Unknown Unknowns and Elizabethan Earrings

When you are writing historical fiction it is always the unknown unknowns that will bite you – those things that it has not occurred to you that you need to check. A couple of weeks ago I had a moment or several of historical fiction writer’s sheer panic when I read that Elizabethan women did not wear earrings. I love earrings and I imagined that women had always hung glittering bits and pieces from their earlobes and so a character or two in my current work-in-progress, The Bridled Tongue, wears earrings. They are not critical to the story, just decoration, so if Elizabethan women did not wear them, I would have to let them go.

I have no idea where my assumption came from. My mother and my aunts only ever wore earrings on special occasions and they were the clip or screw-on variety. My grandmothers didn’t either and when I look back over four generations of family photos, only two women are wearing them – my maternal great grandmother Margaret (Ryan) McGrath (1851-1925) and my paternal great-great grandmother Margaret (Horigan) Merrick (1836-1924). Half the girls I went to school with had pierced ears and wore the small gold earrings permitted by school uniform rules, but they all had parents who had been born overseas. It fitted with my mother’s statement that we didn’t pierce our ears, it was a European thing. But then the 1970s arrived and old certainties faded away. Everyone had pierced ears, even boys! So I pierced my ears* and began my continuing quest for pretty things to hang from them and somehow forgot that it had ever been any different.

But back to the Elizabethans. Following my moments of panic, I spent an afternoon searching for images of 16th century women hopefully wearing earrings so that I could ignore what I had read. There are plenty of images of women wearing earrings throughout the 16th century but up until the last couple of decades these are mainly pictures from Spain and Italy. The only woman I could find wearing them in England in the 1570s was Mary, Queen of Scots. In the early part of Elizabeth’s reign, it is impossible to tell if they were worn because of coifs and caps and ear-high ruffs. From the 1580s, before earrings appear with any frequency, there are images of women wearing baubles in their hair near the ears. By the end of the 1590s earrings are common but not ubiquitous.

I looked at 16th century Englishmen’s ears too and was surprised to find them disappointingly unadorned for most of the century. I found one portrait from the late 1570s with an earring, one from the 1580s (a 1588 portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh sporting a lovely pair of pearls in one ear) and several from the early 1590s but, mostly, the peacocks of Elizabeth’s age have naked ears.

As my story is set in the mid to late 1580s the women’s earrings can stay because, at a stretch, I can argue that they were growing in popularity through the 1580s. I am afraid the men will have to forgo them unless someone can show me that I have it wrong.

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*Yes. Myself. In front of the bathroom mirror using a darning needle with ice and clothes pegs as a form of anaesthetic.

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