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?
But it's not really a 'once in a lifetime discovery'. The story portrayed in the video is something of a fantasy. I chanced upon Bacton church in 2012 and the altar cloth was displayed on the wall in a large glass fronted frame and clearly labelled with a history of the piece. The description was clear about the possibility of it being Elizabeth I's dress and the painting of Elizabeth wearing what could be the same cloth was shown for comparison.
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