Dressed to Be Killed: Some Tudor Execution Wear

Those of high estate who ran afoul of the government in Tudor England had a final decision to make: what to wear for their last day on the public stage–that is, at the scaffold. While the final speeches of the condemned were often recorded, observers were generally less inclined to note the deceased’s final fashion choice. Nonetheless, here are a few of the descriptions that have come down to us (when and if I find more, I’ll post a sequel):

Anne Boleyn: The various accounts mention either a gray or black gown, over which Anne wore a mantle of ermine, and a gable hood. The Spanish Chronicle adds the detail that Anne wore a red damask skirt and a netted coif over her hair, though another account states that one of Anne’s ladies handed her a linen cap into which she bundled her hair after she removed her hood. See Eric Ives, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn and Alison Weir, The Lady in the Tower, both of which list the various sources for Anne’s execution. Weir’s book quotes from a number of these sources. (For more on the red skirt, see here.)

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland: The Chronicle of Queen Jane reports that he wore a gown of “crane-colored” damask, which he removed after mounting the scaffold and before making his speech to the crowd. (One report states that Northumberland’s executioner wore a white apron.)

Lady Jane Grey: According to The Chronicle of Queen Jane, she wore the same gown that she had worn to her arraignment: a black gown of cloth, turned down, with a velvet-lined cape. If she also wore the same headdress to her execution that she had worn to her arraignment, it was an all-black French hood. No red skirts here!

Mary, Queen of Scots: John Guy in his biography Queen of Scots describes her attire in great detail: a white linen veil; a gown of thick black satin. “Trimmed with gold embroidery and sable, it was peppered with acorn buttons and of jet, set with pearl.” Mary also wore slashed sleeves, over inner sleeves of purple velvet, suede shoes, and “sky-blue stockings embroidered with silver thread and held up by green silk garters.” She carried an ivory crucifix and a Latin prayer book. On her girdle was a string of rosary beads with a golden cross. She wore a medallion “bearing the image of Christ as the Lamb of God.” Underneath she wore a petticoat of tawny velvet and an inner bodice of tawny satin, which Guy describes as the color of “dried blood; the liturgical color of martyrdom in the Roman Catholic Church.” Famously, she was also wearing an auburn wig.

10 thoughts on “Dressed to Be Killed: Some Tudor Execution Wear”

  1. Not that I necessarily enjoy reading about executions, however I do find it interesting when we read about what people would choose to wear at their execution. I always found David Starkey's description of Mary Queen of Scots' flair for dramatics and from his recounting it sounds she was using this until the very last.

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    Elizabeth, I agree, it is interesting! Sort of like hearing what modern-day inmates being executed choose as their last meals.

    Courtaud, good question! The term isn't really heard much in current usage as far as I know. I think what the observer meant was the color of a crane's feathers, sort of a grayish white.

  3. I think I have found it: on "An Introduction to English Liturgical Colours" is said "Crane-colour is the hue of the common crane, or in some cases, perhaps, of the heron, which is locally called a crane. In either case it is a bluish grey." Liturgically was considered a variation of black.

    Sure Northumberland loved the color: he also had a crane colored taffetas doublet – as I learned in this blog 🙂

  4. It might sound silly, but I've always been surprised at Anne Boleyn wearing gray – it just seems a colour she wouldn't wear – although of course I'd have no way of knowing whether she'd wear gray or not! :>

  5. Northumberland's crane-colored doublet was in the inventory of his goods after his death but by then was already sold to someone else.
    "Item a doblet of crane colored Taphata pinked solde to Mr White"
    Weren't all the sufferer's clothes given to the executioner? Anne's clothes were removed before the burial.

  6. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Kathryn!

    Anjere, it doesn't sound like her usual color choice, that's for sure!

    Courtaud, I should have re-read my own blog! I imagine anything he wore on the scaffold would have gone to the executioner.

  7. Lol, so the Bergamo version of Donizetti's Anna Bolena (with Dmitra Theodossiu) and the London Opera Colisuem performance of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda (with Dame Janet Baker as Mary) got those dresses almost right. 🙂

    (I love me opera DVDs, I really do.)

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