Christina here. I may have mentioned this before, but back in 2015 something quite amazing was discovered in the little village church of St Faith’s at Bacton in Herefordshire – a piece of cloth from one of Queen Elizabeth I’s dresses. It had been used for centuries as an altar cloth, and the parishioners had no idea what a treasure they possessed. When it was rediscovered, it was rather grubby and worn, and didn’t look particularly impressive. The reason the experts could be sure that it really was one of Elizabeth’s dresses, though, was that it’s made of cloth of silver. Under the so-called Sumptuary Laws of the time, only members of the royal family were allowed to wear it, so it had to be hers. Despite the state of it, it’s priceless, because it is the Tudor queen’s only surviving piece of clothing, even though she reputedly owned about 1,900 dresses in total. Not a single one of them remain, except this small fragment with beautiful embroidered motifs in all the colours of the rainbow. In the so-called Rainbow portrait of the queen, she wears a similarly embroidered gown and this shows how the completed dress would have looked.
So why would it be in an obscure country church near the Welsh border? It is because Elizabeth’s most trusted servant, Blanche Parry, came from this village. She was Chief Gentlewoman and Keeper of Her Majesty’s Jewels, and never married. Instead, she devoted her life to Elizabeth and stayed with her for 56 years before retiring to Bacton. Either she had been given the dress by Her Majesty and later gave a part of it to the local church to be recycled into an altar cloth, or it was donated to the parish by the queen in memory of Blanche who died in 1590. The original was taken away to be restored and conserved, and is usually kept at Hampton Court Palace, while the church now has a replica hanging on the wall in a frame.
I live nearby and hadn’t seen the cloth since it was removed for restoration, so when I found out that it is currently on display as part of an exhibition in London, I just had to go and look at it in all its glory. And although that was all I really came to see, I found so much more at the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London.
Treasures of Gold and Silver Wire is the name of the exhibition put on by The Worshipful Company of Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers to celebrate their 400-year anniversary. It tells the history of gold and silver wire making, and features over 200 examples from the Middle Ages to the present. The Bacton Altar Cloth was just one of them, and although beautiful and intricate, it was by no means the most impressive exhibit. Among them was a piece of Oliver Cromwell’s dressing gown, with a pattern of leaves in gold thread. That must have been the height of luxury – fancy a Puritan wearing that!
I was, of course, aware that gold and silver thread was often used to embellish luxury clothing and other items through the ages (the Vikings wove it into the edging bands of their tunics, for example), but I had no idea how it was produced. The exhibition showed the tools needed, and how a combination of gold and silver is drawn through a series of ever decreasing holes in a so-called drawplate until you obtain the thickness you want. The resulting wire can be as thin as a human hair – amazing! There are various names to describe the different types of thread that can be produced by coiling or twisting the wires, but I won’t go into that here. Suffice it to say that there is a great variety.
A lot of the gold- and silver-decorated items were military or religious, but there were lots of other objects too. Here is a selection of my favourites:-
The Fishmongers’ Pall 1512-1530 – a gorgeous piece of cloth to cover the coffin of members of the Fishmongers’ Livery Company, elaborately embroidered in a style called Opus Anglicanum (Latin for ‘English work’).
Burse of the Great Seal of England of the Lord Keeper, 17th century – This was owned by Sir Orlando Bridgeman, and was a ceremonial bag that contained the Great Seal and would have been carried publicly in procession in London as a symbol of the royal authority of King Charles II.
Queen Mary’s Coronation Dress, worn at her and King George V’s coronation in 1911. I particularly loved the back of this gorgeous dress, which was embroidered with gold thread and tiny gilt metal beads.
Two coats of State Trumpeters Household Cavalry, 21st century – I love the garments worn for royal occasions, and these two were extremely impressive. You could barely see the velvet material underneath all the gold! (One is from Queen Elizabeth’s reign – embroidered with ER II – the other a recent one with King Charles III’s cipher, CR III).
A Pair of Menswear Gloves c 1610-25 – Gloves were often intricately embroidered and I really liked this pair from the early Stuart period. Apparently, at this time, the fingers of gloves were extra long in order to create an impression of graceful fingers. These were meant to emulate Queen Elizabeth’s famously elegant hands, which she herself loved to admire. This fashion continued into the reign of her heir, James I, whose fingers are often exaggerated in his portraits.
My favourite was still the Bacton Altar Cloth because it’s so unique. Here is a selection of the hand-embroidered motifs that cover it, all of which were stitched straight onto the fabric by very skilled needlewomen: birds, animals, insects and flowers. Whoever created them had great imagination!
The exhibition is on until 12th November if you’re anywhere near London and want to catch it.
Are you impressed by gold-embroidered and embellished items? Who doesn’t like a bit of bling, right?