Thursday, 30 June 2016

Historic Clothing at Westminster Abbey

Costume historians now have a unique opportunity to study the treasury of historic clothing adorning the funeral effigies in Westminster Abbey, London. The figures are currently being completely undressed and taken apart for conservation work before they are moved from the old crypt museum to the new museum being built.

The oldest effergies were made to be displayed at the funerals of monarchs, when elaborate ceremonies weeks or even months after the death made the old custom of displaying the real body on a bier in the funeral procession impossible.

The custom was copied by aristocrats, some commissioning their own flattering and very expensive effigies in life, to be displayed dressed in their own most sumptuous clothes.


Near King Charles II stands “la Belle Stuart”; Frances, Duchess of Richmond, who ordered that her wax effigy, dressed in her coronation robes, be set up in Henry VII's chapel near the grave of Ludovic Stuart, cousin of James I, and his wife Frances. She died on 15 October 1702 and was buried in the Duke of Richmond's vault in Henry VII's chapel. Her husband (d.1672) had been buried there but neither have monuments or gravestones. Frances had intended the wax figure, modelled by Mrs Goldsmith, to be her memorial.

Beside her wax effigy stood her pet African grey parrot on a stand. It is said to have lived with her for 40 years and died soon after her. Very few mounted bird specimens survive from this period but x-rays show that the entire skeleton of the bird is intact including its skull. This was a very primitive technique but the parrot probably survived because it was kept in a showcase

Most of the effigies have crudely modelled wooden or straw stuffed cloth legs, since they would never be seen under the layers of clothing, but La Belle Stuart's slender ankles and calves, dressed in two layers of silk stockings, were modelled in wax.


The costume collection is of international importance, and includes exceptionally rare surviving underwear including the chamois leather trimmed corset of Elizabeth I, a tiny corset made for a four-year-old boy, and the five layers of petticoats and sky blue gold embroidered corset that Frances proved to be wearing.


Charles' effergy was dressed in a flowing crimson and blue velvet garter robe, and a blue silk doublet and breeches interwoven with real gold thread, heavily embroidered in silver and trimmed with flounces of silver lace. Even the fringe of silk ribbons is regarded as being of importance by the costume historians, and only one other comparable suit is known, in Scotland.

The effigies dating back to the 14th century have carved wooden heads, but the later figures were startlingly realistic, modelled in wax with glass eyes and real eyelashes and eyebrows.

The figures include Henry VII, Elizabeth I, Charles II, William and Mary, and William Pitt. The last installed was Admiral Lord Nelson, an audacious attempt by the abbey to claw back some of the tourist trade lost to St Paul’s, where he was actually buried.


The most poignant is the little Marquess of Normanby, who died aged three in 1715, and whose effigy was dressed in sumptuous clothes including a Spitalfields silk gown and a peach velvet coat – both tailored with slits in the back to take the leading reins he was still wearing. His tiny clothes were the height of fashion for his day.

The effigies became a major tourist attraction for visitors who paid pennies to see them, but as they became dustier and shabbier they were moved into more obscure corners of the abbey, until by the 19th century they were known as “the Ragged Regiment”. There was some restoration work in the 1930s. During the war they were moved for safekeeping to the incongruous surroundings of Piccadilly tube station.



Frances Teresa (Stuart), Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, known as 'La Belle Stuart' was born in 1647, the daughter of Walter Stuart (a distant relative of the royal house of Stuart) and his wife Sophia. She was brought up in France and after the Restoration came to England with her mother and was appointed maid of honour to Catherine of Braganza, queen of Charles II.

Samuel Pepys, the diarist, recorded that she was the greatest beauty he had ever seen. The King was so besotted with her that he considered divorcing Catherine to marry her but Frances had already accepted the proposal of Charles Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox (as his third wife). She eloped with him, much to the fury of the King, and they were married privately in March 1667.

cast of a medal by John Roettier, silver medal, 19th century (circa 1667)
cast of a medal by John Roettier, silver medal, 19th century (circa 1667)

Following the war with the Dutch, Charles had a commemorative medal cast, in which her face was used as a model for Britannia; this subsequently became customary for medals, coins and statues. Thus, a Scottish woman graced not only medals commemorating a naval victory, but also the coinage of the Realm.


She continued to appear on some of the copper coinage of the United Kingdom until the decimalization of the currency in 1971. She also appeared on the fifty pence piece in 2006.

In  1669 the King's infatuation with Frances was again demonstrated when she became seriously ill with smallpox. Charles rushed to her bedside and forgave her for marrying without his consent. She recovered, and the King allowed the Queen to appoint her a Lady of the Bedchamber. At this point the relationship between Frances and the King changed to one of friendship. Charles had fallen for the charms of Nell Gwynne.

The duchess was present at the birth of James Francis Edward Stuart, son of James II, in 1688, being one of those who signed the certificate before the council. James’s enemies later developed an elaborate theory that a live newborn from another mother had been slipped into Mary of Modena’s bed in a warming pan to replace her own stillborn child and to be presented as the male heir to the throne.

After the death of her husband in the 1670's, and without children or a male heir, Frances' husband's estates reverted back to the King. He continued to be her good friend and granted her a 1000-pound pension per year for life. Before she died in 1702 Frances arranged to purchase the estate of Lethington, south of Haddington in the Lammermuir Hills of East Lothian, Scotland.


In memory of her title as Duchess of Lennox she requested the estate's name to be changed to Lennoxlove. Today it continues as a memorial to her. Her portrait by W. Wissing and J.Van der Vaart hangs in a place of honour in the manor house. The blue eyes still flash in her beautiful face, capturing the hearts of all who pass by.


While the King surrounded himself with a bevy of mistresses throughout his life, most historians see Frances, the “one who got away”, as the one love interest who truly broke his heart. During his pursuit of her, Charles wrote her the love poem:

“The Pleasures of Love”:

I pass all my hours in a shady old grove,
But I live not the day when I see not my love;
I survey every walk now my Phyllis is gone,
And sigh when I think we were there all alone,
Oh, then ‘tis I think there’s no Hell
Like loving too well.

But each shade and each conscious bower when I find
Where I once have been happy and she has been kind;
When I see the print left of her shape on the green,
And imagine the pleasure may yet come again;
Oh, then ‘tis I think that no joys are above
The pleasures of love.

While alone to myself I repeat all her charms,
She I love may be locked in another man’s arms,
She may laugh at my cares, and so false she may be,
To say all the kind things she before said to me!
Oh then ‘tis, oh then, that I think there’s no Hell
Like loving too well.

But when I consider the truth of her heart,
Such an innocent passion, so kind without art,
I fear I have wronged her, and hope she may be
So full of true love to be jealous of me.
Oh then ‘tis I think that no joys are above
The pleasures of love.

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