The Tudor travel bug: 6 artefacts that show the Tudors’ taste for travel
The 16th century saw England truly waking up to the possibilities of global trade and exploration, and that had a huge impact on tastes and fashions back home. Lauren Working and Emily Stevenson introduce six artefacts that speak to how the Tudors caught the travel bug
Fashion accessories from across the globe
The portrait above of a finely dressed woman from 1569 is thought to depict Helena Snakenborg, one of several courtiers who accompanied Princess Cecilia of Sweden to London in 1565. The 1560s saw the Swedish king, Erik XIV, attempting to win Elizabeth I’s hand in marriage. Erik failed to win over the English queen but the two nations enjoyed good relations for much of Elizabeth’s reign, as evidenced by the diplomatic visit of 1565.
Snakenborg remained in England following the visit, probably because she was being courted by William Parr, Marquess of Northampton. She eventually became maid of honour to Elizabeth – reflected, perhaps, in the vibrant rose embroideries on her clothing (the combination of red and white roses was a key Tudor emblem).
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The intricate decorations in Snakenborg’s outfit show off her considerable wealth. They include two gold chains, feathers, hat buttons, a pearl-encrusted golden oak leaf pendant, an enamelled gold pendant in the shape of a woman holding a large gemstone, and golden rings in the shape of roses. These pearls, jewels and gold were brought from overseas through mercantile and colonial networks. The weighty pendant around her neck may be an emerald sourced in the mines of distant Colombia.
Terrestrial globes to capture epic feats of exploration
The Tudor era was one in which the world grew smaller – in more ways than one. As travellers embarked on voyages to distant destinations, they stoked a burgeoning obsession with global commodities. And that turned the world itself into an object that could be held or possessed. Pictured above is a terrestrial globe made by Emery Molyneux in 1592.
Molyneux’s spheres are the first of their kind known to have been produced in England, and were made from flour paste to protect them from humidity at sea. Molyneux’s work reflects England’s evolution into a major player in the field of exploration: his globe features the circumnavigations of English adventurers Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish, depicted in red. Globes such as Molyneux’s captured vast networks of mobility in miniature: a world covered by the criss-crossing lines of global travellers, yet small enough to fit in a ship or a library.
Word lists and translations of other languages
When the Tudor explorer Stephen Burrough embarked on a journey to Russia in 1557 he returned with a list of words from the Ter Sámi language, the earliest known documentation of a Sámi tongue. Burrough’s list aimed to help future travellers strike lucrative deals with people in Russia’s Arctic north – and included translations of words and phrases such as “what call you this?”, “whither goe you?”, “wollen” and “linnen cloth”.
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Yet a basic knowledge of Ter Sámi not only had the potential to boost the earning power of English explorers. In a destination as perilous as the Arctic it also promised to save their lives. Those perils were illustrated by the fate of Sir Hugh Willoughby who, in 1553, had led one of Tudor England’s first trade ventures to Russia, only to disappear. When his ship, the Bona Esperanza, was found the following year, its crew were dead, frozen like statues.
Indigenous artefacts brought to England by explorers
In 1597, travelling through the Amazon rainforest, William Davies noted that “the king of every river… wears upon his head a crown of parrots’ feathers, of several colours”.
The 16th century saw a wave of English adventurers such as Davies chronicling their encounters in the Americas. It wasn’t long before they realised that, in the societies they encountered there, feathers conveyed sovereignty, divinity and exquisite craftsmanship. These were qualities that seized the imaginations of their compatriots back in England, who collected and wrote about artefacts similar to the exquisite cotton, feathered and knotted vegetable fibre fan from Peru, shown below.
Along with artefacts such as canoes, featherwork became a recognised marker of Indigenous cultures in Elizabeth England, and soon began appearing in cabinets of curiosity – none more famous than Walter Cope’s collection of global marvels in London’s Holland Park.
The Tudor fascination with genuine objects crafted in the Americas also triggered a surge of appropriations and imitations. In 1613, 50 gentlemen dressed up as “Virginia priests and princes” for a court masque. As the performers processed through London to the royal palace, onlookers marvelled at the way their feathered ruffs glittered in the night.
Tobacco: England’s curious medicine that blighted Indigenous people’s lives
Tobacco was the first foreign intoxicant of mass consumption in early modern England. Brittle clay pipe fragments like those shown below can still be found in gardens and riverbanks across Britain, indicating how widespread the smoking of tobacco had become among all social classes by the 1630s. “In the ale-houses, tobacco [is] obtainable,” wrote a Swiss traveller to London in 1599. The traveller added that the English “regard it as a curious medicine and as a pleasure. The habit is so common with them, that they… light up on all occasions.”
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Originally sourced in the Americas, and cultivated by enslaved peoples in the Caribbean and eventually England’s budding North American plantations, tobacco tangibly connected Elizabethans to Indigenous groups that had gathered knowledge about its properties and value for thousands of years.
While the spread of plantations dispossessed Native peoples of their homelands, late Elizabethan poetry celebrated tobacco as a commodity that ushered in the golden age. It was, so the poet John Beaumont observed, when “great tobacco pleas’d to show her powers” that the inspiration behind “this blest age of ours” could begin.
Ceramics from China that risked merchants’ lives
They were fragile, luminescent, incredibly rare – and few English artisans had unlocked the secrets to manufacturing them. Is it any wonder, then, that ceramics such as the porcelain bowl below – fashioned by Chinese potters in Jingdezhen in c1585 – were highly prized by Tudor traders?
So great was the demand for these delicate artefacts that English merchants established networks with traders and interpreters across Europe and Asia. Yet the quest for ceramics was fraught with danger: on land, travellers faced mountains and deserts; at sea, voyages took them across the Pacific and Indian oceans where they were menaced by storms, ship wrecks and piracy.
A milestone in the Tudors’ relationship with ceramics arrived in 1592, when the English capture of the Portuguese ship Madre de Dios flooded the realm with spices, textiles, Ottoman carpets and many “porcelain vessels of China”. These treasures made their way into Elizabethan shops and display cabinets, including the queen’s private collection. London silver and goldsmiths – often French, Dutch and German artisans – then transformed bowls into cups, adding elaborately decorated mounts and handles.
This article was first published in the July 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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