Saturday, October 27, 2012

The wedding in 1633

© 2012 Christy K Robinson

A Flemish wedding feast, perhaps between 1615 and 1630.
Not a white bridal gown to be seen.
Mary Barrett and William Dyer were married at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in Westminster (London), on October 27, 1633. One year later, on their first anniversary, they buried their newborn son at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. And on their 26th wedding anniversary in 1659, Mary was taken to the gallows in Boston, Massachusetts, and stood there with a hanging rope around her neck, prepared to die (but reprieved on that occasion). 

According to legend passed down in Dyer descendants, the dress that Mary wore for the wedding ceremony was made of white silk, with gold and silver embroidery worked in insects and flowers (photo below).
A fragment of silk with (tarnished) silver thread,
as well as colored silk embroidery,,
said to have come from Mary Dyer's wedding dress.
Photo: Lorcan Otway

Another claim is that Mary Dyer wore that wedding dress to her execution on June 1, 1660, and that it was cut up to give as mementos or relics to family and friends.  

However-- Mary had wintered on Shelter Island, then had skipped going home to Newport by sailing straight to Providence, then walking 44 miles to Boston, determined that she should confront the authorities on their cruelty and if they wouldn't change the law, she was to hang and bring the greatest attention to her cause. On one or two of the nights before she arrived and she would have been camping out or sheltering roughly, there was a terrific lightning storm. Upon arriving in Boston, she was arrested, had her possessions confiscated, and was put in prison: not a sterile environment, by any means, but rather, a dirt or mud floor crawling with vermin. And really, what woman (in any century) would wear a wedding dress to her own hanging, even if she hadn't traipsed through sea and muddy land, and sat in prison for two weeks while wearing it? No, it doesn’t add up.

Helene Fourment, wife of
Peter Paul Rubens, in her 1630
wedding dress. Note the split skirt,
brocade, raised waist, and huge sleeves.
Also, the ringlet curls around the face
were fashionable, being worn by
Queen Henrietta Maria.  
I've seen references to the wedding dress story, but I wonder if it's a Victorian construct, like Mary’s invented royal genealogy and secret birth. Perhaps the garment with this embroidery did belong to Mary and was her own handiwork, but we'd never know for sure without fabric and dye analysis, we'd never prove it belonged to Mary, and there’s no guarantee it was from a wedding dress. 

White wedding dresses didn't become fashionable until about 1840, more than 200 years after Mary's wedding. For centuries, women wore their nicest go-to-meeting dresses to be married in, but unlike today, they wore them again and again for other occasions. In Mary Dyer's time, the colors most commonly used were deep reds and greens. Blue was the desirable color to symbolize loyalty. The skirt for a wedding would have been split in front to reveal another skirt beneath, perhaps in silk brocade.

["Woman's jacket [English] (23.170.1)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (May 2010)]
This is an embroidered white jacket from 1615-20 England, with flowers, insects, gold and silver thread, popular during Mary’s childhood years. But once Henrietta Maria of France became queen consort to England's Charles I in 1625, styles changed to a higher waist with full, stuffed sleeves, making this stiff, fitted model less fashionable and rather dated by 1633. Check out the description of the jacket at 

 In my novel, I've made a small nod to the legend, if that's what it is, by having Mary embroider a bodice to go with a colored skirt. Seamstresses often changed sleeves, collars, bodices, skirts, etc., by picking out seams and reconstructing them in a new style, and embroidering or embellishing with lace and ribbons, which would lend a reason for the rumor of the gold bodkin (see below).

Margaret Layton, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts
the Younger, ca 1615-1620,
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
This jacket was in style 15-30 years before
Mary Barrett Dyer's wedding.

Lately, I've wondered if the scrap of fabric came from Mary Dyer, and was connected to a wedding, perhaps it belonged to Mary's mother and her wedding, which might have taken place between 1595 and 1608.

The groom in a wedding dressed colorfully, with knee breeches and ribbon rosettes at his knees. He’d have worn a long waistcoat (vest) of a rich fabric, over a white linen shirt, with a knee-length jacket over all. There would have been plenty of lace at his neck and down the front, and on his cuffs. In his large hat, he may have worn an ostrich feather. William Dyer was a milliner, which provided leather fashion accessories for men. He would certainly have worn fancy boots with turned-down top cuffs, and embroidered or beaded leather gloves.

Marriage and the Book of Common Prayer
Late September and all of October was a busy time for weddings, because in the agrarian economy, the harvests were stored, and people had a bit more time to leave the farm in the care of servants and visit in a city for wedding festivities. The custom of the day was for the wedding to be performed at or near the door of the church, using the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, and to be followed by a Communion/Eucharist service at the chancel.

(When Prince William and Catherine Middleton were married in April 2011, I followed the words of the liturgy by reading the marriage service in the 1549 BCP as the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke it. Same words!) 

An early 17th-century wedding,
during the Elizabethan
or King James I years,
when Mary's parents married.
Puritans, on the other hand, often refused to be married in churches, believing that marriage was not a sacrament (they recognized only baptism and Eucharist/Communion), and that it was a civil union. In addition, they wished to avoid the Anglican service performed from the BCP, seeing it as too closely-related to Roman Catholic liturgy. Puritans of the early to mid 17th century would often be wed by magistrates in taverns, homes, or places of business. The fact that the Dyers were married in the church tells us that at that time, they were following Anglican, not Puritan, tradition.

The ministers of St. Martin’s were Dr. Thomas Mountford and William Bray, both of whom had strong ties to William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, so we can be sure that the Dyer wedding would have been Anglican, through and through. St. Martin-in-the-Fields parish contained fine homes of important government members. The house that William Dyer leased after living in it during his apprenticeship was around the corner from Thames-side York House and Durham House, large residences for important members of government. After the ceremony, there would have been a feast and drinking, with hired musicians, dancing (sarabande, bourree, jig, etc.), and perhaps games. There may have been a bride-cake. It was probably an expensive party, considering their business contacts, neighbors, and living in a posh area.   

The gold bodkin
This golden bodkin, said to be Mary Dyer’s,
with the initials MD stamped on it,
was offered for auction Feb. 21, 2006. 
The wedding dress story is accompanied by a story that Mary Dyer’s gold bodkin was also passed down to her descendants. A bodkin is a tool with a blunt or rounded point that helps pull drawstrings or ribbons through a casing (today, a strip of elastic for a skirt waistline). My bodkin looks like a safety pin on a 12-inch metal rod. A bodkin is not the same as an embroidery needle that a seamstress would use to decorate cloth. An embroidery needle has a sharp tip, and a long eye to accommodate the multiple threads or metallic wire. It’s quite possible that Mary used a bodkin as she constructed clothing for her husband, children, and servants.

If the story is true, and if Mary owned a gold bodkin, and if it was actually this one: a gold bodkin tells us that it was probably a gift from a wealthy person, and that it came to her when she’d been married (because of the D-for-Dyer stamp). Perhaps it was a wedding gift, or it came sometime after the 1633 marriage.

The Puritan laws of Massachusetts Bay from 1634 on, forbade women to wear gold and silver embroidery, lace, or silk scarves. If they disobeyed, they could receive the same penalties as men who were drunks, petty thieves, or domestic abusers: ten lashes of the multiple-strand whip and time in the stocks. On the other hand, they employed lace makers to keep their husbands looking spiffy. 

Hmmm, the underlying conflict is not so different from laws men attempt to impose on women in the 21st century.


  1. Stories of Mary's fancy dress have been around for a long time. Cornelia Joy-Dyer, writing about 1880, asserted that Dyer served at the Royal Court during her youth and that a dress that she wore there had been cut up in small pieces and distributed among descendants and Quakers in Pennsylvania and Delaware. This dress is described in detail as “worked in many colored silks, with gold and silver thread, by her own hands … The groundwork of this dress was rich white satin—butterflies, flowers, grasshoppers, with other insects, were the chosen figures.” One surviving fragment is accompanied by a note written in 1823 stating that Dyer wore this dress in New England before becoming a Friend, that the carefully embroidered fragment shows the fashion of the age, “and tends to prove what [the author] heard traditionally in her family, that she was originally a woman of education, fashion and beauty.” A second fragment (noted by Christy) is privately owned and described as Dyer’s “wedding dress.” I have seen both fragments, can affirm they are pieces of the same dress, they both have a Pennsylvania-Delaware provenance (where Mary's son William settled), and I believe they are indeed from Mary Dyer. The gold bodkin, stamped with her initials, also has its provenance reliably among Mary's descendants, was withdrawn from auction, and is the only other remaining artifact that can be identified with Mary.

  2. How fortunate to have items directly identified with the remarkable Mary Dyer. I have never heard of anything in the Gardner or Watson family which goes back to Herodias Long :( Thanks for an excellent post, Christy!

    Jo Ann Butler


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