· 12 March 2017 ·
[The real story of the perfumed gloves I gave to Elizabeth]
When I was a young man, nearly twenty-five and frustrated with my life, I departed England without my wife, to travel on the Continent. It was early February, 1575.
I crossed the Channel and made a beeline to Reims to attend the coronation and wedding of Henri III, near my own age and new to the throne. I met with his Majesty and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, imperious in her black widow’s weeds.
Then to Italy. Based in Venice, I wandered through the patchwork of republics and duchies in the north. The sky was blue, the sun was gold.
In the spring of 1576 after barely a year away, I headed homeward. Had to: a crisis of liquidity, my funds cut off by my father-in-law. MY funds.
My ship was attacked by Dutch pirates in the Channel. Call it involuntary research. They took almost everything. But I brought things back inside my head that no freebooter could purloin. My tour had been a journey of immersion and absorption. It’s not only in Shakespeare that you can trace my footsteps, though they’re easy to follow there. It didn’t take long for the court to dub me the Italian Earl. I took it as a compliment.
I also brought home a new fashion that April. Ephemeral like a spring flower which blossoms with a sweet smell, then fades. But it lasted longer than most fashions or flowers, and I was credited with its creation.
Imagine that.Her Majesty the Queen was a vain woman. It’s hard to blame her much for it, with all the years of insecurity and danger she endured, both before and after she came to her throne. Vanity is a boon when you’re chosen by God and you need to make sure that no one ever forgets it. A modest monarch makes a rotten ruler. (Henry VI. QED.)
High on the list of Bess’s vanities were her own two hands, with their long, thin fingers. She was always holding things – books, fans, necklaces, girdle-chains, gloves, the occasional orb and sceptre. She fidgeted with these props constantly (except the last two), waving them around in front of courtiers and supplicants. Her gestures were stagecraft, commanding the audience’s attention. Her fingers were wiggling bait, luring whatever fish she was angling to catch.
They were lovely hands, I don’t deny it. But the whole gimmick was so obvious that her maids sometimes played at mocking her when she wasn’t around. Once Annie Vavasour aped the digit fidgets, had everyone tied into stitches when in walked Bess, back from the close stool. She saw what was up and slapped Anne so hard across the face that the poor girl had to lay on the vermilion with a trowel for a fortnight, to hide the bruise.
My pretty poetess, were you worth the time in the Tower?
Detail, attributed to John de Critz the Elder, ca 1605.
Collection, Armourers and Brasiers of the City of London.
In Anne’s portrait her gloves are mismatched, and one’s on, one’s off. You symbolic-meaning sleuths can have some fun with that.Gloves were an important part of the aristocratic kit. Some were worn for warmth and protection, but others were fashion items in their own right. The ones you see in paintings and museums are mostly of the latter type.
Left, detail, Ditchley portrait (©NPG London),
by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, ca 1592.
Right, by an unknown painter ‘after Gheeraerts’, 1590s.
Fancy gloves made fancy gifts, and who got more fancy gifts than the Queen? She had piles of them. She kept her own glover and embroiderers busy as well, adding to the piles. She’d give them away occasionally as tokens of her special favour, knowing they’d be cherished as holy relics. “Here are the Queen’s gloves, that she gave to me with her own beautiful hands.” There were always plenty more back at the Wardrobe.
Left, George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, as
Queen’s Champion. Miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, ca 1590.
Right, detail, the Queen’s glove in his hat as a favour.
(©National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London)
The one thing I saved from the depredations of the pirates (who took the shirt off my back) was my gift for Elizabeth: a pair of perfect, elegant Florentine gloves, trimmed only with a few small roses done in raised silk. I’d had her London glover give me her measurements before I left. The old maestro di guanti who was recommended to me in Florence thought I was having him on. “Nessuna donna ha tali dita!” I had to pay him extra.
Coals to Newcastle? Nay, by your leave. What made these gloves unique was not just their beauty, but their scent.
The perfuming of gloves was nothing new in the 1570s. It was done to mask the smell of the leather, usually by infusing an interlining with oily, musky ambergris. The best of these gloves came from Spain, but you would not describe them as elegant.
Elizabeth disliked such heavy odours, so I had her new gloves imbued with Acqua della Regina, Water of the Queen. This was a special distillation made by Dominican monks in the farmaceutica at the monastery of Santa Maria Novella, right there in Florence not far from the maestro’s shop. The scent was light, fresh, and different. In England it would be completely new, and exclusive to Elizabeth. I was certain she would love both the fragrance and the name. Her very own royal perfume.
