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A Medieval Noblewoman’s Guide to Dressing Up

By Sophie Andrade

A look inside Eleanor de Montfort’s wardrobe, and why it was important for a 13th-century countess to dress extravagantly and beautifully.

People in the Middle Ages liked to layer up. Including underwear and outerwear, an everyday outfit regularly consisted of at least six different garments. There were three main pieces: a tunic, surcoat, and mantle. The tunic, basically a long plain shirt, was worn by both men and women. A woman’s tunic was longer than a man’s and had slightly narrower sleeves. The lower parts of the tunic sleeves were fastened with several buttons, a trend that began in the thirteenth century. The neck of the tunic was fastened with a brooch, the quality of which reflected the wealth and status of the wearer. A girdle, a type of thin belt, was tied around the waist to further secure the tunic. Since they had no pockets, ladies often hung their keys and coin purses from their girdles. Both brooches and girdles made for popular gift items in the thirteenth century. Henry III gave and received more girdles than any one person could ever wear.

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On top of the tunic both men and women wore a surcoat, which was shorter and looser than the tunic and added an additional layer of warmth. Surcoats were often lined with fur and could be made with or without sleeves. On top of that, people wore a mantle, which was like a cloak or a cape. Mantles were also often lined or trimmed with fur and were fastened with yet another chain or a brooch. It was common for women to fasten their mantles at the neck and for men to fasten theirs on their right shoulder.

There wasn’t a whole lot of variety when it came to underwear. Women’s underwear consisted of a simple linen chemise, while the men wore breeches. Both men and women wore hose; men’s hose fastened around their breeches and women’s hose were held up with a garter just below the knee.

As for headdresses, older women wore veils and wimples that completely covered their hair and necks both indoors and outdoors. Married women would also cover their hair with veils and young girls wore their hair loose and uncovered.

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Elearnor de Montfort depicted in a medieval manuscript – British Library Royal MS 14 B VI

Royalty and nobility often wore robes so long that they covered their shoes. Those shoes were likely to be small leather boots – suitable for walking outdoors, or softer slippers for indoors. One noblewoman who likely wore all of these things and more was Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester (1215-1275). To her, and many others of her time, clothing was more than just about staying warm. Clothing was used to display wealth and status and was an important part of being a successful hostess.

Eleanor’s Life

As the youngest daughter of King John, Henry III’s sister, and the Countess of Leicester, Eleanor de Montfort’s life provides interesting evidence of what it might have been like to be a high-ranking lady living in thirteenth-century England. She was first married at the age of nine to William Marshal II. When he died in 1231, then sixteen-year-old Eleanor promptly took a vow of chastity, swearing to spend the rest of her life devoted to God and managing the estates left to her by her late husband.

At the age of twenty-three, however, she met Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, and in January of 1238, they were married and her vow of chastity was no more. She spent her days entertaining guests and maintaining her various estates, while her duties as hostess took on an increasingly political undertone as her husband led the rebels in the baronial war. After both her eldest son and husband perished at the Battle of Evesham in 1265, a grieving Eleanor was besieged at Dover castle. She made a daring escape and fled to France at the end of 1265, where she lived the rest of her life in exile.

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So much is known of Eleanor’s life thanks partly to the surviving household accounts for her castles, Odiham and Dover. These accounts, which have been bound together in a twenty-foot-long scroll, cover the period of February – August 1265 and are currently held at the British Library in London. The accounts record the castles’ various daily expenditures: what kind of food was bought and when, who was visiting and for how long, the orders of clothing and fabric, workers’ and messengers’ wages, how many horses were in the stables, how many charitable donations were given to the poor, and what gifts were given to guests.

Like her brother Henry, who gave and received gifts as a display of his wealth and generosity, Eleanor de Montfort was also a generous gift-giver. A guest rarely left the Montfort estates without some kind of parting gift, usually a sester of wine or choice meats. An intriguing display of power came not from Eleanor’s gifts, however, but from the clothing she and the members of her household purchased and wore.

Eleanor’s Clothes

Wool was the primary material for making clothes at the time and its quality varied greatly. Eleanor’s accounts list expenses for russet and blanchet, both rough and inexpensive wools that could be used for outerwear and household clothes. On the other end of the spectrum were scarlet and pers, the two finest kinds of wool available. Eleanor also purchased linen of varying quality. Linen could be made in England or imported from abroad and the quality of the cloth varied greatly. Households would often buy great quantities of cheap linen and use them as napkins, washcloths, towels, sheets and pillowcases. The finest linen was likely sindon, although there is some dispute as to whether it was linen or in fact a silk.

