Why did men wear codpieces?

I went to see the rock group Jethro Tull perform on several occasions when I was a lot younger. The front man, Ian Anderson, would stand on one leg playing the flute, which was fairly impressive, but what really drew the eye was the glittering codpiece he wore while doing so.

Ian Anderson lead singer, Jethro Tull

The next time I encountered a codpiece was many years later amongst the dressing up clothes at Stirling Castle. This was on a whole different level to Anderson’s which seemed remarkably discrete by comparison. Indeed, to my 21st century eyes, it was so immodestly large and protruding I was embarrassed to be caught staring at it, and moved swiftly on.

Stirling Castle’s display model

When I came to write my first novel I debated whether my characters should don them or not and wondered if they were indeed commonly worn by the men of Scotland in 1546. I decided to delve, metaphorically, into the codpiece further.

Cod, in this instance, has nothing to do with fish but was the slang for scrotum. Codpieces began as something quite practical to fill the space between tunic and hose and preserve men’s modesty. But as the fashion in doublets became shorter, greater covering was required and the codpiece became a fashion statement of itself, and a sign of virility in the early 1500s.

Pietro Maria Rossi, Museo Nacionale del Prado, Madrid

Often they were decorated with tassels, bows or jewels. Some were large enough to store coins, a handkerchief or even a handy snack. The increased padding provided protection from swords, lances and other implements of war. Here’s King Henry VIII’s armour, with protective appendage

King Henry VIII’s armour

But the era of the cod piece was also the period when the pox was rife throughout Europe. Treating syphilis involved a range of herbs, sticky unguents and decoctions. Containing it all within a large codpiece helped protect clothing from stains, as well as keeping the poultice in place.

By late 16th century the cod piece had had its day and was replaced by the well padded stomach, known as a peascod belly; the codpiece beneath gradually shrinking in size.

Pointed Peascod Belly, Rijksmuseum

As for why Ian Anderson sported one I suspect it was a piece of flamboyant fun that fitted with the overall romance of the clothes of the 1970s. And his was modest by comparison with the ‘packages’ some other rock stars were creating.

And did I have my male characters sport codpieces… they have gone unmentioned so far, but in book 3 one does pop up.


Grace Vicary, Visual Art as Social Data: The Renaissance Codpiece


Who was La Belle Écossaise?

La Belle Ecossaise, complete with face mask, in Mary of Guise's throne room
La Belle Ecossaise, complete with face mask, in Mary of Guise’s throne room

On a recent visit to Stirling Castle I met La Belle Écossaise hovering in Queen Mary of Guise’s chambers. She was not as discrete as one would expect from a lady in waiting and even told me that the queen holds her most intimate audiences in her bed chamber, where she chats from behind a screen as she washes and dresses. The queen, she said, does not sleep there but in a much smaller room up a private staircase. I was wild with curiosity to be shown the secret room but on this The Beautiful Scotswoman’s (doesn’t it sound much better in French) lips were sealed.

Stirling Castle

My character Will (in The Conversos) also has sight of La Belle Écossaise while he is a galley slave on the ship that transports the infant Mary Queen of Scots to France. La Belle Écossaise was amongst the wee queen’s retinue, even though as she herself told me, she could not speak French. Yet she is quite the demanding lady as Will observes.

After three days of riding at anchor during the storm La Belle Écossaise is seen arguing with the Captain. ‘It is too much, this swinging aimlessly in the sea. Take us ashore.’

The captain shrugs, Will doubts if he even understands what she says since she speaks in Scots. A gust of rain sends her scurrying undercover.

She’s back the next day demanding, ‘let me off this boat immediately. I must repose myself, and the children too.’

The captain evidently does understand Scots for he bows low saying, ‘I give you the choice my lady. You can either stay on board, or leave and drown.’

She stands for a moment clearly not believing what she’s heard, then the ship lurches rocked by a large wave. She staggers and is only saved from falling overboard by Logie who has appeared in time to catch her. He escorts her below, and Will can see she has much to say.

Unicorn above the fireplace

Some remarkable restoration work has been carried out at Stirling Castle and the rooms are bright with colour, the tapestries have been recreated based on what would have hung there during the time of James V and Mary of Guise. The symbolism is everywhere as powerful images were used to convey the king’s droit de seigneur. The unicorn above is sign of purity and strength.

Carved Head of James V

Other restoration work includes the carved heads found on ceilings – and a replica of every known head has been hand carved in oak and then painted after the worn originals were studied in detail. The imagery and choice of heads including Julius Caesar is again all about underlining James’s power as king.

Outside the block which contained the Great Hall has been magnificently restored. It was used (and rather abused ) by the army for many many years, and they inserted sash windows, removed others and cut holes in wall.

Now repaired and painted in ochre mixed with lime, as it would have been when La Belle Écossaise walked these courtyards, giving a soft golden hue – and the gold confirmed the king’s wealth. It’s fascinating to see the contrast with how faded the rest of the buildings are.

The statutes which line the outside walls would also once have been colourfully painted. The castle is a dull place nowadays in comparison to its one time splendour.

Statute of James V which would once have been brightly painted – with lots of gold leaf

As for La Belle Écossaise she was Lady Janet Fleming who caught the attention of King Henri II of France while she was in attendance on the infant Mary Queen of Scots – despite her lack of French… but then it wasn’t her language skills the king was interested in.

Lady Fleming

She had a son by him, but was decidedly indiscrete about it which led to the Queen of France, Catherine de Medici, and the king’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, uniting in their dislike and arranging for Lady Fleming to be shipped back to Scotland, without her son. The rather unkind nickname of The King’s Whore was bestowed upon her. The king however did make sure this son was well provided for.

Ps If you are in Scotland and only have time to visit one castle then make it Stirling Castle – the restoration is remarkable and gives a fantastic sense of time and place …and the actors are a lot of fun.

Ref: Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser