Less than a month after Henry VIII’s warship the Mary Rose sank off the English coast, a soldier among the king’s loyal troops was composing his will near Calais. Thomas Slater listed his possessions on 2 August 1545 while stationed at one of the Duke of Norfolk's military encampments. He was one of a company of hackbutters – soldiers named for the long-barrelled gun with a curved stock known as a ‘hook butt’ they carried.
An invasion of France in the previous year, led by the king himself at the head of 48,000 men, secured Boulogne for the English and saw Norfolk besiege the strategic town of Montreuil. The Duke of Norfolk’s troops wore blue coats guarded with red, a cap of the same colours, and hose of one red and one blue leg with a red stripe three fingers wide on the outside of the nether stocks (lower hose), according to Holinshed, a contemporary chronicler. But a lost depiction of the troops (known now through a copy at Cowdray House, Sussex) shows an assortment of hose worn by the soldiers, which was confirmed by Blaise de Montluc, a French eyewitness to the action.
Henry VIII returned to England in late September 1544 leaving Norfolk and his fellow Duke of Suffolk to defend the coastal town of Boulogne. They complained they had inadequate resources even though records suggest the troops were generously provisioned. Thomas was entitled to about 1½lbs of biscuits, 1lb of beef, and 1 to 1½ gallons of beer each day. Norfolk decided to leave Montreuil with a small garrison and retreated with most of his men to Calais.
The soldiers left behind faced a double danger: the military manoeuvres against the town and the plague, which was particularly fierce there in 1545. It is likely that Thomas was wounded in action or dying of plague - or both. In his will, which was probably dictated as he lay dying, he left his fellow hackbutters two barrels of beer - close to what a single soldier was supposed to receive as a 50-day allowance.
Thomas also left 10 shillings for guns to be fired instead of bells rung at his funeral. This sum is roughly equivalent to 16 days’ pay for a skilled tradesman in 1545 and about the same amount of paid time for a gunner in Berwick (in Northumberland) on 8d a day in 1550. The hackbutters may have fired their salvo for Thomas looking forward to toasting his memory - but also giving thanks that they had not perished in the pursuit of the king’s military ambitions along with him – and the 375 soldiers who drowned on the Mary Rose.
Thomas wears a leather jerkin which is an iconic garment for ordinary men in the 16th century. It was usually a sleeveless garment consisting of a body and skirts worn over a doublet. The majority of the extant jerkins fasten at the centre front, a few are side-fastening or have a crossover front. Evidence of wear to the buttonholes suggests that some of the front-fastening ones were buttoned all the way to the neck but others only at the waist. Nearly half the leather used to make the Mary Rose jerkins was identified as calfskin, with a few of sheepskin or goatskin. Some of these jerkins were made from more than one type of leather.
The reconstruction of a man’s jerkin and the pattern for it in The Typical Tudor are based on descriptions in wills and inventories, extant examples from the Mary Rose and other collections, and artworks from as far afield as Cardiff, Huddersfield and Vienna.
1510s to 1550s
to my sister … A gowne A hatt and a white cappe
a bouffe lether Jerkyne
a worsete Jekete gardyd with velvet
I bequithe unto the hackbutters of the Duke of northfalkes Campe ij Barrells of bere whate somme ever yte coste’ and xs and they to shote of alle ther ordinaunces at the tyme of my burialle for my soulle knille
Thomas Slater 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 a man's jerkin.