)  Access Commodities Stock No. 4543
Design & the decorative arts
Design and the Decorative Arts Tudor & Stuart Britain 1500-1714, Michael Snodin.  Access Commodities Stock No. BKK 2352
Fabrics and Fashions
Fabrics and Fashions – Studies in the economic and social history of dress, edited by N. B. Harte (1991)  Access Commodities Stock No.  BKK 3498
Linen Cambric -  Access Commodities Stock No. FBR 10900
Seed Pearl Strand – Access Commodities Stock No. BDS 350

There are two suits of armor that have survived, one dated  c. 1520 and the other c.1540 when the king was much older, and as the author notes of a more “mature” shape.

2 The Cunningtons , husband and wife, who were physicians by training,  in the 1920’s and 1930’s amassed a tremendous collection of period dress, and ephemera relating to clothing.  For an interesting discussion on their generous contributions to the study of period dress, see “An Agreeable Change from Ordinary Medical Diagnosis, by Anthea Jarvis in  Costume No. 33,  pp. 1-11, 1999.  

Recently Posted Comments



Leave a Reply








Search