Friday 6 October 2023

On Partlets we ignore the fact that Dame Partlet was a term first used by Chaucer in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale to signify a hen,[1] then the first use to signify clothing would appear to be in the Wardrobe Accounts of Henry VII, when two partlets are listed in the year 1504-5, with a further two in 1505-6.[2] In 1515 one of Henry VIII’s Acts of Apparel mentions, “Any pynchyd shyrt or pynchyd partlet of lynnyn cloth or playn shyrt garnysshyd or made wyth sylke or gold or sylver.”[3]

In the early years of the sixteenth century partlets, as an infill at the front of the neck, are something that appears in the records of both men and women. Henry VIII’s wardrobe accounts for 1516 has two deliveries, one of a yard and a half of green satin, and one of a yard and a half of black satin, each “for a partelet for the kings grace.” Henry continued to wear partlets throughout his reign, and at his death in 1547 there were two types in his wardrobe; four partlets of velvet lined with satin and embroidered with gold, and two of “white threade” which were with his shirts.[4] It is not that obvious when men stop using partlets, but they disappear from the records.

Partlets are also being worn by women. When Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves in 1540, on January 3rd, three days before the wedding, Anne was reported as being dressed “after the Dutche fassyon” and had “about her necke..a partelet set full of riche stone which glystered all the felde.” The best known portrait of Anne, by Holbein shows a neckline infill with lines of embroidery or similar across it. A slightly later portrait of Anne by BartholomaeusBruyn the elder shows a similar, heavily pearl encrusted infill, which was probably a partlet. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. Anne of Cleves by Bartholomaeus Bruyn the Elder. St John's College, University of Oxford


These partlets for women appear to be smaller than the men’s partlets. While Henry’s partlets required a yard and a half of fabric, those purchased for the Princess Elizabeth in 1551 only required half that amount, “halfe a yarde and di. quarter of… velvet for partelettes.”[5] These velvet partlets are also being worn by women further down the social scale, but still rich enough to wear velvet. In 1560 Emma Beckett, a widow, left in her will “To Margaret Folkes my daughter my gown next the best lined with worsted, my kirtle next the best, my red petticoat next the best, 1 velvet partlet…”[6]  Black velvet was popular for partlets, and when worn with a black gown it is less obvious that a partlet is being worn, though the Fitzwilliam portrait of Mary I does show the partlet extending under the armpit, and with a standing collar. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Mary Tudor. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


Linen partlets were also in use, in 1606 Margaret Pickering left “a little cambric partlet” which was to be converted into a band by its male recipient.[7] They could be plain linen, or much more decorative, and some had matching sleeves. In 1565 Queen Elizabeth I paid the embroiderer David Smith for, “enbraudering of a gathered partelet and a paire of wide slevis of lawne wrought allover with sondrie sortes of byrdes and floures made of gold and silver.”[8] These incredibly heavily embroidered items can be seen in several portraits of Elizabeth in the 1570s, for example one in the National Museum ofWales.(Figure 3) In portraits there is the question of whether what appears at the neck is an embroidered smock, or a separate partlet. It is more obvious when the linen partlet is worn on top, as in this detail from Joachim Beuckelaer’s Fire in his c.1570 Four Elements series. (Figure 4) Here the partlet appears to be pinned under the arm and has an integral collar with a ruffle.


Figure 3. Elizabeth I. National Museum of Wales

The use of partlets by women further down the social seems to be most common in the last two decades of the sixteenth century. In Hampshire there are three women from different financial levels having partlets in their probates. Agnes Hall in 1595 left an estate valued at just over £10, she owned two partlets. Margaret Cooper in 1597 had an estate of over £28, her four partlets were valued at 6s. In 1585 Margaret Swathing, whose estate was worth over one hundred pounds had three partlets, valued at only one shilling.[9]


Figure 4: Detail from Joachim Beuckelaer. The Four Elements, Fire. National Gallery.

Partlets continue to appear in wills and probates in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, but for women only. They are valued in inventories at prices between tuppence ha’penny and one shilling and eight pence. Several of these are described as old as in, “to old partlekes and a apurne and other small implements 1s 6d.”[10] In the early seventeenth century partlets also seem to be associated with rails, when Katheryn Pearne dies in 1606 her inventory includes, “twelve partletts with Rayles, three parlets without rayles.”[11] Partlets seem to disappear from inventories after about 1625.

