JEWELS, CLOTHING AND INSPIRATION IN QUEEN’S GAMBIT
An object that lies at the heart of QUEEN’S GAMBIT is a diamond cross with pendant pearls that Katherine Parr owned. The object itself has been lost to time but we know it was in Katherine’s possession as it is listed amongst the jewels bequeathed to her in her mother’s will. This cross was sent the Tower of London for safe keeping in the wake of Henry’s death and we know from her letters that though she tried to recuperate it, she never managed to. In the novel I use the cross to symbolise Katherine’s feelings for her lover Thomas Seymour. It is a lost pearl from this cross that he returns to her on the day they first meet in a scene that is fraught with confused erotic emotions. Once she is married to the king she never wears it but carries it with her in a purse as a kind of relic of her lost love, but there is an irony here as this love turns out to be the thing that destroys her – hence the broken pearl. The cross works on a further level too, becoming Katherine’s secret emblem for the New Faith, about which she is passionate, shown in the way she runs it through her fingers like a rosary. Her promotion of the New Faith too is something that endangers her greatly, so this seemingly benign and sentimental object, left to her by her mother, comes to symbolise death and danger. What is particularly satisfying is that we know such a cross actually existed and a little of its true story.
Knowing what people wore also helps in the process of imagining the past. Much can be gleaned from portraiture and deciphering the codes of status that clothing carried: colours denoted allegiance – Katherine Parr’s livery colour was red – and fabrics, class – only royalty had the right to wear purple and the wearing of fur was strictly regulated with the most luxurious reserved for the nobility. There is much that cannot be understood from portraits though and for this knowledge I found the work of tailors who reconstruct period clothing most helpful.
Clothes were layered for warmth in the bitterly cold palaces and fur-lined if you were rich; heads were always covered even indoors and when the women’s cumbersome hoods were set aside they wore just a linen coif, or under-cap. The undergarment worn by everyone was a linen shift, sometimes embroidered on the parts that would show – the neck and cuffs, and nothing was worn beneath that as underpants had not been invented. The cleanliness of linens was of the utmost importance to the Tudors who believed that immersion in water endangered the health. The theory was that the clean linens would absorb all the dirt and odours. Wearing clean linens daily was a sign of status, so if your cuffs and collar were snowy white you were clearly someone of consequence. Over their shifts women wore a petticoat and over that a kirtle, with a stiff stomacher, full skirt and sometimes a train. Sleeves were detachable, and richly embroidered pairs were often given as gifts. Over all this might go a gown – a garment like a long, shaped coat with wide sleeves to allow the under-sleeves to show. The aforementioned coif would be worn under the hood. Katherine Parr preferred the French hood, which showed the front of the hair and was like a wide jewelled hairband that curved over the ears with a veil hanging behind. Clothes were exceedingly expensive and were often handed down and adapted, so the Queen’s ladies might, if they were lucky, be given her cast-offs to alter for themselves.
Like the diamond cross, I have used clothing on a symbolic level in QUEEN’S GAMBIT. The detailed descriptions of fabrics and colours and the scenes in which Katherine is being dressed allow us to see in detail the mechanics of the clothing she wore for state occasions. For example it takes two women to heave her wedding dress, embellished with ‘as many brilliants as there are stars in the sky,’ from the wardrobe, but once it is on her maid remarks that Katherine seems to not even notice its weight. She wears pieces of jewelry that blister her skin and her hood is so heavily bejewelled that it is a wonders she can hold her head upright once it is on. The effect I have hoped to create is one in which the apparel is like a prison, limiting her movement and blemishing the surface of her as if the clothes themselves are a punishment. But these are the trappings of a queen and she more than anyone understands that in order to hold onto her position she must appear as a queen, despite the extreme discomfort.
The Tudor Tailor by Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies & Katherine the Queen: the Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr by Linda Porter