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Catherine of Aragon: symbols of salvation as a public display of piety

The jewels worn by the first wife of Henry VIII not only say a great deal about her status but, more significantly, her character and values. In keeping with the fashion for low-cut gowns, Catherine’s is lined with pearls and diamonds set in goldsmith’s work. But it was her necklace and brooch set that drew the most interest. Attached to the necklace of gold beads and clusters of pearls is an ornate tau cross – a T-shaped cross symbolic of salvation. Interestingly, Catherine’s daughter, Mary, was later painted wearing a similar cross, as were Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr, reflecting each queen’s piety.

Queens were expected to be pious, but Catherine of Aragon’s faith was personal too. Her jewels reflect a genuine and heartfelt devotion to God, and the tau cross was also associated with her favourite religious order, the Observant Franciscans. Her commitment to the Franciscans was reinforced by her choice of the IHS brooch pinned to her chest (IHS is an abbreviation of the Greek word for Jesus). IHS had been employed as a peace symbol since the 15th century, and by Catherine’s time, it had become an integral marker of Catholic identity.

Catherine is well known for being a principled woman with a strong religious faith. Her choices of jewellery reinforced this image by providing a platform from which she could make her piety public – and enduring.

Anne Boleyn, by an unknown artist, late-16th century (Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Anne Boleyn, by an unknown artist, late-16th century (Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Anne Boleyn: an independent woman at the cutting edge of fashion

This image of Anne Boleyn has etched its way into popular memory. Five centuries after it was painted, it remains a source of fascination – and that fascination is largely the product of her jewels, most specifically the gold “B” pendant hanging from her neck. Anne acquired a reputation for great style and sophistication among her contemporaries, so it’s tempting to imagine that the trend for wearing jewels bearing initials originated with her.

The fashion, however, had begun long before, spreading through Europe during the late 14th century. Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, was extremely fond of initial jewels. Given that Anne had spent a small amount of time at Margaret’s cosmopolitan court in Mechelen in her youth, it is feasible that she was influenced by the trend there. Anne was fascinated by fashion, so it is unsurprising that she set and expressed the latest trends through her choice of jewellery.

She was certainly enthusiastic about initial pieces, for in addition to her “B” pendant she owned an “AB” and an “A”, which her daughter, Elizabeth, can be seen wearing in a portrait. Anne also had a ring which displayed her motto: “The most happy.” Such jewels provided a neat way of showcasing Anne’s pride in her Boleyn roots and her individuality, and at least two of her successors, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr, owned similar items.

Initial jewellery is a style that has retained its popularity, and Anne’s image is immediately conjured when considering its history. The trend may not have begun or ended with her, but she has doubtless contributed to the fascination and is certainly worthy of the title of fashionista.

Jane Seymour, by Hans Holbein the Younger (Photo by Volgi archive / Alamy Stock Photo)
Jane Seymour, by Hans Holbein the Younger (Photo by Volgi archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

Jane Seymour: projecting power, glory and her magnificence

The imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys described her as “no great beauty”, but what Jane Seymour may have lacked in looks she certainly made up for in jewels. In her portrait by the great master Hans Holbein, Jane is adorned in some of the most splendid pieces from the queen’s jewel collection. It is possible that some were inherited from her predecessors, and certainly, many of Jane’s items later came into the possession of Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr.

Painted in exquisite detail, the rich pearls and diamonds studded in gold that adorn Jane’s headdress – known as a habillement – form a matching set with those around her neck, waist and the border of her dress, known as a square. Jane’s inventory lists numerous jewelled buttons, so it is unsurprising that the sleeves of her gown show some of the practical jewels that pinned them together. She also owned more than 50 pairs of beads, and several descriptions match those that hang from her waist that were elaborately decorated, probably with enamel.

Jane’s most impressive jewel, however, is the spectacular ouche – a pendant set with jewels – that is suspended from her necklace. Catherine Howard also wore this while sitting for her portrait, revealing not just a link between the two queens but also that this was a high value piece that made a statement of splendour. Jane’s portrait reveals a queen consort who clearly wanted to impress with her magnificence.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein (Photo by Bridgeman Images)
Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein (Photo by Bridgeman Images)

Anne of Cleves: a determination to carve out her own identity in a new home

Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves may only have lasted for six months in 1540, but she was determined to make the most of queenship – and the material trappings that came with it. This contemporary portrait shows her dressed in the style popular in the Duchy of Cleves: pearls adorning both her costume and her jewelled coif (a close-fitting cap). Yet the jewels that she bought on becoming Henry’s fourth wife paint a more impressive picture.

