There is plenty of evidence that women in 16th century England wore nosegays – small bunches of flowers worn tucked into the neckline of their clothes: An anonymous broadside circa 1590 depicts street sellers, including a man selling bunches of flowers1; Phillip Stubbes fulminates about women covering their body odor with flowers or perfume2; there are nosegays in Marcus Geerhaert the Elder’s 1570s Bermondsey Wedding painting3, Lucas de Heere’s 1570s book of various ccostume has two images of English women wearing nosegays4, and the Hogenberg engraving of Nonesuch Palace in 1582, with the image at the base titled The English Method of Selling Pike5.
I think some of the resistance to the idea of women wearing nosegays comes from the large number of 18th and 19th century depictions of flower sellers, and the popularity of flower crowns and nosegays at modern Renaissance Faires has obscured the origin of the nosegay, being a practical way to smell nice if one could not afford expensive perfumes.
The anonymous 1590s broadside, given the name The Bellman of London6 depicts the street sellers of London, including a man selling artistically over-sized bunches of flowers, with the cry “Buy a fyne bowpot”. “Cryes”, as they were known, were a popular broadside image from the 16th to the 19th century, though after The Bellman, the sellers of flowers were generally women.
Philip Stubbes’ 1583 Anatomy of Abuses complained that “And in the Sommer-time whilst floures gréene and fragrant, yee shall not haue any Gentlewoman almost, no nor yet any droye or pussle in the Cuntrey, but they will carye in their hands, nosegayes and posies of floures- to smell at, and which is more, two or thrée Nosegayes sticked in their brests before, for what cause I cannot tel, except it be to allure their Paramours to catch at them, wherby I doubt not but they get many a slabbering kisse, and paradeuenture more fréendship besides, they know best, what I mean.”
…Essentially, his complaint was that women wore flowers in their bosom, and he was horrified. Horrified, I tell you! There do appear to be more images of middle and working class women wearing fresh flowers than there are of rich women wearing nosegays. In the paragraph before his fulminations against “Gentlewoman, droye or pussle” wearing flowers, Stubbes rages against perfumed women7; perfumes were expensive, and sweet-smelling flowers would be cheaper to obtain.
In the Bermondsey painting, there are women in the center who are wearing nosegays, and the bride and a couple of her attendant women are also wearing nosegays:
Note the woman with her back to the viewer; she also may be wearing a nosegay, but the nature of the painting (the figures are small) makes it hard to see.
The bride and two of her attendant ladies/bridesmaids also have large nosegays:
In the De Heere book there are two pictures of English women, and in each picture one woman wearing a nosegay:
Finally, in the Hogenberg engraving of Nonesuch Palace, the woman with a basket may be selling flowers to the women gathered around her. The details that may support my theory are that the woman (who is not as richly dressed as the others) has a basket, a bunch of flowers that appear to be in her bosom, and, of the women standing closest to her, three are carrying small bunches of flowers:
The individual flowers that are depicted in aristocratic portraits were almost entirely symbolic, and akin to a coded language; the intentions of the sitter were conveyed to the viewer. Those flowers are not nosegays, nor worn to perfume themselves. The flowers depicted had all sorts of complicated meanings and messages, even down to the colour of the flower, but some of this 16th century flower symbolism has been lost or muddled up by overexcited Victorians. Multiple historians and enthusiasts have done a lot of research so we don’t have to, but still, it’s complicated.8
I have only been able to find a few pictures of aristocratic or rich women wearing actual nosegays, but two of them are very interesting, because they are two portraits, the first from 1545-9, the second from 1555-8. They are set a decade apart, but are of the same woman: Mary Neville Fiennes, Lady Dacre.
I am unsure of the painter of the first portrait (if anyone knows, please tell me in the comments!), but the second was painted by Hans Eworth (also note her partlet; they’re either the same one, or she had Hans Eworth paint it to match the earlier painting).
Lady Dacre’s first portrait has a simpler nosegay of violets with (possibly) a gillyflower, and a conical flower (similar to the grape hyacinths or henbit from my wildflower nosegays) behind. Her later portrait has a far more varied nosegay, with visible pansies and violets, and indistinct yellow/pink flowers. The visible flowers in her nosegays might be a message to the viewer, but the other flowers that are almost impossible to identify in the later nosegay make that interpretation difficult. On the other had, the later nosegay might have had a political as well as a personal message to the viewer. Lady Dacre had a difficult life; her first husband was was stripped of his titles and land by Henry VIII, and hanged at Tyburn. Her son was restored to his hereditary title by Elizabeth I. She was a formidable woman, and with the knowledge of her history, her later portrait, with the wildflower nosegay creating a definite contrast to her furs and fine clothes, might be read not only for the meaning of the visible flowers but also a commentary on the loss and restoration of her titles9.
“But enough history!”, I pretend to hear you say. How does one create a nosegay of one’s own? One way is to find flowers that correspond in general look and size to the pictures of English wild and cultivated flowers.
I made two nosegays from flowers growing around my home, so I could give you reference pictures for when you start making your own artificial flower nosegays. My first nosegay was picked this February, and has speedwell, saxifrage, chickweed, henbit, and an early wild narcissus (very close to the size of Elizabethan wild narcissus)10. The second nosegay was picked a month later, and has heartsease, dog violets, speedwell, grape hyacinth, saxifrage, and dandelions.
All of these flowers, even the grape hyacinth,11 are either analogues to English flowers, or brought over and naturalized (mostly by accident) from the British Isles.
If you do not live in a rural area with a large garden, finding areas where you can obtain wildflowers might be a bit difficult (and you must never pick flowers in national parks or from someone else’s garden12).
Real wildflower nosegays are as ephemeral as they were in Elizabethan times; picked flowers would only last one day (those fancy little test tube pins to hold corsages are modern, but they will keep the flowers alive longer). If you are looking for a more permanent accessory, what you need is a permanent nosegay – delicate, delightful, and period-looking as all get out, while remaining fresh for countless events to come.
To do this, you are going to need equipment: Florist wire, florist tape, wire cutters, scissors, hot glue and glue sticks, and maybe some cute Mod Podge finger cots13 to avoid burning yourself on the hot glue (I burn myself a lot, and these are a finger saver)(they also prevent the glue from bonding with your artificial nails, which is really only a problem for me, but it’s good to know, y’know?).
Then, you pick out and buy some small, well-made artificial flowers from your local craft store. Remember, we’re making a small nosegay, so put the roses and the peonies back, and select flowers smaller than the circumference of your thumb and forefinger:
The leaves from the flower sprays will provide you with most of your greenery, but if you see something you like, get it. In this selection, I have some lavender, poppies, eglantine roses, pansies, white coreopsis, daisies, ferns, lamb’s ears, and something that looks like buttercups. Don’t worry about matching English flowers exactly; you can make alterations. Don’t get excited and buy all the flowers. I fail this instruction all the time, so don’t feel bad if you do, but…
…seriously, DON’T BUY OUT THE WHOLE STORE, EVEN IF IT’S ON SALE, AND EVEN IF IT IS TOTALLY WHAT I DID. (A.C. Moore was closing. I got 50% extra off the 70%-off flowers. No-one can resist that. NO-ONE.)
Now, select 5 or 6 flower stems off the plants you like the most. If the stem is lumpy (I had a plastic “lavender” bush, with no good stems), pop the flower head off, and cut yourself a 5″ length of florist wire. Wrap the florist tape up and down the wire, covering it two times. Put a little blob of hot glue on the end of the wrapped wire, and stick the flower head on. If your flower head looks a little wobbly, wrap a little more florist tape over the join:
Another issue that you might have is that your flower has leaves halfway down the stem, and you can’t push them up (sometimes the leaf holders are molded as part of the whole stem). Remove the leaves, peel the plastic back spine off, and glue the leaf to the base of the flower:
This worked well with my white coreopsis flowers. Now, if you have white flowers, you can turn them into ‘gillyflowers’ quite easily! Using a marker pen (alcohol-based colouring markers work best), and tint the base of the flowers, then draw stripes slowly. The ink will blur on the white flower, and make it look more natural:
Once you have gathered and adapted your chosen flowers, hold them together and decide how you want the flowers to sit. I usually put the taller flowers in the back and balance them like any bouquet of flowers. Hold them together the way you want, and then cut the base of the stems so they are even. Use wire cutters or heavy-duty scissors so they are roughly 5″ long.
Glue the stems together about 3″ below the flowers (this will be a little messy, but don’t worry, any mistakes will be covered). Once the glue has dried, wrap the florist tape around the glued area of the stems, and then up to 1.5″ to 2″ below the flower heads, then down again and over the cut ends of the stems. This will make them more comfortable to wear.
Now, the moment of truth! Is it (roughly) the same size as the real flowers? Let’s find out!
Looking good! Once your nosegay is complete, you have the option of tying it with a little bit of silk ribbon. I don’t know if it’s period to Elizabethan England, but it looks nice. Wear your nosegay with pride – now no-one can say “that’s wrong!! Posies are a Victorian thing”, for you have HISTORY on your side!! And me. But also… history.
- Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London, Sean Shesgreen, Rutgers University Press, 2002.
- The Anatomie of Abuses […], Phillip Stubbes, 1583.
- Marcus Geerhaerts the Elder, The Wedding Fete at Bermondsey, c. 1568-70, Hatfield House.
- . https://www.englandcast.com/2019/08/the-paintings-and-life-of-lucas-de-heere/
- Wikimedia Commons, Nonsuch Palace by Joris Hoefnagl
- Images of the Outcast, etc., S.Shesgreen.
- “Is not this a certn sweete Pride, to haue cyuet[civet], muske, swéete powders, fragrant Pomanders,odorous perfumes & such like, wherof the smel may be felt and perceiued not only all ouer the house or place where they be present, but also a stones cast of, almost, yea the bed wherin they haue layed their delicate bodies, the places where they haue sae, the clothes and thinges which they haue touched shall smell a wéeke, a moneth, and more after they be gon.” -Stubbes.
- https://bardgarden.blogspot.com/2014/05/elizabethan-nosegays.html. and https://symbolicmeaningofflowers.weebly.com/language-of-flowers.html
- The American wild narcissus is actually the European wild narcissus, brought over and naturalized by European and American gardeners. We’re really bad about doing that; honeysuckle, wisteria, bamboo, and kudzu were all introduced to Northern America by gardeners who went “Oooooh! That looks pretty! That will look great in my garden! I’ll be the toast of the garden club!!” (Bob’s joke. He made me snort/laugh.)
- Yes, I did this (my Great-Aunt Margaret’s lovingly tended cyclamen, no less). No, I shouldn’t have (but I didn’t pick all of them *whine*). My sister still wins the terrible flower-stealing cup, though; she picked all the peony flowers off a rare peony owned by one of our neighbours. There was a bit of a foofaraw about it, but she was forgiven (as was I …eventually).
Other sources of interest:
http://demodecouture.com/lucas-de-heere-16th-c-costume-illustrations/ (About de Heere’s book of costume illustrations, and a link to a .pdf of the book itself.)
https://www.somegreymatter.com/wrestpark.htm – contains a much more detailed account of Baroness Dacre’s life, and her portraits.