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Embroidered rhetoric: the social, religious and political functions of elite women's needlework, c.1560-1630

By Sophia Jane Holroyd


This thesis focuses on the Elizabethan and Jacobean aristocracy and upper gentry to yield the first detailed study of the elite needleworking woman as fashioner of her social personage, and of the objects she produced as indices of social persona, religious conscience and political agency.\ud The first chapter explores how needlework mediates between wtiwomeann d their social context. It surveys the way in which needlework, both as practice and as object, functioned as a vehicle for projecting persona and personage into a social context which interpreted needlework according to complex value systems of personal virtue and the husbandries of conspicuous wealth. The chapter explores needlework as a site for intellectual expression. The theories developed in the first chapter are tested in a case study of Bess of Hardwick, whose textiles show her construction of a virtuous aristocratic persona proclaiming its self-assured place in the social hierarchy. \ud Chapter Two is the first study to consider the needlework of Elizabethan and Jacobean Catholics in the light of the Protestant proscription of iconic vestments. It recovers the history of lost needlework from English convents on the Continent, and of the English recusants' covert provision of vestments to Jesuit missioners. The first detailed case studs' of Helena Wintour's vestments reads Wintour's Jesuit-influenced Marian floral emblems and iconography alongside Hawkins's meditation handbook Partheneia Sacra to theorise Wintour's devotion to the Immaculate Conception, and explores the vestments' relationship to the liturgy and their iconographical importance to the Mass.\ud Chapter Three considers needlework gifts as political currency within patronage structures at the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts. Narrated with a contemporary vocabulary of grace, needlework gifts contribute to the construction of court-crown relations, symbolised by needlework gifts in Jacobean court masques. Through needlework gifts a `feminine commonwealth' availed itself of power structures at the court of James's consort that parallel his departments, and the women's political agency in a female political hierarchy is seen encoded within gifts of needlework in the Queen's Courts final masque. The case study uses Mary's needlework gifts to Elizabeth as an index of changes in their relationship. Mary's needlework joins parallel texts such as poetry, portraiture and planned masques in developing an iconographical vocabulary centring on the Judgement of Paris, with which diplomatic negotiations sought to clarify the Queens' relative positions

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