The City of Dames tapestries: Decorating the royal apartments

05 September 2018
unicorn-tapestry-stirilng-kim-traynor-41306.jpg Stirling tapestry, copyright Kim Traynor
Renaissance emblem expert Michael Bath demonstrates how tapestries were used to convey messages and ideas, as in the case of a set of tapestry hangings sent by Elizabeth I of England to the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots.

Renaissance emblem expert Michael Bath demonstrates how tapestries were used to convey messages and ideas, as in the case of a set of tapestry hangings sent by Elizabeth I of England to the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots.

Visitors to the magnificently refurbished royal apartments in Stirling Castle are likely to be impressed by the rewoven tapestries in the Queen’s Inner Hall, based on the Hunt of the Unicorn series woven in the Netherlands and now in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. The seven Stirling tapestries (one of which is shown on the right) can be found described and beautifully illustrated online.

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Woven over 13 years thanks to a £2 million project at the turn of this century, the choice of subject for reweaving was based on research into historical records of the Scottish royal collection which, in 1539 for instance, list not one but two different sets of tapestries under the title ‘History of the Unicorne’. 

Inventories record more than a dozen other subjects which were in, or bought for, the royal collection at this period, but since none of these survive it is difficult to visualise their appearance, and the challenge of identifying examples of the same subjects that might have been preserved in other collections and used as trustworthy patterns for reweaving in the Palace of Stirling was not seized by the Academic Research Committee – of which I was a member – which advised Historic Scotland (now known as Historic Environment Scotland) on this project almost twenty years ago.

City of Ladies

One subject that was bought for several other European courts around this time, however, is that which the 1539 inventory describes as ‘Cietie of Dammys’. Susan Groag Bell, in a book The Lost Tapestries of the City of Ladies: Christine de Pizan’s Renaissance Legacy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), has established that the ‘Cietie of Dammys’ tapestries identified in the 1539 Scottish inventory were, in fact, based on Christine de Pisan’s Book of the City of Ladies (1405), a tribute to the achievements of 200 famous women – warriors, scientists, queens, philosophers, and builders of cities. Bell has tracked down records of five further sets of tapestries based on this source, which show that all the early owners were royal and nearly all were women. England had three different sets. 

None of these tapestries, in England or elsewhere, is now extant and it would therefore not have been easy to identify patterns which the modern weavers could have copied. However it seems likely that the historical tapestries might well themselves have copied or adapted miniatures from contemporary manuscripts of the book they were based on. There are indeed some clues that this was the case in the variant titles which early records assign to the Scottish set. 

The inventory compiled in 1561, for instance, includes a four-piece tapestry depicting the ‘historie of Mathiolus’. This must be a reference to the Cité des Dames since Christine de Pisan (pictured left) began writing her justification of women’s achievements, she says, after reading the Lamentations of Mathieu de Boulogne, author of a misogynist diatribe against women (c. 1295).

It seems more than likely, Bell argues, that one or other of the four pieces that Mary Queen of Scots inherited from her mother must have shown Christine reading Matheolus’s book, with the label naming him inscribed somewhere on the tapestry, possibly on the book itself.

Matheolus makes his one and only appearance at the start of the book and the tapestry identifying him must therefore have illustrated the frame narrative describing the vision that comes to Christine one day as she sits in her study reading his Lamentations

Outraged at the book’s attack on women, she falls into a reverie in which her appeal for divine guidance prompts a dream vision in which the three Virtues of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice command her to correct this negative view by writing a biographical catalogue of famous women, a book which they will inhabit like a city in order to protect virtuous ladies from anti-feminist attack. These three Virtues spend the rest of the book suggesting examples of past and present heroines who construct this allegorical city of ladies, supporting by their example its foundations, walls, towers, and defences. 

At least four surviving manuscripts which include this incipit miniature also have a contiguous image which shows Christine not in her study but standing building a wall with a trowel in her hand (shown right). Christine is accompanied by the allegorical figure of Reason, and her house is part of a more ambitious city, a housing scheme which will become a feminist civitas dei or City of God.

Reason stands within the rising enclosure, handing Christine the blocks of stone to lay the foundations of her City: in shape and size they look very like the books on the adjoining table. 

