Ermine in the 16th Century
Was Ermine only for Royalty?
There is a wide-spread belief that only royals could wear ermine during the Tudor dynasty. Google it and you will find one of the first things mentioned about Ermine fur is that it was worn only by Royals - more specifically, the King and/or Queen.
What people read on the internet they assume to have been vetted by reputable historians, but one of the first things I figured out when researching is that the resources available by 16th Century enthusiasts, guild leaders, and Renaissance faire sites are often operating on rumor rather than fact. My tender hide can attest to the vehemence with which people defend this belief, even though they’ve never actually taken the time to do any research. It reminds me of the insurance commercial with the pretty, but misinformed, blond who asserts, "They can't put it on the internet if it isn't true."
Despite the numerous assertions, and the abundance of sources I slogged through on the internet that proliferate such claims, the actual Sumptuary Laws during the Tudor Dynasty - at least those I've accessed from the UK - do NOT specify that only royals can wear ermine - at least not in England.
It's my theory that Ermine has become the most identifiable fur associated with the Renaissance, or rather with royalty, in part because of the media attention given it. Television and films have fed us images of the Kings and Queens during Renaissance England wearing white robes with black spots; so much that I believe we now identify Ermine exclusively with royalty, rather than "wealth."
It is true, there WERE restrictions once placed on wearing Ermine in England, but according to those historians who have actually studied the actual documents, they do not mention Ermine during the reign of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Let me segue for a moment and talk bit more about what we call "The Renaissance Era."
The period we call the "Renaissance" actually refers to a cultural movement that began in 1350 AD in Italy, and roughly spanned to 1600. But when we refer to the "Renaissance" for the purposes of reenacting and costuming, the time period is narrowed to the period of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland & France (and Ireland) - which spans a time period of 1509 (when Henry VIII became King) to about 1588, during what was referred to as the Gold Age of Elizabeth's reign. This is the time period usually portrayed at Renaissance faires, at least here in the US.
While ermine was indeed fashionable during the Tudor Dynasty, the fur of the Black Genet (Google a picture!) was in actuality the most desirable fur during that time period - and not ermine. The only film I've seen, so far, that portrayed this fact accurately is the mini-series entitled "Elizabeth R" filmed in the 1970s. But because so much attention has been focused on Ermine, most people - including Renaissance enthusiasts and even costumers - know little to nothing about the Black Genet.
One argument I read from a fellow reenactor when addressing this topic was that, "...restrictions on ermine wasn't included in the Sumptuary Laws because it was an unwritten rule that people just followed without being told to do so." But, I beg to differ, and history does not seem to support that opinion. I will explain why as you read further.
To truly understand some of the clothing restrictions, you have to understand the Sumptuary Laws - or "Statutes of Apparel," the reasons for such statues, and the different social classes of Tudor England.
Stay with me, all of this is relevant to the issue of wearing Ermine!
Sumptuary Laws - More than Just Apparel:
The Sumptuary Laws applied to more than furs and clothing - It also applied to food, drink, furniture, and jewelry.
Clothing in the Renaissance provided an immediate way of distinguishing "who was who" and offered information about the status and wealth of the person wearing them. Clothing communicated both the wealth and social standing of the wearer. As in medieval and Elizabethan times, so it is in our modern society. People - whether or not they can truly afford it - want to dress like the wealthy. This desire is the reason WHY there were Sumptuary laws to begin with!
When and To Whom was Ermine NOT Permitted?
During the reign of Edward III, the Sumptuary laws did list ermine as only to be worn by those of royalty. However, Henry VIII had a new series of laws drafted concerning dress and personal adornment - and he updated the existing "Sumptuary Laws" of Edward III. Henry's eldest daughter, Queen Mary I of England, followed suit with these laws during her reign, as did Elizabeth.
In 1510, not long after Henry VIII ascended to the throne, he enacted stricter Sumpturary Laws. At that time, as in later reigns, there was an ever-increasing problem of poverty and crime. The wearing of costly apparel was regarded both as a cause for poverty and as an occasion for crime. One must consider that a man's suit of clothes to be worn at court would cost as much as a year's wages! But the desire to protect England's industries by prohibiting the use of foreign cloth may also have influenced Parliament to pass the Sumptuary statues of 1510.
Whereas Edward III simply listed what could not be worn, Henry enacts more specific laws of what could be worn by social class and according to one's yearly income; going so far to dictate how much cloth could be used for any gown - which was no less than 4 broad yards. (I haven't yet been able to establish what constitutes a "broad yard" in the 16th Century).
The act of 1510 is a very long one; but a few of the statutes specify that:
"No man 'under the estate of a Duke' shall wear, or use in the trappings of his horses, any 'cloth of gold of tissue.' "
"No one under the estate of an Earl shall wear any 'sables.'"
"No one below the rank of a Baron shall use or wear any cloth of gold, cloth of silver, tinsel satin," or any other 'silk or cloth mixed or embroidered with gold or silver,' upon pain of forfeiting the forbidden apparel and paying a fine.
Such prohibitions can hardly have been vitally necessary, since the prices of these forbidden fabrics were generally so high that only the greatest nobles, the richest merchants, or the royal family could afford to wear them.
For instance, cloth of gold, which was made from fine linen woven with strands of real gold, was said to have sold on an average during the period from 1401 to1582 for 80 shillings a yard. This was an exorbitant price for that time period.
**A quick lesson on currency during the Tudor dynasty: The penny or pence, was the basic unit of currency. Twelve pence made one shilling; and 20 shillings or 240 pence made one pound. 20 shillings in 1509 is the equivalent of $15,180 in USD (U.S. Dollars) as of 2012. Therefore, one yard of cloth of gold would have sold in today's market for the equivalent of $45,540 USD.
Also, in these new statues of 1510, it was forbidden for anyone under the rank of a knight to wear crimson or blue *velvet. Such apparel, if worn, was to be seized by the crown and sold; the profits of which would be split with the crown and the Lord Privy Seal.
*I should point out that there appears to have been two types of velvet: Camlet (a.k.a Silk Velvet), which was made from a blend of silk and camel's fur, or later silk and goat hair. The other was known as Worsted - which was akin to what we call velveteen and made of wool. My research showed that worsted cloth, during the period of Henry VIII, seems to have been considerably cheaper than it had been during the preceding period. Therefore, I think it is safe to conclude that the restrictions apply to "silk velvet" rendered in the two most costly dyes of that time period - which were Crimson and Blue.
When I read this lengthy statute in its entirety, I found evidence that even people who were barely comfortably off financially attempting, on occasion, to try to compete with nobility in magnificence of dress, since persons who possessed an income of less than 20 shillings a year were forbidden to wear satin, damask, silk or camlet (silk velvet) unless they were yeoman of the King's guard, or grooms of the King or Queen's chambers, such a prohibition would hardly have been necessary if some members of the lower class had not been inclined to extravagance in dress - in other words, they were disregarding the Sumputary laws and wearing fabrics and dyes above their social stations.
In Greenwich, on 15 June 1574, Queen Elizabeth enforced new Sumptuary laws called "Statutes of Apparel." Like her sister and father before her, these English Sumptuary Laws were an attempt to maintain control over the population; however, enforcing these laws were extremely difficult, both during Henry's reign as well as Elizabeth's, which led to more and more specific restrictions.
Why did they have these restrictions on apparel and goods?
The Queen/King was believed to be God's representation here on Earth. It was also believed that God had formed the social ranks and showered blessings on each rank. The Sumptuary laws were a means to encourage class distinctions and prohibit the lower classes from over-spending on fine and expensive goods. But what was good for the goose, was not good for the gander. While nobility could wear, and pretty much spend, what they pleased on fine clothing, jewelry, furniture, wine, food, etc., the lower classes were expected to curb their spending on sumptuous items because it was felt these items might strain their finances and make it difficult for them to pay their taxes.
The Parliament regulated the clothes that could be worn by each rank and it was considered a defiance of the order if a laborer wore the clothes of the rich or upper class. They wanted the commoners to save their money in case the King/Queen might need to call upon the people in times of need, but more so to keep to the tradition of separating the classes.
