Friday 1 March 2019

Bearing cloths

Bearing cloth in the Norwich Museum collection

In my blog post on baby clothes I didn’t mention bearing cloths. Bearing cloths, sometimes referred to as mantles were the outermost cloth babies were wrapped in for such things as being presented and being baptised. 

Late fifteenth century ordinances for the “Christening of a Queen’s child” say, “Yf it be a prynce, an Erle to bear his trayne and if yt be a prynces, a Countesse to bear yt.” In fact, for royalty the mantle or bearing cloth was so long it took several people to carry it to the christening. A c.1565-75 drawing of a royal christening shows a lady carrying the baby, while behind her at least three people carry the train of the bearing cloth. (1)

Among the nobility and gentry the bearing cloth was not as large, but was still as sumptuous as they could make it. When Perdita, in A Winter’s Tale, is discovered abandoned as a baby, the comment is made, “Looke thee, a bearing-cloath for a Squires childe”.   In 1629 a squire’s wife, Elizabeth Coke of Bramfield had a crimson damask bearing cloth costing 25 shillings. (2) Going higher up the social scale, in 1623 the Howards of Naworth Castle had a bearing cloth made and the bill reads, “for 5 yeard of dameske to mak a bearing cloth £3 6s 6d, for taffetie to lyne it 32s, for lace 11 ounces to it 57s 6d.” (3) The lace being listed in ounces means that it was a metallic lace, probably silve or silver gilt. The total cost of the bearing cloth was £7 16s 0d. Bearing cloths from this level of society do sometimes appear in paintings, notably the Cholmondeley ladies, sisters painted with their babies (shown below), and the Saltonstall Family, both of which are in the Tate Britain collection. 

Detail of the Norwich bearing cloth lace
There are survivals of bearing cloths. The seventeenth century example in the Norwich Museums Collection is in the more traditional red, as Shakespeare says in Henry VI, part 1, “Thy scarlet robes, as a child’s bearing cloth.”  This bearing cloth has connections via the Buxton Family to the Pastons of Oxnead Hall. It is of crimson silk velvet lined with ivory silk and edged with gold and silver lace incorporating spangles. The Norfolk Lace Makers have produced a reproduction of this cloth for the Strangers’ hall museum in Norwich, and information on how they copied the lace is available on their website.

Another seventeenth century example is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, this is in a pale blue / green silk satin, two lengths put together with the seam running along the centre length of 133 centimetres (52½ inches), the width is 104 centimetres (41 inches). This is the same construction as the Norwich example, and like the Norwich example it has a wide edging of metallic bobbin lace. 

Bearing cloths appear in various probate inventories at various levels of society. In 1619 Henry Randoll, a smith , has “a bearing cloth & childs coat 2s” in his inventory. (4) In 1631 Rose Palmer, the widow of a butcher, has “ bearing say for a child” listed. (5) Bearing cloths are also left in wills. In 1637 Bridget Hammond, a widow, leaves “to my grandchild Lydia Stuward... my bearing cloth.” (6) Also in Suffolk, in 1649 Mary Chapman specifies, “My bearing cloth should be for the use of my sister and daughters, each to have it when they have occasion to use it, and she that last bear children to have it forever.” (7)  
The Cholmondeley Ladies. Tate. CC-BY-NC-ND

The term bearing cloth gradually disappears by the end of the seventeenth century, though the term mantle continues. It has been suggested that the reason is that total immersion baptism also disappears. If you don’t need a naked baby just wrapped in a bearing cloth, then you can dress the child in christening robes. In 1698 Mary Thresher had nine mantles in her childbed linen including, ones in white satin, dove-coloured satin, blue and white satin trimmed with silver and white sarsnet. (8) 


1    Cunnington, P. and Lucas, C., (1972) Costume for Births, Marriages and Deaths. London: Black. Quote from BM MS Add. 6113, f. 122v. and drawing from the College of Arms MS. 6 f. 78.

2     Buck, A. (1996) Clothes and the Child. Carlton: Bean. p.26

3     Ornsby, G. ed. (1878) Selections from the Household Books of the Lord William Howard of Naworth Castle. Publications of the Surtees Society, vol. 68, p.205

       Emmison, F. G. (1938) Jacobean household inventories. Publications of the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, vol 20, pp1-143. p.74    
5     Jones, J. ed. (2003) Stratford-Upon-Avon Inventories, 1538-1699 Volume II (1626-1699). Dugdale Society, vol 40, p40-41 

6     Evans, N., ed. (1993) Wills of the Archdeaconry of Sudbury, 1636-1638, Suffolk Records Society, vol. 35, p.103

        Tymms, S. ed. (1850) Wills and inventories from the registers of the Commissary of Bury St Edmunds and the Archdeacon of Sudbury. London: Camden Society, p.220  
8       Buck, A. (1996) Clothes and the Child. Carlton: Bean. p.28