The Story of a 400 Year Old Dress, Lost at Sea

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It might be described as the greatest lost-luggage story on earth.

In 2015, a shipwreck was discovered by a local diving club near the island of Texel, approximately 60 miles north of Amsterdam. Texel is known for shifting winds and currents; so many ships have been lost there that the island has its own Shipwreck and Beachcombing Museum.

The wreck contained an unusual cargo: bundles of 17th-century clothing, surviving in a remarkable degree of preservation under a layer of sand and silt for 400 years along with other items, including leather book bindings and a silver cup. A silk dress (pictured) was found nearly intact, indicating that someone of high social status was involved in the story of the lost luggage.

Historians, maritime archaeologists and conservators at the Universities of Amsterdam and Leiden as well as the Museum Kaap Skil at Texel are now involved in researching the find, tracking the history of the objects and conserving them for research and display. Janet Dickinson, Senior Associate Tutor with OUDCE, has just joined the project to explore the possibility of a connection with the British royal family during the period of the Interregnum, following the execution of Charles I in 1649.

We spoke to Janet about her research so far:

"The really thrilling thing about the Texel find is the opportunity that it gives us to glimpse the practicalities of travel in the 17thC and the physical experience of exile. What would you pack if you were fleeing your country to live abroad, perhaps for a few years, perhaps forever?

"One thing we know about the lives of royalist exiles in Europe is that they were trying, as far as possible, to live in the style in which they would do at home, but many of them were struggling for access to the money to allow them to do so. We can’t say for sure whether the lost luggage belonged to someone from the English court, but we can say that there is an exciting range of high value objects, belonging to someone who appears to have intended to live in an elite style.

"The book bindings are particularly fascinating, as two of them are stamped with the Stuart royal coat of arms, so we’re curious to know how they ended up on the ship. A number of members of the Stuart royal family went into exile in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe after the outbreak of the civil wars in England. Charles I’s daughter Mary had married the Prince of Orange aged just 9 years old in 1641 and from 1642 was living with her husband in The Hague. Her aunt, Elizabeth of Bohemia, renowned for her beauty and charisma, had been living there since 1621 in a condition of double exile, not only from Britain but also from her husband’s lands in Bohemia and the Palatinate of the Rhine. She was mocked as the ‘Winter Queen’ due to the shortness of her husband’s and her own rule in Bohemia, and became a key figure in European politics as she worked strenuously to pursue support for their cause.

"Charles’s queen Henrietta Maria also took refuge in the Netherlands, working to support first her husband Charles I’s and then her son Charles II’s cause, following the execution of the king in 1649.

"All of this provides a potentially fascinating context for the find at Texel, not just because of the possibility of a royal connection but also because this was all taking place at a period of intense, risky political and religious conflict in Europe, where travellers needed to be aware of the latest developments and where history could change direction at any moment. It’s an extraordinary time in history and the objects from the shipwreck offer us a window into understanding how people were living and how they might have coped with the challenges that they faced, on land and at sea, where travel remained a dangerous proposition."

WATCH: A remarkable wardrobe discovery from a 17th-century shipwreck in the Waddenzee reveals how noblewomen dressed at the time. Video courtesy John Meijer, Provincie Noord-Holland

The mystery of the Texel find remains to be unravelled, but Janet looks forward to sharing her findings as the project develops! 

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Published 27 June 2017