Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Question from Nanette - Sumptuary laws for ermine

Question: who and who couldn’t wear ermine in Tudor times?

I’m curious about any specific sumptuary laws stating who and who couldn’t wear ermine in Tudor times.

To begin, I always thought only royalty could wear ermine, but I noticed that in a painting of the Duke of Norfolk (Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn’s uncle), Hans Holbein shows him wearing ermine. A picture of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, has her in ermine as well.

That being the case that aristocrats could also wear ermine, I was wondering if wealthy citizens (who were not nobly titled) could do so too if they can afford it? Anyone know? Or were there laws forbidding that in Henry VIII’s time?


PhD Historian said...

Parliamentary robes for members of the House of Lords have traditionally incorporated ermine (or its look-alike stand-in, miniver) trim since at least the 14th century. The number of ermine/miniver stripes on the right shoulder is a visual signifier for their titular rank. Dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons are all entitled to wear ermine, as are their children.

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), 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 animal has the white color only for the snowy season, 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.

PhD Historian said...

By the way, regarding the Hoblein portrait of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, Howard is wearing luzern/lynx, not ermine. Ermine is a short-haired fine fur, and the black spots are actually the tips of the animals' tails stitched on to the fur. Lynx, on the other hand, is a long-haired coarser fur and has natural spotting within the fur itself, exactly as seen in the portrait.

Unknown said...

Is the supposed portrait of Mary Boleyn is she wearing ermine ? Or does the painting depict another member of the royal family ?