Monarchs often determined through customs or law appropriate conduct for his or her subjects. Sumptuary laws were one method of controlling consumption and padding the royal coffers.
With the rise of the wealthy merchant class in the 16th century, Henry VIII passed a new series of laws concerning dress and personal adornment. This new middle class was rising above their station to challenge the nobility in the quality of living accommodations and dress.
Henry’s daughters, Queens Mary and Elizabeth I, continued to use the Sumptuary Laws which dictated what color and type of clothing individuals were allowed to own and wear, an easy and immediate way to identify rank and privilege. Only royalty was permitted to wear clothes trimmed with ermine. Lesser nobles were allowed to wear clothing trimmed with fox and otter. Elizabeth also had to contend with her nobles’ ostentation landing them in serious financial trouble.
In addition, the Sumptuary Laws were used to protect English merchants. Elizabeth’s laws forbade excess, the unnecessary importation of foreign wares, extremity, manifest decay, vain devices, wasting, and decay of the wealth of the realm. Severe fines were among the penalties for violating Sumptuary Laws.
Elizabeth also set high behavioral standards for the ladies of her court. When Elizabeth’s life-long favorite, Robert Dudley, married the recently-widowed Lettice Knowles, Elizabeth went ballistic. Dudley defended Lettice to the Queen, but Elizabeth would have none of it. She called him “a traitor.” She called Lettice (her own cousin) a “she-wolf” and banned her from Court. Although Dudley eventually returned to her good graces, Lettice couldn’t return to court until after Elizabeth’s death in 1603—more than 25 years later. In 1592, the queen discovered Raleigh’s secret marriage to one of her maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton.Elizabeth flew into a jealous rage and Raleigh and his wife were imprisoned in the Tower. Lesson in manners? Don’t court or marry without the Queen’s permission.
Tomorrow, Washington’s Rules of Civility 2 Rita Bay