Again, as with the reign of Henry VIII, the Sumptuary Laws of Elizabeth I were a way to encourage order, and maintain the social structure of the Class System which was an integral part of English society in the 16th Century. There were also economical reasons to enforce these laws. As mentioned previously, it discouraged the wearing of foreign fashions, which had become so popular, and it encouraged the English people to purchase goods produced in England to help stimulate the economy and provide jobs. Understand that when Elizabeth-I took over the throne, the country was bankrupted. Her grandfather Henry VII (7th) had been extremely frugal and had amassed a great fortune. If he commanded his subjects to save their money, so did he!! When Henry VIII (8th) took over the throne in 1509, his extravagances became legendary. The English economy suffered greatly during his reign and during Mary's. When Elizabeth took over the country was poor; the English currency had lost its value; and wages for labor had been decreased considerably. It fell to her to try to find ways to raise money for the exchequer, as well as to try to find ways to bolster the strength of English currency.
In discussing the Sumptuary Statutes, it is helpful to understand the Social Classes and their rankings.
The Social Classes & Their Rankings:
While the Sumptuary laws for Henry VIII were incredibly lengthy and detailed, the Elizabethan Sumptuary statutes went even farther than those of her father; dictating more restrictions on what color and type of clothing an individual was allowed to own, as well as wear, according to their social ranking.
To offer a simplified version of the social rank or classes, anyone considered "royalty" included the King, Queen, their children, or the brothers and sisters of the King/Queen. They usually held the rank of Dukes, Duchesses, Viscounts, and Marquesses.
Nobility - These were men who held the rank of an Earl or Baron, and were still at the top of the social ladder. These men were rich and powerful, and had large households. Within the nobility class there was a distinction between old families and new - those granted lands and titles, rather than to inherit them.
Gentry - The Gentry class included knights, squires, gentleman, and gentlemen and gentlewomen who did not work with their hands for a living. This class was made of people not born of noble birth, but were those who by acquiring large amounts of property became wealthy landowners.
Merchant - These were the merchants who supplied food, furniture, wine, fibers - such as wool or linen, etc. This class also included tradesmen who made products for public consumption. This group also probably included innkeepers; they were also known as "citizens."
Yeomanry - This was the "middling" class who saved enough to live comfortably, but who at any moment, through illness or bad luck, might be plunged into poverty. This class included the farmers, tradesmen, and craft workers.
Laborers - These were the day laborers, poor husbandmen, and some retailers who did not own their own land. Artisans, shoemakers, carpenters, brick masons, and all those who worked with their hands belonged to this class of society.
Merchants, Yeomanry, and Laborers were considered to be "commoners." These classes were those without any rank or title.
Members of the "commons" (more likely wealthy merchants and yeoman who were untitled middle class) regularly pushed the limits of what they could afford and what was socially acceptable, because they sought to emulate the nobility, and - like many people today - they were not adverse to great expenditures to appear wealthier than they truly were by dressing "sumptuously."
Since neither Elizabeth, nor her father and sister, listed the wearing of ermine in the Sumptuary statutes suggests that it wasn't an issue that warranted publishing restrictions; because there weren't a great many of the commons wealthy enough to wear it. Usually, when the wearing of furs and other costly apparel was being abused by the commons, THAT was when they were added to the Sumptuary Laws.
I do not believe we can assume that ermine was reserved for royalty during the Tudor dynasty simply because it was restricted in Edward III's time. Costume expert, Bess Chilver, also has pointed out that ermine was not restricted to the royal family, and that people would make their own "fake" ermine from white rabbit fur!
It seems plausible that only the very wealthy could have afforded authentic ermine because white ermine was only available in certain climates and only in the winter. But this is where I believe the confusion has originated. Because those who could afford it were often Royalty and certainly nobility, and those that did wear it were more than likely among the upper classes, it seems logical that an assumption grew out of this fact. The titled nobility, and knights of the gentry class, were always given exemptions to the Sumptuary Laws, or they were awarded permission by paying for the privilege. Perhaps the nobility or wealthy landed gentry did not own full length robes lined in ermine as seen in pictures or paintings of coronation robes worn by royalty, but it seems logical that if they could afford it, and it was in vogue, and it was not listed as restricted in the statutes, they most certainly would have used it in smaller items such as the lining of mantles, or in pouches, collars, cuffs, muffs, and/or sleeves.
