The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. Originally published by London Record Society, London, 2003.
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I 'COSTLY THY HABIT . . .'
A French knight, the Knight de la Tour Landry, has provided us, in a little book of moral tales written about 1371 for the edification of his daughters, with vivid glimpses of several facets of medieval life. One of his delightful stories, a warning against the sin of vanity, tells of a girl awaiting a visit from her proposed husband:
And the damsel that knew of the knight's coming, she arrayed herself in the best guise that she could, for to have a slender and fair shapen body. And she clothed her in a cote-hardie unfurred, the which sat right straight upon her, and it was great cold, great frost and great wind; and for the simple vesture that she had upon, and for the great cold that was at that time, the colour of the maid was defaced, and she wax all pale and black of cold.
The knight then chose and married instead her younger sister, fresh and ruddy as a rose because she was warmly clad, only to find when he next encountered the girl he had rejected,
that when she was well clothed and furred, and the weather was changed to warmer, her colour and fairness was come again, so that she was fresher and fairer an hundred part than was her sister, the knight's wife. (fn. 1)
He tells a similar story about a knight who approached his lady one bitterly cold day wearing unlined clothes in order to show off his figure to better advantage, only to lose her to a more warmly clad rival who was 'red as a cock and had a good lively colour'. (fn. 2)
Such stories bring home to us the vital part played by heavy fur-lined clothes in the daily life of men and women in the Middle Ages. Whereas today we wear furs chiefly out of doors, then they were worn both indoors and out, for alternative methods of keeping warm were few and inefficient. The peasant, huddled close to his family and animals, may have felt the cold less than the great landowner living in the height of luxury in his massive stone castle or more modest manor house. The great hall, which was his chief living room, a room anything from forty to a hundred feet long with a high vaulted roof of stone or timber, if heated only from a central hearth and an occasional brazier, can rarely have been agreeably warm or free from draughts. Even when, from the thirteenth century onwards, greater comfort was demanded, the provision of adequate heating arrangements must always have been difficult. To some extent the problem was simplified as smaller apartments became increasingly common. Wall fire-places were provided, the smoke from them was drawn away by chimneys, window embrasures were enlarged and fitted with glass, and the chill from stone walls deadened by hangings of tapestry. Washing and sleeping arrangements became more elaborate, with an eye to warmth and comfort, curtains suspended from a canopy being hung around the bed. But ultimately all men and women, rich and poor alike, depended on their clothes to keep them warm.
They usually wore two main garments over a shirt, or chemise, and breeches and hose, or braies. For the poor, clothes varied comparatively little during the period, but to the rich these two garments were known by different names, and they varied in length and style according to prevailing fashions. (fn. 3) The undergarment was often called a tunic or a cote, sometimes a doublet or kirtle. At one time it reached to the ground, with long or very full sleeves, at another it was short or knee-length. Over it both men and women wore another garment, often of contrasting colour, known at different times as a super-tunic, surcote, cotehardie, or houppelande. This might also be full or knee-length, sleeveless or with very full sleeves, open or closed in front, or slit at the sides. For outdoor wear a cloak was added, or a mantle for ceremonial occasions, often with a hood attached, or a separate cap or hat. Fur linings to these garments provided additional warmth. Often the cloak and upper garment were so lined; at times even three fur-lined garments were worn on top of each other.
