renaissance-fair

9

16th Century Dyes:  Was the color of Purple for Royalty only? - - And was it rendered from Sea Snails?  

The Sumptuary laws of Queen Elizabeth I say:

None shall wear:

Any silk of the color of purple, cloth of gold tissued, nor fur of sables, but only the King, Queen, King’s mother, children, brethren, and sisters, uncles and aunts; and except dukes, marquises, and earls, who may wear the same in doublets, jerkins, linings of cloaks, gowns, and hose; and those of the Garter [meaning those who were inducted into the *Knights of the Garter], purple in mantles only.”

*Incidentally, The Knights of the Garter, or The Order of the Garter, was founded by Edward III in 1348. The Order, consisting of the King and twenty-five knights, was the highest honor one could attain and was usually reserved for those who were either born into nobility, or were bestowed with titles of nobility, and reserved for those whose service to the King or Queen were considered to be exemplary, and usually held the rank of an Earl, a Baron, or a Knight.”

The above statute seems to be where we find the controversy. Is Elizabeth specifying the color purple - casting a wide net to restrict that color in any fiber, or, is she restricting silk dyed with purple?

To answer that, lets break down the statute sentence by sentence. In the first line Elizabeth specifically refers to silk that is dyed purple. She does not state, "No one except the King, Queen, Kings mother, children, etc., can wear the color of purple….rather she says silk dyed purple.  She also mentions cloth of gold (which was fine linen or silk fibers spun with real gold), and sable fur. The fact that she mentions these two other items in conjunction with purple dyed silk is also telling, as both were extremely costly.

If you were related by blood to the King or Queen, or held the title of Duke, Marquise, or an Earl, you were considered "royalty” and could wear purple silk, cloth of gold, or sable fur in a doublet, a jerkin, in the lining of cloaks, in gowns, and in hose [stockings]. But those who were members of the Knights of the Garter could wear any of these fabrics or fur only in their mantles, which was a kind of wrap or cloak.  So if you were a Baron or a Knight, and you were a member of the Order of the Garter, you could wear purple silk, cloth of gold, or sable fur ONLY in the lining of your cloak.

At any Renaissance Faire, or on the websites of Faire Boards, popular internet sites dedicated to Elizabeth, and on the websites of private reenactors and costumers, they proliferate the opinion that only the King or Queen could wear purple.  But Elizabeth doesn’t say you cannot wear purple! - She says purple silk.  

QUESTION: Has the assertion that only the “King” or “Queen” could wear purple  have stemmed from a misunderstanding or a “miss-interpretation” of these Sumptuary Laws?:

It is worth mentioning, that some faire boards prohibit the use of purple in the clothing of the actors at Renaissance Faires so that the Queen or King will stand out from among the other reenactors for the patrons, who don’t always know enough about Renaissance history to be able to spot her/his majesty. My character at faire is that of a baroness (Margaret Howard, Baroness Scrope of Bolton), and many times patrons have referred to me as “her majesty.” Because they see me dressed sumptuously they tend to assume I am portraying royalty. Therefore, there is an effort by faire boards to disallow purple so that those portraying royalty will stand out against those portraying wealthy nobles. But this seems to have fed the controversy that only royalty wore purple.

So why the restriction on purple silk in the Sumptuary statutes? 

I’ll dive deeper into this topic, but purple rendered from Sea Snails was not the method used during the Tudor Dynasty. Rather, royal purple was rendered by the use of such expensive dye materials as indigo blue dye overlaid with red dye made from Kermes or Cochineal dye; which would have rendered a deep royal purple. But because Indigo and Kermes were both very expensive dyes, AND required skilled dyers to create it, fabrics dyed purple using THESE particular ingredients would place them at a premium. But, there were many other cheap plant sources that could have been, and more than likely were, used to render many shades of purple, pink, violet, lavender, and mauve as I’ve shown in color samples earlier.

In an article published by Stacey Leigh in 1996 entitled, “An Historical Overview of Dyes, Dying, and Fabric Colors in the Renaissance,” she opined that:

1)  “...from these glimpses of the factors influencing the coloring of medieval and renaissance garb, we can deduce that, although the lower classes may have had a variety of colors available to them, bright red, plum purple, and most shades of blue were not among them.

2)  “We must also remember that all dye processes were somewhat time consuming and labor intensive, and the results were often uneven and not well fixed. The lower classes were probably too overworked to attend to the dying and re-dying of their daily garb.”

I’ve highlighted those two sections for a reason. In terms of her first statement that bright red, plum purple and most shades of blue were not worn among the lower classes, the painting above (picture #7, 8, 9) put that statement up for serious debate - as you see plenty of red, blue, black, and even LAVENDER depicted in the clothing worn in the painting. The only color not shown is “plum” purple. You can read more about blue dyes in my other posts, but let me dispel the rumor that tints used for paints were more varied than those used for wool and clothing. The same materials were used for both oil paint tints and dyes.

In terms of the second statement highlighted, I respectfully point out that we really don’t have any proof, one way or the other, to say with any surety what the peasants did or did not wear, because there simply is a lack of written documentation for that class of people. History has focused on the upper classes and those of royalty; therefore, we are left to conjecture where the lower classes are concerned - which really is just a "guess” based on one person’s ideas, opinions, or thoughts.

We do not KNOW what their daily, weekly, or monthly routine consisted of; though we might feel we have a basic idea, we simply lack the documentation to support Ms. Leigh’s assertion about being too overworked to redye their clothing.  I do not feel that simply because the process would be time consuming is evidence enough to assert that this would prohibit re-dying clothing. Everything the 16th Century Tudors did was time consuming! I do not think “time constraints” would even be an issue; and I think to suggest it would, is based on modern day comparisons rather than an understanding of the Tudor culture. We live in an age where our transportation is motor driven; where microwaves, electricity, ready-made clothing, and the availability of food that takes minimal preparation time, by comparison, can make any replication of 16th century methods of ‘dying’ materials, yarn, or clothing seem excessively labor intensive.

As an example, for the 16th Century Londoner, buying bread from the baker was a luxury that many who lived in the country would not be afforded. Therefore, I am not convinced that those among the lower classes would avoid dying their clothing because it was too time consuming, or that they would avoid doing so because by comparison to our lives they were 'overworked.’ We must keep in mind that people in the 16th Century did not have the luxury of an 8 hour work day to which we are accustomed. Dying their own fabrics, spinning, and weaving, were simply a part of the Elizabethan lifestyle. Labor intensive work was all they knew. Therefore, I respectfully disagree, and suggest that while the author has experience in replicating the process of dying with period dye stuff, the opinion she offers is based on modern day comparisons rather than fact. The norms of the 16th Century Englishman/woman would seem extreme to those of us living today in the 21st Century; as we cannot conceive of living without modern day conveniences. But when you have nothing to compare, such chores would not be avoided due to inconvenience or hardship.

Returning to my point, it is my opinion that it may not necessarily have been the color of purple that appears to be prohibited…but rather it seems very possible that it is royal purple dyed “silk” using expensive premium dyes to which the Sumptuary laws apply. It seems plausible that someone of nobility could also wear purple worsted, silk velvet, satin, damask,  brocade, or wool using these expensive dyes  - if they could afford it.

The question that begs to be answered is: What did Royal Purple look like? How was it produced?

I’ll touch on both of those very shortly. The point I am focusing on at the moment is that there were dyes that were very expensive and would have only been available to the wealthy titled, but there were also dyes that were cheap and readily available and could possibly have been used by the lower classes - more than likely the Yeoman and Merchant classes.

It is my opinion, that the dyes that were expensive were those that were regulated by the Sumptuary Laws, and I’m not alone in that assertion.

