The Lost Dress of Elizabeth I: The Bacton Altar Cloth

Exhibition at Hampton Court Palace, 12th Oct 2019 – 23rd Feb 2020

In October 2019 Dr Eleri Lynn gave a presentation on The Lost Dress of Elizabeth I, The Bacton Altar Cloth, for Warwick Words History Festival.  The engaging story of sleuthing and detective work involved in proving the origins of the altar cloth at Bacton Church, Herefordshire, to be a dress formerly belonging to Queen Elizabeth I was intriguing.  The connection of the altar cloth in Bacton with the queen was through Blanche Parry, who was the Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Chamber, she was the Queen’s close friend and confidante and Keeper of the Queen’s Jewels.  Blanche was born and raised in Bacton, maintaining a connection with the village throughout her life, even to designing and building a tomb for herself in the church, the monument paying homage to the queen too.  Blanche was not buried there when she died in 1590, but the queen’s ladies-in-waiting sent the gift of a dress to the church, St Faith’s, Bacton, in memory of Blanche, which was remade into an altar cloth.  This was not unheard of as Elizabeth often gifted her clothing to loyal ladies-in-waiting and friends.

Dr Eleri Lynn’s research has culminated in an extremely strong case for the altar cloth in fact being Elizabeth I’s dress and has been on display at Hampton Court Palace until recently.  The cloth itself is a wonderful piece of history, and chimes in today with a resurgence in the need for re-purposing items and preserving their worth for a greater length of time.  The provenance of the piece adds to its charm, and the evidence for Lynn’s claim makes for interesting study.

The exquisite embroidery is at once breathtaking, for the skill and quality of workmanship is evident, although it is 500 hundred years old.  For such a garment to have survived at all is incredible, but maybe what it appears to be, and to whom it belonged, is testament to its longevity.  Eleri Lynn was excited to find the cloth, which was revered by the Bacton community and its importance celebrated, however the possibility that this could be an item of royal clothing was a challenge to Lynn’s detective and research skills.  To find cloth of silver is a sign of wealth and position as the sumptuary laws dictated who could wear clothes of such extravagance, so a royal connection, established by the relationship of Blanche Parry and Queen Elizabeth, was a likelihood.

Cloth of Silver is made with a silk warp thread woven with a weft of fine silk thread encased in silver which shines and glistens with the light.  A costly fabric which was then hand embroidered with silk, gold and silver thread, depicting the most beautifully detailed flowers, insects, birds and scenes from life to proclaim skill, wealth and importance.  The intricately detailed wildlife has been traced to the new Elizabethan technology of printed illustration in books, and the example at the Hampton Court Palace exhibition clearly shows the embroidered bear mirroring the illustration from a book of the time.  The possession of books itself was a sign of prosperity, learning and position in society and further augments the claim to royalty.  Another indication of the significance of the cloth is the fact that the embroidery is worked directly onto the fabric.  This is a sign of confidence in the embroiderer, as mistakes are difficult to hide or rectify, so only the most competent embroiderers would be awarded the task.  It was more usual to embroider a separate piece of cloth, known as a slip, and appliqué the finished work to the garment, therefore allowing only the best to be used and mistakes rejected.

Eleri Lynn’s team identified the use of a red dye found in Mexico, and Indian indigo blue dye from Portuguese trading routes, further proving the provenance of high quality expensive raw materials.  The texture of the stitches, with french knots creating the centres and stamens of the flowers, and bullion stitch comprising the raised fat bodies of caterpillars that look as though they could wriggle off the cloth are beautiful.  Trees with delicate leaves, satin stitch petals with tight buttonhole stitch to create the centre of a flower all using thread that the reverse of the cloth reveals was brightly coloured and sparkling with gold and silver detail.  It is a most beautiful and exquisite work of art.

To further support the claim that the cloth was originally a dress Dr Lynn discovered evidence of pattern cutting in the shape of the re-purposed fabric, but more than this, research into Elizabeth I’s wardrobe through portrait, image and description revealed a tantalisingly similar dress in the Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I variously attributed to Marcus Gheerhaerts the Younger (1561/2-1636) and Isaac Oliver (1565-1617).  The style of the embroidery on the bodice is just as detailed and perfectly executed with flowers and motifs similar to the altar cloth and the same illustrations in the books.  The exhibition also shows this portrait where the likenesses can be seen at first hand.  The beautiful orange overmantel bears painted images of eyes and ears, which symbolise the all knowing, all seeing power of the queen.

St Faith’s in Bacton realised their cloth was important and have for years had it framed and hung on the wall.  It was conserved earlier by backing it on wool, but this was damaged and harboured pests, so a new silk backing has been provided after cleaning and conserving the work where possible.  The effect of hiding it away in a small church, almost forgotten, has actually allowed the cloth to be saved and against all odds we have an example of sixteenth century clothing with the most amazing embroidery indubitably fit for a queen.

Interesting video clips of the process of research and conservation.

Preparing the Rainbow Portrait for hanging.

Elizabeth I’s dress from the Rainbow Portrait is recreated

Conserving the Bacton Altar Cloth

The Bacton Altar Cloth

Photography by Karen Parker.

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