Loretta and I have often written here about the joys (and the challenges) of dressing our characters. Most times, we rely on a combination of contemporary sources, surviving examples, and imagination. But for one scene in The Countess & the King, I got lucky – really, really lucky. The embroidered suit that James Stuart (the King in the title), then Duke of York, wore to his second wedding over three hundred years ago miraculously still exists, and is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; see it here.
This suit has its own story to tell. James had it made for his wedding to his second wife in the winter of 1673, and like all royal weddings of the time, it was a political alliance, not a love match. The bride was a fifteen-year-old Italian princess, Mary Beatrice (her name already anglicized) of Modena. She was also Roman Catholic, and because James himself had recently converted to that faith as well, the wedding was wildly unpopular in Protestant England. In protest the princess was burned in straw effigies in London, as was James. A proxy wedding had already taken place in Modena, but the first time the couple were to meet would be when Mary Beatrice landed in Dover. Given England’s hostility, it was decided that the two should be wed in Dover, as quickly and quietly as possible.
Thus James’s suit was made of grey wool broadcloth to keep him warm as he stood on the winter beach. But the lining was a festive, bright coral ribbed silk (the waistcoat, now missing, was likely coral, too) and nearly every inch of the grey wool is covered with gold and silver embroidery, including the Garter Star (above) on the left breast. The embroidery design features intertwining lilies and honeysuckles, signifying purity and devoted love, both theoretically appropriate for a bridegroom, if not for James. The suit’s cut is the latest French fashion, and the style of the flopping oversized cuffs on the coat was called “hound’s-ears.” There are dozens of tiny decorative buttons, each wrapped in more gold thread; James’s wardrobe records show that he required 228 buttons for a complete suit of coat, waistcoat, and breeches!
It is easy to imagine him standing on the beach wearing it to greet his bride, the winter sun glinting on all that metallic embroidery. He wore the suit to their hasty marriage by the Bishop of Oxford in a private house in Dover, and again several days later when the newlyweds arrived at the palace in London, and James presented Mary Beatrice to his brother the king.
What happened next to the magnificent suit is especially interesting in light of Loretta's post yesterday. James presented the suit as a memento to Sir Edward Carteret, a loyal friend and supporter who had served as witness to the wedding. (Sir Edward's loyalty had been previously rewarded with a tidy tract of land along the American coast, known today as New Jersey.) After Sir Edward's death, the suit passed to his widow, then to her sister, wife of Matthew de Sausmarez. The suit remained at the Sausmarez Manor on the Isle of Guernsey for 320 years – until at last the family sold it at auction in 1992. (The cover of the Christie's catalogue is right.) Fortunately, the suit was acquired by the V& A, which has preserved it with great care for display, and also created an exact replica for study by history students.
But what was Mary Beatrice’s reaction to her well-dressed bridegroom? Exhausted from sea-sickness and her long journey, the princess reportedly took one look at James and burst into tears. So much for being a sharp-dressed man!
Many thanks to Chris Woodyard for the auction catalogue illustrations.