Angela McShane Jones asks what depictions in broadsides of Mary II with her breasts exposed, tell us about 17th-century popular attitudes to royalty.
In 1689 the devoutly Protestant Prince William and Princess Mary of Orange, nephew and daughter of the Catholic James II, usurped the throne of England. A black-letter broadside ballad, The Princess Welcome to England (pictured right), the most popular print medium of the period, heralded Mary’s arrival in England at this historic juncture.
The words of the ballad described Mary as a ‘Vertuous Wife in all her ways’, emphasised her modesty and compared her favourably with Mary of Medina, James II’s Catholic and Italian wife, at the same time drawing attention to the illustrative woodcut:
We have had a Papist Queen
But another may be seen
In Attire far more mean
Yet none can discommend her
For we find humility
In a Royal Dignity.
At the end of the ballad our attention is drawn once again to the picture:
And while our joys did thus abound
True subjects did commend her
Tho’ she was modest, mild and mean,
Behold her in her Glorious Sceene
She’s now Great Britain’s Royal Queen.
Did this picture really depict a woman mean and modest? The words of the ballad hardly seem to be in harmony with the woodcut, in which Mary is dressed in an extreme décolleté gown, breasts fully exposed, while her face is covered in decorative ‘patches’, known as a means used by prostitutes of covering up the marks of the pox.
Perhaps there was some subversive intention in the choice of this rather dubious woodcut to represent Mary, despite the loyal words of the ballad? Could such pictures convey political meaning as the words of the songs did, or were they meaningless and chosen by the printer at random to fill space in the broadside? At such a momentous political juncture, surely any depiction of the monarchy was of importance and should tell us something? Paradoxical ballads like these, where text and image seem to be a mismatch, may reveal a great deal about popular conceptions of monarchy.
In the seventeenth century, broadside publishers who were out to make a profit produced ballads for a highly competitive popular print market. This meant that publication costs needed to be kept down, and the message had to be right. Ballads with woodcuts were double the price of those without, and had to be updated constantly (something not realised by most commentators on this genre); they consequently represented an important part of the printer’s investment. What was the function of a woodcut? Was it to illustrate, to titillate, to sell to a target audience – or to subvert by introducing a joke?
Poverty-stricken ballad-printers hoping to make a few shillings may have had access only to outdated, perhaps discarded, woodcuts. Even in those produced by reputable publishers, there are a number of cases where images do not fit the texts they accompany. One example is a ballad entitled The dying mans good counsel to his chidren [sic] and friends , printed in the 1670s, whose accompanying woodcut apparently depicts a couple surprised in bed!
Throughout the century ballads were issued by different publishers simultaneously, with minor alterations to the text or title and with different woodcuts. According to one of the great nineteenth-century ballad collectors, the 9th Earl of Crawford, the normal print run for a ballad was small, perhaps about 500 sheets at a time. This meant that if a ballad proved popular it would have to be re-printed, which might account for changes in layout. He also suggested that ballad printing may have been used as a training exercise for apprentices, resulting in frequent printing mistakes, including, perhaps, the choice of inappropriate woodcuts.
Woodcuts were also commissioned to illustrate particular ballads. A detailed study of the 10,000-odd remaining seventeenth-century broadsides shows that publishers regularly updated woodcuts to reflect current fashions and celebrities. The changing décolleté fashions of the seventeenth century, for example, can be traced in several of these. Woodcuts were also specially commissioned from more expensive prints and engravings, for example in celebration of the 1689 coronation.
As a key part of the publishing investment woodcuts were deliberately deployed in order to target buyers and to complement the content of the ballad. Pictures of buxom women on ballads could be a selling point for a male audience – and a female one too if the pictures actually described the latest fashions. (It is noticeable that there are more busty ballads in the large collection made by Samuel Pepys than any other collection. It is hard not to suspect that there may have been a certain preference in his ballad buying.) Woodcuts illustrating ballads about royalty, however, were chosen with particular care and decorum. Mere carelessness or coincidence will not explain the extreme décolleté version of Mary II.