However, sumptuous furs add to clothes not only warmth but also style and elegance, and in the Middle Ages this was so widely appreciated that few fine garments, even for summer wear, were thought complete without their fur linings. In any case, as a Venetian envoy wrote in 1513, 'In England it is always windy, and however warm the weather the natives invariably wear furs'. (fn. 4) The fur lining, then, was an essential part of the design of the gown. It might be turned back at neck or wrist, showing as a collar, revers, or cuffs of fur, or as part of a long wide sleeve cut away to reveal it ; the edges of a long or short gown were turned back to form borders or facings of fur in front or along the lower edge of the garment. Thus a lavish lining of the finest furs added a look of luxury to a gown, enhancing its owner's dignity and demonstrating in becoming fashion his social superiority. Furs are soft and of subtle colours, with a lustre and beauty nothing can match, and medieval men and women took particular pleasure in them, not hesitating to apply to them epithets like 'delicate', 'delightful', or 'beautiful'. (fn. 5) All revelled in the colour contrasts and luxurious finish made possible by fur trimmings, often only revealed in movement: cloths of green edged with white furs, of red enriched with sable, or azure blue set off with the palest grey-blue of Russian squirrel. The attitude of mind on which the popularity of furs and thus the prosperity of a whole industry were based reaches out to us across the centuries in an ironical comment made by the German chronicler, Adam of Bremen, writing late in the eleventh century: 'We long for a garment of costly marten as for eternal bliss.' (fn. 6)
In the Middle Ages it was thought that the furs and clothes worn by an individual should bear some relation to his social standing. This belief, deeply seated and frequently expressed both in England and elsewhere, implied that those of noble birth both could and should wear the finest furs available. Thus Charlemagne's biographer commented with surprise on the fact that the great emperor preferred a cloak of such common skins as sheepskins to one of any other skins, (fn. 7) and Sedulius of Liège condemned the wearing of such a vulgar Frankish garment as evidence of a miserly nature. (fn. 8) One of the luxuries solemnly cast aside by medieval ascetics was the wearing of furs of marten, goatskin being preferred. (fn. 9) Perhaps the clearest statement of contemporary views emerges from a story told about the Saxon Wulfstan, the eleventh-century Bishop of Worcester, whose admirers pointed out to him that even if he did not wear sable, beaver, or fox as he ought to do, he might at least wear catskins rather than lambskins. 'Believe me,' retorted the Bishop, 'men sing oftener of the Lamb of God than of the cat of God.' (fn. 10)
In England this belief was expressed and codified in the sumptuary legislation of the fourteenth century. A series of statutes was enacted with a view to regulating precisely what furs might be worn, and, while we cannot assume that there was any serious attempt at enforcement, they do at least serve to define custom and precept. The first of these statutes, that of 1337, expressed the more extreme view that the wearing of furs of any kind was the privilege of those of gentle birth. Therefore only the royal family, prelates, earls, barons, knights, and clerks with at least £100 a year could wear them. No one else, it was declared, should wear furs at all. (fn. 11)
But the statute of 1363, passed after more than twenty years of great change, recognized the futility of so narrow a restriction; it substituted a list of the kinds of furs considered appropriate wear for each class in society. Only workmen like carters and shepherds, keepers of beasts and threshers of corn, servants of various sorts, and those who had less than forty shillings' worth of goods were excluded. A graduated scale distinguished the nobility, clerics, and richer citizens who could wear ermine, lettice, Baltic squirrel, and budge, that is the fine imported skins, from the rest who could wear only the lamb, coney, cat, or fox skins which were for the most part of native origin. (fn. 12) This distinction is fully elaborated in the act: knights and ladies with over £266. 13s. 4d. a year might wear minever and gris; less prosperous knights and clerks could wear only facings of ermine and lettice on their hoods; esquires with £200 and above and merchants with £1,000 a year, facings of minever on their hoods. Below these classes were esquires, gentlemen below the rank of knight with lands worth £100, clerks with less than £133. 6s. 8d., and citizens and craftsmen worth £500 a year who were grouped together and presumably restricted to wearing budge. Others, probably the majority working in town and village, could wear lamb, coney, cat, or fox. (fn. 13)
So long as the wearing of furs was considered a social privilege the fur trade flourished. Sumptuary legislation, if it did anything, simply spurred on those who were socially ambitious. Many who had only a remote claim to gentle birth aspired to wear the more expensive skins and all who could possibly afford to do so aped their betters. Even women of the streets in London wore hoods lined with Baltic squirrel or 'noble' budge, to the annoyance of good citizens, and Chaucer, when describing Avarice, pictured her in a gown lined with lamb. (fn. 14) During the fifteenth century, when living standards were rising, Peter Idley, a gentleman falconer who wrote some verses for his son, complained that it was hard to tell 'a tapester, a cookesse, or a Hosteller's wife fro a gentilwoman'. (fn. 15)
