Elizabeth I’s incredible law to control subjects: ‘Don’t get above their station’

Queen Elizabeth I's speech was 'riddled with holes' says expert

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Elizabeth ruled between 1558 until her death in 1603, and was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor, including her father King Henry VIII. She inherited the throne after the five-year reign of her half-sister Queen Mary I, who once imprisoned her sibling for nearly a year on suspicion of supporting Protestant rebels. During her reign, Elizabeth initially faced angered voices from some of her subjects, who deemed her to be “illegitimate”, due to the fact she was born to Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn.

This claim was backed by the Pope, who, in 1570 “released her subjects from obedience to her”, sparking several conspiracies that threatened her life.

But according to historian Lucy Worsley, Elizabeth embarked on using fashion to help control those under her reign – everyone from her courtiers to peasants.

Speaking on Amazon Prime’s Tales from the Royal Wardrobe, Dr Worsley detailed how Elizabeth “used clothes to construct her own personal image” and “expected the rest of her court to follow her lead”.

Dr Worsley said: “She used clothes to construct her own personal image, but expected the rest of her court to follow her lead.

“A gentleman’s suit, appropriate for court wear, would cost as much as a year’s rent on his London townhouse. To maintain standards Elizabeth even passed laws on what people should, and importantly should not, wear.

“Elizabeth wanted her courtiers to look good, but she didn’t want them getting above their station, so she passed no less than 10 statutes of apparel – laws that said who could wear what, at what rank of society.”

During the documentary, she referred to a 16th-century document called “the Act of Parliament against the inordinate use of the apparel”.

This set out the types of clothing certain parts of society were allowed to wear, the rules as to who could be seen in such attire.

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Dr Worsley added: “It says, if you want to wear a cloth of gold, you have to be an Earl or above that in status. If you want to wear fur on your clothes you have to be worth at least £100 per year.

“And I also like the impression it gives that the Queen can see you, even in your bedroom. Woe betide you if you’re worth less than £20 a year, and if you wear the sumptuous fabric of silk on your nightcap.”

The Royal Museums Greenwich described how Elizabeth’s “influence on fashion extended beyond women’s clothing”, and that she was one of the first “royal trendsetters”.

During the early stages of her reign, men would typically wear the same outfits as desired by her father Henry, but “as Elizabeth’s wardrobe became more opulent and elaborate”, soon her courtiers would follow suit.

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It added: “Men wore corsets to give them a cinched waistline and stuffed ‘peascod’ doublets, which gave them a pointed pot-belly, like a pea in a pod.”

Although Elizabeth’s popularity grew as her reign developed, the issues regarding her standing plagued the early days of her premiership.

Historian Jessie Childs, speaking on the BBC’s Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley, explained how Elizabeth had been “declared a heretic”, describing her as a “usurper, a monster-like usurper” by the Pope.

She continued: “And he orders her subjects, her Catholic subjects, to disobey her.

“So what Elizabeth’s Privy Council comes up with is something that is known as the Bloody Question.”

This question was: “If the Pope backs an invasion of England to restore the Catholic faith to England, who are you going to support?

“Are you going to support the Pope or are you going to support the Queen?”

Ms Childs added: “It’s very tough for the Catholics because now they’ve suddenly got really, the choice of two betrayals.”

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