Elizabethan makeup

Category : Blog, Elizabeth, History Channel, TV · No Comments Oct 24th, 2011

If your partner thinks you take a long time getting made up in the morning, you might like to point to the example of Elizabeth I!

I spent Friday learning all about this lengthy process, with Sally Pointer (www.sallypointer.com), author of The Artifice of Beauty, who has years of experience in reproducing historic cosmetics, for a new series on historical biographies for the History Channel (Canada), being made by Proper TV.

First, we explored how the young Elizabeth I created her image. Wanting to look pure and virginal, she favoured a natural, alabaster look. To make her skin pale, she used the best quality ingredients around, namely, white lead and vinegar. Sally brought real white lead with her – I’m sniffing it here, it smelt awful! – but in the interests of health and safety, we used reproduction lead on our model’s face (an actress and interpreter from Past Pleasures).

Elizabeth I also often used egg white to glaze her face, which helped hide wrinkles and gave her a smooth complexion. It also acted like a Renaissance botox, because it became impossible for her to move her face! It was also quite the thing to paint on blue veins, so as to make the skin look that much more transparent.

Recent research at the National Portrait Gallery has suggested that portraits like the Darnley painting of 1572 don’t show us an accurate picture of Elizabeth I, because the pigments of her rosy cheeks have faded, making her appear more ghostly than she would have been.

Instead, Sally explained that Elizabeth used crushed cochineal bettles for rouge, which was spread over the whole cheek and not just brushed along the cheekbones. The same cochineal was used for the lips. We still use a derivative from cochineal (carminic acid) in our cosmetics.

The Elizabeth look also demanded using lampblack to create dramatic dark eyebrows. The Elizabethans didn’t use mascara (or apparently, kohl), which surprised me, and explains their wide-eyed look.

Of course, Elizabeth’s use of lead did not do her face any favours. It ate into her skin, making it spongy, grey and wrinkled (lead poisoning is also associated with fatigue, headaches, abdominal pain, depression, loss of coordination, slurred speech and other delightful symptoms). The only answer: layer on the base more thickly. In later life, therefore, Elizabeth’s appearance was greatly more artificial. Thomas Tuke could have been describing her in his 1616 A Treatise against Painting and Tincturing of Men and Women when he wrote that:

‘white lead, wherewith women use to paint themselves was, without doubt, brought in use by the divell, the capitall enemie of nature, therwith to transforme humane creatures, of fear, making them ugly, enormious and abominable… a man might easily cut off a curd or cheese-cake from either of their cheeks’.

This is the look being sported by our older Elizabeth model (who is quite beautiful without all this slap, which just goes to show!)

Elizabeth also stepped up her artificiality in the colours used on her cheeks and lips. No more innocent cochineal, now Elizabeth used the garish vermilion, also known as cinnabar, which gave an intense red colour. It also poisoned her because vermilion is mercuric sulphide. Every time Elizabeth licked her lips she ingested this toxic substance. It was the mercury in felt that led to the expression ‘Mad Hatters’. Elizabeth too may have suffered from the litany of symptoms of mercury poisoning: lack of coordination, sensory impairment, personality changes, memory loss, irritability and brain damage. Any of them sound familiar when we come to the older Elizabeth?



Today programme: All the King’s Fools

Category : Blog, Fools, Hampton Court Palace, Wellcome Trust · No Comments Oct 6th, 2011

All the King’s Fools featured on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.

Reporter Tom Bateman put together a lovely feature on our work, on Henry VIII’s disability therapy which features on their website.

You will also be able listen again to the clip later today.

You can find out more about the performances, which run from today until Sunday, at Hampton Court Palace, in the post below. The project is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award.


All the King’s Fools: Research

Category : Blog, Fools, Hampton Court Palace, Wellcome Trust · No Comments Oct 5th, 2011

Our Wellcome Trust funded project ‘All the King’s Fools’ begins tomorrow! The actors are in the dress rehearsal as I write.

There’s going to be a feature on the project on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme tomorrow morning (Thursday 6 October), so do listen out for that.

I’ve already written in History Today about some of the research I’ve done that underpins this project, but thought it might be helpful to give you a short summary of the research findings here (I also plan to produce a scholarly article, exploring this research in more depth, before long).

We’ll be exploring the research issues tomorrow in an academic symposium at Hampton Court Palace on All the King’s Fools: speakers include Christopher Goodey, Dr Elizabeth Hurren, Prof. Thomas Betteridge and me.

And on Friday, we’re running a heritage showcase day for heritage professionals. It’s all go!

You can find pictures and follow our progress at www.allthekingsfools.co.uk.

Above all, do come down to Hampton Court this Thursday 6 to Sunday 10 October 2011 to catch these groundbreaking and thought-provoking performances in action! Buy your tickets here.

