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Catherine of Aragon - Tudor Style Icon and Power Dresser - Farthingales, blackwork embroidery and sumptuous fabrics


When fifteen year old Catherine of Aragon arrived at Plymouth at 3 o’clock on the afternoon of 2 October 1501 she must have caused quite a stir.  Imagine the scene when the lovely young woman stepped off the ship accompanied by all her ladies wearing the latest Spanish fashions. The people of Plymouth and the great and good of the West Country thronged the streets, excited to set eyes on the foreign princess who had travo far to marry King Henry Tudor’s heir.  How impressed they must have been by Catherine’s youth and beauty — and of course everyone was also looking at what she was wearing.




By the time of Catherine’s arrival Plymouth had grown from a fishing village to become a bustling port with a population of 3,500. Devon ships carried cargoes of wool, cloth and tin to markets in France and beyond and brought back wine and other commodities.  The well-to-do merchants and their wives, the local gentry and the ordinary people of the town who greeted Prince Arthur’s Spanish bride and her magnificent retinue must have been all agog.  After all those years of conflict — what we now call the War of the Roses —  followed by the reign of the rather dour King Henry VII, surely everyone was ready for good news.  After a  series of English-born Queens - Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York - perhaps the Spanish Princess seemed a fresh, new, celebrity, bringing with her a hint of the exotic.  Think of Catherine and Arthur, her teenage husband-to-be, as the William and Kate of their day.

It was only by chance that the people of Plymouth were treated to the spectacle of Catherine’s arrival in their town.  Her ship had been expected further along the coast at Southampton, but put into Plymouth after it was blown off course by storms.  The Recyt of the Ladie Katherine, a fascinating account thought to have been written by a member of the King’s household who witnessed many of the events, tells us that Catherine was greeted enthusiastically.

“The West Country’s nobility ‘with all goodly manner and haste sped themselves with right honourable gifts… saluted and welcomed her’”

The welcoming crowds may have been a little disappointed that as well as a coif (head covering) and hat, which allowed her ‘faire aburne’ hair to hang down about her shoulders, Catherine reportedly also wore a veil. But no doubt they marvelled at the multicultural entourage she brought with her.  Her party included Spanish noblemen, chaplain & confessor, secretary, treasurer, cup-bearer, six young Spanish girls 'of gentle birth' & two slave girls, (probably Moors from Grenada), musicians, minstrels & an acrobat who walked a tightrope. Also amongst the party was her Doctor, Licentiate Alcatraz, who wrote that

“she could not have been received with greater rejoicings, if she had been the Saviour of the World”

How relieved the young princess must have been to step safely onto English soil.  More than four months since she left her home at the Alhambra, after an arduous trek across Spain by land and then the notoriously dangerous sea crossing, her prayers had been answered. She had found a safe harbour, although the small port town set amongst green Devon hills must have seemed very different from Spain.  Putting aside the exhaustion of her nightmare journey Catherine went first to St Andrews church, which still stands in Plymouth, its facade hardly changed since 1501.

She stayed in Plymouth for over a week until everything had been landed from the ships, including part of her marriage dowry. It seems there was a good deal of feasting.  The town audit books reveal the food and drink laid on for her entertainment -  6 oxen, 20 sheep, 2 hogsheads of Gascon wine, one of claret, & a pipe of muscadel.

Lord Willoughby de Broke, Lord Steward of the King's Household, who had hurried from Southampton to Exeter then organised escorts of local gentry & nobles for her journey from Plymouth via Tavistock, Okehampton & Crediton for her formal reception in Exeter.  No doubt the people of Exeter also enjoyed the opportunity to take a peek at the princess while she stayed in their city. She spent several days there at the Old Deanery next to the Cathedral. Legend has it that she was kept awake by the noise of the weathervane at the nearby church of St Mary Major.  When she complained a servant was duly despatched to the top of the tower to take remove the vane.

