Wardrobe of a Renaissance Queen: Mary’s Clothing Inventories

In today’s blog, Dr Alison Rosie (Registrar, National Register of Archives for Scotland) examines the surviving accounts of Mary’s clothes and jewels, where they might have come from, and what they might have looked like.

When Mary again set foot on Scottish soil at Leith on 19 August 1561, she arrived with the lavish jewellery and sumptuous clothing considered indispensable for the Renaissance monarch. Bishop Lesley describes her as returning from France with: ‘mony costly jewells and golden wark, precious stanis, orient pearle, maist excellent of any that was in Europe and mony costly abilyeamentis [clothes] for hir body’

Among the most precious evidence for Mary’s appearance at this time are the dozen or so inventories which survive in the National Records of Scotland and which provide a fascinating insight into the contents of her wardrobe. They are particularly important because other sources, contemporary portraits and written descriptions, are so limited.  

Shortly after her return her servants began to compile a number of inventories: firstly of Mary of Guise’s possessions, and then of Mary’s own clothing, jewels and furniture. The inventory of her clothing, compiled in February 1562, lists an impressive array of fashionable clothing: 139 items in all including 59 gowns of cloth of gold and silver and the finest velvets and satins, and lavishly embroidered foreskirts for displaying under the open gown.  

Inventory of 1562 [NRS E35/3/1] . The inventory is annotated to show where the Queen has removed items for her own use and also bestowed gifts on favoured courtiers: her four Maries do particularly well. The crosses indicate a later stock check

A later inventory, dated 1578, lists the residue of Mary’s clothing and jewels stored in Edinburgh Castle and there is some overlap with the 1562 inventory. Mary had substantial parts of her wardrobe forwarded to England but what was left behind is still impressive: in addition to 47 gowns are petticoats, skirts and doublets with gold and silver trimmings, 45 pairs of sleeves embroidered in gold and silver thread and numerous hoods, coifs, collars and ruffs made of the finest lawn and embroidered with silk thread in ‘flowris of gold of sundrie hues’. Some of the same items appear in both inventories. 

These are clothes of the finest luxury fabrics from Italy: brocades, shot silk, satins and velvets, dyed in the most expensive colours: rich blues and violets, and highly sought-after crimsons (from kermes, crushed insects from India). They are covered in a profusion of trimmings: braid, fringes, gimp of gold or silver wire, ribbons, pearls, metal spangles and embroidery. Laces had a decorative as well as a practical purpose, their metal tips, called aglets, decorated with gemstones or pearls.   

Image: Inventory of 1578 (NRS: E35/1) 

In parallel with the inventories are the monthly accounts of her keeper of the wardrobe, Servais de Condé, recording his purchases and distributions from September 1561 to May 1567. They are full of intriguing insights into the Queen’s domestic life and the workings of her wardrobe: from the canvas bags made to store her wigs and hairpieces, slippers and dirty clothes, to the velvet purse for her handkerchiefs and fabric to cover the board used to warm her bed.  

Servais’ accounts also underline the importance of gift-giving at the Renaissance court, where gifts of clothing and pieces of textile were an important perk for courtiers and servants Gifts of Mary’s own clothing were not, however, always made without alteration: the crimson satin gown given to Mary Livingston’s mother in 1565 had all the pearl clusters removed.

Image: Servais de Conde’s accounts (NRS: 35/3/5). The numbers on the left of the page refer to items in an inventory of Mary of Guise’s possessions. 

‘Precious stones’ 

Jewellery during the Renaissance performed a number of functions: as well as a major indicator of the status of the wearer, gemstones were rare and exotic – from India and the new world; they were magical and medicinal – conferring virtues on the wearer, improving health and protecting from poison. They were also hugely valuable, gifted to inspire and reward loyalty, and pledged in difficult times as a means to leverage funds.   

The most comprehensive inventory of Mary’s famed collection of jewellery is that of 1566, annotated by Mary before the birth of her son with the bequests to be made should both she and her child die. Her French Guise relatives, the four Maries and other Scottish friends feature strongly. Major pieces of jewellery, such as the jewel known as the ‘Great Harry’ are designated to go to the Scottish Crown. 

E35-3-3A crop
Image: Annotations in Mary’s distinctive handwriting indicating bequests (NRS: E35/3/3] 

The focus of the inventory was to record the number of gems in each item rather than the design or setting. As well as large pendants, ear-rings (or in Scots,‘hingars at lugs’), filigree beads for containing perfume, and her wedding ring (which she leaves to her husband Darnley), there are over 20 sets of jewels composed of necklaces, jewelled headdresses and chains of pearls and other gems. Belts, bracelets and buttons were decorated with combinations of rubies, diamonds and pearls primarily, but also coral, amethysts and garnets.  

Image: Pomander believed to have belonged to Mary Queen of Scots now at Holyrood Palace (Royal Collections Trust). Mary is noted as having gold pomanders embellished with rubies and turquoises in her ‘secret cabinet’. 

Perhaps the most exotic accessories listed are the zibelline furs, so called after the Italian word for sable. The 1566 inventory records eight, made of lynx, sable and ermine. Attached to the furs were embellished heads of gold, jet or glass, for example: 

A sable fur with a gold head and collar with five gold settings in each of which there are three rubies and two diamonds, two rubies in each eye, two pearls hanging from the ears and four gold paws. 

Full Size: Marten's Head
Images of a zibelline or sable fur, Walker Art Museum, Baltimore (licensed under Creative Commons)

Most prized, however, were the seven strings of pearls ‘as large as muscat grapes’, which Mary had received from her mother-in-law Catherine de Medicis. Incarcerated on Lochleven, Mary had made the cardinal error of entrusting her jewels to her half brother the Earl of Moray, who promptly sold the pearls to Elizabeth I at a knock-down price. This was the beginning of the break-up of the collection despite Mary’s attempts to wrest back items she considered to be her private property. 

5 thoughts on “Wardrobe of a Renaissance Queen: Mary’s Clothing Inventories”

  1. I am trying to find an english translation of these inventories. Google translate does NOT do a good job on the Norman or old French words. Can you tell me if such a translation exists and where I could find it?

    1. Hi Nicole,

      Google Translate can be frustratingly inadequate! We would suggest getting in touch with Alison Rosie at National Records Scotland. If she is not able to provide you with translations of the inventories, she will likely be able to point you in the right direction.

      Good luck!
      MQS Project Team

  2. This is wonderful information about Mary Queen .

    Exciting to know how well dressed in jewels and lovely clothes gives us a closer feel to the female Queen.

    These accounts are very interesting .

    I didn’t think I would find out about Mary’s life and her tastes in clothes .
    I really admire the woman .

    Thanks very much for sharing.

    Kindest regards

    J Kenney.

    1. Hi Jacqueline,

      Thank you for your comment!
      We are so glad that you have enjoyed this blog and learning about Mary’s clothes and jewellery has helped you feel closer to this remarkable queen and woman.

      Best wishes,
      MQS Project Team

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