Sunday best: Altar Cloth or Elizabeth I’s dress?
A richly embroidered altar cloth, preserved for centuries in a small rural church in Bacton, Herefordshire, has recently been identified by experts as a piece of a sixteenth century dress, which may even have belonged to Queen Elizabeth I herself. Rumoured for centuries to be connected to the Tudor Queen via her servant, Blanche Parry, the story of this remarkable object is uncovered in a new book, from Historic Royal Palaces Joint Chief Curator Tracy Borman: ‘The Private Lives of the Tudors.’
Dating from the last decades of the sixteenth century, the altar cloth is a treasured possession of St Faith’s Church, Bacton, where until recently, it hung in a glass case on a wall, after having been retired as an altar cloth over a hundred years ago. Bacton was the birthplace of one of Elizabeth I’s most faithful servants, Blanche Parry, who began her 57 year service supervising the royal cradle rockers, and died as her Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber. The altar cloth has long been associated with Parry, who erected a monument marking her loyal service to her mistress at St Faith’s.
Although famous for her lavish wardrobe, it was not unusual for Elizabeth I to pass on her discarded clothes to her confidantes after they outlived their usefulness. The value of the fabrics used to create her elaborate costumes meant that they were often repurposed, and so very few garments directly linked to the Tudor Queen survive. Intriguingly, records show that she regularly gave many gifts of clothing to Parry, and the people of Bacton have speculated for centuries that their altar cloth might have been a gift to Parry from Elizabeth herself.
A recent detailed examination of the altar cloth by Historic Royal Palaces curators has strengthened a theory that it once formed part of a court dress. It is made from cloth of silver – a high status fabric which Tudor sumptuary law dictated could only be worn by royalty, or the highest echelons of the aristocracy. Alongside the skilfully embroidered flowers embellishing the piece, the hand of a domestic embroiderer has been detected, adding caterpillars, butterflies, frogs and even a small rowing boat to the original design – this is typical of the type of embroidery undertaken by aristocratic Tudor ladies. Finally, dress historians have suggested that shaped seams at the back of the altar cloth point towards its history as a skirt panel.
Now that the altar cloth has been formally identified as part of a dress, the question that has tantalised Bacton residents for generations remains: was this exquisite textile once worn by Queen Elizabeth I? As yet, no documentary evidence has been unearthed to suggest this – and yet the Queen is depicted in the famous ‘Rainbow portrait’ wearing a strikingly similar fabric. Blanche Parry’s monument to the Tudor Queen in St Faith’s Church depicts her kneeling beside her resplendent mistress, and is seen as one of the earliest examples of veneration of Elizabeth I. Might it be possible that her servant left another legacy of the famous ‘Virgin Queen’ for the residents of Bacton to worship?
Historic Royal Palaces Joint Chief Curator Tracy Borman said,
‘This is an incredible find – items of Tudor dress are exceptionally rare in any case, but to uncover one with such a close personal link to Queen Elizabeth I is almost unheard of. We’re thrilled to be working with St Faith’s Church to conserve this remarkable object, which will now be further examined by our conservation experts at Hampton Court Palace, where we hope to be able to conserve and display it in future.’
For more information and images, please contact Laura Hutchinson in the Historic Royal Palaces Press Office: firstname.lastname@example.org/ 0203 166 6338/ 07990 726 229
For interviews with Tracy Borman, or more information about her new book ‘The Private Lives of the Tudors’, published on 19 May, please contact Rebecca Mundy, publicist at Hodder and Stoughton: Rebecca.email@example.com/ 020 3122 6403/ 07810 436052
Notes to editors
Historic Royal Palaces is the independent charity that looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. We help everyone explore the story of how monarchs and people have shaped society, in some of the greatest palaces ever built. We raise all our own funds and depend on the support of our visitors, members, donors, sponsors and volunteers. With the exception of Hillsborough Castle, these palaces are owned by The Queen on behalf of the nation, and we manage them for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Registered charity number 1068852. For more information, visit www.hrp.org.uk.
The Private Lives of the Tudors (Hodder and Stoughton)
Dr Tracy Borman is Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and an expert on the Tudor period. She has written a number of highly acclaimed books, including Elizabeth’s Women (Book of the Week on Radio 4) and Thomas Cromwell (Sunday Times best seller). She tells the story of the Bacton altar cloth in her latest book, The Private Lives of the Tudors (to be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 19 May).
The Tudor monarchs were constantly surrounded by an army of attendants, courtiers and ministers. Even in their most private moments, they were accompanied by a servant specifically appointed for the task. A groom of the stool would stand patiently by as Henry VIII performed his daily purges, and when Elizabeth I retired for the evening, one of her female servants would sleep at the end of her bed. These attendants knew the truth behind the glamorous exterior. They saw the tears shed by Henry VII upon the death of his son Arthur. They knew the tragic secret behind 'Bloody' Mary's phantom pregnancies. And they saw the 'crooked carcass' beneath Elizabeth I's carefully applied makeup, gowns and accessories.
It is the accounts of these eyewitnesses, as well as a rich array of other contemporary sources that Tracy Borman has examined more closely than ever before. With new insights and discoveries, The Private Life of the Tudors will reveal previously unexamined details about the characters we think we know so well.