Thus men and women robed in costly furs dominate the pictures of medieval life that contemporary artists have left for us. The scenes of splendour which the illuminators loved to portray are rich with furs, and wide fur-lined sleeves hanging in smooth folds frame the graceful hands of the knight's lady in a tapestry showing La vie seigneuriale. (fn. 16) Salome, dancing in her scarlet fur-lined gown, captures the attention in one of the superb mosaics in St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. (fn. 17) Countless lords and merchants and their wives show the fur linings of their clothes on the brasses of their tombs. Even the stonemason could not escape, but laboriously carved ermine tails on the effigy above a tomb. (fn. 18)
Men and women who could afford it spent lavishly on fine materials and the most luxurious furs. But how much they spent altogether on their clothes, and what proportion of that was spent on furs it is not always easy to assess with any accuracy. Occasionally, however, such expenditure was very heavy. During three years, 1390–1, 1393–4, and 1395–6, expenditure on furs for the household of Henry, Earl of Derby, totalled £444. 9s. 10d., as compared with £668. 15s. 6½d. on mercery and £169 on drapery. (fn. 19) Of the total purchases for the Great Wardrobe of Edward III in 1342–3, 24.2 per cent. went on furs, and in 1344–5, 42.2 per cent. (fn. 20) Inventories provide perhaps a surer guide. Of the twenty gowns owned by Edward III's mother, listed with her other possessions after her death in 1358, sixteen were furred. (fn. 21) Henry V left twenty-six gowns, all except six of which were furred, as were seven of his nine hats. In addition he had ten furred panes or linings, fifty-three separate furs, six furred pilches, and two pairs of sleeves. (fn. 22)
Individual garments were often very valuable, owing rather to the extravagant use of fur than to the fine materials of which they were made. In 1443 Henry VI had a gown and cap made for himself of black velvet super velvet. The velvet cost £13. 5s., the marten skins £13. 0s. 4d. An even more expensive robe of purple velvet, which had two hoods to match, one with a liripipe and one without, cost over £48, of which £20. 9s. was spent on marten skins. (fn. 23) Men from less exalted circles owned robes such as a gown of violet cloth furred with leopard skins worth £12, and when a new gown was bought for Sir John Haseley in 1448, the blue material cost 24s., the marten fur 53s. 4d., and a cord of silk 2s. 8d. (fn. 24)
As well as heavy expenditure on furs for themselves and their families, the great magnates, eager to show the wealth and prestige of their houses, were prepared to meet the cost of clothing the members of their households in furred liveries. The powerful Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, Edward II's opponent, could call on a retinue of between five and six hundred men wearing his colours of argent and azure, and most of these men appear to have worn furs. (fn. 25) In 1313–14 his purchases for liveries included 391 fur linings of budge for the barons, knights, and clerks, 123 fur linings of lamb for the squires in winter, and in addition 14 budge furs for surcotes, 13 hoods of budge for clerks, and 75 lambskin furs for summer liveries. (fn. 26) Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare, gave liveries in 1343 to a household of over 250 men and women; of these, 160, the knights, squires, clerks, and ladies, were granted a furred livery. (fn. 27) In the greatest household of all, the King's, even more fur was worn, and relatively humble forms of royal service carried with them the right to a furred livery. Thus in John's household the Queen's nurse and the laundress wore one, as did Henry III's carpenter and master mason. (fn. 28) Inevitably lesser men followed the example of their social superiors: one of the men of Sir John Fastolf, captain in the French wars, for instance, had gowns furred with beaver, marten, and budge, (fn. 29) and the lament of Langland's minstrel that as he served many lords he received few robes or furred gowns reminds us of how frequently they were given as gifts to dependants. (fn. 30) Occasionally, to enhance their own standing, nobles were not only followed by a retinue splendid with furs but had the very trappings of their horses ornamented with fur: 115 ermine skins were used for the trappings of Edward IV's horses in 1471. (fn. 31)
