Aug
24
2010

What is known about Mary Queen of Scots’ first wedding dress?

Mary Stuart before her wedding, and in white veil as widow

Mary shortly before her marriage in 1558, and in white mourning veil c1560. Portraits by François Clouet (PD-EXP)

15-year-old Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was married to 14-year-old François, Dauphin of France, in April 1558. The wedding celebrations for the future French king and queen were magnificent, and a report of the grand ceremony and festivities was published one week later. So what does it tell us about Mary’s dress?

[She] was dressed in clothing as white as lilies, made so sumptuously and richly it would be impossible to describe. Two young ladies carried the marvellously long train. *

Not much detail, is there? The writer was no fashion reporter. He did better at naming all the royal and noble participants, and picking out highlights of the day’s excitements.

He also had a go at describing the jewellery:

Round her neck was a pendant of inestimable value, with chokers, gems, and other magnificent riches. On her head she wore a gold crown ornamented with pearls, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds. In the middle of the crown was a fine red jewel (a “carbuncle” stone) valued at 500,000 écus or more. *

Antonia Fraser’s extensive, carefully-researched biography, Mary Queen of Scots says nothing else about the dress, and yet there are more detailed descriptions around. Some can be traced back to Antonia Strickland, author of Lives of the Queens of Scotland and English Princesses, who travelled to Paris in 1844 to research Mary’s life. She got access to 16th century archives, including the document quoted above, which she cited when publishing this in 1852:

…a robe whiter than the lily, but so glorious in its fashion and decorations that it would be difficult, nay, impossible, for any pen to do justice to its details. Her regal mantle and train were of a bluish-grey cut velvet, richly embroidered with white silk and pearls. It was of a marvellous length, full six toises [12 yards], covered with precious stones, and was supported by young ladies.

Had Strickland seen another document that’s now missing? Or was she tempted to embellish the disappointingly brief description?  She knew readers would be interested:

The costume of a maiden monarch on her bridal day must always be a matter of interest to the feminine portion of our readers; that of Mary Stuart, at her marriage to the heir of France, has never before been described in any of her numerous histories.

The dress Mary Queen of Scots was married in (first time round) has attracted a lot of comment. Because it was white, or mainly white, unlike most other wedding dresses before the 19th century, it is often mentioned in wedding-themed books and webpages on the ‘history of the wedding dress’  or ‘when was the first white wedding?’

Was there any particular reason her dress was white? Did the bride choose the colour? A lot of the speculation seems to depend on a few facts – in particular:

  • Renaissance wedding dresses were not often white.
  • White was worn for mourning (deuil blanc) by French queens.
  • Mary expressed opinions about clothes in her early teens. (See Susan Doran’s Mary Queen of Scots: An Illustrated Life )
  • Mary’s fair skin looked lovely with a white veil, said Pierre de Brantôme.

Really, we’ve very little idea whether she chose what to wear. She had no choice about the marriage itself, arranged 10 years earlier. In any case, it seems that no-one attached much significance to the colour of the dress for 300 years or more.

*19th century reprints of the description published in 1558:
Ceremonial of the Marriage of Mary Queen of Scots with the Dauphin of France (London, 1818)
Discours du grand et magnifique triumphe…, in Archives curieuses de l’histoire de France (Paris 1834-1837)

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2 Comments

  • eiffel says:

    A quick visit to Google Image Search suggests that the word “carbuncle” means something different now from what it meant in 1558!

  • leli says:

    !! Yes, the historic jewellery kind belongs in the Wikipedia article called “Carbuncle (gemstone)”. I’ll change it to make it clearer.

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