Robes of estate

Like many costumers who have made Elizabethan costume I have long admired the coronation gown of Elizabeth shown in the surviving panel painting of around 1600. And like many I enjoyed, but questioned, how it was shown in the movie Elizabeth. So for some time I have intended to do some research into the gown and attempt to draw together some of the information that is available about it and perhaps attempt a more accurate presentation of it.

Elizabeth's coronation portrait C. 1600

I’m going to begin with the documentary information that I have been able to find and then move onto looking at details from the portrait itself.

Documentary Evidence

Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d – Janet Arnold

Luckily for me a great deal of this work has been done for me already by Janet Arnold in this wonderful book. In fact there is an entire chapter about Elizabeth’s ceremonial garments including this one. Its a bit messed up with details that I’m not terribly interested in so I’m simply going to outline the main points that I garnered from her discussion (mostly pages 52 – 57). I’m also not interested in the mantle at all so I won’t include anything to do with that.

  • Page 52: the gown is a kirtle, which was worn by Queen Mary at her coronation but Elizabeth had it altered and it was given a new bodice and sleeves. In the panel painting it is possible to detect that the bodice/sleeve and mantle fabrics are different but not enough of the skirt is shown to show whether that also is different.
  • Page 52: there are two versions of the coronation portrait – a panel painting which is the most commonly pictured and also a miniature. Both are copies from post 1600. The miniature is by Nicholas Hilliard.
  • Page 52: “Four yards of material, approximately eighteen inches wide, would have been enough to make the new close fitting bodice with its high neck and long sleeves.”
  • Page 53: eye witness account: Il Schianoya – “a royal robe of very rich cloth of gold with a double-raised stiff pile, and on her head over a coif of gold beneath which was her hair, a plain gold crown without lace, as a princess, but covered in jewels and nothing in her hands but gloves.”
  • Page 53: the ermine lining was altered in 1570-71 which may have been when the miniature was painted.
  • Page 55: the kirtle sleeves fit closely and are plain (unadorned).
  • Page 55: the kirtle bodice point is quite long and actually a little longer in the panel painting than in the miniature. (Janet says that the length is appropriate for the time-period of the coronation – 1559).
  • Page 56: the skirt is pleated and quite “springy” due to the metal content of the cloth of gold. Its supported by a Spanish farthingale (cone shaped) “with small padded rolls”.
  • Page 57: there are double ruffs that sit very high around the face.
  • Page 57: the bodice opens centre front revealing a line of ermine “very clearly in an almost unbroken line” – the mantle cords conceal a bit in the panel painting.

Janet also has the inventory record that pertains to this kirtle in the appendices of this book: page 255:
“[2A] Item one kirtle of the same tissue the traine and skirts furred with powdered Armyons the rest lyned with sarceonet with a paire of bodies and sleeves the same”.

From page 371 – the glossary:

“Sarsenet, Sarceonet
– ‘sarcenet, a thinne kind of taffeta’ (M). A light-weight silk frequently used for linings…”

I went in search of a bit more information about kirtles as they can come in a wide range of styles.
Page 120 “Kirtles made for Elizabeth seem to have had fitted bodices cut separately from the skirt with a waist seam.
to Walter Fyshe our Taylour… a rounde kirtle with bodies laysed with a lase of blak and russet silke very thicke cutt and turned in double lyned with buckram borderid with buckeram and sarceonett about the skirts lyned with cotton in ye pleites the bodies made of black satten…

These two quotes I interpret to indicate that:

  • there is cotton padding in the skirt pleats
  • the bodice is interlined with two layers of buckram (stiffened canvas)
  • there is also buckram about the borders of the skirts to stiffen the edges
  • the bodice is lined with sarceonet

Patterns of Fashion – Janet Arnold

Of course Patterns of Fashion is an old standard when it comes to 16th century costume. I didn’t find much in here to add except the interesting silk fringing on the lower edge of the petticoat of Pfalzgrafin von Neuberg to protect the folded hem from wear. It would also assist in stiffening the hemline as the buckram edging noted above.

Visual observations from the panel painting

Skirt The skirt is pleated in large, well padded flat pleats. It is impossible to tell whether the skirt opens at the front but as its a kirtle this is unlikely. Skirt, waist, detail
Bodice The bodice comes to a long point.

It closes in the front and there is fur (ermine) showing at the closure which we can see goes all the way up to the neckline (as shown by the red arrows).

The bodice is very smooth suggesting a corset or significant boning or other stiffening.

Bodice detail
Sleeves The sleeves are long and have quite long turned back cuffs which show the ermine lining.

They appear to be unadorned and fitted to the arm, although most of the arm from the mid-forearm is hidden.

 Right sleeve detail Left sleeve (cuff) detail
Ruffs The ruffs are doubled at the neckline but singles at the wrists.

There also appears to be a flat layer of the ruff fabric that sits ‘underneath’ the ruff i.e. between the ruff and the gown.

The ruffs are white, semi-transperant and edged with gold. The neck ruff is forced up very high around Elizabeth’s face – right up to her ears.

Ruff detail
Other details There is no sign of the coif beneath the crown mentioned in the eye-witness report above.

Elizabeth wears a rich collar high beneath the ruff as well as the matching chain and girdle. She is also wearing three rings.

Design Conclusions

Based on the above we can now make some conclusions about the form of this gown and the appropriate accessories.

  • The bodice is high-necked and comes to a long straight point. It does up at the centre-front with hooks and eyes. It is inter-lined with two layers of buckram and lined with sarceonett (from the inventory record) which is very similar to modern lining, except that its made of silk. Despite this there is ermine showing at the join (in the two paintings) which suggests an ermine edging trim.
  • The sleeves are long, probably reaching to the first knuckles when turned down, and probably unadorned. The cuffs were worn turned back to expose ermine lining. Despite this the inventory record shows that it is lined with sarceonett so again the ermine is probably just at the edge. (Also sleeves fitted that close to the arm fully lined with fur would be very uncomfortable).
  • The skirts were fully lined with ermine, which together with the very heavy, stiff fabric probably was sufficient of itself to give the flat pleats their padded appearance. The skirt was trained, probably for several yards given contemporary illustrations of Elizabeth’s other ceremonial gowns (e.g. the garter painting). The skirts probably don’t open in the front.
  • A chemise or shirt worn under the kirtle has a double ruff at the neck and single ruffs at the wrists both with a flat supporter between the gown and ruff. The ruffs are white fine stuff (silk organza?) and edged with gold.
  • The kirtle is entirely unadorned so as to shift the focus onto the fabulous cloth of gold.

Although this started as primarily a research project I am going to try to put these conclusions into practice and create a kirtle much like the Robes of Estate.