The Lady of the Rivers: Hennins and Court Fashion in the 1400s

The Lady of the Rivers, by Philippa Gregory, is the first of her Plantagenet and Tudor novels, and it follows Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Countess Rivers and covers the reign of the (quite inept) Lancastrian King Henry VI. (For those unfamiliar with Philippa Gregory, she writes historical fiction, usually set in England, charting the rise and fall of different powerful women.) Jacquetta of Luxembourg (1415 – 1472) was born in what is now France, and what was, in the 1400s, English occupied France. One of the most striking things in the first part of the book, set in France in the 1430s, was the description of the gowns.

Joan laughs at me, as I have to duck my head to get my tall conical headdress through the narrow doorways.

“It is very beautiful,” she says. “But I should not like to wear such a thing.”

I pause and twirl before her in the bright sunlight from the arrow slit. The colors of my gown are brilliant: a skirt of dark blue and an underskirt of sharper turquoise, the skirts flaring from the high belt tied tight on my rib cage. The high henin headdress sits like a cone on my head and sprouts a veil of pale blue from the peak that drops down my back, concealing and enhancing my fair hair. I spread my arms to show the big triangular sleeves, trimmed with the most beautiful embroidery in gold thread, and I lift the hem to show my scarlet slippers with the upturned toes.

What is a henin, you might ask? According to Wikipedia, “the most extravagant headdress of Burgundian fashion is the hennin, a cone or truncated-cone shaped cap with a wire frame covered in fabric and topped by a floating veil. Later hennins feature a turned-back brim, or are worn over a hood with a turned-back brim. Towards the end of the 15th century women’s head-dresses became smaller, more convenient, and less picturesque.” In other words, a hennin is the cone princess hat that you may remember drawing as a child – my cartoon princesses all had a cone hat with a frilly veil, did yours?

Conical hennins first appeared around 1430, which is where The Lady of the Rivers picks up as well. The veil that flows out of the hennin is called a “cointoise” and could be long enough to fall to a woman’s shoulders, or even all the way to the floor. It was fashionable at the time to shave the forehead to raise the hairline, and to tightly tie up the hair into the hennin, so that it did not appear visible at all.

This is not how Philippa Gregory describes the hennin, but she may have decided that her description is a lot more picturesque, set against a mass of blonde wavy hair, to modern readers. There was often a “frontlet” or a small loop on the front of the hennin, resting on the forehead, which may have been used to easily adjust the hennin or to help keep the hennin in place. You can see an example in the picture above, which is a portrait of Margaret of York, the duchess of Burgundy.

Hennins were worn at an angle, about 45 degrees tilted against the back of the head, and the hennins varied in height. One source says the higher the rank of the wearer, the higher the hennin was, with some measuring over forty-five inches — that’s almost four feet high! Later, ladies started wearing crowns around their hennins as well, and experimenting with different ways to fold the veils and display fabric on the sides of the hennins as well.

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Some additional reading: