University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Following Henry’s lead: clothes and the construction of masculinity during the reign of Henry VIII

HENRY VIII © National Portrait Gallery, London 157 (1)

HENRY VIII © National Portrait Gallery, London 157 (1)

Andrew McCarthy, a current third year student in History and Politics, tells us about what attracted him towards his dissertation topic, what research challenges he faced along the way and what he was able conclude from his research.  Andrew is planning to study for an MA in Early Modern History at Birkbeck next year.

The early modern period was a time which included some of the most gripping events in history which is why I have always had an interest in it. As I have furthered my research into the period, I have come to realise that I am mostly interested the social aspect of sixteenth century British history, especially the concept of gender. When I had to decide on a dissertation topic, I knew I wanted to explore early modern gender even more and possibly explore how it was shown. When researching for a topic, I noticed that many academics discussed women’s gender and femininity and how it was shown through objects such as clothing. However, when it came it came to masculinity and how it was shown, it is evident that this is under researched.

Because of this, my dissertation examined what masculinity meant to men in the early sixteenth century and how clothing was a tool in expressing masculinity. Through the use of portraiture and inventories, different ranks of men were looked at, such as Henry VIII himself, the nobility and the urban elite (lawyers and merchants). It is evident that during this time there was a hegemonic masculinity, which all men aspired to. Elite men attributed masculinity to two factors: wealth and status. These two factors were held in high regard to noble and urban elite men as they increasingly seen to epitomise a courtier and chivalric masculinity. In order to illustrate this sense of masculinity, upper class men using their clothing as signifiers. Clothing then, like today, had a performative element to it which men knew and used to their advantage. However, it is evident that this hegemonic masculinity was controlled at this time. Henry VIII, as monarch, had the opportunity to govern the masculinity of the time through the implementation of sumptuary laws and his own clothing choices. With clothing attributed to rank, sumptuary legislation was used to keep elite men in their place, but were also used to form a universal form of hegemonic masculinity. Sumptuary laws reinforced the idea that masculinity was linked to wealth through the wearing of expensive fabrics and colours, such as black velvet. In addition to sumptuary legislation, Henry VIII himself constantly redefined the hegemonic masculinity. Henry believed that elaborate dress was an integral display of masculine and monarchical power which he successfully showed. Henry VIII efficaciously illustrated his masculinity through the use of colour and style. As Henry was aware of the power of fashion, he boosted other men’s masculinity. Throughout his court, and the country, Henry was the fashion icon and the nobility and urban elite wanted to emulate Henry’s masculine fashion style, such as following his use of the colour black, therefore defining the hegemonic masculinity of the time.

However, when researching for an early modern dissertation, there are difficulties. For example, one difficulty is finding relevant primary sources. Obviously, the sixteenth century was a long time ago which means there are fewer primary sources around to be used in research. This means that research into this period is much more interpretive than research into modern history topics where a range of sources are available. Finding primary sources which were relevant for this dissertation were challenging for this reason, but also because this area is underdeveloped. As there are fewer primary sources for this period, it means that finding is more time consuming. For example, I had to take a two-day visit to the National Archives to find my primary research, and even then I only found three relevant inventories. However, some might say this is a good thing. Finding useful sources in an archive and using them within your research provides an opportunity to produce a piece of work which is original as you have examined them, and have not used an historian’s interpretation. Although these sources provide originality within the research, they can be tough to analyse.

The National Archives, CORNWALL, Sir Thomas, of Lugharness, Herf. PROB 2/508, 1537.

The National Archives, CORNWALL, Sir Thomas, of Lugharness, Herf. PROB 2/508, 1537.

Reading sixteenth century primary sources is extremely difficult at first. At first glance, many documents written at this time look illegible to the modern reader. When examining the inventories at the National Archives for the first time, the handwriting and numerals made it nearly impossible for me to understand. However, with help from Fiona, palaeography books, and numerous attempts, I began to understand the methodology behind the handwriting. When it comes to documents like these, practice is needed. With more practice, the easier it gets. Even now, I am still a novice when it comes to reading them.

Even though it was stressful at times, researching and writing this dissertation was an enjoyable experience. I know that might be weird to say, but it is true. I think it is because I was interested in what I was researching and have a genuine interest in the early modern period. Because of this, in September I will be starting my MA in Early Modern History at Birkbeck where I hope to expand my interest.

Andrew’s supervisor Fiona McCall comments: Andrew was a joy to supervise, worked extremely hard using many original sources, and this has paid off in an excellent dissertation finding something new to say about the reign of this most famous of English Kings.




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