The Bacton Altar Cloth

*Originally published in the Medieval Dress and Textile Society Newsletter, July 2018*

Back of the altar cloth 1

The Bacton Altar Cloth is a large piece of richly embroidered Elizabethan floral fabric, which at some point in its long history has been carefully cut and re-stitched to form the decorative cloth covering for a church altar. For many years it has hung on the wall of St Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, preserved for posterity in a glass-covered frame.

This textile has long been cherished by the local community as an important artefact, thought to perhaps once have belonged to Blanche Parry: a Bacton native, and chief gentlewoman of Elizabeth I. It has also been acknowledged in the past by celebrated textile historians such as Janet Arnold, as an intriguing and valuable example of extant embroidery, and a genuine survivor from the late Elizabethan period. Arnold also raised the question in her seminal work, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, of whether the cloth may in fact once have formed a part of a petticoat or forepart belonging to Queen Elizabeth I herself. If it were the case that this was so, it would make the Bacton Altar Cloth a unique and extraordinary item, as no other pieces of fabric actually belonging to a gown owned by the queen herself are currently known to survive.

Eleri Lynn at Hampton Court

Recent work by experts from Historic Royal Palaces has produced further clues to support this exciting idea. Now undergoing conservation efforts at Hampton Court Palace, on loan from its home in St Faith’s, the Bacton Altar Cloth is revealing some fascinating details and clues to its provenance, as research into both its construction and its historical context continues.

In May I was given the opportunity to visit the cloth, and to discuss the latest findings with Historic Royal Palaces Curator, Eleri Lynn.

Conservation stories

Since it came to Hampton Court, conservators have submitted several samples of the dye from the silk embroidery thread to be chemically tested, revealing some exciting findings. The bright red of the ‘tudor’ rose is actually Mexican cochineal, and other dyes also come from as far away as India.

There is also little doubt that the silk of the ground fabric would have originated from Italy: both the high quality of the fabric and its historical context would suggest this. But current investigations using recent advances in technological analysis may be able to provide more concrete evidence than this; and in fact conservators are hoping to soon be able to reveal evidence not just of an Italian origin, but the actual province or area of the country in which the silk was produced.

Previous efforts to preserve the cloth during it’s (roughly) 400 years residence at St Faith’s Church in Bacton have included a piece of supporting backing fabric, which has been stitched directly onto the Elizabethan cloth, in an attempt to hold it in place and protect it from further rips or disintegration. Unfortunately this action has meant that much of the embroidery, due to shrinkage and small changes over time, has been put under strain and pulled out of shape. Now that the backing fabric has been removed, however, the original fabric is looking much more relaxed, and has begun to ease back into something more like its natural formation. This has affected the embroidery, and already a difference in the shape of some of the motifs is discernible.

Back of the altar cloth close up 1

Several of the embroidery motifs seem to have been inspired by particular images from a variety of contemporary illustrated texts from the period, but in particular one or two direct copies have been discovered. One is this bear, from Nicolaes de Bruyn’s Animalium Quadrapedum, and the other this deer, from the same text.

It seems clear that, interestingly, more than one layer of work makes up the embroidery design on the Bacton Altar Cloth. The first, a series of floral motifs, most likely created during the final decade of the 16th century, is almost certainly the product of a professional hand, and is of the highest quality. The second, in which another, most likely amateur embroiderer has filled in the ground of the design with additional motifs like the bear and dear mentioned above, was most likely added some years later. This, second, layer of work also features several little narrative scenes picked out in miniature motifs. There is a story following the exploits of some fishermen, who run afoul of a sea monster. It seems likely that this story continues after it is chopped off by this seam – some more appears around the corner of the altar cloth, where another piece from the same part of the fabric has been patched in.

bear from the front

Incredible Opulence. Royal Provenence?

One of the biggest questions for conservators and historians interested in the Bacton Altar Cloth is about its potential royal background. The theory that it may have once formed part of a garment belonging to Queen Elizabeth I is compelling, but hard to prove. Many avenues of research are currently being explored in order to find evidence to prove or disprove this idea. On examination of the item itself however, one thing becomes clear: the incredible quality and luxury of this textile are indisputable; and incomparable with any other work from England during this period that we currently have available for study.

