One of the earliest ways that a child, both girls and boys, would learn reading was through needlework. As a child was learning how to do needlework, they often made embroidery samplers. Samplers filled many educational purposes. Children would embroider letters on the to show their literacy. Also, the samplers were often filled with plants and animals, so they could be part of a science lesson as well. And finally, just as with hornbooks, children often incorporated prayers or other religious themes. Even if the children were not being taught writing, they would get the basics by learning how to do needlework.
Samplers are used as a teaching tool, but that doesn’t mean that they are all simple. Aristocratic women would create elaborate needlework that reflected their education. They often recreated stories from the Bible and folklore into their needlework. In some cases, political themes were coded in the samplers. Elizabeth Talbot, better known as Bess of Hardwick, one of the wealthiest and powerful women in England at the time, was renowned for her intricate needlework. Many of her pieces can be seen displayed in the grand house she built called Hardwick Hall.
Mary, Queen of Scots: Mary, as a Catholic monarch, represented a threat to Elizabeth’s throne. This led Elizabeth to imprison Mary in various great houses for the last eighteen and a half years of her life. Although Mary was not held in one room and had her staff with her, her movements were restricted. To pass the time, she worked on her embroidery. Bess of Hardwick, whose husband George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, was in charge of keeping Mary from 1569 until 1585, worked on these embroideries with Mary. The women, along with the ladies on Mary’s staff, would work on sections that could be stitched together. The embroidery has a variety of natural themes: animals and plants native to England, as well as ones that would have been found in books with exotic themes. If you looked closely enough you might find subversive themes in Mary’s needlework. Take a look at the samples of Mary’s work below. Can you see where Mary is commenting on her situation and her thoughts about Elizabeth?
Agecroft’s Sampler: In our collection at Agecroft, we have a wonderful example of a sampler. It was part of the recent “Tenacity- Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia” Exhibit at the Jamestown Settlement museum. Sadly, we don’t have any information about the person who created the sampler. We estimate that it was created between 1625-1650. It’s made of standard materials for such an object: linen with silk threads. You’ll notice a variety of flowers, as well as insects and animals. This sampler may have been a practice piece, due to the repetition of patterns. Compare this sampler to the other examples. How are they similar? How are the different? Based just on the samplers, what might they tell us about the people who did the needlework on them?
Sources: Schooling Shrews and Grooming Queens in the Tudor Classroom