It would seem that contemporary satirists could scarcely visualize churchmen without their furs. (fn. 32) Chaucer's monk, with his sleeves 'purfiled at the hond with grys, and that the fyneste of a lond' can have been no uncommon sight, although many with more modest tastes were content to wear lambskin. (fn. 33) The novice going to Ely was expected to take with him a furred tunic and amice. (fn. 34) At Durham in the early fourteenth century not only did the Prior wear a pilche and tunic lined with budge, and the chief officials squirrel, but even the servants of the Prior's chamber wore fur, the novices had furred hoods, and all appear to have slept under fur-lined coverlets. (fn. 35) In 1299 £11. 17s. 6d. was spent at Boston fair on imported furs for the priory. (fn. 36) Ecclesiastical authority inveighed repeatedly but in vain against the more splendid extravagances in dress in which many members of the Church indulged, even on one occasion ordering a prioress who was 'very choice in her dress' to sell her furs to discharge the debts of her house. (fn. 37) One rich bishop of Durham died in 1404, the possessor of nearly twenty furred garments. (fn. 38) Wealthy and aristocratic clerics like the notorious pluralist, Bogo de Clare, son of Richard, Earl of Gloucester, clothed themselves in the finest squirrel and budge, and supplied the knights and clerks of their households with furred gowns. (fn. 39)
Many clerks and chaplains, too, wore a furred livery granted them by some noble household, and graduates at the universities wore a fur-lined hood, a tradition which has persisted to the present day. Other clergy spent what were for them large sums of money: one canon of St. Paul's who spent £14. 7s. 4d. on his furs may have been fairly well off, but one clerk whose goods on his death were worth only £13. 6s. 8d. owned two furred gowns, one being of violet cloth furred with black lamb, of which the fur alone was worth £1. 3s. 1d., a sum sufficient to have provided him with about 30 gallons of wine. (fn. 40) In 1363 the Commons complained that the poor clerks wore furs like the King and other lords, and even a poor presbyter, listing his few paltry possessions in his will, could still boast his furred cuffs. (fn. 41)
To the wealthy man of humble origin the wearing of fine furs was of even greater importance, as to him social advancement depended on material prosperity, and the outward show of wealth was the symbol of his status. The early fifteenth-century poet, Hoccleve, wrote scathingly of the extravagance of the social climber:
He who can bear most on his back at once
Of cloth and rich fur hath a fresh renown;
He is called a 'lusty fellow' for the nonce;
But drapers, yes, and skinners of the town
Have for such folk a special prayer all their own,
Which sprinkled is with curses here and there
And will be, till they get pay for their ware. (fn. 42)
Sir John Pulteney, draper and Mayor of London, knighted in 1337, in common with many other merchants, spent a small fortune on his furs. All except two of his eighteen robes were lined with gris or minever, one of his three separate mantles was furred, and he also possessed fifteen unattached fur linings. (fn. 43) Less prosperous merchants owned proportionately fewer furred gowns, but still a fair number: William Horscroft, skinner, owned five furred gowns, two separate furs, and two pilches. (fn. 44)
Pomp and ceremony inevitably called for lavish expenditure on furs. Relics of medieval tradition persist to this day in the coronation robes, lined and trimmed with ermine and minever, worn by the sovereign and peers. In the Middle Ages, however, even the baby at his christening would appear in blue velvet or cloth of gold and ermine. (fn. 45) Weddings were occasions when particular splendour was displayed, but unfortunately these were rarely thought suitable subjects for the monkish pen. Marie de Savoie, seventeen-year-old daughter of Amédée VIII, Duke of Savoy, on her marriage to the Duke of Milan in 1426, wore a gown and mantle of white damask, brochié d'or fin, elegantly finished with ermine, and one of the most gorgeous of the twelve furred gowns of the nineteen in her trousseau was of crimson cloth of gold furred with 618 sable skins. (fn. 46) The Princess Philippa, daughter of Henry IV, on her marriage to the King of Denmark in 1406, wore a gown of white satin worked with velvet, heavily furred with ermine and minever. Of the fourteen gowns which the twelve-year-old princess took with her, all except three were furred, not excluding the blue mantle she was to wear on rainy days. Similarly her boots, slippers, bed-coverings, and the liveries of most of her escort were furred. (fn. 47) One wedding is brought vividly to life by Edward Hall, in the Chronicle he wrote in the reign of Henry VIII. That was the wedding of Mary Tudor to Louis XII, King of France, in October 1514. (fn. 48) As his account can be supplemented from other records, a fuller picture may be drawn of what must have been one of the most glittering scenes of pageantry of the time. (fn. 49) For their wedding Louis was 'appareled in goldesmythes woorke', and Mary wore an embroidered gown of 'tawny cloth of goolde of damaske furred with hermyn', devised 'of the French fascion', a delicate compliment which Louis much appreciated. She brought great wealth in plate and jewels with her, as well as a trousseau of twenty-six gowns and thirteen kirtles. Some of these were very ornate: one was of 'grene tynsill with birdds Ies', another of 'black tynsill with a cut cremsyn velvet', but the most striking colour contrasts were provided by the furred gowns. A gown of purple cloth of tissue was furred with sable, one of yellow damask with black pampilion, (fn. 50) and one of tawny velvet furred with coney.
The nobility and clergy and many of those who served them wore fur-lined robes as a matter of course, but people of more modest resources and lower social rank also possessed them in astonishing number. One gentleman, Richard Dixton, esquire, bequeathed seven gowns, furred with marten, fitch, and foynes in his will; (fn. 51) another, Edmund Hampden, esquire, steward of the royal manor of Woodstock in 1486, spent as much as £17 on a fur of marten skins for one garment. (fn. 52) Members of the legal profession considered themselves gentry, and not only such lawyers as Justices of the Bench and Barons of the Exchequer, but also many less distinguished practitioners, wore budge and minever. (fn. 53)
Mayors, sheriffs, and aldermen were accorded special rank in the sumptuary law of 1463, being permitted to wear marten and squirrel, and their servants wore furred liveries. (fn. 54) The Little Red Book, in which by-laws of the Corporation of Bristol were entered from 1344 onwards, records the attempt of the corporation to curb the extravagant expenditure on fur of its city officers. (fn. 55) It was decided that the Mayor should not spend more than £6. 13s. 4d., the Sheriff £5, each bailiff, the Recorder, and Common Clerk 6s. 8d., the Mayor's Swordbearer 4s., and each bailiff itinerant and the Mayor's serjeants 2s. In the City of London today the Lord Mayor's Swordbearer still wears his impressive fur hat. In the Middle Ages the City also provided cloth and fur for its representatives in Parliament, and many wore the liveries of civic office or those of their gild, often furred, and other liveries as well. (fn. 56) One Londoner, for instance, bequeathed to his brother a gown with fur, of the livery of the Keeper of the Privy Seal; (fn. 57) Bartholomew Thomasyn, grocer, possessed in 1343 the livery of a squire in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, whom he supplied with spices. While a gown furred with lamb was scarcely in keeping with this wealthy Italian merchant's social standing, there were no doubt occasions when he was happy to proclaim his connexion with the great house of Clare. (fn. 58)
Humbler citizens, too, had their furs. One shopkeeper wore her furred gown every day, the tanner's wife would take the air in her super-tunic of squirrel; the cooper ran himself into debt for 35s. 4d. for gowns for himself and his wife, furred with beaver and lettice. (fn. 59) Small London tradesmen like Cocke Lorell and his friends, the currier and the cobbler, the story of whose outing on the Thames survives in an early sixteenth-century anonymous poem, went off for the day in their furred gowns and gay shoes, the 'outragyous laughers . . . banishing prayer, peace and sadness'. (fn. 60) Many of these poorer citizens may only have been able to array themselves in furs on festivals and other holiday occasions. Yet one poor man, who seems to have listed all his worldly possessions in his will, described his three gowns, furred with scraps of squirrel, coney, and white lambskin, and it is probable that all who could possibly afford it did their best to acquire at least one. (fn. 61) The prices of furs and skins sold in one small skinner's shop, where the most expensive fur was valued at 3s. 4d., (fn. 62) bear out this impression that, while furs were out of reach of the poor workman and labourer earning in the late fourteenth century 2d. to 4d. a day, and spending perhaps not more than 1s. 4d. on a gown, the more prosperous worker was both willing and able to buy one trimmed with fur.
Fur linings often long outlasted the robes to which they were originally attached. One anonymous poet, writing a satire on tailors in the thirteenth century, objected to their transfer from one gown to another, asserting that joining a fur lining to a new piece of cloth could not be a 'true marriage' according to canon law when previously a 'divorce' had taken place. (fn. 63) But there is no doubt that this was frequently done, and that no stigma attached to the wearing of old furs. Even Henry, Earl of Derby, bought a used fur for one of his gowns from a London skinner, and his wardrobe accounts state clearly whether the furs to be set in a particular gown were new or old. (fn. 64) Furs could also be passed from one generation to the next and were frequently mentioned in wills: John of Gaunt bequeathed to his wife robes which he had acquired from his cousin the Duchess of Norfolk. (fn. 65) But eventually they became too shabby for their distinguished owners and reached the second-hand market, as presumably did many of the furred liveries worn perhaps only for a single year.
The brisk trade in second-hand furs which went on during the Middle Ages made it easier for those with little money to wear furs. Much could be done with used furs by an able craftsman: lambskins could be sheared again and cleaned, and were sometimes sold as new; (fn. 66) more expensive furs could be cleaned, the worn skins being replaced. Indeed throughout the Middle Ages one of the chief crimes against which reputable craftsmen set themselves was the mixing of old and new skins, though it must have been difficult to detect and still more difficult to stop.
