All this week on Just History Posts’ Facebook and Twitter we are celebrating the treasures of the Tudors! So far this week we have looked at Elizabeth I’s ring, Henry VIII’s hat, and Elizabeth’s prayer book which features the writing of Catherine Parr. Today, we are going to have a look at one of my favourite Tudor treasures, the Bacton Altar Cloth.
The true identity of the Bacton Altar Cloth has only been discovered in the last 5 years, which makes it even more exciting. For centuries, St Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, had possession of a beautiful Altar Cloth which was much treasured by the parishioners. In 1909, this Cloth was framed in oak and mounted on the wall above the church’s pews so that it could be protected and seen by all. The Cloth stayed on the wall until 2015, when historian Ruth Elizabeth Richardson, who was writing a biography of Blanche Parry – one of Elizabeth I’s attendants and closest friends – came to look at it. Whilst studying it, Richardson realised that the cloth was of incredible quality and rarity. She shared her photographs with Eleri Lynn, a curator at Historic Royal Palaces who was researching Tudor fashion, who also went to study the Cloth. Lynn made an exciting discovery: the Altar Cloth had previously been a dress, as evidenced by a distinct pattern cutting of the fabric, and it was almost certainly worn by Queen Elizabeth I.
So, what exactly is the Bacton Altar Cloth, and why is it so important? First and foremost, the Bacton Altar Cloth is considered the sole surviving dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I. For a monarch who ruled for almost 45 years and was famed for her glorious gowns, many may be surprised to know that before the discovery of the Bacton Altar Cloth, no known garment of Elizabeth’s survived. There are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, clothing – especially of the quality that Elizabeth wore – was very expensive in the Tudor period, and although members of the Royal Court may have often bought new clothes to keep up with fashions, unlike the fast fashion of today they could not afford to simply throw their old clothes away. Monarchs like Elizabeth would give out their old clothes to their courtiers and servants as a sign of favour, and they would then go on to re-wear the clothes. Once the clothes became too worn to continue to wear, they would subsequently be turned into other useful items like cushions or bedcovers. It is suspected that many old textiles that survive in historic houses in the UK once started life as clothes of the royals and their court.
The dresses that were not repurposed had other disasters to contend with. Upon the accession of James VI & I and the Stuart dynasty, much of the Tudor wardrobe was sold off. The pieces that survived that first sale were then further culled by Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth. If any pieces of royal clothing survived beyond that, then it was almost certainly destroyed during the Great Fire of London of 1666 when the main store of the Royal Wardrobe was burnt down. So, between sales, giving away pieces, repurposing of clothing, general loss from centuries of history, and a great conflagration, the lack of survival of the clothing of the Tudor monarchs is not surprising! But how did the Bacton Altar Cloth survive, and why can we be so sure it belonged to Elizabeth I?
The Bacton Altar cloth is made from cream-coloured silk and Italian cloth of silver. It is embroidered with beautiful flowers, vegetation and animals, such as raspberries, mistletoe, roses, bees, caterpillars, frogs and bears. The embroidery is created using silk, silver and gold thread and is stitched directly into the fabric. This is rare, as usually embroidery was made in advance and then stitched onto the clothes later. Dyes also feature on the embroidery thread, including cochineal red and Indian indigo blue obtained through trade with Portugal and North America.
Much information can be gathered about the owner of such a Cloth just from the Cloth itself. That the embroidery was stitched directly onto the fabric shows expert workmanship, and would have made the cloth much more expensive to purchase. The style of the floral embroidery also indicates that the fabric was made in the 1590s. Potentially most importantly, the use of gold and silver indicates that the owner was at the pinnacle of society as Tudor sumptuary law dictated that only the highest members of the nobility and royalty were allowed to wear clothing which contained gold and silver. There were only very few members of Tudor society in the 1590s who had this privilege, and who would have been able to afford the creation of a piece such as this. Elizabeth herself is the most obvious answer.