A month later her party reached Dogmersfield, where she met her father-in-law and future husband for the first time.  Catherine then travelled on to be received in London.  Dressed in Spanish style, her auburn hair hanging down her back beneath a coif the colour of carnations, topped by a little cap rather like a cardinal’s hat, she must have looked splendid.

Crowds lined her route across the country and heads turned everywhere she went.  The streets of London were packed with people enjoying the unexpected largess of King Henry’s magnificent celebrations, which included fountains running with wine. The wedding was celebrated in spectacular pomp in St Paul’s  on 14 November. Catherine and Prince Henry, dressed in silver tissue embroidered with gold roses, arrived at the West door of the cathedral as trumpets sounded. Arthur appeared on the stage, also dressed in white satin. The Receyt mentions that Catherine and her ladies all wore Spanish dress with


“ certayne round hopys berryng owt their gowns from their body’s after their country maner”.


This was probably the first time the people of England had seen the farthingale, perhaps with the hoops visible on the outside as in this early painting by Pedro García de Benabarre, (Salome from the St John Retable, Catalonia, 1470–1480. )





A week of festivities, tournaments and feasting followed the wedding, before Catherine and Arthur left for Ludlow where they would make their home. Sadly the young couple did not have long together. Catherine was left a widow just a few months later.  A long, uncertain, impoverished period followed when several times Catherine had to pawn her jewels and wardrobe in order to feed her retainers.  But then, after his father died, in 1509, Arthur’s brother Henry, now King Henry VIII, made Catherine his first wife.


So what fashions did Catherine bring with her from Spain?  Let’s start with that farthingale. The name comes from the Spanish word verdugado, (from verdugo — green wood)  perhaps a reference to green osiers (willow withies) which could easily be bent into hoops, although earlier versions were stiffened with esparto grass bent into rope.  Much later whalebone was used.

It is said that Joan of Portugal, who married King Henry IV of Castile in 1455,  was the first to use verdugados with hoops. Joan became notorious for her scandalous behaviour . As she had two illegitimate children by Pedro de Castilla y Fonseca she was supposed to have used the farthingale to cover up a pregnancy. When she started to use farthingales of course court fashion followed suit.

Having worn farthingales quite often, I’m not really convinced that they would have been particularly effective in hiding a growing stomach. To do so the hoops would need to sit much higher under the bust than in the picture.  A rather more plausible explanation might be found in the very heavy fabrics fashionable at the Spanish court. Rich silks woven and embroidered with metallic threads of gold and silver and sumptuous velvets were all the rage.  Hoops may have provided support so that voluminous quantities of these weighty and expensive fabrics could be put on display.

By the time Catherine of Aragon left Spain farthingales had been  adopted by all the ladies of the Spanish court. However it took some years for the fashion to really take hold in England.  Catherine probably continued to wear one when she chose to dress in Spanish style — a useful way to underline her own Royal lineage.  Eleri Lynn tells us that in 1515 the Venetian ambassador noted that the Queen was richly dressed in the Spanish style. At the famous Field of Cloth of Gold meeting Catherine wore a Spanish style headdress to underline her displeasure at the Anglo-French Alliance. But more often she seems to have made a conscious choice to adopt English styles of dress to show herself as the English Queen and win over the people.  She is most often depicted wearing the rather cumbersome English gable hood with her hair hidden.


A search of the records reveals only a few further mentions of the farthingale in the first half of the sixteenth century. For example, in March 1519 at a mask at Greenwich Palace female dancers in fanciful "Egyptian" costumes wore black velvet gowns "with hoops from the waist downwards” which may have been farthingales. Later the accounts of Princess Elizabeth in 1545 describe a farthingale made of crimson Bruges satin. When Anne Seymour, Duchess of Suffolk asked for her clothes to be sent to her in the Tower of London in 1551 a farthingale was included in the list.  Farthingales were certainly part  of fashionable dress in England under Mary I, who bought and wore Spanish farthingales.

