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Richard II and the Invention of the Pocket Handkerchief*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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It has long been thought that the deposition and murder of King Richard II was a personal tragedy, and that “Richard's personality—his natural or inherited character considered apart from the important actions of his life—was the chief cause of his downfall.” In more recent years the aesthetic side of his Richard's character has assumed a new importance in explanations of his fall. Richard H. Jones, for example, has noted that “in any case the fundamental obligation of the medieval king was that he should lead his arrays on the field of battle. Yet, Richard was slight of frame and sensitive of disposition. His tastes were aesthetic rather than athletic.” As well, in the view of Bertie Wilkinson,

the reign of King Richard II…ended in utter failure…because he himself was lacking in precisely the qualities he most needed and which his grandfather fortunately had….Instead of the instincts of the warrior he possessed only the more exotic and less popular qualities of the aesthete, loving art, literature, and music, and the pleasures of the mind.

Research Article
Albion , Volume 27 , Issue 2 , Summer 1995 , pp. 221 - 235
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1995

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This is a revised version of a paper presented at the Carolina Symposium on British Studies at Old Dominion University in October 1994. Research at the Public Record Office was greatly facilitated by a generous Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society. I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Edward Maeder, Director of the Bata Shoe Museum, in sorting out some technicalities concerning late medieval fabrics.


1 Rankin, R., The Marquis d'Argenson and Richard II (London, 1901), p. 146Google Scholar.

2 Jones, Richard H., The Royal Policy of Richard II (Oxford, 1968), p. 128Google Scholar.

3 The Later Middle Ages in England, 1216–1485 (London, 1965), p. 157Google Scholar. There are many variations on this theme. For example, Galbraith, Vivian H., “A New Life of Richard II,” History, n.s., 26 (1942): 226CrossRefGoogle Scholar, notes that Richard II was probably misunderstood by his contemporaries because of “his artistic and literary tastes and his nice personal habits.” For similar views see: Evans, Joan, English Art (Oxford, 1949), p. 83Google ScholarPubMed, “[Richard II] was a dilettante of taste, with a passion for the pageantry of kingship”; Hollister, C. Warren, The Making of England, 55 B. C.–1399 (6th ed.; Lexington, Mass., 1992), p. 227Google Scholar: “The young Richard II…grew up to become one of England's less successful kings….By inclination he was an artist rather than a warrior”; Barber, Richard H., Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine (New York, 1978), p. 238Google Scholar: “Edward II, who despite his bodily strength preferred menial occupations to knightly ones, and Richard II, with his highly developed aesthetic sense and love of refinement, whether in art or cookery, could not share their interest with their barons and courtiers; and on their barons their political power ultimately rested.” Holmes, George, The Later Middle Ages (New York, 1962), p. 186Google Scholar, would not necessarily agree with these views of Richard II: “Richard is the most enigmatic of the kings of England. He was certainly one of the many kings unfitted to rule; he was hated and unsuccessful. But he was not…an unrealistic aesthete, like Henry III….”

4 The term “handkerchief” (which will be used here), connotes Richard II's conversion of various types of face cloths already in use—themselves derived from the ancient sudarium, or the muscinium—into the smaller and more personally convenient “pocket handkerchief” for the specific purpose of nasal cleanliness.

5 Seward, Desmond, Henry V (New York, 1988), p. 5Google Scholar. For a similar view see Brewer, Derek, Chaucer in His Time (London, 1963), p. 148Google Scholar: “Handkerchiefs were little used. The chroniclers comment on the fact that King Richard used one; and it suggests the fastidiously aesthetic strain in his character.” Despite what Brewer says, I have found no reference in Ricardian chronicles to Richard's use of handkerchiefs.

6 England in the Late Middle Ages (Harmondsworth, 1952), p. 35Google ScholarPubMed. For an opposing point of view see Galbraith's, V. H.Richard II in Fact and Fiction,” The Listener (1954): 691Google Scholar, where it is observed that Richard should not be explained “as the victim of the artistic temperament…just because he was nice in his habits and quite possibly invented the use of the pocket handkerchief.”

7 Forfeitures and Treason in 1388,” in Fourteenth Century Studies, ed. Sutherland, L. S. and McKisack, May (Oxford, 1937), pp. 115–45Google Scholar.

8 “Small pieces made for giving to the lord king to carry in his hand for wiping and cleaning his nose”: ibid., p. 117.

9 Ibid., pp. 117–18, n. 3.

10 Steel, Anthony E., Richard II (Cambridge, 1941), p. 7Google Scholar.

11 Senior, Michael, The Life and Times of Richard II (London, 1981), p. 97Google Scholar.

12 Gillespie, James L., “Richard II,” Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Strayer, Joseph R. (New York, 1988), 10: 384Google Scholar. Most studies of Richard II have adopted a similar interpretation. For example, Costain, Thomas B., The Last Plantagenets (New York, 1962), p. 86Google Scholar, writes that “Richard…had some good ideas of his own. He invented the handkerchief, certainly a most useful article in a climate so conducive to colds in the head. If it had not gone through several stages in naming, beginning with handkercher, and had been called simply a richard, he would have been much surer of his place in human remembrance than by grace of his part in history.” See also Mathew's, GervaseThe Court of Richard II (London, 1968), p. 28Google Scholar: “the invention of the linen handkerchief was for the King's personal use and failed to establish itself in late medieval England.” The most recent view is found in Green, Vivian, The Madness of Kings (New York, 1993), p. 55Google Scholar, who observes that Richard was self- centered to the point of narcissism: “Elaborately and carefully dressed, he was very careful of his appearance and coiffure. He took baths regularly, an unusual habit in his time, and was the inventor of the pocket handkerchief.”

13 My italics: Wilkinson, , The Later Middle Ages in England, p. 157Google Scholar. On a more general level, too, doubts have been registered regarding Richard's invention of the handkerchief. In his review of Anthony Steel's Richard II, and commenting specifically on Steel's description of Richard II as “a dilettante of genius,” Galbraith remarked in a footnote: “He is said to have invented the handkerchief (“A New Life of Richard II,” p. 225, n. 1). Later, in lectures on Richard II, Galbraith wondered aloud whether Maude Violet Clarke was correct to suggest that Richard invented the handkerchief: “Well, she may be right; she may be right” (The Candler Lectures, Emory University, 1957). I am indebted to the late Professor George P. Cuttino for supplying me with tapes of these lectures. In his life of Richard II Harold Hutchison hedged his bet by saying only that Richard “was probably the inventor of the handkerchief” (The Hollow Crown [New York, 1961], p. 239Google ScholarPubMed).

14 Gardner, John, The Life and Times of Chaucer (New York, 1977), p. 298Google Scholar. The idea that Richard may have copied the handkerchief from the French may have begun with Braun-Ronsdorf's, M.The History of the Handkerchief (Leigh-on-Sea, 1967), p. 12Google Scholar: “the first mention in England of this still very luxurious article, appears in the time of King Richard II (1377–1399). The following is mentioned in connection with this king towards the end of the 14th century: ‘little pieces of material for giving to the lord king for carraing[sic] in his hand to wipe and cleanse his nose.’ In their description these cloths agree entirely with the nature of handkerchiefs,…which may probably have been derived from the French, in particular as the Court in England was supplied mainly from France with handkerchiefs.” It should be noted, however, that Braun- Ronsdorf provides no documentation to support this interpretation. See n. 24, below.

15 In Collectanea Londiniensia. Studies Presented to Ralph Merrifield, London and Middlesex Archaeological Society Special Paper, 2 (1978), pp. 223–34Google Scholar.

16 See Register of Edward the Black Prince, 1346–1365, 4 vols. (London, 19301933)Google Scholar.

17 Newton, Stella Mary, Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1980)Google Scholar. Nor is any reference found in Vigarello, Georges, Concepts of Cleanliness: Changing Attitudes in France since the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1988)Google Scholar.

18 See, for example, Bordonove, Charles, Charles V le Sage (Paris, 1985)Google Scholar, and Autrand, Françoise, Charles VI: La Folie du Roi (Paris, 1986)Google Scholar. See especially Gascar, Pierre, Charles VI: Le bal des Ardents (Paris, 1977), pp. 6162Google Scholar; in a thorough discussion of fashions, both old and new, at the court of Charles VI nothing is said of Charles's invention or even use of handkerchiefs. Nor, for that matter, is any similar reference found in Evans's, JoanDress in Mediaeval France (Oxford, 1952)Google Scholar; see esp. pp. 26–58.

19 In fact, following the conclusion of the Treaty of Tournai on 18 December 1385 a new round of negotiations was initiated with the objective of arranging for a personal interview between Richard II and Charles VI tentatively set for March 1386. For more, see Palmer, J. J. N., England, France and Christendom, 1377–99 (Chapel Hill, 1972), pp. 6768Google Scholar.