Balladeers sang the praises and followed the progress of the Prince of Orange from the time of his arrival in England in 1688 until his death in 1702. Dismissed as ‘pot poets’ by more elite writers, these largely anonymous songsters reputedly wrote under the influence of alcohol in order to earn money for more drink. They would steal anything for song material, adapting theatre songs, satirical poems and perhaps witty remarks overheard in the tavern or street. Originality was not an issue. They wrote to a clear political formula – liking the world to be orderly, monarchical and Protestant – and, if at all possible, heroic, young and fashionable. By the end of his reign James II had offended all the traditional ballad proprieties of right, law and rabid anti-Catholicism. He was also old and his military exploits were long behind him. Though they were usually fiercely monarchist, Protestantism came first with balladeer hacks of the time. They threw in their quills with the ‘Protestant Prince’ William III, producing hundreds of ballads in his support. So much so that it became a joke – one ballad The Welsh Fortune-Teller quipped ‘Since Arrival, Proclaiming and Crowning is o’re,/And song upon song made,/What wou’d you have more?’
William’s wife and more direct claimant to the throne, Mary, was to rule with him jointly. This meant that for the first time in the century there was a ruling queen to sing about. Apart from Katherine of Aragon, who appears in one or two Robin Hood ballads, and Charles I’s queen Henrietta Maria in one Civil War ballad, queen consorts were rarely the subject of traditional printed ballads. They appeared in woodcuts alongside their royal husbands, but they did not have their own ballad personalities. The role of the ballad in creating an image of Mary II is therefore an interesting one. There are more ballads remaining about Mary II than any other ruling queen, and unlike any queen before or after her, she was actually a ballad heroine – she emerges as a character who speaks (or rather sings) about the political needs of the nation, as well as simply being the recipient of ballad panegyric.
Images used to depict Mary were varied. In 1689 alone there were twelve woodcuts of quite different women used to depict the new queen. William appears on ten of these, and again each representation is different. But the most striking aspect of these images is the way in which the modest and virtuous Mary was continually represented as openly baring her breasts. From 1690 until 1694 another five new cuts were used but three images emerged as standards – two are ‘respectable’ décolleté courtly women but the most frequently used depicted an extreme décolleté style.
These images of Mary are ambiguous. Dressed in this way, she could be held guilty of ungodly ‘self confidence’ by proudly displaying her breasts, and of vanity by patching her face. In the later images she would have been vulnerable to the charge of excessive luxury by wearing a topknot – the cause of some considerable ballad debate over sartorial morality in the 1690s. Throughout her reign it appears that though the ballad texts were uniformly loyal and complimentary of Mary, the woodcut depictions of her that accompany them depict her as potentially immoral.
Apart from the specially commissioned coronation pictures, none of the 1689 woodcuts were new. Their previous incarnations were varied, and some of them potentially detrimental to Mary’s reputation. For example one image was also used to illustrate ballads entitled The Wanton Wife of Bath and The Invincible Pride of Women . After Charles II’s death in 1685, two portraits had appeared on Portsmouth’s Lamentation and A Dialogue betwixt Two Wanton Ladies depicting his now redundant mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth, while another Mary woodcut had been used to represent Nell Gwynne on one ballad and Charles II’s Queen Catherine de Braganza on another. One of the couples used to depict William and Mary had also been used to portray a highwayman, ‘George of Oxford’ and his mistress Lady Gray on another ballad.
Yet ballads also show continuity in royal imagery. A woodcut used originally to depict James I and Anne of Denmark and later used in ballads on both Charles II and James II is one example. Angels bearing the crown were a common feature on woodcuts indicating royalty from Charles I’s time. After 1689 they sometimes bore laurels instead. Ballad woodcuts were adapted and repeated to create a monarchical collage, using crowns, monarchs old and new, all of which made the subject of the ballad and the royalty of the figures clear. Almost all these images, meanwhile, either had been or were to be used elsewhere to illustrate a whole range of other subjects.
