Your Humble Handmaid: Elizabethan Gifts of Needlework

Article excerpt

The stowe inventory of the contents of the Wardrobe of Robes gives us a privileged glimpse into the closets of Queen Elizabeth in 1600. There could be found over one thousand clothing items: gowns, robes, kirtles, foreparts, petticoats, cloaks, safeguards, and doublets, plus two hundred additional pieces of material, as well as pantofles, fans, and jewelry.(1) Many of these were gifts presented to the queen at the New Year, on progresses, at Accession Day tilts or other events. Items of embroidered clothing come to dominate the existing gift rolls. The 1588-89 New Year's gifts include, in addition to [pounds]795 in gold, almost six dozen gifts of clothing, most of them richly embroidered, plus sixteen items of jewelry, several pieces of gold- or silverplate, and a dozen gifts of embroidered furnishings.(2) Especially generous were the queen's principal secretary, Lord Walsingham, and his lady, who gave her items of clothing made of the most expensive and exclusive cloth available. Lord Walsingham presented "a cloke and a savegard of faire cullored velvet, laide round aboute and striped downe and eight lowpes in the fore quarters of a broade passamayn lace of Venis gold and silver plate; the cloke lyned with printed cloth of silver, and the savegard lyned with white sarsonett; and a dooblett of white satten curt, ymbrodered all over with esses of Venis gold." His Lady presented "one skimskyn of cloth of silver, ymbrodered all over very faire with beasts, fowles, and trees, of Venis gold, silver, silke, and small seed pearles . . . lyned with carnation plushe; a peire of perfumed gloves, the coaffe ymbrodered with seed pearls, and lyned with carnation velvett." More modest gifts of needleworked clothing included the "smock of fyne Holland about wroughte with black silke" given by Lady Carew and Lady Townsend's "large ruff of lawne cutwork unmade."(3)

The giving of costly gifts to the queen was seldom motivated by pure devotion, duty, or generosity. The Senecan ideal held that "it is a manly and franke harte, desirous too bestowe even when it hath bestowed alreadie . . . not regarding how gainfull they may bee too the bestower. For els, too doo good because it is a mannes owne profite, is a bace thing, praiselesse."(4) In fact, this Renaissance ideal of disinterested gift-giving may have been more honored in the breach. Elizabeth's subjects offered her gifts with an eye toward what they could expect in return. As Sir John Harington, the queen's godson and something of a rake, wrote to a friend concerning his attempts to further his suit to regain some lands: "I will adventure to give her Majestie five hundred pounds, in money, and some pretty jewell or garment as you shall advyse, onlie praying her Majestie to further my suite with some of her lernede counsel . . . five and twentie manors do well warrant my trying it."(5) However fond he was of his queen, Harington's gifts were clearly an attempt to purchase her favorable intervention on his behalf. Apparently he succeeded in laying claim to the lands in question.(6)

In another case also involving a land dispute, a complex network of familial and courtly obligations was invoked by Elizabeth Cooke, now Dowager Lady Russell. She asked her nephew, Sir Robert Cecil, to intercede regarding her suit on behalf of her daughter, Elizabeth, a maid of honor to the queen. She enumerated and priced each grudging gift of clothing, jewelry, curtains, and hats she had bestowed on the queen, including "a gown and petticoat of such tissue as should have been for the Queen of Scot's wedding garment." Her frustration and her calculation were evident as she appealed to Cecil: "Sir, I will be sworn that, in the space of 18 weeks, gifts to her Majesty cost me above 5001, in hope to have the Dunnington lease; which if now you will get [the lease] performed for Bess's almost six years' service, she, I am sure, will be most ready to acquit any service to yourself."(7) Alongside her several material gifts to the queen was the prior gift of her own daughter, whose service added to the queen's debt. …