There was, however, an officially recognized trade in used skins and furs, handled both by skinners and tradesmen known as upholders and later as fripperers. (fn. 67) This trade was highly organized in thirteenth-century Paris, where distinctions were drawn between new and used furs in the tolls listed in 1296: on new furs of vair a toll of 6d. had to be paid, on second-hand ones only 2d. (fn. 68) Some rather gruesome sources for such furs are implied in decrees which forbade dealers to buy clothes from thieves, or from lepers in brothels or taverns, or clothes that were wet or blood-stained. (fn. 69) Few details survive to suggest that the trade in England was as well organized as in Paris, but it played its part in the activities of the small working skinner and meant that a poor man could buy ermine and marten skins at 1d. each, at a time when new ermine skins cost 1s., marten 2s., and shanks of lamb and backs of squirrel at ½d. each. (fn. 70)
Fur-lined robes, while very generally worn, were not the only articles lined with fur to be found in a medieval household. The warmest garment of all, and probably the one most often used, was the pilche or fur cloak, the medieval equivalent of the fur coat of today. Chaucer even devoted a proverb to it:
After greet heet cometh colde;
No man caste his pilche awaye. (fn. 71)
It was a cloak of skins with the hair outwards, usually made of skins such as beaver or sheepskin, strong enough to keep out the worst weather. Pilches of sheepskin could be expected to last seven or eight years in monastic hands; poor people certainly made them last longer. If they were made of goatskin only four skins were needed. (fn. 72) Wealthy men and women wore a pilche which was also lined with fur, like the cloak made of goatskins and lined with squirrel which belonged to Henry, Earl of Derby, later Henry IV. (fn. 73) Many people, however, had to be content with a sheepskin hood made long enough to form a shoulder cape, such as contemporary illustrations often show peasants wearing. (fn. 74)
Gloves might be made of beaver or hare skins; more elaborate ones were made of chamois, embroidered, furred with gris or minever, and finished with little gold buttons. (fn. 75) Boots and slippers were often lined with lambskin, sometimes with something better. (fn. 76) Princess Philippa, daughter of Henry IV, must have been a dainty creature, with her shoes of polished leather lined with gris and her little white slippers lined with minever. (fn. 77) Henry VII, determined to be warm, had botose lined with marten skins, each pair needing fifteen skins. (fn. 78) The hood was furred almost as a matter of course. Langland noticed the physicians whose furred hoods could, in time of need, be exchanged for food. And many other different shapes and sizes of headgear were fashionable during the Middle Ages. Chaucer's merchant wore the popular 'Flaundryssh bever hat'. (fn. 79) The little beaver cap made for Princess Philippa was of a different style, as it was lined with fifty ermine skins and trimmed with a silk tassel and button. (fn. 80)
For informal wear and in the bedroom, fur was a great comfort. A lord on undressing, so John Russell tells us in his Boke of Nurture, would wrap himself in a dressing-gown, perhaps of velvet lined with marten. (fn. 81) Henry VIII's dressing-gowns, as one might have expected, were particularly ornate: he owned one of russet damask edged with velvet and furred with sable. (fn. 82) Henry VII tucked his feet into cosy night boteux, the legs of which were lined with black coneyskins and the feet with white lambskins. (fn. 83) A furred kerchief or nightcap was worn in the evening to keep out the draughts—perhaps like the bonett de ermyns pro nocte which Margaret Tudor took with her to Scotland in her trousseau—and in bed chilly mortals would draw fur-lined counterpoynts over them. (fn. 83) This precursor of the modern eiderdown though very heavy was undeniably warm, and was in general use in wealthy households: several contemporary illustrations show beds so covered. (fn. 84) Some of them were simply lined with fur, others were made entirely of skins. One bishop of Winchester had a coverlet of ermine skins lined with squirrel, and one London merchant slept under leopard skins. (fn. 85) Even coverings for cradles were trimmed with ermine, lined with marten or made of minever. (fn. 86) The more extravagant rested their heads on hedesheets of ermine covered with a linen cloth, and even had bedhangings trimmed with fur. (fn. 87) Princess Philippa's set of hangings or curtains for her bed must have been magnificent, with the coverchief pour chief de lit made of cloth of gold of Cyprus, embroidered with falcons, and furred with minever. (fn. 88)