As a foreign queen (born in Dusseldorf) yet to make friends and allies in her new country, jewels were glamorous tools that allowed Anne to carve out her own identity. By spending more than £400 in a matter of months – an exorbitant sum – Anne recognised the value of splendour when it came to fashioning a role for herself at court. Her jewels came from several goldsmiths employed by the other wives as well as the king, and her purchases included diamonds, a gold chain and rings that were perhaps similar to those worn in her portrait.

There was also a brooch “garnished with diamonds”, which told the story of Samson (and, as such, could be viewed as a sign of strength, or even romantic betrayal). A similar piece later appeared in Henry’s inventory: could it have been the same? Perhaps most importantly, money was outlaid for “the engraving and making of the queen’s grace’s great seal”, a sign that Anne took her duties seriously. Her jewels served to boost not only her confidence but also her status.

Catherine Howard, a 1540 miniature by Hans Holbein (Photo by CBW / Alamy Stock Photo)
Catherine Howard, a 1540 miniature by Hans Holbein (Photo by CBW / Alamy Stock Photo)

Catherine Howard: luxurious objects of desire for Henry’s young bride

When Henry married Catherine Howard in the summer of 1540 at Oatlands Palace, he was infatuated with his new, young bride. So enamoured was he that he showered Catherine with gifts of jewels in tangible signs of his love and affection. A number of these were given “at the time of the solemnisation of their marriage”, but there were many more to follow. At new year 1541, Henry gave his wife eight pieces of jewellery. In a gesture of kindness, Catherine then presented a ring (which Henry had given her) to her predecessor, Anne of Cleves.

Catherine’s opulent jewels are reflected in Hans Holbein’s miniature, which is widely thought to depict Henry’s fifth wife. One of the strongest clues of the sitter’s identity comes from her jewels; an inventory compiled at the time of Catherine’s fall and execution (1541–42) lists 175 items, many of which had probably been owned by Henry’s previous queens. It includes the same diamond and ruby ouche that was worn by Jane Seymour.

Similar rings to those worn in the miniature also appear in the inventory, and the same is true of the jewels attached to Catherine’s rich hood. These pieces were so valuable that it is easy to understand why a contemporary chronicler believed that “the king had no wife who made him spend so much money in dresses and jewels as she did”.

Katherine Parr, attributed to Master John (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Katherine Parr, attributed to Master John (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Katherine Parr: a sumptuous costume to secure the royal seal of approval

Almost certainly painted to mark Katherine Parr’s regency in the summer of 1544, Master John’s likeness of Henry VIII’s fashion-conscious sixth queen displays some of Katherine’s costliest jewels. The beads suspended from her waist are decorated with antique faces in keeping with the latest trends, while a dazzling ouche is attached to her beautiful necklace.

This was perhaps a favourite, given that Katherine wore it while sitting for another portrait. One of Katherine’s jewels is particularly striking, for it exemplifies the common theme in her collection: grandeur. Pinned to her dress is an opulent crown brooch, which may have been commissioned on the queen’s orders. Hailing as she did from a non-royal background, throughout her reign Katherine did her utmost to project an image of majesty, and her jewels provided her with rich tools that enabled her to do so.

Several pieces in her collection reflected her interest in royalty, including a brooch featuring her image and that of her royal husband. This symbolised loyalty to Henry VIII. Katherine’s iconic crown brooch passed into the hands of Henry’s daughter Mary I, and it was later owned by both Queen Elizabeth I – who learned much about fashioning a royal image from Katherine – and Anne of Denmark (wife of James VI and I), on whose orders it was broken down.

Dripping in jewels, Katherine’s portrait is undoubtedly one of the most powerful images of a queen consort, and one in which, as intended, she exudes majesty.

This article was first published in the December 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine


Dr Nicola TaliisHistorian and author

Nicola Tallis is a historian, author and researcher. Her books include Elizabeth’s Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, Countess of Leicester and All the Queen’s Jewels, 1445–1548: Power, Majesty and Display