Woven Threads Podcast Episode Two


There are many portraits of Queen Elizabeth in many houses and museums around England. She was up until recently the longest standing monarch of Britain, the wearer of magnificent clothes, lover of theatre, a woman of power and a woman who liked her bling. Of all the portraits of Queen Elizabeth one of my favourites is of her as a young princess. She looks young and she looks out at the viewer with a knowing gaze, holding a book in her hand, and her dress is made of a beautiful and intricate reddish pink cloth. But it's her jewellery that I really like. She is wearing two strings of pearls, one that drops into her bodice, and one that is shorter with a pendant hanging with three drop pearls hanging from that. This necklace is typical of the types of jewellery we see on royalty in the 16th century, and looking at this portrait got me thinking about this craft of jewellery making that has been around for centuries. My name is Jess I am so happy that you are here joining me on my latest exploration through the glitz and shiny world of 16th century jewellery.

Hello and welcome to Woven threads. This is the show exploring craft craftsmen & women and culture. This is part two of three episodes in this set about Elizabethan 16th century crafts, and in this our second episode we will be exploring the art of jewellery. Have you ever wondered about the elaborate jewellery that you can see in paintings from this time? Where did the designs come from? What can we learn about the people from the accessories they wore. Let's find out.

Jewellery has been worn for centuries for a few reasons, the most common being functional, to generally fix clothing or hair in place, or to mark social status. Jewellery in the tudor times was the same, and people wore jewellery for both functional reasons and to express their status.It was only the nobility that could afford to buy jewellery, most of which was designed especially for the person buying it, whereas for the poor people of the country wooden beads were more commonly worn. For the upper classes, they didn't really know the meaning of subtle in the 16th century. I imagine one of the royal ladies contemplating their look in the morning and saying to their servants “I think it just needs more, cover me in everything we have”.

You can’t really start to look at Elizabeth's jewellery without referring to her parents. As part of our schooling here in the UK you can't get away from the Tudors, and I never wanted to if I’m honest. I always loved the intrigue and drama, and you can’t get much more dramatic than the big guy, Henry the 8th. He loved everything big and showy and delighted in wooing his many wives with jewellery. Someone should have told them not to be sucked in, as it probably wouldn't work out well for them, but ladies love their bling I guess.

When he decided that he wanted to get rid of his first wife and try getting an heir with the charismatic Anne Boylyn, He started giving her many gifts including jewellery. In his first letter he wrote to her he included a bracelet with his picture set into it. Over the following year his personal Goldsmith and jeweller, billed his majesty for over 30 items for “mistress anne” costing almost £100. The national archives website has a cool currency converter which can tell you how much it would be worth in today's money, and in the 1530s £100 would be roughly worth £44,000 in today's money. So he was serious in his gift giving, he was preparing her to be Queen and to look like one.

One of the famous jewellery traditions that we can see from various depictions of Anne Boylyn, are initial pendants. I think most of us would be familiar with the famous “B” necklace and have seen it inspiring many modern day designs. When I went down the rabbit hole to find out more about it though I came across something interesting concerning one of the famous artists of that time. The portrait painter Hans Holbein was a prominent painter in Europe in the 16th century and became Henry's chief artist in 1536 having found favor with the power family of the Bolyns earlier. One of the cool things I discovered when looking into Annes jewellery was that Holbein actually designed jewellery for Henry as well as painting portraits of the court. In the british museum are drawings taken from what is known as ‘The Jewellery Book’, a book found in King Henrys possession after he died. In it are many drawings of different things Holbein designed for the king, like book covers and boxes, but also jewellery. Specifically he designed a pendant for Anne with the initials A and H intertwined.

Initial Pendants were a very popular love token that 16th century wooers would gift to each other, what better way to show how you feel about your partner in life than to wear their initial combined with yours. Holbein's designs are really beautiful intricate pieces of metal with jewels and I can imagine they were very striking when worn by the various queens. Despite being a favourite of Anne Boylyn, Holbein managed to stay in favor with the king when he turned against Anne, and designed pieces of jewellery for his next queen Jane Seymour.Holbein also worked on designs for many other members of the court and designed trinkets and jewels, many decorated with lover’s knots, that were meant to be given as private gifts. A number of the pieces he designed are decorated with mysterious initials and ciphers, which still intrigue scholars and can only suggest the drama and scandals of the court of Henry VIII.

In the end all this jewellery didn’t mean that the relationship would last and Anne was the first wife that Henry beheaded, on charges of treason, adultery, insest and essentially not being able to give Henry the son he wanted in time. It was customary to make and remake pieces of jewellery for the next Tudor sovereign and in Anne’s case; items specific to her would have been almost immediately broken up. Even so, As Eric Ives writes in his book “The life and death of Anne Boylyn” Henry bought back a gold bowl ‘having Queen Anne’s sapphire upon the top of the cover’ and his post-mortem inventories included a dust bowl of gold (for blotting ink) with a crown on the lid and ‘H’ and ‘A’ in enamel’ .Ives goes on to describe how Henry also kept a tablet of gold bearing the monogram ‘HA’ set with small emeralds, pearls and one diamond.

Now dear listeners is the perfect time for a loo break or to grab a cup of tea

Musical Interlude

Elizabeth was only two and a half when her mum died, her dad said she was illegitimate (charming) and she was raised away from the court. It was only in 1543 that Henry reconciled with Elizabeth and her older half sister Mary, and added them back into the succession after their brother Edward, Around a year later a family Mural was painted in Hampton court palace that included both of the girls. Elizabeth stands to the right of the king and she is clearly wearing an “A” initial pendant that had belonged to her mum, strung on a string of pearls. She would have been around 10 years old at this time, and I wonder how many of Anne's jewels had found their way to her. In the portrait that I spoke about earlier is of her at around 13/14 years old. Her necklace here is again pearls and the pendant has three drop pearls hanging from it, very similar to the famous B necklace that is seen in the portrait of Anne. Some historians hypothesize that it may have been the same pearls reworked from Annes necklace into Elizabeths. I like the idea of her hanging onto her mum's jewellery and trying to keep it close.