Just how closely medieval men and women liked to snuggle down in furs in bed we do not know, but one or two hints suggest that even sleeping in fur was not unknown, although it must surely have been unusual. Marie de Savoie included in her trousseau 'une raube à petites manches et ung mantel long pour couchier', both of which were to be lined with grey squirrel, and she presumably slept in the short-sleeved gown. (fn. 89) A more vivid glimpse into medieval sleeping habits is provided by the story of the gout and the flea. Discussing one day the merits of their various lodgings, the flea finally decided that the poor washerwoman best satisfied his appetite. The gout, however, preferred the bed of the wealthy abbess, and reported to the flea: 'Thou gave me good counsel last evening, for the abbess underneath a gay coverlet and a soft and delicate sheet, covered me and nourished me all night. And as soon as I pricked her in her big toe, she wrapped me in furs, and if I hurt never so ill, she let me alone and laid me in the softest place in the bed and troubled me not at all.' (fn. 90)
Furs had additional but less obvious advantages. They provided valuable security for those temporarily short of ready money; and there were many like Dame Alianor Hilton who pawned for £12 velvet and damask gowns furred with marten worth over £64 rather than admit some indiscretion to her lord. (fn. 91) They were also thought to benefit the health: skins of wild cat were supposed to cure rheumatism and gout, and mouse skins were thought to cure chilblains. (fn. 92) Fashionable ladies at one time even went so far as to wear foxtails under their gowns so that the shape of their figures might be hidden and their narrow skirts fall straight to the ground. (fn. 93) When fur was so widely and extravagantly used it is small wonder that the poets bemoaned the state of affairs:
Fleshly lustes and festes,
Furres of ferly bestes . . .
Has schent England. (fn. 94)
A closer look at the different types of furs worn shows that, while a great variety of skins was available and most people struggled to acquire the finest furs they could afford, certain furs were particularly popular in the highest social circles in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. A little is known of the furs worn in the late twelfth century. Henry II arranged to have northern squirrel skins bought for his robes for Christmas and an occasional sable skin, (fn. 95) and the fur-lined cloak he suggested that Thomas Becket might give to the beggar, on whom they both took pity, was lined with northern squirrel. (fn. 96) Richard I was willing to pay as much as £13 for a fur of ermine and four sable skins, £12 to have two ermine linings sent overseas to him from England, and treasured squirrel skins sufficiently to see that those taken from his enemies were reserved for his use. (fn. 97) John, too, wore sable and ermine, squirrel and otter skins, and on furs for liveries spent generously for squirrel, Lindsey lambskins, and coneyskins; these last were presumably at this time imported, and were more fashionable than they were to be in later centuries when English skins had become easily obtainable. (fn. 98) At a time when carpenters were being paid 3d. a day with an allowance for food of 1½d. a day, King John was paying 6s. to 7s. for linings of lambskin, 8s. to 10s. for linings of rabbit skin, about £1 for linings of ten tiers of northern squirrel, £2 for a single sable skin, and £5 for a lining of ermine. (fn. 99) The glamour attached to these superb furs led to a decree of 1188 forbidding knights going on crusade from wearing furs of this type, a sure sign that their wear was being reserved for the highest in the land. (fn. 100) It seems that while much northern squirrel was worn at court, sable and ermine, as the most expensive skins available, were then particularly admired, and John's bedspread of samite lined or trimmed with sable and edged with ermine must have been one of his most treasured possessions. (fn. 101)
For the thirteenth century, however, many more records are available, and it is then and in the fourteenth century that the different varieties of northern squirrel, whether the best vair, gris, or minever, or sometimes even the poorer qualities known as stranling, pople, ruskyn, or rovair, are to be found in such vast quantities lining the robes and accessories of the rich. Often ermine or lettice skins were bought to complete a lining at neck or wrist, but references to the wearing of sable during the late thirteenth century and early fourteenth century are surprisingly rare. It is tempting to wonder if behind this lay the influence of successive foreign-born queens who brought to England ideas of luxury and comfort familiar to them in their homes in southwest Europe. Aristocratic familiarity with the sophisticated tastes of Provence and Castile was increased when Richard I's sister married Alfonso VIII of Castile, and when both Henry III and his brother married daughters of the Count of Provence; it is also significant that Edward I's famous Queen Eleanor was the daughter of St. Ferdinand of Castile. Matthew Paris commented on the luxury of the rooms set up in London for Eleanor, the walls hung with silk and tapestry and the floor covered with arras, and we know something of the fine silks and Arabian brocades worn by Castilian royalty in the thirteenth century from those found in their tombs and still to be seen today at the Convent of Las Huelgas at Burgos. (fn. 102) It would scarcely be surprising if Eleanor preferred the softest and most delicate furs available in her northern home, the grey and white northern squirrel skins.