Ultimately, your guide to the wearing of purple at faire should be left to your individual guild and the faire board. If the faire board asks that only the Queen or King wear royal purple, there are many beautiful lilacs, lavenders, and mauve that COULD be used in your ensemble for both the nobility, gentry, merchants, and commoners and still be accurate to the time period.

Myth: Purple dye during the Tudor Dynasty was made with Sea Snails:

There is a belief circulating among Renaissance enthusiasts that the reason purple was set aside as a royal color during the Tudor Dynasty was because it was made of sea snails and was expensive to produce. This is only partially true.

The purple rendered from sea snails was known as Murex Purple, Tyrian Purple, Imperial Purple, or Greek Purple.

As you will see in the next section there were purple dyes made from sea snails and muscles that were very costly to make, but contrary to popular belief those dyes were not available during the Tudor Dynasty.

Murex “Tyrian” Purple 

Beginning in about 1500 BC, the citizens of Sidon  and Tyre, two cities on the coast of Ancient Phoenicia, (present day Lebanon), began to exploit a remarkable new source of purple; a muscle called the spiny dye-murex found around the Mediterranean.

This deep, rich purple dye made from this snail became known as Tyrian purple or imperial purple.

Tyrian purple was made from the ink sac and took thousands of shells to obtain enough dye to work with.

One ounce cost the equivalent of 3000 pounds sterling in today’s money, or $4,500 in US dollars.

Prior to 1464 AD, the most famous purple dye in the ancient world was Tyrian purple.A common belief is that purple dye during the Tudor Dynasty was made from these sea snails, and is believed to be the reason why it was so costly; thereby prohibiting this color for only the very wealthy - or rather those of royalty.

While sea snails and muscles were widely used to dye clothing at one time in ancient history, and it was a costly commodity, the use of sea snails to render purple dye was not used during the Tudor Dynasty. The reason was because the secret to the production of Tyrian purple was lost with the decline of the Roman Empire. The large scale production of this purple made with murex ceased with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (29 May, actually). It was replaced by other cheaper dyes like lichen purple and madder, or indigo overlaid with kermes.

In 1464, Pope Paul II decreed that cardinals should no longer wear purple, and instead were to wear scarlet rendered from kermes and alum; since the deep Tyrian purple from Byzantium was no longer available.  Bishops and archbishops, of a lower status than cardinals, were assigned the color purple, but not the rich Tyrian purple or the purple made from sea snails. Rather, they wore cloth dyed first with indigo blue, then overlaid with red made from kermes dye.

It wasn’t until 1685 that a researcher named William Cole replicated Murex dye. He described in some detail how to use Nucella lapillus, a type of sea shell he found on the shores of the Bristol Channel, to obtain the purple dye, but Murex dye was not commonly used thereafter.

Henry Tudor, a.k.a. King Henry VIII, became king in 1509. Purple made from Murex was no longer available at that time period, and the secret to its production was also not available. So the myth about purple dyes being produced by sea snails in England during the Tudor dynasty can once and for all be put to rest

What did Royal Purple truly look like?

Although purple made from Murex was no longer available during the time of Henry VIII, Queen Mary, or Queen Elizabeth, there is some controversy - or curiosity - about what true Royal Purple looked like.

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio a Roman writer, architect and engineer  in the 1st Century, stated  that Tyrian purple varied from a reddish to a bluish purple.

Picture #1: Is a dye bath made from a type of murex; a sea snail known as Hexaplex trunculus.It appears bluish at this stage, but once the fibers are dried they turn deep purple as seen in PICTURE #2 above.

The mucous secretion of the Murex brandaris  species produces a dye more red in color:  See PICTURE #3 above which shows a sea slug (snail) and its secretion. It turns this color in the sun or when it mixes with oxygen.

The most valued shades of “Tyrian purple” were said to be those closer to the color of clotted or dried blood. Those of us who have worked in the medical field can tell you that clotted or dried blood is a very deep wine color - as seen in the ink secretions from the slug in the pictured above.

