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Mourning a Monarch

By Jayne Shrimpton

Last September we experienced the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and the nation ‘officially’ mourned for 11 days. For the royal family and those close to the Queen this entailed wearing black clothes and carefully-chosen accessories, following a custom that dates back centuries.

Resplendent funerals

Elaborate royal funeral rituals began to develop in parts of medieval and Renaissance Europe – wherever and whenever the heir to the throne was publicly declared and acknowledged before the death of the king. Where there was chaos and confusion between rival claimants, by the time the heir apparent had assembled his supporters and arranged his coronation, little time or resources remained for organising a glorious burial for his predecessor. However, once the transition of titles and political power became smoother, the way was clear for magnificent public funeral processions and services that symbolised the sovereignty of the Crown. No expense was spared in royal and aristocratic circles and the wearing of special mourning clothes was a key element of the ritual, a powerful display of wealth and rank.

To reinforce social prestige and authority it was deemed imperative for the funerals of the ruling elite to appear opulent and awe-inspiring. Black mourning cloth played a significant role in the spectacle, being very expensive, due in part to the high cost of deep black dye. For instance, at the funeral of the Duke of Northumberland in 1489, over 2,200 yards of black fabric was provided for mourners and the other drapery requirements, its price totalling 75% of the cost of the whole occasion.

Heraldic recognition

From the late-1400s onwards, the funerals of all English arms-bearing aristocratic, noble and gentry families were attended and supervised by the Court of Heralds, to ensure that no social climbers displayed arms or arranged grandiose funerals to which they were not entitled. The presence of the Heralds at a burial signified royal recognition of the elevated standing of the family and indeed Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) personally met the funeral expenses of all her friends and relatives, to be certain of correct observance.

However, despite growing expense, by the late-1500s many ambitious non-armorial families were emulating the extravagant funerals of their social superiors: consequently the prestige and meaning of such occasions declined. During 1600s as more families followed the fashion for hosting extravagant burials with numerous coaches, horses, mourners, gifts – mourning rings, black gloves and scarves – and a vast funeral feast, the exclusive role of the Heralds waned. Only three legitimate heraldic funerals were recorded in the 1700s and the presence of the Court of Heralds was eventually restricted to royal and State funerals: we saw them recently at the funeral of the late Queen. Royal mourning Besides black, the principal colour of mourning in the west, purple has also been used in Europe - the colour of imperial Rome, created from precious dyes deriving from sea snails. Indeed, following the death of a monarch, royal funeral accessories have often been purple, such as the pall and wall hangings of state rooms. After Queen Victoria’s death in January 1901, the streets of London were draped with purple as her funeral cortège passed by.

The mourning apparel adopted by kings and queens in the past was, predictably, the most magnificent of all, progressing over time from sumptuous medieval robes to more fashionable garments, but adhering to detailed edicts concerning types of head-covering, size of veil, length of train and so on. Minor nobility and Court servants followed suit, but wore less ostentatious dress, the different social ranks theoretically bound by Sumptuary Laws governing what colours, textiles and yardage of material each could and could not wear.

Along with more extravagant funerals, during the 1600s and 1700s the custom of wearing dedicated mourning dress steadily percolated down society and public mourning after a royal death became more widespread. For some, Court and General mourning were ordered: Court mourning for those directly connected to the Court; General mourning for any who could afford to participate, from the nobility to the middle classes.

Traditionally luxury black velvets, silks and fine woollen cloth were the ideal. Samuel Pepys, diarist and Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, wrote on 11th February 1666: ‘Up and put on my new black cloth suit to an coat, that I make to be in mourning at Court where they all are for the King of Spain’ (Philip IV, who had died in September 1665). Another diarist, country clergyman Parson Woodforde wrote after the death of King George II in October 1760 of the new mourning clothes that he ordered for himself and his family. However, sometimes there was no time to organise special bespoke clothes and compromises were made: for instance, the novelist Jane Austen visiting London in 1814, where mourning was being observed for Queen Charlotte’s brother, the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wore an existing brown gown to an evening function, where it ‘did very well.’ By this time, General mourning was also being taken up by ordinary working people, poorer mourners often choosing practical ‘drab’, a dull brown/beige also known as ‘sad colour’. One significant 19th-century development was the publication of many new fashion periodicals which greatly advanced the dissemination of mourning dress and etiquette. These continued into the 1900s, providing prolific advice and illustrations of mourning modes, especially when the royal courts were in mourning. Rules following the death of a royal figure changed over time, with ‘official’ public mourning periods growing shorter. By 1880 in Britain 12 weeks mourning were ordered following the death of a monarch; 6 weeks following the death of the sovereign’s children; 3 weeks for their siblings; 2 weeks for nephews, nieces, aunts and uncles; and 10 days for royal first cousins.

Despite changes throughout history, the royal family and the court still pay close attention to mourning etiquette. This includes travelling overseas with a set of mourning clothes in preparation for any eventuality, as did the late Queen herself in 1952 when visiting Kenya, where she learned of her own father’s death. So too did the Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, when on a State visit to Brazil in 1978, according to the Sunday Times Magazine.

Soon we were to witness the pomp and ceremony of a Coronation. Tradition and ritual helping us start a new story.

Jayne Shrimpton (MA History of Dress)

Posted in History on Sep 01, 2023