There’s rare and there is the only surviving item! Elizabeth 1 is such a famous part of our history that I assumed we had many examples of her gowns tucked away in the royal collections. But it seems that is not the case and her finery has been lost in the centuries since her death in 1603, until something happened! The Bacton Altar cloth, which has just gone on display in Hampton Court Palace, may just be the missing piece of history.
A small church in rural Herefordshire was home to an altar cloth which was made of very fine cloth and featured the highest quality embroidery. For years it was in daily use but the church realised it was something special so it was put into a frame which helped preserve it from being handled. The locals in Bacton thought that this beautiful cloth was special as they knew of a connection with a local woman called Blanche Parry, who enjoyed the extraordinary title of Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber. She was a close confidante and trusted servant of Elizabeth.
Royals had to dress extravagantly to impress all those around them, from visiting dignitaries to rivals at court, dressing less than the best in the room and even wearing the same outfit twice was not done so clothes were passed on once they had an outing. Elizabeth passed on her clothes and Blanche was one of the lucky recipients. So this was the first clue in the quest to find out more about this cloth.
The quality of the cloth and the standard of the embroidery were the other clues. Laws of the day reserved the best materials for the the highest in society and it doesn’t get higher than a queen. The Bacton Altar Cloth has silver in the fine silk cloth and the embroidery had gold and silver thread depicting animals as well as plants. The value of just this piece in its day was huge and would have been the equivalent to the cost of a substantial house.
The Collections Curator from the Historic Royal Palaces, Eleri Lynn, visited the church in Bacton and her trained eye spotted evidence of pattern cutting in the fabric which told her it had been an elite court dress. The cloth was brought to Hampton Court Palace where the team devoted 1,000 hours to its restoration and it is now on display with a number of items giving us context.
Looking closely at the cloth you can see bears, deer and beautiful flowers exquisitely sewn into the shining silver cloth. Just imagine how bright the colours would have been back in the late 1500s. Pinch yourself to recall that this very cloth was most likely worn by Elizabeth 1, the Tudor queen!
As you view the cloth, your eye travels to a portrait of Queen Elizabeth 1 on the wall behind the display case. This is the famous Rainbow Portrait, on loan from Hatfield House, a former home of Elizabeth before she became queen. This painting shows her wearing some extraordinary finery full of symbolic meaning and a bodice which bears a striking resemblance to the Bacton Altar Cloth.
Due to the fragility of this historic cloth, it will be on display until 23rd February 2020 at which point it will go into safe storage at Hampton Court. So, hurry if you want to see it for yourself. The display is in a small, darkly lit room which preserves the cloth and gives it a sense of mystery which fits this precious cloth.
Hampton Court Palace is a magnificent, historic building and well worth a visit at any time but this display might be just the incentive you need to go soon. It’s a huge place so allow at least a half day and ideally most of a day to visit the palace and gardens and even get lost in the famous maze!
Check out the Hampton Court website for more information about the palace and the Bacton Altar Cloth: https://www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace
Full disclosure: the Bacton Altar Cloth is free to see as part of your entry to the palace. I was invited to preview this new display by the Historic Royal Palace team, as is customary in the travel industry. This has not affected my views but I like to be transparent about my posts.