Other Natural Dye Sources for Purple:

From the Middle Ages onward, purple and violet dyes for the clothing of common people were often made from blackberries or other red fruit of the genus rubus, or from the mulberry. Currants were also a plant source used for dyes.

Examples of dyes using blackberries and mulberries can be seen in the picture of yarns shown in PICTURE #4.

PICTURE #5 is a shade of deep purple rendered from a concentrated dye bath using blackberries.  

As I have shown you, there were many methods to dyeing fabrics in shades of purple, the least expensive of which was using natural plants and berries that were both inexpensive and readily available to even the poorest commoner. However, it has been suggested that these dyes would not be as color fast as the more expensive dyes,which would make them less desirable, even among the commons.

Whether or not those among the commons would use these inexpensive dyes, remains unanswered. I think it is plausible, but there’s no definitive answer. The one thing of which I am convinced, is that the actual color of purple was not reserved just for the King or Queen, and was, in fact, no longer considered to be the Color of Royalty.  Purple dye was not rendered by sea snails, but the dyes used to counterfeit the color of true Royal Purple would more than likely only be available to the wealthy because the ingredients to render this purple were cost prohibitive to anyone other than the clergy, the nobility, and perhaps the landed gentry.

Again, to recap, Scarlet (purplish pink) and Crimson replaced purple as a Royal color. They were expensive to produce, as they were made with cochineal or kermes.

But just as having cloth dyed with true Tyrian purple was once considered to be valuable, so was using cochineal or kermes; but it was not just the color that made it desirable,  it was the status of owning a garment dyed with these specific dye sources.

Cochineal: Replaces Purple as the New Royal Color

Recapping, as I mentioned earlier, the Sumptuary laws of Elizabeth I, states “velvet” of Crimson (Deep Red), *Scarlet (bright purplish-pink), or Blue, could only be worn by Knights, Barons or Baronesses, or anyone of higher rank.However, like purple silk, it was Scarlet and Crimson (and blue) Silk Velvet that appears to fall  under the purview of the Sumptuary Laws.

In 1543, the first samples of cochineal from the new world (South America) imported by Spain, arrived in Venice, which was the major silk producing and dying center in Europe. Master dyers tested the dye on silk and found it superior to the European dyes available at the time.

By 1560 cochineal had become the second most valued export (after silver) from New Spain (South America); however, the Spanish maintained strict control over cochineal exportation. With the decline of Tyrian purple, gradually deep reds, made with dye from the cochineal insect, became the new royal color in Europe, replacing that of purple.

At first the fabrics dyed with cochineal were cheaper and in less demand than the traditional kermes dyes but that soon changed. Cochineal proved to be powerful, fast and could yield colors ranging from delicate pinks to vivid reds. In addition the cochineal proved to be 10 to 12 times stronger per pound of dye than kermes. This dye was obtained by crushing the bodies of female cochineal insects, producing colors ranging from red, purple, orange, gray, and black dyes depending on the mordants used.

PICTURE #6: Shows wools dyed with Cochineal. Here you see the vivid red
and deep wine color that became the new Royal Color replacing Murex
purple - which was no longer widely available during the Tudor Dynasty.

The antipathy Queen Elizabeth had for the Spanish is well documented.
Because they maintained a monopoly on the importation of Cochineal until
late in the 1600s, one has to wonder if Elizabeth’s feelings about the Spanish
may have had something to do with her placing restrictions upon its use?  Of course, silks dyed with Cochineal were largely imported from Italy and
Italian silks
would be considered a premium. So..the bottom line is that the dyes used to produce purple was very costly; which was more than likely another reason why purple dyed silk was listed in the Sumptuary Laws, and usually worn by the wealthy titled.

Cochineal, Kermes, Indigo blue used to render purple dyes on these expensive Italian imported silks, in my opinion, is what Elizabeth was addressing when she wrote this particular statute.