The Sumptuary Laws in England during the reign of King Edward III seems to have been the impetus for the erroneous belief that only royalty wore ermine in England during the Tudor dynasty. I think this misunderstanding is due to the fact that it has not been taken into consideration that the Statutes of Edward III were revised by the Tudors; and because authentic ermine was incredibly costly and rare, it was not included in the revised version; therefore, people have simply made assumptions that the restrictions in place during Edward III were still present during the Tudor dynasty.
It bears mentioning that Edward III was King of England from 1327 to 1377. Henry VIII was King of England from 1509 to 1547. A lot changed in the span of 132 years.
More Research on Ermine:
One on-line resource for the Renaissance period that impressed me was the blog site at:
Some of the posts I read on this blog debunked a few of the more troublesome rumors and myths circulating about the Tudor dynasty through the application of facts and logic, as well as research. Addressing the same question about royalty and the wearing of Ermine, one historian on the Tudor History website offered the following explanation:
"I did check the text of the Sumptuary laws of the 24th year of the reign of Henry VIII, the second year of the reign of Mary I, and of October 1559, without finding any specific mention of ermine. The only furs mentioned at all, in fact, are sable, black genet, and "Luzern" (Lynx - Google a picture); all of which were restricted to Dukes, Marquesses, and Earls and their children, or to Viscounts and Barons, but only on their doublets and sleeveless coats."
"Since ermine was not specifically mentioned, its use was probably not subject to abuse, i.e., it was probably seldom worn by those not entitled to do so. And that may be a function of both availability and affordability. Since ermine is produced by a species of stoat related to minks, and only in regions where there is snow on the ground for a minimum of 40 days per year, and the animals has the white color only for the snowy seasons, it is much less common than most other furs. "
"White ermine fur can be harvested only seasonally, whereas sables, for example, remain the same color year-round. Scarcity probably made ermine sufficiently expensive so that even the most audacious "posers" were unable to afford to buy it. I imagine that only the truly wealthy and titled nobility had the financial resources to purchase ermine. Sable, genet, and Lynx were more common; therefore, more affordable, and therefore, more likely to be worn inappropriately by persons of lower status."
Disregarding the Sumptuary Laws for the Sake of Fashion:
In most cases, if you were titled - usually at least a Knight, Baron/Baroness, or higher - you were allowed to wear most sumptuous fabrics and furs, so long as you could afford it, and pay the Sumptuary taxes for such costly apparel, or you had connections that you could call upon to dismiss any penalties that might be levied against you. But the people of the commons, those without title and wealth, would not have worn true ermine; whether or not those among the wealthy merchant class wore it is up for speculation.
Speaking of the wealthy merchants, I beg your indulgence for another little segue! It has been said that the decline in population after the Black Death that a new "wealthy class of commoners," were created; which led to disputes over the Sumptuary laws. However, this is now in dispute by modern day economists who now question that the decline in population would lead to greater wealth of the lower classes. (Read "Economics During the 16th Century Post-Plague" at the end of this section for more information).
In that article the author points out that food shortages led to inflation of prices; therefore, even if there were higher wages, because the cost of food and other goods were so high, people in the commons would not have been better off or had more expendable income.
Now, back to our topic!
One fact that is not in dispute, is that there were commoners (merchants and yeoman class who were untitled but wealthy) who were known to dress the same as the nobility; so much so, that it was impossible to tell them apart from the nobility when walking down the street. The nobility began to complain; therefore, there was a need to keep the lower classes separate from the Upper Classes of the rich Tudor nobility.
To Sum It All Up:
To sum up the topic of Ermine and the Sumptuary Statutes, the logical conclusion I have drawn from the opinions of current historians who have researched this topic, as well as professional costume historians, is that while ermine was expensive and rare, and probably only available to the very rich, it was not commonly worn due to economics rather than due to ones station. It does not appear it was restricted to be worn only by royalty during the Tudor dynasty.