20 For this see Mathew, , Court of Richard II, p. 21Google Scholar: “There were constant influences from the contemporary court at Paris….” See also Wilson, Chris Given-, The Royal Household and the King's Affinity (New Haven, 1986), p. 259Google Scholar. In describing Richard II's penchant for French fashion, Evans, Dress in Mediaeval France, says that “it is only such a frenchified king as Richard II on the Wilton Diptych who can puzzle us as to his nationality” (p. 79).

21 For Charles VI and the broomcod collar see Gordon, Dillian, Making and Meaning: The Wilton Diptych (London, 1993), p. 51Google Scholar: “Much in the same way that Richard used the white hart, Charles VI of France used the broomcod as one of his emblems….Ultimately it was taken over by Richard II and was adopted as an emblem by later English kings.”

22 P.R.O., E 101/401/5, fol. 1.

23 See Green, Richard Firth, Poets and Princepleasers: Literature and the English Court in the Late Middle Ages (Toronto, 1980), p. 77Google Scholar.

24 Staniland, Kay, “The Great Wardrobe Accounts as a Source for Historians of Fourteenth-Century Clothing and Textiles,” Textile History 20, 2 (1989): 277CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Dictionnaire de la Langue Française, 2 vols. (Paris, 1992), 2: 1281Google Scholar, where the date is given as 1460–1466. The word “handkerchief” first appears in the English language in 1530: The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd. ed.; Oxford, 1989), 6: 1075Google Scholar.

26 Robert, Paul, Le Grand Robert de La Langue Française, 9 vols. (2nd. ed.; Paris, 1985), 6: 603Google Scholar. In an inventory of jewels claimed for Isabella, Queen printed in Chronique de la Traison et Mort de Richard Deux, ed. Williams, B. (London, 1846)Google Scholar, there is a reference to “un mouschoir a chandelier moult riche” (p. 108); in a footnote the editor notes that “mouschoir” appears as “pro mouchette.” This may account for the confusion in Braun-Ronsdorf, (History of the Handkerchief, p. 12)Google Scholar, who states that “mouchoir” appeared earlier in the fifteenth century: “The wife of Henry IV had received in 1403 ‘une douzaine de cueverchief, une douzaine de gorgerettes, une douzaine de mouchoires.”’ Again, no source is cited for this passage.

27 For more on Richard's build-up of a new circle of youthful advisors see: Steel, , Richard II, pp. 111–19Google Scholar; Given-Wilson, , Royal Household, pp. 161, ff.Google Scholar; Tuck, Anthony, Richard II and the English Nobility (London, 1973), pp. 5886Google Scholar. See also Mathew, , Court of Richard II, p. 18Google Scholar.

28 Eberle, Patricia J., “The Politics of Courtly Style at the Court of Richard II,” in The Spirit of the Court, ed. Burgess, Glyn S. and Taylor, Robert A. (Cambridge, 1985), p. 178Google Scholar.

29 Ibid., p. 171.

30 Steel, , Richard II, p. 7Google Scholar. Another illustration of Richard's refined taste is his interest in what would today be called gourmet cooking. In or about 1390 Richard II directed the collection of 196 of his favorite court recipes into a court cookery book, the well known Forme of Cury. In this book Richard is described as “the best and royallest viander of all Christian kings.” The collection's modem editor, Lorna J. Sass (New York, 1975), p. 11, notes that the recipes “reveal the lust for grandeur and exoticism characteristic of Richard's court.”

31 Mathew, , Court of Richard II, pp. 3334Google Scholar.

32 Historia Vitae et Regni Ricardi Secundi, ed. Stow, George B. (Philadelphia, 1977), p. 166CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Ibid., p. 156.

34 Baildon, W. Paley, “A Wardrobe Account of 16–17 Richard II, 1393–94,” Archaeologia 62 (1911): 498CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Mathew, , Court of Richard II, p. 25Google Scholar. Rauf had served as Richard's personal tailor even before 1377; and from December 20, 1376 until September 28, 1377 Rauf had been keeper of the great wardrobe in the household of Edward the Black Prince: Tout, Thomas Frederick, Chapters in the Administrative History of Mediaeval England, 6 vols. (Manchester, 19201933), 3: 330; 4: 384Google Scholar.

