Friday, 15 December 2017

Sir Walter the Dandy

Iris Ansell, former Head of Costumes at Fairlynch Museum, takes a look inside Sir Walter Raleigh’s wardrobe

Hayes Barton: Sir Walter Raleigh’s birthplace

Most of us are familiar with the story of Sir Walter Raleigh. We know that he was born at Hayes Barton, East Budleigh, in either 1552 or 1554.

Coats of arms of
Devon families related to each other: 

Raleigh, Edgecombe, 
Tremayne, Prowse, Champernoun, Courtenay, Carew, Dinham

His father, also called Walter, married three times – each time into a maritime family. So young Walter had many siblings, as well as half-brothers and sisters, along with cousins, and was related to most of the nautical families of the period.

Drake’s School, East Budleigh, is named after the family of Joan Drake, who became Joan Raleigh when she married Sir Walter's father. Her tomb is in the nave of All Saints' Church, East Budleigh

His many ancestors include the Carews and Gilberts, also the Drakes: his father’s first wife was a Drake. He was also related to the Thynnes of Longleat, and his uncle was Sir Arthur Champernowne of Dartington Hall.

The coat of arms of The King’s School, founded in 1545 at Ottery St Mary

Very much a myth was that Walter was a rough common sailor. Not so. He was well connected and well educated, but he never lost his West Country accent. Walter may well have attended school in Ottery St Mary: the same school attended, a couple of centuries by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – the poet who wrote ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

What is not widely known however is that Walter loved clothes and the latest fashions. He was the dandy of his age.

‘The Ermine Portrait’ of Elizabeth I, c.1585, by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1547-1619

After his many seafaring exploits and adventures and discoveries he came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth and was invited to Court. He became one of the Queen’s favourites. He would read poems to her, ones that he had written himself, love poems that flattered the ageing Queen. His dabbling in politics after the Queen’s death was to be his eventual downfall. He was beheaded on the orders of King James I in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, in 1618.

If they were lucky enough to be able to attend Court, men and women of the Tudor period especially had to adhere to the dress code, while the humble people wore homespun and local tanned leather while attending to their cattle and other tasks. The gentry wore the most beautiful brocades and silks.

Arrival of a Caravan outside the City of Morocco by the American artist Edwin Lord Weeks (1849 – 1903)

Only from around 1585 did Protestant Huguenots, from France, seeking refuge and religious freedom, settle in London’s Spitalfields and begin weaving fine silks. Before this, all the finest materials and silks came from China, being carried by merchants along the famous Silk Road, through China, Afghanistan, Persia and Turkey. To this day can be seen the resting places for the merchants, who with their camels and their bundles of wonderful merchandise, would take overnight refuge from the risk of brigands.

Monumental entrance of the Sultanhani caravanserai at Aksaray, Turkey.
Image credit: Georges Jansoone

These stops along the Silk Road, known as caravanserais, still provide coffee and Turkish tea served in glass cups to the hundreds of tourists who visit them. The loads eventually made their way to the coast and Constantinople where Venetian agents would take them on to the various courts in Europe.

When first attending Court one was expected to dress very simply. As one rose in the ranks one’s dress code changed, and finer fabrics could be worn. During the Elizabethan period, Spanish fashion was in vogue. Although Queen Elizabeth I found herself in conflict with Spain itself she rather liked its fashions.

Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature portrait of Raleigh

The men wore stiff, starched and uncomfortable costumes, with the high Spanish collars, called a ruff. These became larger and larger over time, and very uncomfortable to wear. They were at one point compared to the stone that was used to grind corn: that the name stuck and gave rise to the expression  ‘a millstone around one’s neck’. Clothes were worn not for comfort but for effect.

Walter loved the Spanish style. It suited him, being extremely handsome, dark and tall - most men were short.  He favoured the ‘Van Dyke’ beard, which came to a point, and short hair. Men wore breeches which were short, and puffed with padded hips, making them  broadened. The hat was a beret with feather decoration. The outfit was completed by knitted stockings.

Unlike Henry VIII’s time, calves were not padded: legs were now long and slender, with   the finest of leather shoes, beautifully decorated.

At the Sir Walter Raleigh pub: the legend lives on

Another item of Spanish fashion was the short half-cape, worn over one shoulder. Such a cape was the one, it is believed, that Walter put down over the puddle for Elizabeth to walk on when she reviewed the fleet at Greenwich, or the story would have us believe.   This style of cape was still worn many years later. It became part of much dress uniform, ranging from members of the Russian Romanov family to Prussian army officers up until the First World War.

Fashions in the French and English court were generally brighter than central Europe. White was very popular in France; indeed it is said that Elizabeth liked Walter to wear a particular black and white outfit.

Gradually the Spanish lost the lead in the fashion stakes and each country began to develop its own style and become more and more elaborate. This was mainly because fabrics were more easily obtained; there was less reliance on the Silk Road merchants.

The various professions also had a mode of dress. For instance scholars preferred red, lawyers and theologians black.

Raleigh just before his execution
Print from the collection of the British Museum

It is believed Walter’s love of clothes stayed with him until his execution, when he dressed carefully according to contemporary documents. He chose a black velvet gown, over a hair-coloured doublet, black embroidered waistcoat, black taffeta breeches and ruff, worn with coloured silk stockings, with his hair and beard freshly barbered.

A dandy to the end.

Many stories have been written about Sir Walter’s love of clothes, some true and some rumours, but there is no doubt that at the height of his popularity and the darling of the ageing Queen, who loved the company of good looking young men Sir Walter Raleigh was best looking and best dressed man at Court, and the envy of many.



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