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EXQUISITE ALTAR CLOTH OR QUEEN ELIZABETH I DRESS?

A richly embroidered altar cloth, preserved in a small rural church in Herefordshire for centuries, has been identified by experts as a piece of a C16th dress, which may even have belonged to Queen Elizabeth I.

The cloth has been preserved in a glass case in St Faith's Church in Bacton, since its retirement from service over 100 years ago.

Bacton Altar Cloth

The Bacton Altar Cloth

For centuries, the cloth was rumoured to be connected to the Tudor queen through her servant, Blanche Parry.

Parry, who was born in Bacton, was one of Elizabeth I's most faithful servants.  She served for 57 years, from her initial role supervising the royal cradle rockers, to the much-esteemed position of Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber, at the time of her death.

Not only was Elizabeth I known for her lavish wardrobe, but also for her practice of gifting old garments to her confidantes.  Indeed, records show that Elizabeth regularly gave gifts of clothing to Parry, leading the people of Bacton to speculate for centuries that the altar cloth may have been a gift to Parry from Elizabeth I herself.

Recent examinations of the altar cloth by Historic Royal Palaces curators found that it was likely to have once formed part of a court dress.  It is made from cloth of silver - a textile that was reserved for royalty or those in the very highest echelons of the aristocracy.  Additional embroidery was found alongside the original floral embellishments, in a style typical of the type of embroidery undertaken by aristocratic Tudor ladies. Finally, the shaped seams at the back indicate that it was once a skirt panel.


Bacton Altar Cloth

Bacton Altar Cloth

Close-ups of the intricate embroidery, a style typical of aristocratic Tudor ladies

The confirmation that the cloth once formed part of a dress is exciting news, though the question remains as to whether this exquisite textile was once worn by Elizabeth I, as no documentary evidence has been found to suggest this.  However, a famous depiction of the queen, entitled the 'Rainbow Portrait' shows her wearing a strikingly similar fabric.  

Blanche Parry greatly admired her royal mistress, erecting a monument marking her loyal service to her at St Faith's.  Could it be that this devoted servant left a legacy of the Tudor queen for the future generations of Bacton residents to admire and worship?

The story of the cloth is revealed in a new book, 'The Private Lives of the Tudors', by the Historic Royal Palaces Joint Chief Curator, Tracy Borman.  She says: "This is an incredible find – items of Tudor dress are exceptionally rare in any case, but to uncover one with such a close personal link to Queen Elizabeth I is almost unheard of. We’re thrilled to be working with St Faith’s Church to conserve this remarkable object, which will now be further examined by our conservation experts at Hampton Court Palace, where we hope to be able to conserve and display it in future."