A Lady’s Dress from Stuart Times

Dress_01 & 02

Above: The dress on display with a contemporary painting (right) to get some idea of how the dress would look when being worn.

This is an unusual article from several points of view. Firstly, talking about a lady’s dress from Stuart times is not something you do every day. Secondly this story is all about the Dutch coast and so it does not look like an obvious choice for inclusion alongside articles about the history of London. In short, finds on the sea-bed off the coast of Holland recently discovered are being called one of the most important shipwreck treasures ever found and they offer a glimpse of 17th-century aristocratic life.

If you go to a museum, you may find it has a collection of modern or 20th century dresses. It may also have Victorian dresses. This is mainly because museums were in existence when the owner of the dress was alive and it is likely that the clothes were left to the museum to show what the styles were like at the time. Move back in time to Georgian or Tudor dresses and there are far less of such styles on show. In general, when a wealthy lady no longer wanted to wear the garment – because it was starting to look shabby; or because it no longer fitted her; or because the dress was going out of fashion – she would often give it to another member of the family or to someone down the social scale. That dress would then either be worn by someone else or the decorative work on it would be removed and transferred to another garment. The rest of the dress might then be cut up and other uses found for small parts of it – like handkerchiefs – or it might be handed over to the servants and cut up to be used as cloths for cleaning. The end result for the once magnificent dress would be that it would disintegrate into rags and eventually be thrown away. I am most grateful to the staff at the Museum of London from whom I derived most of these ideas while researching the Agas map while compiling a new index.

If you ever see a dress in a museum dating from 400 years ago you can now begin to understand that it is a very rare item indeed. Very recently a wreck off the coast of Holland was being investigated and, much to everyone’s amazement, a complete dress was found on the sea-bed. Normally the salt water and the constantly moving currents would cause such delicate fabrics to be destroyed. This was a silk dress which was found in really good condition, along with a pair of lady’s stockings. The garments were buried under sand and it is thought that this was why they survived after 400 years.

How did they know they were 400 years old?

Well, two things – firstly the style of the dress was from Stuart times but secondly, and this is also remarkable, the outer coved of a Stuart Bible was also found with the coat of arms still on the cover. The woman’s books were stamped with the emblem of King Charles I, of the Stuart royal family from England, which suggests she may even have been royalty herself. It’s exceedingly rare to find such a well-preserved collection of textiles and makes this find one of the most important finds of its kind in Europe.

Upper Ground (Agas)_800x500

Above: Highly enlarged excerpt from the Agas map of c1561 showing a lady wearing a dress of a similar style, accompanied by her husband and the family dog. They are walking beside the Thames at a point where the street called Upper Ground is today.

So, why should this article appear under the history of London?

It was the last piece of information that gave the information such poignancy. London’s very first complete map was drawn about 1561 and is attributed to Agas. However, nobody has ever found a print of that original 1561 map. In fact, it is believed that no copies exist. For some reason – best known to the printer – the old 1561 wooden blocks on which the map was made were re-used in Stuart times to make another printing. Realising that the public would see from the coat of arms on the map that it was mid-16th century, the printer craftily cut out the old coat or arms and inserted a Stuart version into the relevant wooden block. The dress, which has been dated by the finding of a Stuart Bible beside it, is of exactly the same date as the three existing prints of the ‘Agas’ map that we have today. Bearing in mind that the Bible was Stuart, it is quite likely that the Bible, the dress and other items came from London in the first place.

If you want to see the items you will have to travel to Holland to do so. Because it may be of interest to some of you, here are two Weblinks which will provide more of the background. These items, found at the bottom of the sea, after a ship-wreck, bear witness to Stuart London with even more intriguing associations with the remarkable ‘Agas’ map.

Article about the discovery of the artefacts:


Blog with further pictures:


YouTube video (in Dutch) containing interesting visuals showing the museum conservers at work along with good visuals of some of the finds:


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