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While under her vow of chastity, Eleanor only wore clothes made of russet. At the time, the fabric was sported primarily by peasants, labourers, and servants. Eleanor wore russet to symbolize her grief and to represent her denial of sumptuous objects. She would revert to this style of dress when widowed again in 1265, but while she was married to Simon de Montfort, Eleanor used her clothing to enhance her status and symbolize her power. There is evidence in her household accounts of her purchasing, for £8 6s. 8d., a “sanguine,” scarlet cloth from Italy. In these accounts the name “scarlet” refers to the cloth rather than the colour. “Sanguine” was a shade of red. Red dyes, particularly kermes, were some of the most precious pigments of the Middle Ages. It is a brilliant shade that is made from female insects that live in the kermes oak tree in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. Fabric that had been “dyed in the grain” originally referred to this red colour, however, it eventually came to represent any fabric that had been dyed with valuable pigment. If Eleanor’s dress had been dyed with kermes, it would have been magnificent.

A depiction of a widow in a 13th-century manuscript – British Library MS Additional 54180 f. 136v

During Easter 1265, Eleanor purchased a black linen hood for herself and a miniver fur for her daughter. The furs that lined and trimmed fabrics in the Middle Ages varied and often represented the wearer’s social status. The fur reserved for royalty was ermine, a soft white fur with back spots that came from the stoat weasel. The second most valuable fur was squirrel, worn by nobles and other high-ranking people. Miniver, the fur found on Eleanor’s clothes, was the finest kind of squirrel fur available and would have matched Eleanor and her daughter’s rank as close relatives of the king. Squirrel fur could also be stitched in a pattern of alternating shades of dark and light in a style known as vair. Lamb, or sheepskin, was an inexpensive material worn by common people. Bis, also spelled bise or byse, was another type of inexpensive fur, most likely made of deerskin.

At the end of July 1265, Eleanor ordered herself and her daughter a dozen pairs of gloves, spending 12d (one shilling). Eleanor also owned a pair of delicate calfskin gloves, a staple for women of her rank.

The Importance of Luxurious Attire

We can be sure that many people noticed Eleanor’s luxurious attire because of a letter addressed to her from Adam Marsh, a Franciscan monk, who was Montfort’s spiritual advisor. Marsh begs her to be more submissive to her husband, and to dress more plainly. He quotes the apostle Peter, writing:

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Let women be subject to their husbands, so that if they do not believe the word, they may be won over by the conversations of their wives, beholding the holy conversation with fear. Let there not be the outward hairdo or the wearing of gold or the adornment of clothes; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in what is incorruptible, of the quiet and modest spirit, which is rich in the sight of God.

Marsh also quotes Timothy, another early Christian, writing:

That women adorn themselves in modest apparel with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly apparel; but what becomes women professing piety, through good works.

Marsh apparently has chosen to ignore Eleanor’s social duty as hostess, as in addition to presenting oneself with dignity and poise, luxurious clothing was a crucial part of entertaining guests. Not only was it socially acceptable to dress extravagantly, to not dress in beautiful attire would have been seen as insulting and ungracious. Eleanor almost certainly ignored Marsh’s letter. She continued to display her wealth through her dress and succeeded in being the thirteenth century’s hostess with the most-est.

A scene from a 13th-century manuscript – British Library Add MS 18633 fol. 20v

Sophie Andrade is a recent graduate of the University of St Andrews with an MLitt in Medieval Studies. Her research focuses on medieval women, music, manuscripts, and castles. She lives in Nottingham, England.

Further Reading:

Wilkinson, Louise J. (ed.) The Household Roll of Eleanor de Montfort, Countess of Leicester and Pembroke, 1265: British Library, Additional MS 8877 (Publications of the Pipe Roll Society New Series: Vol. 63)

A Letter from Adam Marsh,” Epistolae, Medieval Women’s Latin Letters

Bridbury, A.R. Medieval English Clothmaking: An Economic Survey (Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1982)

Houston, Mary G. Medieval Costume in France and England (Adam & Charles Black, 1950)

Kjær, Lars. “Food, drink and ritualised communication in the household of Eleanor de Montfort, February to August 1265.” Journal of Medieval History 37 (2011): 75-89.

Labarge, Margaret Wade. A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century. (Barnes & Noble, 1965)

Lachaud, Frédérique. “Liveries of Robes in England, c. 1200-c.1330.” English Historical Review 111, no. 441 (April 1996): 279-298.

MacGregor, Patricia. Odiham Castle 1200-1500: a castle and community. (A. Sutton, 1983)

Ponting, Kenneth G. A Dictionary of Dyes and Dyeing (Mills & Boon Limited, 1980).

Turner, T.H. Manners and household expenses of England in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries (W. Nicol, 1841).

Wild, Benjamin L. “A Gift Inventory from the Reign of Henry III.” English Historical Review 125, no. 514 (June 2010): 529-569.

Wilkinson, Louise J. Eleanor de Montfort: a Rebel Countess in Medieval England (Continuum, 2012).

Top Image: A 13th-century image of a lady. British Library MS Additional 60628/1 

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