Interestingly, a study of the embroidery of the Cloth reveals that there were actually two different ‘hands’ who contributed to the embroidery. The exquisite stitching of the large floral motifs were clearly undertaken by master craftsmen, but many of the smaller animals such as the birds, caterpillars and sea creatures are of a much lesser (though still impressive) quality. It is thought that this less-skilled stitching was undertaken by noblewomen at court who had later customised the dress. Clothing was often customised in this way to make it seem new and thus extend the lifetime wear of the item. It was part of the reason why embroidery was usually stitched on to items after completion, rather than directly onto the material, so that it could be removed and switched out later.
There is another tantalising connection between Elizabeth and the Altar Cloth, in the form of one of the most famous portraits of Elizabeth, the Rainbow Portrait. The Rainbow Portrait was painted right near the end of Elizabeth’s life, between 1600-1602, and is highly symbolic. It was probably commissioned by Robert Cecil, one of Elizabeth’s statesmen, and has been held at his family’s home of Hatfield House for centuries. In the portrait, Elizabeth is wearing a highly embroidered dress which bears remarkable resemblance to the Bacton Altar Cloth, leading to suggestions it could even be part of the dress itself. The similarity is so striking, that when the Bacton Altar Cloth first went on display at Hampton Court Palace in October 2019, the Rainbow Portrait was displayed alongside it.
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It can be said with a very high degree of certainty that the Bacton Altar dress began life as a specially commissioned, luxurious dress for Elizabeth I. But how did this dress find itself in a small parish church in the Welsh Marches acting as an altar cloth? Well, this is where we come back to the repurposing of textiles from the royal court. Blanche Parry, mentioned earlier, was one of Elizabeth I’s most senior female attendants. She became an attendant of Elizabeth upon her birth in 1533 (Blanche being around 25 years older than her) and she served her until her death, making her Elizabeth’s longest-serving lady. Blanche was one of Elizabeth’s closest and most trusted friends, and Blanche became her Chief Gentlewoman, keeper of the Queen’s jewels, and she looked after many of Elizabeth’s personal belongings. Elizabeth is also known to have often gifted Blanche her old clothes.
Blanche died in February 1590 aged 82, and was buried in Westminster at the queen’s expense. Two monuments were raised to Blanche: one above her tomb, and a second in St Faith’s Church in Bacton, where Blanche had been born. Blanche herself had commissioned her monument at Bacton, as she originally planned to retire back to her birthplace in her old age. Blanche’s dedication to Elizabeth can be seen as the central theme of the monument. Both Blanche and Elizabeth are depicted in effigies, alongside a 28 line inscription thought to have been written by Blanche herself which describes how Blanche rocked the Princess’ cradle as a baby.
Blanche was dead before it is thought that the Bacton Altar Cloth was created. Indeed, if the Cloth is the same as the dress Elizabeth is wearing in the Rainbow Portrait then Elizabeth may have had the gown in her possession until her death in 1603. However, local tradition in Bacton has always associated the Cloth with Blanche Parry, and Blanche’s connection to the small village and the queen really holds the only explanation for such a sumptuous, expensive piece of material to find its way there. One current theory is that when Elizabeth’s belongings were being packed up after her death, but prior to the arrival of James VI & I in the capital, one of the ladies of her bedchamber sent the dress to Bacton in memory of Blanche, and potentially even on Elizabeth’s wishes.
The survival of the Bacton Altar Cloth is a marvel, and its true identification as a dress of Queen Elizabeth I caused huge excitement in the historical community. The material has survived in remarkable condition considering it is over 400 years old and has been used over the centuries. Thankfully, when it was placed in a frame in St Faith’s Church over a century ago it was on a north-facing wall away from direct sunlight, which helped preserve the colour and quality of the material. After its identification as Elizabeth’s dress, the material underwent careful conservation for over 1,000 hours, and hopefully this wondrous cloth will survive for centuries to come. It certainly deserves status as a Treasure of the Tudors.
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