Virtuous needleworkers, vicious apes: the embroideries of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick

Katritzky, M. A. (2017). Virtuous needleworkers, vicious apes: the embroideries of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick. In: Münch, Birgit Ulrike; Tacke, Andreas; Herzog, Markwart and Heudecker, Sylvia eds. Künstlerinnen: neue Perspektiven auf ein Forschungsfeld der Vormoderne. Kunsthistorisches Forum Irsee, 4. Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag, pp. 48–61.


Quite apart from the 100s of important worked textiles collected by Bess of Hardwick (1518-1608), and her independent productions, her creative collaboration with Mary Queen of Scots (1542-87) produced England’s largest and best known surviving corpus of 16th-century needlework. Together, the two women supervised the design and production of more than 230 pieces embroidered with botanical, zoological or emblematic motifs. Around 50 are missing or destroyed, the rest now mostly in British public collections. At least three feature depictions of apes or monkeys, and my research poses the question: what, if any, is the deeper significance of this choice of motif? Could it have been influenced by Mary’s personal knowledge of Pedro Gonzalez, the so-called “Wild Man” of Tenerife, alongside whom she was educated in France as a young girl?

I survey the Oxburgh and Hardwick needlework corpuses as a whole, with special emphasis on one particular series of five hangings featuring classical women. Most specialists broadly agree with Santina Levey that Bess chose them because “they illustrate the love and loyalty on which a marriage depends […] that her exemplars are women does not make her a feminist”. My own research suggests a significant previously missed subtext that puts a very different perspective on Bess’s choice of subject: her five chosen women are all distinguished by exceptional textile connections. Both in subject and medium, these hangings, I suggest, reflect Bess’s deep understanding of textile work and the central creative role of women in its cultural history. With reference to embroideries such as “A Catte”, I consider sources for Bess and Mary’s collaborative zoological images, of which the most important is Conrad Gessner’s multi-volume illustrated zoological compendium, the Historiae Animalium of the 1550s. Finally, I focus on their three ape embroideries.

Viewing alternatives

No digital document available to download for this item

Item Actions