This portrait was probably painted for her father and with it being done only three years after she was added back into the succession it's clear that the painter wanted to make a statement with the painting and also what she wore. The fabric is luxurious and was only allowed to be worn by the king and his relatives. That combined with the rich jewelry definitely adds a royal air to this painting, as if they were trying to highlight the fact that she was a princess despite not really being called one up until this point.

Jewellery was a great way, especially in portraits to highlight status, the bigger the prominence the bigger the jewels. Elizabeth really knew the power of image and used it well as she became queen to highlight different parts of her queenly self. Pearls as we said before were a favourite of her mum, but were often used by Elizabeth to symbolize purity and chastity as she portrayed the image of the Virgin Queen.

Much of her jewellery was given to her as gifts by her courtiers. One of her favourites, Robert Dudley, started the ritual of welcoming the queen to his country house with the gift of a jewel, and of presenting Elizabeth with another jewel as a keepsake on her departure. The queen’s progresses - her summer visits to the houses of the nobility - became an important source of new jewels. She also liked to give jewellery, and had portrait miniatures of herself created for her courtiers as gifts. These pendants were crafted into intricately carved cameo portraits or exquisitely painted miniatures. Nicholas Hilliard was the leading miniaturist of his day and was the goldsmith to the Queen. These pieces were decorated on both sides with gold work, various motifs, enamel and gems; while the rings were set with hard stone cameos and were much simpler so could be produced more easily and in larger quantities. As a powerful political figure Elizabeth was often being courted for marriage, and she gave nicknames to her suitors. When she was being courted by the duke of Alencon, in france, she affectionately referred to him as her frog. Due to this she was given many jewelled frogs during this period, because of course what better way to tease your mate than to get them a bejewelled item to remind them of your crush.

During this period, three-dimensional pendants, intricate ultra-long chains, and baroque pearl jewellery were all really popular. Baroque pearls were pearls of irregular size and shape, not perfectly round, and were often used in Elizabethan jewellery. Elizabeth loved them and even paid the well-known pirates John Hawkins and Francis Drake to raid the Spanish fleet in search of pearls and bring the spoils back to her. Pendants included designs of all types of animals, ships and cupids. They often were symbolic and told a story. Both pendants and chains were often enameled, which if you are not familiar looks a little bit like the metal has been painted with nail varnish. This combined with the beautiful jewels ensured that subtle these pieces were not. Since the collars on clothes were high and there was minimal bare skin, jewels were designed to pop from the rich fabrics of the fashions, worn either over the collars, in the hair, or sewn into dresses.

Rings were popular as well, and although carved cameo and signet rings were worn, the most worn style was a posy ring. It is not surprising that these posy, or poetry, rings engraved with verse and declarations of love, friendship and religious messages were described in at least two of Shakespeare’s plays. Posy rings date back to the 14th century, with early 16th century versions featuring bands engraved with flowers and other patterns of love, faith and loyalty, and inscribed with a motto. Later, posies were of simpler design - plain bands inscribed with sayings engraved on the inside.

Earrings also became very fashionable in the late 15th century, shorter hair was more in style and ladies weren’t wearing the big headdresses that they had done before which gave more opportunity to show them off. They were also fashionable with men, and there are some fabulous portraits of the leading men of the day such as Sir walter raleigh, an explorer and another of Elizabeth's favourites, wearing one earring in the left ear. One of the paintings of him in the National Portrait gallery shows him showing off a large baroque pearl hanging jauntily from his left ear.

As we mentioned earlier a lot of jewellery was passed down and then remade over time, we do not have a lot of examples of jewellery from this time period left. But on one special day in the year 1915 a load of builders found a stash of jewellery in a cellar when they were demolishing a building built in the 1600s. A jeweller had lived in that building 300 years previously and had buried a collection of jewellery, probably sometime during the English Civil wars. The collection was named the cheapside hoard and is the greatest collection of Elizabethan and early Stuart jewellery in the world. It teaches us not only about the style that was popular at that time but also the incredible skill and craftsmanship that went into creating them. My mind boggles when I look at the tiny intricate metal work thinking of the jewellers that worked on these pieces, using techniques that are still used today.

Jewellery was a way that Elizabeth portrayed an image of herself to the world, to highlight the aspects of her image she wanted people to remember, but jewellery has always been brilliantly sentimental, often representing and reminding us of people we love and special times. I don't think that was any different for Elizabeth. When I look at portraits of her wearing jewelry that possibly belonged to or was very similar to her mums it makes me a little bit sad, but i like to think in my romantic way that it was a connection for her to the people she loved just like it is for us.

Although we have focused on women mostly this episode we know that jewellery amongst men was also fashionable. One of my favourite accessories that men rocked back then was the single earring, and none so better than William Shakespeare. We can’t take a dive into Elizabethan era and not pay tribute to a massive part of the culture back then but also in the UK today, theatre. Why has Shakespeare stayed so popular? When did the theatre culture in the UK begin? Join us next time on Woven Threads, and in the meantime I hope you have a great few weeks lovelies.

Be sure to check out the blog post for this episode at and subscribe to the podcast on whatever podcast platform you use. I’d be grateful if you could leave a review, and share it with anyone you think would enjoy it. If you have any thoughts on today’s episode, or topics you’d like me to further touch on, email me at Thanks again. See you next time.


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