Mary Queen of Scots also adopted the style. She is recorded as having had a black taffeta "verdugalle" and another of violet taffeta, and also a set of fashion dolls with 15 farthingales. Her wardrobe accounts show that whalebone was bought to shape her farthingales in 1562, spmewhat earlier than it appears in Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe accounts in the 1580s. (Sarah A Bendall's article "Whalebone and the Wardrobe of Elizabeth 1 has much more fascinating detail on the use of whalebone) 

The Spanish farthingale, shaped like a bell continued to be worn until it was replaced by the French, also known as the wheel or drum,  farthingale which is so characteristic of portraits later in Queen Elizabeth’s reign. With its intricate pleating and large sleeves, which wer also often supported by farthingale type hoops, this fashion allowed even larger quantities of costly fabric to be on display. (See my video "Underpinnings" for more on receonstructing a french farthingale.)







Blackwork embroidery

It’s often said that another fashion trend Catherine of Aragon brought to England was blackwork embroidery. In the sixteenth century the technique, which used black threads, usually silk, on white fabric, usually linen, did become known as “ Spanish Work” . But black embroidery was known in England before 1500. Chaucer describes the clothing of the miller's wife, Alison in the Canterbury Tales as follows:

“Of white, too, was the dainty smock she wore, embroidered at the collar all about with coal-black silk, alike within and out."

So it is clear that black silk embroidery was used on smocks, also called shifts, before Catherine arrived in England. But there was certainly an explosion in the use of blackwork in the early C16. It was perhaps a particular style of blackwork using regular geometric patterns that Catherine of Aragon made so popular. Before Catherine’s parents Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Spain the country was ruled by the Moors whose unique style of  architecture included elaborate decoration using  geometric designs.   The wall’s of the palaces Catherine grew up iwere lined with tiles and patterns like these in the Alhambra in Grenada .






This may have been the inspiration for the distinctive regular patterns Catherine used in her blackwork . Of course everyone wanted to copy her, so the use of this type of blackwork spread. Then, as now, young Royals set the fashion for everyone.

In portraits from the late C15 and early C16 a line of blackwork edging is often visible on the top of the undergarment (called a shift, a smock or a chemise) worn beneath the gown. Outer garments for the wealthy were generally made by tailors, most of whom were men. But undergarments, shirts and shifts, and smaller items like cuffs and partlets were made by women. High born women spent long hours embroidering these garments which often featured in lists of gifts. For example in 1563 at New Year Kat Ashley (nee Champernowne), gave Queen Elizabeth


a night rayle wrought in black silk

and a year later she gave


a smocke wrought with black silk only with a square collar


Blackwork and similar regular patterns worked in red on white (red work) remained popular throughout the C16. Later designs became much more free flowing when flamboyant swirling patterns and floral motifs covered sleeves, doublets and coifs into the C17. More complex designs like those used on the Bacton Altar cloth, using a variety of stitches and colours to create intricate floral designs became more popular towards the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and the use of blackwork gradually declined.



Catherine and the power of clothing

Catherine is sometimes written off as the dowdy one who failed to produce an heir, the stubborn one who wouldn’t give up her position when she was too old to give the kingdom its heir.  But when she first arrived she was young and pretty, by all accounts, having a fair complexion (naturally pink cheeks and white skin), rich reddish-gold hair that fell below hip-level, and blue-eyes. Her looks suited the idea of beauty favoured at the time.  Contemporary sources suggest that she was also a little on the plump side.  Perhaps this was merely youthful roundness, seen as an indication of future fertility.

Catherine was married to HenryVIII for far longer than any of the other wives, a marriage that in the early years seemed to be happy.  Although she was older than her husband, they seem to have been a well-matched couple. Their intellectual tastes and educational background were similar, they both rode well and enjoyed hunting.  They were both pious and studied theological works. Catherine had been born and brought up to be a Queen and a strong leader like her mother the formidable Isabella of Castile. When King Henry was fighting in France in 1513, Catherine, as his regent, took an active role in organising a campaign against the Scots.  She won a famous victory and presented the King with the bloodied coat of the dead King of Scots. It is unfortunate that it is the one duty she failed to fulfil — the provision of a male heir — that so often defines her. If only one amongst all those pregnancies had produced a healthy son, how different things might have been.