The Scottish tapestries

It seems likely that the set of Scottish tapestries included this particular scene, or at least the preceding miniature showing Christine in her study, since otherwise it would not have been likely to include the name of Matheolus. Christine’s foundation stone is a biblical text, Psalms 87:3, identifying the city of God, of which glorious things are spoken: what these tapestries therefore depicted was a justification of the power of women, and royal women in particular, to build a feminist version of St Augustine’s City of God.

It therefore becomes highly intriguing to discover that Elizabeth Tudor sent Marie Stuart a set of tapestry hangings of this very same subject. The Calendar of State Papers (Scotland) lists an entry, dated 20 January 1569, for wardrobe stuff for Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire, where Mary Queen of Scots had just begun her period of imprisonment under the protection of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Elizabeth, known to us as Bess of Hardwick. 

The new furnishings for the exiled Queen of Scots included three sets of tapestry, all lined with canvas, sent from the Tower of London and identified as six pieces of the History of the Passion, seven pieces of the History of Hercules and six pieces which are described as the History of Ladies

The tapestries

Sent up from the Tower of London in 1569 to decorate the cheerless and uncongenial surroundings of the exiled Scottish queen, this must be one of the three City of Dames sets which were already recorded in the posthumous inventory of Henry VIII’s Wardrobe in 1547, which have been edited by David Starkey (London: 1998), and one of which was ‘delivered to the Lady Elizabeth towardes the furniture of her howse’, a second set was assigned to her brother Edward VI, and a third stored in the Tower of London ‘in the Keaping of Humphrey Orme’. The set sent up to furnish Mary’s lodgings at Tutbury can be identified with some certainty as ‘vj peces of the Storie of ladies lyned with Canvas’ which are listed in 1547 as among tapestries housed in the Wardrobe at the Tower of London (Starkey, no. 9021).

Evidently, these had remained in storage for twenty years and were thus available for use in furnishing the lodgings where Queen Elizabeth decided to house her unexpected and unwelcome royal visitor. It seems highly likely that Elizabeth herself would have had at least some say in the choice of this set, resembling one that had been a personal possession from her own younger years. 

Moreover, the degree of estate afforded to Mary was a sensitive issue for the English during her years of exile, and Elizabeth would surely have kept a close eye on such formalities, bearing as they did on the status in England of her cousin and rival queen. Sending the Queen of Scots a set of tapestry hangings which celebrated the power of women to rule or to build the house of God must surely be seen as a highly motivated, if not ironic, gesture.

In defence of women

It is, moreover, quite possible that Elizabeth would have been aware that Mary had, in her youth, delivered a Latin oration before the French court on the subject of women’s capacity for learning, a defence which makes her possibly one of the earliest women after Christine de Pisan to defend women’s education. Pierre de Brantôme, who heard this oration in the Louvre, gives the following account of it in his Mémoires . . . des femmes illustres,

. . . estant en l’age de treize à quatorze ans, elle déclama devant le roi Henry, la reyne, et toute la cour, publiquement en la sale du Louvre, une oraison en Latin qu’elle avait faicte, soubtenant et deffendent, contre l’opinion commune, qu’il estoit bien séant aux femmes de sçavoir les lettres et arts libéraulx. (cited in A. de Montaiglon, Latin Themes of Mary Stuart, London: 1855, p. xviii)

( . . . when she was thirteen or fourteen years old, she read out publicly in front of King Henri, the queen, and all the court, a speech in Latin which she had composed, supporting and defending against the received opinion that it was seemly for women to know literature and the liberal arts.)

As part of her education Mary wrote Latin essays constructing rhetorical arguments of which quite a large number are devoted to the defence of women’s education. For example in September 1554 she writes,

Ut possis respondere bellis istis blateronibus qui heri dicebant esse foeminarum nihil sapere. Volo tibi dicere, soror, foeminam tui nominis adeò sapientem fuisse ut bene respondisset illis si adfuisset. Est Elizabeta abbatissa Germanica, quae scripsit plures orations ad sorores sui conventus, et opus de vijs quibus itur ad superos. Themistoclea oror Pythagorae ita docta erat, ut pluribus in locis usus sit illius opinionibus. Et ut habeas unde satisfacias ijs homunculis, te docebo magnum alliarum numerum. (Montaiglon,  p. 33.)

(So that you may answer these fine babblers yesterday who said women cannot know anything, I want to tell you sister that there was a woman with your name who was knowledgeable enough to have answered them if she had been there. That is Elizabeth, the Abbess in Germany, who wrote many lectures for the sisters of her convent, and a book on the paths by which we ascend to heaven. Themistoclea, the sister of Pythagoras, was so learned that in many places he cites her opinions. And so that you should have what it takes to satisfy these manikins, I will tell you about many others.)