Now that the backing fabric has been removed from the Bacton Altar Cloth as part of the conservation process, it is easy to see the difference between the two different hands which have embroidered the cloth. By comparing the exquisitely neat, very professionally finished back of the floral embroidery, picked out in tiny, perfectly executed seed stitches, with the rather more amateur finishing on the back of the later work, the difference in both handiwork and style is clear.

pen lines clarified

Another potential mark of the indulgence and high quality of this original work, is the fact that it has been embroidered directly onto the base fabric. Similar looking works of embroidery at this time could be produced by more amateur embroiderers by making and attaching ‘slips’.[1] These are individual motifs, stitched on small embroidery frames or hoops, which could then be carefully cut out and appliqued onto the fabric they were to decorate. This method had several practical advantages. For example: the work could be done in small amounts, at leisure, perhaps by a lady embroiderer at her ease with an small frame on her lap; rather than requiring a large frame which could take the full width of the fabric, as would often have been employed in a professional workshop.

It also meant that, as frequently happened, slips could then be carefully removed from their finished garments when they became unfashionable, or when the wearer desired a change, and both the garment and the embroidery could be preserved and reused to create other items. This process was often repeated, again and again, making the most frugal use possible of each piece of work. It also widened the margin for error: if you messed up one slip, it didn’t matter! You could re-do it on another frame, and only apply the successful work to the final garment.

Sewing directly on to any large piece of fabric, especially a delicate or expensive one like this, completely removed all these advantages, and also meant that any mistake was permanent. In embroidery like that of the Bacton Altar Cloth, worked directly onto silver chamblet, which was a fabric of the utmost value, containing real silver metal threads actually woven into the cloth itself, both the composition and positioning of every single motif had to be perfect first time: or else the work would be spoiled, at huge expense. This technique also meant the embroidery could never be unpicked and re-used, so owning something that had been made in this way was a very clear demonstration of riches. Only the very wealthy could afford to produce and wear garments like this one: of the most valuable materials, professionally constructed, and which could not be easily recycled.

Another possible sign of the professionalism of this work, and perhaps the most interesting one, is that instead of employing the more erasable technique of ‘pricking and pouncing’ (using removable charcoal dust and a paper pattern to transfer the design to the fabric through pin-pricked holes), the craftsman who created the floral embroidery on the Bacton Altar Cloth has drawn the design directly onto the fabric, prior to its being picked out in stitches, with ink: using a pen or fine brush. This technique speaks to the skill and craftsmanship of its maker, as such a method really does not allow for any mistakes, and on an expensive fabric like this suggests the work of someone very confident of their art. In fact, in some parts of the embroidery, (shown in the photo close-up), the ink lines themselves seem to have been deliberately left uncovered by stitches. This, although it might at first seem like a mistake, may really have been an intentional omission, which would have allowed a knowledgeable viewer of the finished product, or fellow craftsman, to actually observe this evidence of skill – possibly almost like an additional little bit of showing off, to add to the conspicuous luxury and craftsmanship of the whole! In either case, and all in all, the workmanship on this amazing bit of textile is really astonishing, and very interesting to witness up close.

deer and squirrel

Many thanks to Eleri Lynn and the conservation team at Hampton Court for this fascinating visit. Conservators hope to be able to put the Bacton Altar Cloth on display to the public at Hampton Court Palace next year, and I would certainly recommend a visit when it becomes available.

To read a more detailed investigation of the Bacton Altar Cloth, please see Eleri Lynn’s recently published article on this subject: ‘The Bacton Altar Cloth: Elizabeth I’s “long-lost skirt”?’, Costume, 52, 1 (2018), 3 – 25.

[1] For some nice examples of this kind of work, please see ‘Slips, embroidered canvas with silks’, c. 1600, and ‘Cushion cover, silk velvet, with applied embroidered canvas’, c. 1600, both to be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.