Throughout her life Catherine showed that she understood the power of clothing. As we have seen she adopted Spanish dress on occasion to underline her own independent Royal status.  She favoured dark colours, like purple, rich brocaded fabrics and cloth of gold, all of which enhanced her regal appearance.  But under these Queenly outer garments, it is said that Catherine wore the habit of a Franciscan nun.

Despite that nod to piety, she certainly knew how to dress to impress. When her nephew, the Emperor Charles IV visited England in 1520 Catherine the Queen wore a petticoat of silver lamé, under a gown of cloth of gold lined with violet velvet with a raised pile, embroidered with the roses of England.  Nor did she neglect her jewels.   A diamond cross hung from a necklace of large pearls and her black and gold headdress was powdered with jewels and pearls. Her wardrobe also contained gowns of gold tissue, black tilsent (shot silk) decorated with Katherine wheels and cloth of silver.  She could easily match her husbands passion for magnificence and display.  So Catherine was not the dowdy frump we’ve been lead to believe. But Henry did need an heir, and a younger woman,  Anne Boleyn, had caught his eye.

When in 1527 Henry raised doubts about the validity of their marriage, Catherine immediately increased her clothing budget by 50 percent.  Perhaps she thought to appear more attractive to the fashion conscious King, but dressing splendidly would also show clearly that she, the Queen, outranked her rival. During the years she and Anne both remained at the same court, sharing the same household while Henry fought to dissolve his marriage to Catherine, the Great Wardrobe and the Royal jewels became a battleground.

Anne brought French fashions to the court and popularised the French hood, regarded as rather risqué as it revealed quite a lot of hair.  Catherine maintained a regal presence, continuing to act as though she were Henry’s wife and Queen. It is recorded that  Anne reacted angrily when she discovered a servant of the privy chamber taking linens to Queen Catherine for the Kings shirts. Catherine had continued to make and embroider Henry’s shirts, an intimate task, that showed her wifely devotion. It seems Henry liked the shirts he was used to, for on this occasion he intervened to confirm that the linen was sent on his instructions.  Anne, however, ordered shirts made for the King to be sent via her in future.

Even after Anne’s coronation, Catherine still projected herself as the rightful Queen and ordered new livery for her household embroidered with H and K.  Labelled the Dowager Princess of Wales in 1535 Catherine persisted in giving out Maundy money, despite The King expressly forbidding her to do so.

During her banishment she is credited with stimulating a cottage industry producing household needlework. Women admired her for her dignity and perseverance, which inspired some to step out of their quiet roles as housewife to ply their needles and add to their incomes.

Ultimately Catherine did not win the war. Anne did take her place, albeit briefly.   But Catherine undoubtedly had a strong influence on what English women of wealth and status wore, an influence that lasted long after she had gone. Perhaps we should remember Catherine of Aragon as a real Royal trend setter.

Rosemary Griggs

April 2022

Sources include

The Receyt of the Lady Catherine - edited by Gordon Kipling

Tudor Fashion - Eleri Lynn

Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlocked - Janet Arnold

The Elizabethan New Year Gift Exchanges 1559-1608  — edited by Jane A Lawson

 ‘Whalebone and the Wardrobe of Elizabeth I: Whaling and the Construction of Aristocratic Fashions in Sixteenth-Century Europe -  Sarah. A Bendall, Apparence(s): Histoire et Culture du Paraître, Special Issue on ‘Modes Animales’, edited by Ariane Fennetaux and Gabriele Mentges (2022).

Shaping Femininity - Foundation Garments , the Body and Women in Early Modren England -  Sarah A Bendall


Catherine of Aragon - unknown artist - Lambeth palace

Catherine of Aragon by Michael Sittow- Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Ditchley Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger - NPG