While traditional ballads sought to demonstrate their loyalty to the monarchy by singing royal praises, and did so by using a whole range of old and new pictures of monarchs on the same ballad, they also wanted to re-use these valuable and expensive pictures as selling points on other ballads. Ballad writers, publishers, performers, and buyers thus presented a fantasy of courtly fashion and romance through images and text, rather than an accurate or stable representation of their rulers. This helps to explain why there were so many different pictures of Mary, but it still does not explain her immodest dress.
High fashion was monolithic and led by the court. Since the ascendance at court of Charles I’s queen Henrietta Maria from 1629, only French ladies determined the correct style. It was the French-born Duchess of Portsmouth who had been responsible for introducing the hairstyle depicted in The Princess Welcome to England . While all ‘sorts’ in society may have aspired to courtly fashions, there were tensions involved. High court fashion reflected the instability of religious and political orientation. For Protestants there was always a doctrinal difficulty with styles that had come in from Catholic states and were therefore tainted with corruption and sin. John Evelyn, in Tyranus or the Mode (1661), said of French fashion:
Though I love the French well … yet I would be glad to pay my respects for it in any thing rather then my CLOTHES … when a Nation is able to impose, and give laws to the habit of another … it has (like that of Language) prov’d a Fore-runer of the spreading of their conquests there.
There was much moralising about fashion, consequently, directed at the court and those who aped them. Sermons, pamphlets, broadsides and ballads, written against women showing their breasts and patching, were produced continuously. For example, A Just and Seasonable Reprehension of Naked Breasts and Shoulders , (translated from the French original), published in 1670 with a preface by the great divine Richard Baxter, and England’s Vanity (1683) both declaimed vociferously against such abominations as bare breasts and the use of face patches. Ballads too, such as The Invincible Pride of Women, discouraged fashionable practices that Evelyn, in 1653, had pointed out were ‘formerly… used only by prostitutes’. Of course, this was simply a moral inversion: prostitutes aped court fashion not the other way round. Ballads declaiming against these fashions were published by the same men who publicised them through their woodcuts; an indication of just how keen ballad publishers were to sell to every market.
Morally, the display of the breast could be both good – the breast of the mother nourishing for example (one ballad exhorts Mary to ‘nourish religion and laws’) – and bad – leading to lascivious temptation. A ballad woodcut of the renowned beauty Elizabeth of Bohemia (Mary’s aunt) depicts her wearing a gown that reveals her breasts fully, but she is also with her children – thus these are good, yet fashionable, breasts on show. Less exalted women were also depicted in the company of children, fashionably and legitimately, showing their breasts.
Low-cut fashion had been popular in courtly circles in Western Europe since the fourteenth century and in England since the late sixteenth century. It may have had its beginning with the less than respectable Agnes Sorel, mistress to Charles VII of France, but by 1600 possibly the virginal Elizabeth I and definitely James I’s unimpeachably virtuous queen Anne of Denmark were devotees of extreme décolleté. By this time, high-class female fashion had become subject to Renaissance rhetoric. Noble breasts needed to comply with the classical ideal of eternal youth, beauty and virtue. They should be ‘unused’ and ‘apple-like’ as those of Venus and Helen.
Décolleté styles enabled a display of the potential fecundity and youth of a maiden, emphasising or encapsulating her beauty and vulnerability, though, as with all aspects of nobility, such a display was acceptable only if it were joined with virtue and self-control. There was great encouragement to look and admire, but there was no invitation to touch.