Research summary

All the King’s Fools explores an under-research part of the history of disability: that of the natural fool.

Court fools were of two sorts: the natural fool and the artificial fool. An artificial fool, a term that seems to have been synonymous with ‘jester’ was one who mimicked the ‘foolishness’ of the other. A natural fool, who was also described as an ‘innocent’, seems to have been a person with learning difficulties (although it is always hard to understand the categorizations of the past and they can’t necessarily be transferred unproblematically onto the present). The evidence from visits to monasteries, letters, and statutes suggest that these natural fools were widely present in society, highly visible, and understood to be distinct from those with mental illnesses such as insanity.

Will Somer was one of most famous fools of Henry VIII’s court, and continued on as a fool through the reigns of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. There is contemporary evidence to suggest that he was a ‘natural’, including John Heywood’s play Wit and Witless and, chiefly, a payment in 1551 of 40s. to William Seyton ‘whom his Majesty hath appointed to keep Will. Somer’. This suggests that Somer did not receive direct wages, and instead, had a carer. This is also true of other court fools, like Sexton (also known as Patch). Sexton was not paid directly, but three men were given money to buy his food and do his laundry, whilst the king provided clothing for him. ‘Thomas the Jester’, by contrast, did receive direct payments of 20s. on two occasions.

There are several indications that fools were very important at Henry VIII’s court. The first is their inclusion in a dynastic portrait of his family from 1545. The second is that they were not dressed in the multi-coloured motley of medieval fools, but were attired in rich fabrics. Above all, they were also the ones to whom Henry would turn when he was melancholy or sick.

Tudor medicine is famed for the use of bleeding and amputation, but was actually very holistic, and also paid attention to a patient’s diet, behaviour and mental state. The Tudors believed that the body consisted of four humours: choler (yellow bile), phlegm, black bile and blood, which needed to be kept in balance. One of the ways to achieve this was to ensure the presence of mirth in a person’s life. The physician Andrew Boorde, in his 1542 First Book of Knowledge, stated that:

mirth is one of the chiefest things of Physick.

Mirth meant laughter, but also amusement, good company, lively conversation, music making, and being merry with one another. This is where the fools could be so important.

A contemporary chronicle notes that Will Somer had ‘admission to the King [at all times], especially when sick and melancholy’, suggesting that Henry VIII relied on Somer in his lowest moments. This is confirmed in a later book by Robert Armin, who wrote:

Few men were more beloved than was this Fool

Whose merry prate kept with the King much rule.

When he was sad, the King and he could rhyme,

Thus Will exiled sadness many a time.

Another essential component of mirth was honesty. Fools were thought to be uniquely equipped to speak the truth, because their innocence gave them a special relationship to God. The Bible, in 1 Corinthians i.25, appeared to suggest that God spoke through their foolishness:

All men are fools before God and the foolishness of God is wiser than men’s wisdom.

The humanist Erasmus had popularized this idea with his 1509 work The Praise of Folly. When most around the king were yes-men, Henry could rely on Will Somer and other fools to speak honestly. We have evidence of him being able to change Henry VIII’s mind.

These special qualities of fools – their ability to bring mirth and their relationship to truth – explains their privileged, hallowed status that brought them both favour and authority at the court of Henry VIII.

I would like to acknowledge and thank Dr Elizabeth Hurren and Prof. Tom Betteridge of Oxford Brookes University, and Lauren Johnson of Past Pleasures at Historic Royal Palaces,  for their research help and contributions.

Walking my way through Tudor England

I submit my new book, A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England, to my publisher, Ebury on 17 October 2011 (I’ve received the cover already – isn’t it lovely?)

It has been such an enjoyable process visiting 50 Tudor houses, palaces and castles to walk in the footsteps of some of the sixteenth-century’s most famous – and infamous – characters.

The trip has taken me from Penshurst Place, the home of the Elizabethan courtier-poet Sir Philip Sidney, to Ludlow Castle, where Prince Arthur fatefully died in April 1502, and from Thornbury Castle, the half-finished fortified manor house of Edward Stafford, third duke of Buckingham, who was executed in 1521, to the oak in Wymondham at which Robert Kett is said to have gathered the Norfolk rebel armies in 1549.

I’ve seen magnificent architecture – like Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire or Montacute House in Somerset – domestic beauties – like Gawsworth and Little Moreton Halls in Cheshire – and spectacular vaulting places of worship – like St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle or Westminster Abbey. There are so many gems.

Above all, I’ve loved researching the stories. Can’t wait to see what you think of them. But meanwhile, thought I might share with you some photos of the best bits and most wonderful details over the next couple of months… watch this space.