Imagine if someone from London arrived at your most rural of rural churches and told you that bit of old fabric on the wall is worth a king’s ransom?
That’s what happened four years ago to the parishioners of the tiny church of Bacton close to the border with Wales, and next week, that same bit of old fabric goes on display in London, for just a few months.
It didn’t look much at first glance, faded, torn, rather grubby, not of that much interest except possibly to people with a nerd’s level of interest in old fabrics. Yet, the fabric is valuable on so many levels — it may have been one of Queen Elizabeth I’s most expensive dresses, it’s an exceptionally rare survivor from the Tudor period, it’s a master class of craftsmanship.
And somehow, it ended up in the middle of nowhere, in a hamlet church being used as an altar cloth.
And there it might have remained, slowly decaying to it too eventually was lost, if not for a remarkable accident. One lunchtime, Historic Royal Palace curator, Eleri Lynn was casually browsing the web during lunchtime while researching her book, Tudor Fashion, and stumbled upon a history website for one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies.
Spotting a photo of the fabric, and thinking, as only a curator of old fabrics probably could have, “hmm, that looks 1590s”, she arranged time off to have a look.
Over at the church, the parishioners knew the fabric was possibly of historical significance thanks to oral history, and it certainly was used as an altar cloth until the turn of the 20th century when it was decided to frame it and put it on the wall.
But, for understandable reasons, they thought it was just one of very many such things cluttering up museum archives and didn’t really worry too much.
It sat there, in a wooden frame for a century, until Eleri turned up, got very excited, started climbing on pews to get a closer look and recognising that the fabric was not just almost certainly of the right timeframe, it was also in the wrong sort of wooden frame which was letting it decay and was on the verge of being lost forever.
The reason the fabric is so special is not just the quality of the materials and the possible link with a Queen, but its exceptional rarity. Fabrics from the time of Queen Elizabeth I simply do not exist. That’s thanks to a number of issues. Many of the very best dresses and clothes were lost during the Great Fire of London, as the Royal Wardrobe was in the city.
But the main reason was practicality — even for a rich person an embroidered fabric was a costly purchase, and gowns and dresses were often reused many times until their original design was long lost and the fabrics totally worn out and eventually discarded.
So the church parishioners knew the fabric was old, but understandably had no idea of just what a rare survivor they had hanging on a wall in a damp old wooden frame.
They were however fairly certain that it had Royal connections.
In the church is a huge memorial to Blanche Parry who was born locally, but went to Court and spent her entire life as a close friend of the Queen. She ended up very rich in her own right — for proximity to the Queen tends to have that effect — and was probably given a number of dresses as gifts, as was also common at the time.
However, it’s unlikely that the Queen gave this entire dress — as even by a Queen’s standards, this was expensive. Blanche could have probably bought a small town had she been given the entire dress — because of what it was made from.
Cloth of Silver
This is a silk fabric of exceptional quality that then had very fine strands of thinly beaten silver woven into the fabric itself. So exceptionally expensive was this that not only were Monarchs the few who could afford it, King Henry VII actually banned anyone else from wearing it.
The ban was in part to stop the emerging merchant classes dressing above their station, as visible signs of wealth was also a visible sign of political power — but also due to the effect the fabric had in a court.
We have to remember this is the era of candles and rushlights. Although tallow candles and rushlights were cheap and plentiful, they smelt rather bad. In court, they would use much more expensive beeswax for state events. Even still, despite what you might see in Hollywood, even a Monarch would rarely light as many candles as you see in films save for very special events.
In general, candles in front of silver to reflect the light, and a great fire were the main illuminations, and in the centre, quite literally glowing, the Queen in her magnificent silver inlaid dress glittering and reflecting the candlelight.
No one was allowed to outshine the Queen.
What also sets this particular example above everything else is that usually embroidery was done on a cheap fabric that was stitched onto the more expensive backing, but here, the embroidery is done directly into the cloth of silver. They don’t know who did the work, but it would have had to have been the absolute master of the craft. What they do know is that the plants and animals are based on a book that was published at the time as an early pattern guide to embroiderers.
Some of the dyes used also pointed to the very highest of qualities, as they used exceptionally expensive Indigo, and the recently discovered red dyes from the New World – in Mexico.
So, here’s a physically and historically priceless object in a rural church. What to do with it?
Now that the Historic Royal Palaces was aware of the existence of this rare fabric, they agreed with the parishioners to step in and conserve the fabric for future generations.
When the fabric had been mounted on display in 1909, it had been stitched to a backing fabric, but that was now starting to tear the more fragile silk apart. Their first task was to remove that backing and then, much to their delight, it turned out the back had rarely seen daylight as the original colours of the embroidery were still very strong.
That helped with the research, even as when it goes on display next week, we will see the faded front instead.
It’s been estimated that around 1,000 hours of work went into stabilizing the fabric, cleaning off some stains and dirt, and carefully stitching the silk onto a new backing fabric that’s designed with more modern understandings of how to conserve fabrics.
They’ve also discovered that the many animals in the decoration were added after the plants, probably as the fabric was reused for other purposes or refashioned into new dresses after Queen Elizabeth I had died.
The fabric is on loan to the Historic Royal Palaces, but a full-size replica was made for the church, and in June 2017, a rededication service was held when it arrived.
Now this length of fabric, a remarkable survivor from the Tudor times is going on display in Hampton Court Palace in a specially refurbished room for a few months.
Last week was a chance to see the fabric just ahead of being put into the glass frame that’s likely to be its forever home.
A couple of the HRP staff hadn’t seen the final restoration and there was a pervasive air of excitement as the layers of protective sheeting were removed one by one with the crinkles of plastic and tissue and duck tape filling the room where it has been stored.
It took several minutes of careful unwrapping before the grand reveal.
You don’t need to be a historian to slightly gasp when you see it, for the entirety of the story of how this fragment of history managed to survive when so much else has been lost is breathtaking. Some of the gold still glitters in the daylight, and while it’s now hard to imagine, the backing silk would have glowed with the inlaid silver thread, setting off the once richly coloured decoration. Even those have a depth of stitching that is a marvel to see up close.
And next week, everyone can see the Bacton Altar Cloth as it goes on display. The fabric will be laid flat to reduce the stresses on it, and modern replicas of some of the embroidery will be on show along with films about the discovery.
The other item in the room — a painting of Queen Elizabeth I from Hatfield House that shows the Queen wearing a dress that is tantalizingly similar to the fabric on display. They’ve not yet managed to prove the fabric in the painting is the same as the one from the church, but the research is ongoing.
So, the long story told by of this rarest of Elizabethan fabrics may still have some surprises to be revealed.
The Bacton Altar Cloth will be on display from 12th October 2019 to 23rd February 2020 and is included in the normal entry charges to the Palace.