Royal breasts were not usually depicted in art, however, though they may well have been shown. A masque costume design by Inigo Jones for Henrietta Maria would have fully revealed the Queen’s breasts if, indeed, she ever wore it. Elite costume had to balance a sense of fashion with suitability and safety of reputation. In portraits, the exposure of both breasts tended to be restricted to court ladies who were known to be mistresses. The exposure of one breast was a different matter – depictions of court ladies (but not queens) as St Catherine, for example, could involve the exposure of a single breast. In medieval depictions both saintly breasts are shown, a reference to the removal of Catherine’s breasts as part of her martyrdom. However, even in the relaxed déshabillé of Lely’s portraits, the full exposure of the breasts, as in his portraits of Nell Gwynne, only occurred if the woman concerned was known to be lacking in marital virtue.
Did these same ‘rules’ apply to décolleté fashion in low class ballads? Breasts on ballad sheets were a fairly common sight but the context of the bared breast varied enormously. For example, one woodcut of a young lady marks the point at which larger breasts had ‘come into fashion’, around about the mid-century. This image was used on ballads entitled The Virtuous Maid’s Resolution, The Description of a Town Miss, and Jockey’s lamentation turn’d into joy or Jenny Yields at last . Thus, this one woodcut was used to represent respectively the moral, the potentially immoral and the seduced female. It was not the image alone, but the contextualising of the image within a song or story that gave an image its meaning.
For the ordinary woman the bare breast may have been licitly displayed by the unmarried, as an expression of their unused state, and suitability as lover, wife and mother. Certainly, some ballad pictures and songs suggest this, though after 1660 there is a strong suggestion that this was a fashion preferred by the ‘town misses’ of London.
Preachers moralising about fashion despaired over the breaking down of distinctions in dress, (Tudor sumptuary legislation which restricted the consumption of goods and particularly the purchasing of rich fabrics and dress to certain classes, had been bought to an end in 1604), which led to the lower sorts aspiring to inappropriate fashions they neither needed nor could afford. Adam Martindale, yeoman diarist, wrote in the 1640s that before the Civil War
Freeholders’ daughters … durst not have offered to weare an hood, or a scarfe, (while now every beggar’s brat that can get them thinks not above her,) noe, nor so much as a gowne till her wedding day. And if any of them had transgressed these bounds, she would have beene accounted an ambitious foole.
For the ordinary woman, after marriage there was to be a cover up, unless breast-feeding was going on. If not, then her morality might be suspect. For the fashionable upper classes there was no feeding. The breast remained the plaything of the lover and a permanent expression of youth and beauty. In two ballads about Mary II rescuing children (both of which show her with breasts exposed) she sends for a wet nurse to attend the children, releasing their mother from her drudgery.
The evidence suggests that while displaying the breasts was supposed to be an upper-class affair, it had been vulgarised and imitated by lower-class women, aspiring to courtly fashion. To achieve the proper ‘apple-like’ and unused breast, however, it was necessary to use expensive stays and a stomacher, which could push the breast up, sometimes beyond the breastbone, at the same time creating a stiff, genteel deportment. Ballad woodcuts are quite accurate in showing the unnatural lift of the bosom. This way of enhancing the breasts was beyond the means of most, however. In Terms Used for Taylors (London, 1688) it was pointed out that these styles required ‘a Maid or Woman to dress the wearer’. The lower orders more often obtained the look by loosening a tightly laced bodice at the top. Yet on ballads, many décolleté ladies, described as merchant’s daughters, milkmaids, cook maids and shepherdesses, appear in the guise of royal queens and mistresses, dressed in expensive stays, gowns and stomachers.