Addressed to her fellow pupil and future sister-in-law Elisabeth (pictured), daughter of Henri II and Catherine de Medicis, who would eventually marry Philip of Spain, Mary’s argument and rhetorical technique in this Latin theme are exactly those of Christine de Pisan in her Cité desDames, namely to identify examples of learned women. 

It is surely inconceivable, in this context, that the suite of embroideries that Mary later inherited from her mother in Scotland, and the similar suite that she was sent by her cousin Elizabeth in England would not have vividly recalled this episode and its arguments from her youth. Whether Elizabeth was also aware, in sending the tapestries to Tutbury, of these close personal associations that they would have held for her cousin cannot be known, but is at least possible.

Georgette de Montenay

There is, finally, a close similarity between the image of Christine de Pisan building her feminist City of God, and a later emblem invented by Georgette de Montenay in the sixteenth century to celebrate the power of a particular woman, Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre (1529-1572) to build the Protestant church in France.De Montenay’s Emblemes ou Devises Chrestiennes (1567) is the first specifically religious emblem book ever to be published, with numerous later editions. 

Dedicated to Jeanne d’Albret, leader and defender of the French Huguenots, whose court was the centre of Protestantism in France in the years leading up to the St Bartholemew’s Day massacre, its opening emblem shows woman building the walls of the ‘temple sainct’ just as we have seen Christine de Pisan doing in her Cité des Dames. (shown on the right) De Montenay’s emblem has the motto ‘Sapiens mulier ædificat domum’ (‘The wise woman builds the house’) quoting Prov. 14.1, and her identity a the Queen of Navarre is confirmed (at least in some copies) by the inscription on the wall, ‘Vera effigies Regina Navarrae’ declaring that this is ‘A true likeness of the Queen of Navarre’ – a claim which is justified by the facial feature of the long Valois nose, which Jeanne d’Albret shared with her mother, Marguerite de Navarre. 

A further appearance

This particular emblem, moreover, makes a further appearance in Scotland, for in 1624 Scottish calligrapher Esther Inglis produced the last and longest of her elegant calligraphic manuscripts. Entitled Emblemes Chrestiens premierement inventez par la noble damoiselle Georgette de Montenay en France, it is dedicated to Charles, Prince of Wales, and each of the individual emblems is dedicated to different members of the British royal family or nobility.

Ester Inglis was a daughter of French Huguenot refugees and her decision to copy de Montenay’s emblems was strongly influenced by her Protestant faith, which is why she not only copies the prefatory author portrait of Jeanne d’Albret which appears in nearly all the editions of Montenay’s Emblemes Chrestiensbut also in the opening emblem of the ‘wise woman’ who builds the holy temple. This emblem is now dedicated to Prince Charles’s sister ‘Princess Elizabeth Queene of Bohemia’. Elizabeth Stuart, whom we know as ‘The Winter Queen’, had married Frederick, Elector Palatine in 1613 and by 1624, following the Battle of the White Mountain she had become exiled in The Hague and viewed as a victim of European opposition to the Catholic League at the start of what we know as the Thirty Years War.

This image of a woman building the house of God therefore has a long history in European iconography, where it crops up in various confessional applications but always with reference to the role of women in the establishment or preservation of the Christian church. Although its religious affiliations varied, its feminism is invariable, and whether or not those who later made use of it knew of its origins in Christine de Pisan’s Cité des Dames, it is notable that they are all women. The wider connections of this particular motif with the spread of emblematic imagery and the emblem tradition in Scotland are more fully explored in Michael Bath, Emblems in Scotland: Motifs and Meanings(Leiden: Brill/Rodopi, 2018).

Michael Edwin Bath is the author of Emblems in Scotland, published by Brill

Emblems in the visual arts use motifs which have meanings, and in Emblems in Scotland Michael Bath, leading authority on Renaissance emblem books, shows how such symbolic motifs address major historical issues of Anglo-Scottish relations, the Reformation of the Church and the Union of the Crowns.

(images: fig 1 © Yorke Project; fig 2 Courtesy of University of Glasgow Archives and Special Collections; unicorn tapestry © Kim Traynor; Elisabeth de Valois © Rijks Museum)