36 P.R.O., E 403/465/fol. 9; P.R.O., E 403/468/fol. 12.

37 P.R.O., E 101/401/6, fols. 4–10.

38 P.R.O., E 101/401/6/fol. 7.

39 P.R.O., E 101/401/14/fol. 3.

40 P.R.O., E 101/403/19/fol. 42. Raufs services to the king brought numerous rewards. In 1378 he was granted Witley manor, Surrey for life; in 1380 he was given a house rent free on the grounds of the great wardrobe at Bynard's castle (Tout, , Chapters, 4: 384–85, n. 1)Google Scholar. Rauf was still in possession of Witley manor as late as 1398: Calendar of Close Rolls, 1396–99, pp. 270–71. In 1392 Rauf and his wife were granted maintenance in the convent of Melton, (Calendar of Close Rolls, 1392–96, p. 89)Google Scholar.

41 Mathew, , Court of Richard II, p. 27Google Scholar.

42 Historia Vitae et Regni Ricardi Secundi, p. 132. For more on the white hart badge see Gordon, Dillian, Wilton Diptych, pp. 4950Google Scholar. Richard also ordered numerous figures of harts made of gold; one was given as a gift to the archbishop of Cologne in 1398 and another to the Emperor of Constantinople in 1399 (P.R.O., E 403/556/fol. 14; P.R.O., E 403/561/fol. 14).

43 Mathew, , Court of Richard II, p. 28Google Scholar.

44 ibid., pp. 21, 25.

45 Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History, ed. Wright, Thomas, 2 vols. (London, 1859), 1: 275Google Scholar. For the modern editorial comment see Fairholt, F. W., “Satirical Poems and Songs on Costume,” Publications of the Percy Society 27 (1849): 4348Google Scholar.

46 Mum and the Soothsegger (Richard the Redeless), ed. Day, M. and Steele, R., Early English Text Society, o.s., 199 (London, 1936)Google Scholar. Excesses in courtly fashion doubtless provoked Thomas Walsingham's snide comment that Richard's courtiers were “knights of Venus rather than knights of Bellona, more valiant in the bedchamber than on the field of war, armed with words instead of weapons….” (Historia Anglicana, ed. Riley, H. T., 2 vols. [London, 18631864], 2: 156Google Scholar).

47 Mum and the Soothsegger, passus III, 1. 152.

48 Bradfield, Nancy, Historical Costumes of England (2nd. ed.; London, 1958), p. 43Google Scholar.

49 P.R.O., E 101/401/15, fol. 1.

50 Clarke notes: “I have not found any other reference to handkerchiefs used for this purpose in England before the sixteenth century” (“Forfeitures and Treason,” p. 118, n. 3).

51 These additional references are, respectively: P.R.O., E 101/401/5, fol. 1; P.R.O., E 361/5/fol. 6; P.R.O., E 101/402/12, fol. 5; P.R.O., E 101/403/5, fol. 9.

52 See Steel, , Richard II, pp. 120–79Google Scholar for a thorough account of Richard's policies and actions during these years.

53 ibid., pp. 180–90.

54 Ibid., pp. 215–16.

55 Tout, , Chapters, 6: 99100Google Scholar. For a summary of lavish expenditures throughout the 1390s see my Chronicles versus Records: The Character of Richard II,” in Documenting the Past, ed. Hamilton, J. S. and Bradley, P. J. (Wolfeboro, N. H., 1989), pp. 165–67Google Scholar. See also Given-Wilson, , Royal Household, pp. 7983Google Scholar.

56 P.R.O., E 101/401/5, fol. 1. I wish to thank Dr. J. S. Hamilton and Dr. Nigel Saul for clarifying the precise wording of this entry.

57 P.R.O., E 101/401/15, fol. 1.

58 I par linth' tel' de lanne pro naso domino regis tergendo et mundando (P.R.O., E 101/403/5, fol. 6). Still, this entry may reflect either an error or simple haste on the part of the clerk, since subsequent and similar entries for this year retain the more complete pro naso regis tergendo et mundando (P.R.O., E 101/403/5, fols. 7, 9).

59 “Xi par linth' tel' de lanne de Reyns pro naso regis tergendo” (P.R.O., E 101/401/5, fol. 1; P.R.O., E 101/403/5, fol. 9).

60 As John Harvey, puts it: “that Richard was personally responsible for the invention cannot be proved….” Nevertheless, Harvey adds: “yet the clerk who recorded his personal expenses thought it worth while to specify that the cloths supplied were ‘little pieces made for giving to the lord King for carrying in his hand to wipe and cleanse his nose’” (The Plantagenets [Glasgow, 1948], p. 155Google Scholar).

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