In 1617 Elizabeth Blakeborne, who owned a sizeable number of garments, had two workday partlets, and listed separately five partlets and five gorgets.[12] Which raises the question of terminology, as that implies that partlets and gorgets are not the same thing. By 1658 the word partlet was considered old fashioned, “Partlet, a word used in some old Statutes, signifying the loose collar of a dublet to be set on or taken off by it self without the bodies, also a womans neckerchief.”[13] While its use for an item of armour goes back to the late fifteenth century,[14] the word gorget does not appear as an article of women’s wear until the 1570s, with the Oxford English Dictionary having the first use in 1575.[15] In 1635 Bishop Richard Corbet, wrote a poem that associated gorgets with rails, it was entitled, “To the ladyes of the new dresse, that weare their gorgets and rayles downe to their wastes,”[16] Blount mentions gorget in his 1656 and 1661 definitions of a cravat, “ often used Substantively for a new fashioned Gorget which women wear.”[17] However by the 1674 edition the definition of cravat changes to indicate men’s neckwear. Randle Holme describes gorgets as “round Dresses plaited [pleated] to be deep about Womens Necks.”[18]

It is interesting that gorgets are specifically described as pleated. Partlets do not seem to be pleated, if they are gathered they are described as such. Elizabeth I had her silkwoman, Alice Montague, work in 1565 both “a gathered partelet of lawne with drawne worke of crimson silk” and “a gathered partelet of laune beinge wrought alover with diverse works of silk of sondrey colours.”[19] In 1620 the gentlewoman Jane Aubrey left in her will, “one fine gathered night partlet edged about with bone lace.”[20]

A linen survival from the 1630s in the Filmer Collection in Manchester has been described as a partlet, and a pattern was taken by Janet Arnold.[21] This survival while providing an infill at the front does not extend under the armpit, and the back is much shorter than the front. The collar that it is attached to it is pleated, so it may have been described at the time as a gorget, rather than a partlet. Unless a garment from the period turns up with a label attached that says I am a …, we may never know for certain.

[1] “ Seuene hennes..Of whiche the faireste hewed on hire throte Was cleped faire damoysele Pertelote”

[2] Hayward, Maria, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII. Leeds: Maney, 2007. p.81.

[3]  Act 7 Henry VIII c. 6 §4.

[4] Hayward, Maria, Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII. Leeds: Maney, 2007.p.54.

[5] Quoted in Cunnington, C.W. & P. Handbook of English Costume in the 16th Century. Rev. ed. London: Faber, 1970.

[6] Emmison, F. G., Essex wills (England), vol 1: 1558-1565. Washington: National Genealogical Society, 1982. p.211.

[7] Phillips, C. B. and Smith, J. H., eds. Stockport probate records, 1578-1619.  Record Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, 1985, vol. 124, p.50-2.

[8] Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d. Leeds: Maney, 1988. p.150.

[9] Hants. RO 1595A/035, Hants. RO 1597A/023, Hants. RO 1585B/66.

[10] Brinkworth E.R.C. and Gibson, J.S.W. eds. 1985 Banbury wills and inventories. Pt.1, 1591-1620. Banbury Historical Society, vol 13, 302.

[11] Quoted in Spufford, M. and Mee, S., The Clothing of the Common Sort 1570-1700. Oxford: OUP, 2017. p.150.

[12] Presland, M. ed., Angells to Yarnwindles: the wills and inventories of twenty six Elizabethan and Jacobean women living in the area now called St. Helens, St Helens: St. Helens Association for Research into Local History, 1999, p.46.

[13] Phillips, Edward., The New World of English Words. London: Printed by E. Tyler for Nath. Brooke, 1658.

[14] In William Caxton, The book of the Ordre of chyualry. Early English Text Society, STC3356. “The gorgette enuyronneth or goth aboute the neck of a knyght by cause it shold be deffended fro strokes and woundes.”

[15] The first quote in the OED is from Robert Langham’s Letter describing “The Magnificent Pageants

presented before Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle in 1575.” The quote reads “A side gooun of kendall greengathered at the neck with a narro gorget.”

[16] Corbet, Richard. The Poems of Richard Corbet, late bishop of Oxford and of Norwich. [Online] [Cited: June 17, 2023.]

[17] Blount, Thomas, Glossographia . London: Thomas Newcomb, 1656. 

[18] Holme, Randle, Academy of Armory. Chester: The Author, 1688.

[19] Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d. Leeds: Maney, 1988. p.149.

[20] Hants. RO 1620A/003.

[21] Arnold, Janet, Patterns of Fashion 4: the cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women c.1540-1660. London: Macmillan, 2008. p.100-1.