The Great Fire of London Destroyed The Secret Wardrobe That Held 400 Years of Royal Fashion
For over 400 years, the King’s Wardrobe held the ceremonial robes, suits of armor, and collection of jewels that adorned the British monarchy. Then came the Great Fire of London.
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In February, the queens and kings of fashion make their biannual pilgrimage first to New York, then London, Milan, and Paris. Editors and A-listers, stylists and a sprinkling of retail doyennes will watch as the latest designs strut down the runway before they rush to put in their red-carpet loan requests and orders for next season.
It’s a good thing this high-fashion ritual didn’t happen during medieval times or the finest of the new gowns may have been snapped up and squirreled away to a single place: the King’s Wardrobe.
For 300 years, the ceremonial robes, suits of armor, and collection of royal jewels that made up the King’s Wardrobe, or Great Wardrobe as it has sometimes been called, were stored in their very own house in the Blackfriars neighborhood of London.
Satellite closets for the king and queen were conveniently located in the royal residences, but from the reign of Edward III through Charles II, a single building served as the main home for the monarchy’s finest regalia and the seat of power for one of the highest positions in the royal household. Then in 1666, the Great Fire swept through London, consuming the King’s Wardrobe.
In the early 1200’s the Wardrobe was first formalized as an official department of the royal household complete with its very own manager. The position grew, as did the responsibilities and stylish holdings of the bureau, until it was necessary to find external digs for all the sartorial pomp and circumstance.
The King’s Wardrobe, as both the household department and the physical building became known, floated between locations for over a hundred years, landing for a time in the early 14th century at the Tower of London.
In 1359, Edward III spotted an opportunity to secure a more permanent home for what one can imagine had become one giant, fabulous closet (accessorized, of course, with some pesky financial and household responsibilities).
Sir John Beauchamp, Constable of Dover and Warden of the Cinque Ports had died and the executors of his estate were interested in offloading the family home he had built in the Blackfriars neighborhood near the River Thames. Edward III gladly purchased it and moved his ceremonial robes right on in.
Of course, it wasn’t just frocks and baubles taking up residence in the new royal real estate holding. Over the years, both the size and power of the department had expanded.
According to a 1909 article in The English Historical Review, it developed “a position of some importance in the state as a special mouthpiece of the personal will of the king. As a financial body, it almost rivaled the exchequer in the magnitude of its operation, and a large proportion of its national revenue passed through its hands.”
The Master of the Royal Wardrobe became a coveted and powerful position in the king’s court, no doubt aided by the fact that the role eventually assumed control of all of the financial accounting and expenditures for the royal household.
Even in the twilight years when the title had become largely ceremonial, the first Duke of Montagu and last master of the Wardrobe nearly bankrupted himself purchasing the rights to the position and was forced into a lucrative marriage to replenish his spent wealth.
But while the power and prestige of the master of the Wardrobe may have waxed and waned, the contents of the King’s Wardrobe, as the Blackfriars building became known, remained fabulous. According to Richard Guard in Lost London, “it was a veritable museum of royal fashions over a 400-year period.”
“[T]he Wardrobe contained all the clothes used by the royal family for weddings and coronations, along with state robes for ambassadors, the Prince of Wales, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the King’s Ministers and Knights of the Garter,” Guard writes.
While details of the specific gold-threaded tunics of Edward III or billowing, high-necked gowns of Elizabeth I that made up the ceremonial couture are lacking, one trip through the British collection of paintings at your favorite museum should help you imagine the sorts of finery maintained by the English crown, not to mention the tapestries and other trappings of royal life kept there.
As the King’s Wardrobe grew in prominence, it wasn’t just the royal court which had business there. A record from May 15,1604 lists William Shakespeare among the “players” who were issued four-and-a-half yards of red cloth from the Wardrobe to be turned into royal uniforms so that the premier theater folks could attend the coronation of King James I in proper attire.
And the famous diaries of Samuel Pepys are littered with references to the building, 169 to be exact. He dined there, picked up and dropped off associates, and even lamented over the price of a piece of lace he bought from the Wardrobe for his wife. (Mrs. Pepys turned it into a handkerchief that he had to admit was “indeed…very handsome.”)
No doubt each king and queen put their own personal stamp on the running of the Wardrobe, but it was King James I who committed the cardinal sin of fashion historians.
According to 17th-century English historian Thomas Fuller, the wardrobe had accumulated the trappings of so many monarchs that it had become “in effect a library for antiquaries, therein to read the mode and fashion of garments in all ages.” James decided it was time for a purge and he sold some of the Wardrobe’s holdings to the Earl of Dunbar who in turn “sold, resold, and re-resold at as many hands almost as Briareus had.”
James’s son Charles I was relieved of the historical burden of the Wardrobe when he was relieved of his head in 1649. While the English monarchy was in exile, the leaders of the Commonwealth decided to repurpose the Wardrobe as an orphanage, which left the royal household in a sticky situation when the throne was restored in 1660.
According to Pepys, Sir Edward Montagu, the newly appointed master of the revived Wardrobe took a tour of the historic building-turned-orphanage and was treated to a song by “some poor children in tawny clothes” who were trying to make a case for keeping their home. They “did sing finely” but were given five pieces of gold and evicted nonetheless.
Perhaps it was karma then when only six years later, Montagu would also be forced to flee the address.
This tragedy would prove the beginning of the end for the King’s Wardrobe.
With the building and its untold precious contents destroyed, the prominence of its position within the royal household began to wane.
The King’s Wardrobe was moved to several different locations over the following years, but nothing stuck quite like the Blackfriars home. In 1709, the position of Master of the Royal Wardrobe was terminated, and the existence of a physical structure known as the King’s Wardrobe disappeared soon after.
Today, only one location continues to be known by that simple, yet notable designation. The King’s Wardrobe in Blackfriars may have burnt to the ground, but two streets—Wardrobe Place and Wardrobe Terrace—continue to honor the tradition of the government building that once stood there as does a nearby church that carries a very distinguished, if not-so-holy name: St. Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe.