The Woman In The Yellow Ruff

For our living memory and centuries before, London has formed a  crazy-paved mosaic on both sides of the River Thames, the water simply a frenetic freeway linking the two.

But when the first theatres of the city were young, and stood cylindrical amongst the gaggle of houses and shops, the Southwark side of the Thames still had land to spare.

And as well as the Rose, and The Globe, and the bear bating rings and the hostelries, a Dutch community grew up around Bankside, their houses hugging the River.

Here lived playwright Thomas Dekker, a stones throw from the theatres: the man who wrote ‘Westward Ho!’, named for the cries of the operators of the Thames water taxis as they shouted their direction to passing punters.

And here the industrious Dutch made a living, teaching the locals how to dye those ruffs.

Ruff-dying was quite an art. The elaborate neck-pieces were starched and dyed before being set into figure-of-eight folds. White is the colour we so often see in paintings, but one could dye ruffs mauve, or pink. They could be dyed blue, but Elizabeth I took against them, and issued a Royal Prerogative:

“Her Majesty’s pleasure is that no blue starch shall be used or worn by any of her Majesty’s subjects, since blue was the color of the flag of Scotland”.

So that was that.

One woman made a pretty penny from dying ruffs with a yellow starch.

A stunning lady of fashion, one who hung on the skirts of the aristocracy, she was one Mrs Anne Turner. And the story of her rise and fall mirrors that of her invention. They are intertwined.

Never get mixed up with the Countess of Essex. A beautiful young girl of 13, she was married off to the Earl of Essex(the son of Elizabeth’s unfortunate favourite) but fell in love with a Scot who arrived at court and rose meteorically: Robert Carr, later Viscount Rochester.

Rochester and the Countess were besotted. He wanted her to divorce her older husband and join him; but his confidante, Sir Thomas Overbury, made himself unpopular by advising strongly against it. The Countess’s relations, after all, were the powerful family of the Howards. Life could become uncomfortable for Carr.

The couple responded by getting Overbury clapped in the Tower on some trumped up charge or other.

But they were not content with this. Overbury died in the Tower shortly afterwards; and two years on, it transpired that the Countess had enlisted one of her closest friends to cajole gaolers into poisoning the nobleman over a number of months.

Her friend was none other than Anne, the inventor of the yellow ruff.

She was arrested: and whilst the central characters got off with prison and an eventual pardon, the beautiful and flamboyant Mrs Turner was tried in the full glare of the public gaze. The judge disliked her, it is clear, for he made a very personal decree: that Anne should be hanged at Tyburn wearing her yellow ruff.

The whole of the London smart set stunned out to watch. Anne had spirit: she arrived not only in the ruff, but at her most gorgeous, with rouge on her cheeks.

But they hanged her anyway.

And from that day, the yellow ruff, which had been all the rage, was dropped like a stone from the wardrobes of the great ladies of the day.


11 thoughts on “The Woman In The Yellow Ruff

    1. I learnt about it by chance, Beth. I was volunteering at The Rose Playhouse, round the corner from the Globe, and when there are not many visitors the stewards just talk, and out came this amazing story! I must volunteer more often!

  1. What an incredible story, Kate. I certainly didn’t realize there was a color other than white for the iconic ruff! I could picture the final moments in Mrs. Turner’s life with her head-held-high defiance. To dress and primp for your hanging…the woman was made of strong stuff! 🙂

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