However, this is mere speculation: what is certain is that Henry III bought skins of greywerk by the thousand; that on important occasions such as the Whitsun festival or his sister's marriage he himself wore minever; and that when he gave robes to his family and friends they were lined with minever or gris. (fn. 103) During the years 1285–8 an average of about 119,300 squirrel skins was bought each year for the use of Edward I and his household, with in addition only 66 ermine skins and 3,300 budge and lambskins. (fn. 104) For a tournament, held in Windsor Park in 1278, £692. 2s. was spent in Paris on furs; of this sum all but £23. 18s. was spent on minever, gris, and the cheaper varieties of northern squirrel. (fn. 105) When the English Queen Philippa attended the great banquet given after the birth of her first-born son in 1330 she wore an outfit of five garments, embroidered with gold and lined with pured or trimmed minever. (fn. 106)
At the French court a similar enthusiasm for vair and gris prevailed. Charles V liked his best robes furred with ermine, but thirty-four of the forty-two elaborate outfits he possessed in 1379 were lined with squirrel. One of his more elegant suits of tawnycoloured silk, worked with a design of trees and birds, consisted of a matching cloak, surcote, and hat, all three of which were furred with minever. (fn. 107)
When we examine the fur linings themselves the vast numbers of skins used in their manufacture immediately strikes us. Fur skins, particularly squirrel, are small, and often several hundred had to be bought to make even the lining of a single garment. A cote for King John of France required 366 skins, a houpplelande 686 skins; even slippers usually needed about two dozen skins of gris. (fn. 108) Complete outfits or 'robes' used thousands of squirrel skins, as the cloak and hood or hat, and at least one of the garments worn indoors, were usually furred. Thus of one 'robe' the kirtle was furred with gris, the surcote and mantle with minever, and the chapperon with lettice. (fn. 109) A sute consisted of from four to nine matching garments, including perhaps two surcotes or two different caps, and usually all but the tunic were furred. Charles V of France had several 'robes' such as the following : 'une robe d'escarlate vermeille de six garnemens, c'est assavoir les cinq garnemens fourrez d'armines et la cote sengle'. (fn. 110) One of Henry IV's most splendid outfits was a 'robe' of nine garments: two mantles, one tabard, two supertunics, one open and one closed, a short and a long kirtle, and a large and a small cap or hat. For this 'robe' nearly 12,000 squirrel and 80 ermine skins were used. (fn. 111) Thus the great households bought squirrel skins in thousands at a time. A total of 79,220 skins of trimmed minever were sewn into furs to satisfy the needs of the royal household alone during the year 1344–5, and nearly half as many, 32,762, were used simply for the furring of the trousseau of Princess Philippa and the liveries of her escort. (fn. 112) Another young princess for whom an extensive wardrobe was prepared was the widowed Queen Isabella, returning to France after the death of Richard II. The only touch of colour among the sombre clothes and furnishings was provided by the 45,722 grey and white squirrel skins and the 400 white lettice skins. (fn. 113)
When larger skins were more fashionable, great numbers were still required. (fn. 114) Henry VI had the body of a new purple velvet gown lined with 250 backs of marten and the sleeves with 68 belly skins, and Henry VIII had 350 sable skins bought for a single gown of black satin. In this case it would be almost possible to reconstruct the gown, as sable skins were worked to a length of twelve inches and a width of three and a half, and 110 skins were to be used for the front, 130 for the back, 64 for the upper stock or breeches, 32 for the foresleeves, and 14 for the cape and collar. (fn. 115)
Counterpanes required many more skins, particularly when lined with squirrel. Edward III's mother, Queen Isabella, had six lined with pured minever, one containing 1,396 skins, and a red velvet keverchief lined with 700 bellies. (fn. 116) And this was not unusual : a counterpane made for Edward III, of forty skins long and fifty-six wide, would have needed 2,240 skins. (fn. 117)
Clothes exercised a fascination over the medieval mind, as over the modern. Man no less than woman took unfeigned delight in brilliant colours, set off by costly furs, and sometimes in intricate decoration and curious design. Fine clothes and sets of bed-hangings and covers were often the most valued possessions bequeathed to family and friends; indeed by twentieth-century standards such trappings seem to have lasted an unconscionably long time. The economic effect of this interest in clothes benefited primarily the manufacturers of woollen cloth, silks, velvets, and brocades. But there were also substantial benefits for those whose business it was to provide the treasured furs.