Conserved Bacton Altar Cloth goes on display

Bacton Altar Cloth, 16th century silk and embroidery textile believed to have been part of a gown worn by Queen Elizabeth I. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

After three years of study and conservation, the Bacton Altar Cloth is going on display at Hampton Court Palace. None of Elizabeth I’s clothing has survived, although a number of accessories have, so this cross-shaped piece is uniquely rare.

The embroidered silk textile was donated to  St Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, by Blanche Parry who was one of Elizabeth’s most loyal and dedicated ladies. She served the future queen starting during the reign of Henry VIII when Princess Elizabeth was a young girl and continued uninterrupted for 57 years, reached the exalted rank of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels. The queen is known to have given Blanche clothes she longer wanted.

While there is no specific record of this particular textile being a royal hand-me-down, its materials and manufacture are so exquisite that it would have been literally illegal for a non-royal to wear such a garment. A monarchical provenance would also explain why Blanche considered the piece important enough to donate to her hometown church where her heart is also buried.

The altar cloth’s connection to Elizabeth I has been rumored for centuries. Recognizing its importance, in 1909, the church took it off the altar and placed it in a glass display case. In 2016, St. Faith’s asked Historic Royal Palaces to study the altar cloth.

On examining the textile, [Historic Royal Palaces curator Eleri] Lynn – an expert in Tudor court dress – was able to identify previously unseen features, studying the seams of the fabric to confirm it had once formed part of a skirt.

Following the exciting discovery, Historic Royal Palaces – the independent charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace – agreed to commence a conservation programme to stabilise the fragile fabric in the palace’s world-class textile studio. Further examination of the cloth by experts has added weight to Lynn’s theory that it might once have belonged to the Tudor Queen. Its creation from high-status silver chamblet silk, use of professional embroidery including real gold and silver thread, and distinct evidence of pattern-cutting all suggest that the item could have formed part of Elizabeth’s lavish wardrobe. The conservation team were also able to test the dyes within the fabric, discovering that it contained expensive Indigo and red dye sourced from Mexico – the kind of materials only available to a person a very high status.

The embroidery is truly spectacular, a profusion of flora (columbines, daffodils, roses, honeysuckle, oak leaves, acorns, mistletoe) and fauna (peacocks, other birds, frogs, dragonflies, butterflies, caterpillars, fish, dogs, dear, squirrels, a crocodile, a bear). There are also small wooden boats being rowed by tiny embroidered people.

Detail of the embroidery of the Bacton Altar Cloth from the back: the bear. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

The exhibition will delve further into the use of these motifs in the Tudor era. One of the most important works on display, and one of the most significant pieces of circumstantial evidence for the altar cloth having been part of one of Elizabeth’s gowns, is the Rainbow Portrait (c. 1600 – 02), attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. It depicts Elizabeth in an embroidered silk gown with very similar imagery. It is being loaned from Hatfield House for the exhibition and this is the first time it will be on display at Hampton Court Palace.

Accompanying the painting will be a selection of rare domestic print books dating from the Tudor period, which would have provided inspiration for many of the embroidered motifs fashionable during Elizabeth’s reign – including those found on the Bacton Altar Cloth – brought together for the first time with other stunning embroidery work from the period.

The Bacton Altar Cloth will be on display from October 12, 2019, until February 23, 2020.

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Comment by George M.
2019-05-18 15:29:38

One thing that has not been mentioned is how vivid the colors, particularly the greens, would have been in the 16th century. Organic dyes are generally pretty sensitive to UV degradation. When new the embroidery would have been practically psychedelic in color.

 
Comment by Ruth E. Richardson
2019-08-26 11:06:12

I read this article with great interest as it was solely through my historical researches that it was established that the ‘Cloth resembled the dress worn by the Queen in the Rainbow Portrait and that it came from one of her dresses. It was donated in memory of Blanche Parry, possibly by the Queen herself.

See: http://blancheparry.co.uk/articles/embroidery/embroidery.pdf

I am delighted that it will go on display at Hampton Court after two thousand hours of conservation work. Eleri Lynn became aware of it being in Bacton Church, Herefordshire after seeing its picture on my free website, http://www.blancheparry.com set up to complement my book and researches. She visited the Church and saw it because of my work.

For more information see ‘Mistress Blanche Queen Elizabeth I’s Confidante’ (2018 Logaston Press). This book gives accurate information about Lady Troy (who is now proved to have brought up Elizabeth), Blanche Parry (the Queen’s constant companion for 56 years) and about the The Bacton Altar Cloth, which may commemorate the founding of the British Empire too. This beautiful and unique ‘Cloth had hung in the Church for 106 years so ‘the parishioners could see it’. I should be grateful if you would make it clear that it was my research that brought this ‘Cloth to public notice and my book that has published the above, accurate information.

Please contact me if I can help further.

 
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