Early Modern Children

We are fortunate that a number of portraits survive of children from the upper levels of society in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period. These give us a glimpse of childhood in that period and hint at the ways childhood, the raising of children, and even life itself differ from today.

Infants were swaddled for the first six to twelve months of their lives. Long linen swaddling bands were wrapped around their bodies and limbs to restrict movement in the belief that this would ensure that a child grew up straight. The two infants here are also wrapped in red Christening gowns.

John Dunch is around two years old in this portrait, well out of swaddling bands and wearing a gown, the usual attire for girls and boys at this age. Both he and his nurse are clearly wearing their very best for this portrait. The nurse’s tightly linked hands bring an immediacy to the painting – anyone who has carried a young child for a lengthy period will recognize in her posture both the child’s weight and her effort. Her attention is absorbed by the little boy, as should be the case with a good nurse, while he looks out with a cool and serious gaze. It is sad to think that the following year, John died, like so many young children did in this period.


Lady Arbella Stuart. 1577. Unknown

Lady Arbella Stuart (1575-1615) was a great-great-granddaughter of Henry VII. Here, aged two, she is dressed in a small version of a grown woman’s gown. The doll in her hand is a touching reminder that although she was dressed like  a miniature adult, she was still a child with a love of play.

Boys did not move into adult male attire until somewhere between the ages of three and seven, although most would have been breeched (put on their first pair of breeches or breech hose) well before seven. Before that they wore gowns like their sisters. This portrait was originally thought to be the daughters of Sir Amias Poulett, Sarah and Elizabeth, but the children have since been identified as two boys of the Poulett family of Hinton St George, Somerset.


Portrait of a girl. English School, 1589

This unknown girl, aged six, is dressed in adult clothing, complete with lace headdress. She is holding a book of music which, it is more than possible, she was capable of playing. Educated children in this period, even of an age with this girl, were often skilled already in languages, music, reading and writing to a level that these days we would only associate with driven obsessive parents. 

These three unknown Elizabethan children are all aged between five and seven. Both boys appear to be wearing trunk hose so have been breeched. Assuming all three are siblings, this painting also hints at the practice of wet-nursing used particularly by the nobility and wealthier gentry at this time. Breastfeeding delays a return to fertility in the mother and usually results in  a natural spacing of around eighteen months to two years between children. A mother who used a wet nurse was more likely to have children every year, as we see here. This meant, of course,  more spares if the heir did not survive. On a lighter note, the guinea pig held by the girl is possibly the first portrait of a guinea pig in English art.

Katherine and Mary Bassett

Katherine and Mary Bassett. 1603. Follower of Hieronymus Custodis.

Sisters, Katherine and Mary Bassett, painted in 1603 when they were 12 and 13. Their gowns and headdress appear identical, although there are differences in the jewellery. I have wondered if this is another case of the ‘peas in a pod style’ of dressing children that was common even into the 20th century, or if they shared the same gown for the important occasion of sitting for a portrait.


Like mother, like daughter. 1613. English school.

Portrait of Frances Arderne (c.1586-1634), aged 27, with her four year old daughter. Although not identically dressed, the little girl is wearing a lace collar and headdress which mimics her mother’s. Frances was the second wife of Thomas Marbury of Marbury, Cheshire.  


Barbara Gamage, Lady Sidney, with two of her sons and four of her daughters.
1596. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.

Barbara Gamage (1563–1621), wife of Sir Robert Sidney, with six of their eleven children. From left to right they are Elizabeth (1592-1605), Philippa (1594-1620), William (1590-1612), Mary (1587-1653), Catherine (1589-1616) and the baby, Robert (1595-1677). William, at six, is still unbreeched although he wears a miniature sword.  There are definite differences in the style of gown William wears compared to his sisters’. Of her eleven children, only three outlived Barbara. As William died in 1612, Robert succeeded his father as Earl of Leicester. Barbara’s eldest daughter Mary, later Lady Wroth, was a noted 17th century poet.


All images are Public Domain art works, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Cholmondeley Ladies
John Dunt and his nurse Elizabeth Field
Lady Arbella Stuart
Two boys of the Poulett family
Portrait of a girl
Unknown Elizabethan children
Katherine Bassett
Mary Bassett
Frances Aderne
Barbara Gammage

11 thoughts on “Early Modern Children

    • That is interesting. I believe there was a superstition in both England and Ireland that fairies liked to steal little boys away and to confuse them the boys were dressed in skirts. I don’t know how widespread it was though. I haven’t found anything about gypsies.
      Apparently, and I have only just discovered this, it was quite common to dress to little boys in skirts up until the 1920s, possibly because of the mechanics of toileting small children. Breeching was still a thing, then, up to the 1920s. This short article from the V&A is interesting.


  1. Beautiful and fascinating post. Love looking at these portraits. Any insights as to the signifance of the cherry in “Portrait of Frances Arderne (c.1586-1634), aged 27, with her four year old daughter” ? I’d heard it was featured in portraits to identify boys in pre-breeching years, but this child is a daughter? Thanks for a lovely read!

    Liked by 1 person

      • I wasn’t able to find anything definitive about the symbolism of cherries but that definitely makes sense in the Barbara Gamage portrait as Robert Sidney is so young. I am certain that the child in the Frances Arderne portrait is a girl – necklace, headdress, and she really does look like a girl. As both mother and daughter are touching the cherry (great leap of imagination here), I wonder if it symbolizes a lost child. I have read that cherries in still life can represent the souls of men but that might be a bit early for this period. I will keep digging on this one.


  2. Amazing post! I have always loved using portraiture to explore history and this is a fascinating angle from which to approach it – sadly pictures like these are often not on display in galleries! Thanks for sharing.


    • I love contemporary images. And we are fortunate that so much is now available online.
      A while back I read that at Elizabethan banquets the drinking vessels and the wine were not kept on the table but were brought to the table as the guest indicated their need. I was a bit sceptical (I have never seen that in a film!). I did a bit of googling and discovered in the portrait of Sir Henry Unton (c1596) https://bit.ly/2HAa1TG a section showing a banquet and there at the very back is a bored serving man slumped beside a table of goblets and jugs. It is just brilliant.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.