Catherine Tollemache née Cromwell

Suffolk gentlewoman (1597)

Catherine’s garments – in an inventory at Helmingham Hall

48 garments including:

  • Eleven pairs of sleeves
  • Eight kirtles
  • Seven gowns
  • Seven stomachers
  • Four cloaks
  • Two petticoats
  • Two hats
  • Two pairs of silk stockings
  • One pair of pantofles [mules]

Catherine was the wife of an esquire living in an old and impressive moated property in Suffolk. However, all her married life she had lived under the shadow of debt. Despite coming from a very well-connected family, she was merely a gentlewoman in rank. Catherine was a great-granddaughter of Thomas Cromwell on her father’s side and the granddaughter of the Marquis of Winchester on her mother’s - but this gave her no title nor much wealth. Her marriage at 23 in 1580 brought her a husband her junior by about five years and considerable housewifely responsibilities. She took personal charge of the household leaving evidence of her skill in cooking, laundry and distillery in a notebook now known as Receipts for Pastery, Confectionary, etc, which she kept from 1580 to about 1612.

An inventory of 1597 lists clothes belonging to Catherine, her husband Lionel Tollemache, Esquire and their seven children, together with furniture, food and household equipment. It is an unusual inventory because it is not associated with a death but a debt. After many years of careful housekeeping, the 1597 inventory provided a clear indication of what belonged to Catherine’s family at last. The Tollemaches were indebted to the Jermyn family for 25 years until Lionel was able to regain control of his estate in 1596. His father had died soon after ‘an ill-considered gamble’ leaving his mother a young widow in 1572. This gamble stripped the family of an estate at Bentley, near Ipswich, and greatly reduced their income - much to the disappointment of Lionel’s grandfather.

But 1597 marked the beginning of a new era because not only was their income improved, Lionel’s mother, the dowager of the family, died. Catherine’s ‘i morning gowne with a curtle and stomacher’ recorded in the 1597 inventory may well have been what she wore to her mother-in-law’s funeral in April of that year. Susanna Tollemache had been the young widow who turned to her own family, the Jermyns, for financial assistance with her late husband’s debts. Now free of Susanna’s obligations, Catherine and Lionel may have felt a new independence. Maybe this is why Catherine’s portrait was commissioned from Robert Peake the Elder – to celebrate finally calling her home her own.

The portrait shows her wearing farthingale sleeves. A letter from Roger Jones, her London tailor, a few years later in 1605, suggests her continued preference for this style, four pairs of which appear in the 1597 inventory: ‘your worships opineon be a vardingall sleve becomuthe her better, yett for fashion sake it is mette to have one cut after the new pattern

Lionel first became Sheriff of Suffolk in 1593 (and was again in 1609) but Catherine’s status as a gentlewoman did not change until she was nearly 50 years old, when her husband purchased a baronetcy from James I in 1611. His status was further enhanced with a knighthood in 1612. But the new Lady Tollemache found herself widowed later the same year, her husband having left her ‘all her jewels, my golde chaine being worth one hundreth marks onlie excepte’. She moved to a dower house for which her son paid £324 a year in rent. After her death in 1620, she was buried at the church in Helmingham. Her monument commemorated ‘her Pietie toward God, Pity toward ye Poore, and Charity in Releeving (through her Skill and Singular Experience in Chirugerie) ye Sick & Sore Wounded’.

Catherine is one of the best connected and well-to-do people in the database of over 57,000 items of dress on which The Typical Tudor is based. Nevertheless, she was firmly among the rank of gentlefolk in 1597. It was not until James I’s reign that her status improved so that at her death, she was styled Dame Catherine – a courtesy title given to the widow of a knight. She had been Lady Tollemache for just three months during her long life of more than 60 years.

Woman's farthingale sleeves

Catherine wears farthingale sleeves (also called ‘trunk sleeves’), a style favoured by Queen Elizabeth toward the end of the 16th century, and also by aspiring Tudors who were not noble but who could afford to copy fashions worn by the elite. Farthingale sleeves were shaped with whalebone hoops, as shown by an extant example in a private collection, and many references in documentary sources. Cheaper alternatives to whalebone for stiffening the sleeves were wires or sticks.

The fashion for farthingale sleeves made its way through society: by 1611 the Worshipful Company of Grocers ‘ordained … that maid-servants and women-servants’ should not wear ‘any fardingale at all, either little or great, nor any body or sleeves of wire, whalebone or with any other stiffing, saving canvas or buckram only’.

The reconstruction of a farthingale sleeve shown here and the pattern for it in The Typical Tudor are based on descriptions in literary sources and inventories, an extant example, artwork, and funerary monuments in Norfolk, Nottingham and elsewhere.

1580s to 1603

Woman's loose gown

Catherine’s farthingale sleeves are worn under a loose gown, a style which fitted across the shoulders and fell in folds towards the hem. It could be worn with or without a girdle to tie it at the waist. A loose gown appeared in Juan de Alcega’s pattern book of 1589. There were also patterns providing a variety of styles of loose gown in two Austrian tailors’ books dating from 1590.

How generous all these gowns were is suggested by the yardages provided for them. The usual fabric allowance for gowns was from three to five yards, depending on the width of the fabric. A London citizen and clothworker, William Lambe, bequeathed a generous 5½ yards of frieze for each of 12 ‘poor aged women being impotent or lame’ in 1568.

The reconstruction of a loose gown and the pattern for it in The Typical Tudor are based on descriptions in wills and inventories, 16th century tailors’ manuals, artwork, and memorial brasses in Cumberland, Surrey, Suffolk and elsewhere.

1530s to 1603*
*With collar and late 16th century sleeve only after 1570

i plaine gowne of black velvet bound about with a black lace

One plain gown of black velvet edged with black lace

i old black velvet gowne

One old black velvet gown

iiii payer of vardingall sleeves

Three pairs of farthingale sleeves

your worships opineon be a vardingall sleve becomuthe her better, yett for fashion sake it is mette to have one cut after the new pattern

Your opinion is that a farthingale sleeve suits you better but to keep up with the latest fashion, it is more appropriate to have one that follows the new style

Roger Jones, London tailor, to Catherine Tollemache (1605)

i coullered hatt with a gold band

One coloured hat with a gold band

ii payer of sleeves and ii stummachers of whit

Two pairs of sleeves and two white stomachers
The Typical Tudor cover

The Typical Tudor

Reconstructing Everyday 16th Century Dress

Catherine Tollemache is just one of the many individuals whose wills make up the data on which The Typical Tudor is based. It breaks new ground with a thorough survey of evidence for ordinary people's clothing in the 16th century. The book also features sewing patterns and knitting instructions for more than 50 garments and headwear, including farthingale sleeves and a woman’s loose gown.