by Claudia Willetts
Needlework has been an occupation of some very busy queens, and of some kings. We begin with Queen Margaret of Scotland, who was brought up partly in the English court of King Edward the Confessor. Lucy Menzies in St Margaret Queen of Scotland, writes that she and her sister were at that time trained in needlework for which English ladies were so famous that the solid gold embroidery worked for church vestments and altar-cloths was called Opus Anglicum. Later after her marriage to King Malcolm III Canmore of Scotland (1058-1093), Queen Margaret trained ladies in the art of church embroidery, so that her chamber became a workshop of sacred art of admirable beauty.
Another strong queen took the time personally to sew her husband’s shirts. Townsend Miller notes in The Castles and the Crown: Spain, 1451-1555, that King Ferdinand of Aragon would wear no others than those sewn by his wife Queen Isabel of Castile.
The role of embroidery in the early English captivity of Mary Queen of Scots was less benevolent, writes Antonia Fraser in Mary Queen of Scots. The Queen was imprisoned under the wardship of the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick. Together the two women passed the time embroidering a series of allegorical pictures with text, in which the words expressed one part of the meaning, and the emblem another. Various panels referred to Mary’s recent fortunes and her future hopes from Queen Elizabeth, as if the needle could pierce the stony heart of her captor. David Durant in Bess of Hardwick: Portrait of an Elizabethan Dynast, alludes to their role in expressing some of the frustration of Mary’s captivity. One depicted a cat and mouse signifying Elizabeth and Mary. Another showed a hand with a pruning-hook cutting unfruiting vines accompanied by a motto associated with Mary, into which could be read the cutting back of the barren Elizabeth and the substitution of Mary as Queen of England. This went so far as to be treasonable.
On a lighter note, Canadian poet James Gay wrote a letter to Queen Victoria enclosing the following rhyme, as reported by Carlotta Hacker in A Little Bit of Canada: “O Mary, Mary, Queen of Scot/ Your needlework is not forgot/ Three hundred years have passed, they say/ Your beautiful piece of tapestry is in the hands of Mrs Thomas Dunn of Nassagaway.”
For a time after the death of her husband the Prince Consort, Queen Victoria took up spinning as a soothing occupation for a lonely young widow, as illustrated in Victoria and Albert: A Family Life at Osborne House, by HRH The Duchess of York. Later, during the South African War the Queen took up a crochet hook, making several scarves the size of the sash worn by sergeants on ceremonial occasions, writes Barbara Mertens in “Queen Victoria’s Scarf “ in Monarchy Canada, August 1991. The khaki coloured scarves each having the royal cipher VRI embroidered in silk on it, were made by the Queen in 1900 at the age of 82, and she intended them to be presented to soldiers in the colonial forces, one each from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Giles St Aubyn says of her in Queen Victoria: A Portrait, that most evenings she knitted scarves and comforters for “her dear brave soldiers as if her bread depended on it…I like to think I am doing something for them, although it is so little.”
Queen Mary was a famous seamstress who taught her children the art, as recalled by her eldest son later King Edward VIII in A King’s Story: The Memoirs of the Duke of Windsor. One of his fondest childhood memories is learning how to crochet five-foot long woolen comforters for her many charities, while she rested in her boudoir.