I simply neglected to tell her that the Regina of the Acqua was not herself, but King Henri’s lady mother, Catherine de’ Medici. Vanity has its uses, and what Bess didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Catherine, a native of Florence with popes in her pedigree, had commissioned the monks to create a scent to take with her to France in 1533, when at fourteen she became the wife of Henri of Valois, Duc d’Orléans, the future Henri II. You could say that Acqua della Regina was the first celebrity fragrance. There is nothing new under the sun.
Of course Bess adored her gift, and the fad took off. Scented ‘Oxford gloves’ were soon on every smart hand, and whatever was sold as ‘the Earl of Oxford’s perfume’ flew off the shelves. I never divulged its origin, but I sent my thanks to Catherine, sub rosa, through de Castelnau. Back in Reims Catherine had given me a letter to the monks, enabling my purchase and abetting my subterfuge. (She smelled so good when we met, I had to ask.) She sent word back to me that she enjoyed having one up on la reine anglaise des vanités. In Catherine’s Catholic eyes, my queen was the bastard daughter of an infamous whore. Élisabeth l’hérétique et usurpatrice. (Catherine had also been Mary Stuart’s first mother-in-law.) But my secret was safe with her, and Bess was never the wiser. The knockoff phials the apothecaries sold were not even close.
Acqua della Regina is an exquisite fragrance, bright with orange blossom and bergamot and whatever else Catherine and the monks tossed into the alembic. I smelled it again recently, for the first time in over four centuries. I had to find a chair and a glass of Rhenish, the flood of memories was so overpowering. It’s why I’ve written this down at long last. In Much Ado About Nothing Hero mentions a pair of scented gloves given her by the count (Claudio), but that’s as close as I ever came to telling the story. (A count is the same thing as an earl, after all.) Beatrice’s head cold was also an inside joke, but I don’t have to tell you everything.
I’ll tell you this: if you’d like to try the Earl of Oxford’s perfume for yourself, you can. You can buy it from the same farmaceutica that I did, with no need for a voucher from the Queen Mother of France. Acqua della Regina is now called Acqua di Santa Maria Novella, but the formula is unchanged (and it’s still expensive). The pharmacy opened its doors to the public in 1612. Those doors are open still, though monks are no longer involved. Newer doors are open as well.
The flowers of the past still bloom today
’Tis only our attention’s gone astray
- Questions to be answered in Part 2:
- • Do books say anything about this glovely tale?
- • How long were Elizabeth’s fingers, anyway?
- • How did the queen’s gloves escape their fate as pirate booty?
- • What’s up with that banner?
[ahead to Part 2]
Sources/Additional Reading for Part 1
This tale wasn’t intended to be a travelogue of all the places I visited on my tour. I’ve skipped a lot. If you want scenic details, read my plays. Or try Richard Roe’s book, which doesn’t mention my name but otherwise serves well. The title could use some work.
- • The Shakepeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels [Google Books]
- · by Richard Paul Roe
- · HarperCollins, 2011
Unless there’s a reason to, I’m not going to include UK/US bookseller links as I’ve done in the past. You surely know where to search for books in whatever part of the globe you inhabit. I’ll give you enough information to find them for yourself. Google Books will probably be my default.
- • Mark Anderson’s biography of me, “Shakespeare” By Another Name, contains his research into the itinerary of my tour. Details about the book can be found on my library page. Anderson makes the connection between my time in Florence, the perfumed gloves, and Santa Maria Novella, though not Catherine de’ Medici, which is understandable. Mark is a smart fellow.
- • The Road to Polisy [sixdegreesofshakespeare.wordpress.com]
- · by K. A. Pope
- · July 2016 – February 2018
The Road to Polisy is an intriguing and extremely intelligent exploration into currently unprovable territory. It discusses Shakespeare’s detailed knowledge of the French and Italian connections among noble families and artists during the 16th century, as well as my journey back through France on my way home from Italy in early 1576, and what I might have been doing along the way. And a particular painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, and the skull of poor Yorick. And more. There are five parts plus the overview. It’s impressive work. Fair warning: there are charts.
- • Anne Vavasour’s Echo ca 1581 [wikisource.org]
- • Early Modern Women Poets (1520-1700): An Anthology [Google Books]
- · Jane Stevenson, Peter Davidson, editors
- · Oxford University Press, 2001
- · pgs 78-80, entry for Anne Field née Vavasour
- • Attending to Early Modern Women [Google Books]
- · Susan Dwyer Amussen, Adele F. Seeff, editors
- · Associated University Presses, 1998
- · pgs 40-45, on Anne Vavasour and the Echo poem
- • Santa Maria Novella, Florence’s Most Famous Pharmacy Blooms into its 5th Century [italymagazine.com]
- · by Julie Burns, 11 February 2013
- • Italy’s Santa Maria Novella: The ancient perfume store you’ve never heard of [cnn.com]
- · by Prachi Joshi, 27 March 2015