Saturday, 14 May 2016

Spot samplers and Elizabeth of York

This entry in The Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York is the first mention in history of the embroidered sampler.

Paid to one Thomas Fisshe, July, 1502
‘For an elne of lynnyn (linen) cloth for a sampler for the Quene viij d…’

Whilst no English samplers survive from this time we do know that in Elizabeth’s day, samplers, or examplars, were put together as personal reference works for embroiderers: trials of patterns and stitches which had been copied from others, records of particular effects achieved which could be recreated again. They would have been the work, not of children, but of more experienced embroiderers.

They were the Renaissance equivalent of a journal, scrapbook or Pinterest Board that many of us use to record ideas that we come across.


When female literacy was limited, a woman may not have had a quill and paper readily available for recording stitches and motifs or sketching out a design. Scraps of linen and thread, however, were always at hand for women who spent much of their time sewing decorative and utilitarian items. Hence the spot sampler was born.


Renaissance ladies spent considerable time embroidering embellishments to garments, accessories such as purses, and household linens and furnishings. These items might be for her own use, for the use of her family members, or to give as gifts.

If a lady admired a pattern on another's garment she would record it on her sampler so that she could reproduce it on a garment of her own.

Maybe she had her own idea for an interesting or meaningful emblem to stitch onto her household textiles, and needed to ‘jot it down’ with needle and thread lest she forget it.


She could practise a new stitch on her sampler, recording how to stitch it for future reference. She could share it with a friend over the embroidery frame or hoop, maybe even on a jointly-worked project.

The spot sampler, a collection of random motifs stitched with oddments of thread onto a spare piece of linen, served all of these purposes, and was an invaluable needlework resource. It was portable, it could be personalized, and as long as space permitted, it could be updated over and over.


Elizabeth of York is probably best known as the mother of Henry VIII, and bride of Henry VII. She was born the daughter of Elizabeth Wydville (the "common" bride) and King Edward IV. The period between her father's death in 1483, when she was 17, and her marriage in 1486 was a violent and anxious interlude in what was mostly a peaceful life. Her younger brothers, Edward and Richard, are the mysterious Princes in the Tower.

Her uncle Richard III was defeated by Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485 . Henry VII and Elizabeth  married in 1486 and their marriage symbolically brought an end to the Wars of the Roses and was responsible for the creation of the Tudor Rose- the joining of the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster.


Of Elizabeth and Henry's seven children, four survived childhood: Arthur, Margaret, Henry and Mary.

Henry and Elizabeth seem to have been genuinely happy and affectionate together. There are no reports of him having mistresses and after she died he did not marry again, though he considered several possible successors. Elizabeth had no appetite for politics, and she was evidently easy-going enough not to quarrel with Henry’s doting and managing mother, the Lady Margaret Beaufort, who had given birth to him at the age of thirteen.

There is a contemporary account of their mutual grief and comforting of each other over Prince Arthur’s premature death in 1502 which is extremely touching. She is reported to have told him then, ‘God is where he was, and we are both young enough.’ They must have hoped the new baby, from whose birth she did not recover, might help to make up for their loss.

Elizabeth died in 1503 on her 37th birthday. Although Henry had a reputation for thrift he gave her a splendid funeral. She lay in state at the Tower of London and was interred at Westminster Abbey

She and her husband lie together in the chapel he had built at the Abbey. Nearby are buried Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, Henry and Elizabeth's granddaughter and great-granddaughter respectively.


Elizabeth was the first Tudor Queen and is the only woman to be a daughter, sister, niece, wife and mother to English kings. All the English and British monarchs from her son Henry VIII onwards are her descendants. Her daughters were Queens of France and Scotland.

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