Where does this leave Mary II and the puzzle of dissonant text and image in The Princess Welcome to England ? It may be that the young queen arrived with a reputation for a rather too strong interest in fashion. William was reported to have rebuked her in 1689 for dining with her dressmaker, Mrs Graden, a woman of ill repute, by saying ‘he heard she dined at a bawdy house, and desired the next time she went he might go too’. Some printed criticism was directly aimed at Mary. For example To Queen Mary, The Humble Salutation and Faithful greeting of the Widow Whitrowe with a Warning to the Rulers of the Earth (1690), pointed out Mary’s lack of decorum at court. ‘For be it known to the Queen’ the widow rails:
... when I heard of the vain Pastimes, and sinful Pleasures with the Excess of Finery, in Richness of Apparel that was at the Court on the Kings Birthday … and that the Queen went to Plays, Oh how was my soul bowed down … O Queen! … Is this to Answer the end of her Creation, and the King’s safe return from Ireland?
In the first depictions of Mary on ballads she was not dressed in the highest fashion. In The Princess Welcome to England of 1689, the cut of her gown dates from about 1680 (décolleté fashion was not extreme between 1660 and 1690 except perhaps in about 1680) and her hair is in the style of the late 1670s. (A 1677 portrait by Lely depicts her like this.) It was only after her proclamation as queen that Mary was given a more up-to-date image. As the year 1690 dawned she was invariably portrayed as a highly fashionable, top-knotted royal. The image from The Princess Welcome to England was never used to depict her again.
The context and language of this and later ballads make it clear that Mary’s displayed breasts were to be seen as an expression of her youth, beauty and, hopefully, her fecundity. In 1689 and 1690 ballads such as The Boast of Great Britain praised her virtue (‘Neither light, nor vain, nor proud’), her beauty (‘Fair to admiration’) and ‘her breasts [that] are like Parnassus’. Others prayed for her to ‘ever be fruitful and ever be young’, described her as ‘the star of the court’ and hoped ‘a mother e’er long she may prove’. One was rather excessive in its demands: ‘when royal sons they have good store/so many that they’d ask no more/may heaven’s kindness ne’er give o’er/but bless them with a daughter.’
Representations of Mary and other monarchical figures that were used interchangeably on love, advice, pastoral and political ballads were the vehicles by which broadsides could offer audiences a fantasy. Through ballads, buyers could access the glamour, romance and seduction of the courtly world. The ultimate fantasy was portrayed in Cupid’s Revenge where a king married a beggar woman whose ‘behaviour always gave her/Title to her dignity’.
Woodcuts of the Stuarts, male or female, tend not to appear on ballads that relate ‘real’ stories of action in ordinary homes or lives. They do appear over and over on courtship ballads as lovers, fortunate and unfortunate, seducers, and dispensers of advice to other lovers. In some ballads the figures seem to be hovering in the sense of guardians rather than as protagonists within the ballad. Occasionally official royal motifs – such as the rose and fleur de lys of Charles I and Henrietta Maria – were also used as illustrations on love ballads.
Mary II was increasingly portrayed favourably in ballads as a loving and obedient wife and popular queen. Her relationship with William was depicted as a love affair, involving many partings and returns from war. In every respect Mary fitted perfectly into popular ballad forms, making her seem accessible to the ordinary citizen. Where she did not fit – as in her childlessness – she was portrayed as saving mothers and their children from poverty and disgrace. Love, as a political and social force, was a matter for government as well as individual members of the community. The Mournful Shepherd pointed out that unrequited love could lead to a ‘civil war’ of the senses. The ballad message seemed to be that it was only on the basis of successful, fruitful, mutually loving relationships that the country could ever hope to face the future. The monarchical couple represented political as well as romantic aspirations. On their survival and continuation the whole stability of the kingdom depended.
It was an unwise monarch, like James II, who allowed himself to draw so far away from popular understanding and discourses that he could no longer command loyalty from his people. As Selden so famously said, ‘More solid things do not shew the Complexion of the Times so well as Ballads and Libells’.
Angela McShane Jones is Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Warwick.
- The Archive
- Medieval (4th-15thC)
- Early Modern (16th-18thC)
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology
- Central America
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Kings & Queens
- Prime Ministers
- US Presidents
- Special Series
- Student Advice
- Browse Back Issues
- History Review
- Digital Edition