In this week’s blog, fashion historian, Challe Hudson, explains how not even the lockdowns of 2020 could stop her group of fellow textile scholars from researching the Bacton Altar Cloth; a Tudor textile which some scholars propose might be the sole surviving dress of Queen Elizabeth I. From identifying plant species to analysing the exquisite needlework, BACstitch (Bacton Altar Cloth Research Group) continue to unpick the many mysteries of the magnificent altar cloth through online collaboration.
Although Covid lockdowns mostly negatively impacted the world, the imposed restrictions accidentally caused a team of Tudor costume, textile, and art scholars to coalesce around the question: what can we learn about Elizabethan textiles and culture from study of the Bacton Altar Cloth? More than two years later, members of BACStitch still hold weekly virtual research meetings, have published our first article (Unpicking the Bacton Altar Cloth: innovative methodologies for interpreting embroidered textile artefacts, page 132), and continue discovering secrets in the stitches.
In 2019 the newly restored Bacton Altar Cloth (BAC) went on display at Hampton Court Palace as the focus of the exhibition “Elizabeth I’s Long Lost Skirt”. (See In Glistening Glory for the story of this rare textile.) I visited the exhibit multiple times and, due to my interest in Tudor dress, photographed it extensively.
After Covid closed museums and made much travel and research impossible, the Medieval Dress and Textile Society turned to online meetings, and member Christine Carnie suggested that a small group of us share our photos of the Bacton Altar Cloth. Pretty pictures alone make an unsatisfying presentation, so we attempted to identify all the botanical species represented on the BAC, to give us something to discuss while we admired the stunning embroidered motifs.
This was not a straightforward task.
In her 2017 article The Bacton Altar Cloth: Elizabeth I’s ‘long-lost skirt’? Eleri Lynn named fourteen species; could we identify others? Many we named without hesitation, such as the red and yellow lilies, elaborate stylised columbines, and three-colour pansies. Some made us question our assumptions about the botanical accuracy of the designs; was that actually a primrose depicted with flowers and leaves emerging from branching stems, not from a basal rosette, as the actual plant grows? Probably yes; the motif designer reworked the ground-hugging leaves and long-stemmed blossoms of the primrose to match the branching arrangement that worked so well to depict the peapods, roses, and mulberries.
We also sought to understand what key features of plants an Elizabethan viewer would have used to identify these motifs, and even how they would have defined species. Luckily, numerous primary sources have been digitised online, allowing us to browse through early modern texts and images from home. BACStitch member Cynthia Jackson had drawn Lynn’s attention to the similarity of the plant motifs to those depicted in the 1586 printed pattern book by Jacques Le Moyne. The copy of this book held at the British Library even has holes where the outlines of some patterns have been pricked, allowing some long-ago person to transfer the pattern to their work. Studying these images helped us to realise, for example, that the tree on which the cheeky squirrel scampers bears not short, rounded hazelnuts, but the more ovoid filbert, hidden in a longer and tighter husk.
Only some species resemble those in Le Moyne’s pattern book; where might the BAC designer have drawn inspiration for the others? We studied pattern books published in Italy, France, and Germany, but found the designs too stylised to match the plants on the BAC. The printing press also made books on natural history available to a wider audience, and their illustrations could be adapted for decorative arts. We searched through sixteenth century herbals written by Leonard Fuchs (1542), William Turner (1551), John Gerard (1597) and others. This helped us to recognise plants common in Elizabethan gardens but with which we were less familiar, such as the quince and medlar, and also to identify plants such as the yellow rose and asian clematis that, while commonplace to us, were not introduced to England by the sixteenth century. Perhaps the yellow rose on the BAC was stitched based on a description of the plant newly cultivated in Vienna, but the flower that looks like a clematis continues to perplex us, as they weren’t introduced to Europe from Japan until the nineteenth century. We recognise about 37 different species on the BAC, although it is hard to define species in this context; are a yellow lily and a red lily both worked in the same outline the same or different species? Although we have names for most plants, some fruits and flowers are indistinct enough to defy precise identification, and others (like the clematis) are too outlandish to possibly be correct.
While attempting to name the species, we also pursued other questions, hoping that some clue might help to further establish the story and timeline of this textile. We searched for any polychrome or botanical motifs on clothing in portraits, attempting to find possible similar garments other than the Rainbow Portrait, but found few matches; botanical motifs usually repeated in a precise pattern, while the BAC species seem almost randomly scattered. We studied the embroidery on photographs of extant objects, searching for items worked directly onto silk (of which we found very few), and with stitches resembling the seed stitch worked in needle-blended colours employed in the BAC botanical motifs. Were the professionally worked botanical motifs stitched in England, or abroad? Could the patterns, so similar to those printed in London, have been sent to workshops in France, Italy, even India or China? Group members tackled different aspects of our investigation and searched the collections databases of museums such as the Victoria and Albert, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Burrell Collection, recording observations including thread colours, construction materials, motif types, and identifiable botanical species. Although many species on the BAC matched those we found commonly on sweet bags, coifs, and embroidered domestic furnishings, the BAC had far more, and more unique, species than contemporary textiles.
Since BACStitch members are scattered across two continents, we met weekly via video calls, and pooled our collected resources on a shared Google Drive. After lockdown eased we met in person, first at St Margaret’s in Westminster, where we visited the grave of Blanche Perry, whose close connections to Elizabeth’s court most likely brought the BAC to Bacton. Later we travelled together to Hampton Court Palace to see and photograph the BAC while it was being prepared for display in another exhibition. Eventually we arranged an excursion to Bacton, Herefordshire to see the place where the altar cover had hung for the past century and the tomb Blanche originally intended for herself, and to meet and share our research with some of the parishioners.
The further we unpick the mysteries, the more questions we discover. We wanted to know what the fabric looked like before being cut, so I digitally manipulated images of the BAC to separate the pieces and realign cut and rearranged motifs, filling in the seam allowances with similar motifs where possible. We wanted to know what kind of needlework skill was necessary to embroider using these techniques and materials, so Cynthia, a professional embroiderer, attempted to recreate some of the motifs. We are searching for other examples of similar silk and silver fabric, trying to determine how this kind of textile was used, when, and by whom so that we can better envision exactly how the original fabric of the BAC was cut, draped, and used. Our most recent shared project is studying the smaller embroidered motifs that had been worked amongst the botanical motifs later by skilled, though probably not professional, embroiderers. We are attempting to determine the thread colours and stitch techniques of all these tiny animals, water creatures, birds, trees, and insects. Some stitch techniques are so imaginative that they defy all the stitch names that we know.
The BACStitch Group’s work on the Bacton Altar Cloth is far from complete, and despite the collective hundreds of hours we have spent poring over detailed photographs of its designs, we continue to discover surprising new details. Through this study we are slowly gaining a better understanding of both professional and amateur Tudor embroiderers, the passion of the early modern elite for gardens and exotic botanicals, and the many ways that precious textiles could be adapted, improved, and repurposed over their lifetime.
Thanks are due to the curators of Historic Royal Palaces for arranging access to the Bacton Altar Cloth and for sharing their photographs and reports, and to the Parish Church Council of St Faith’s, Bacton, Herefordshire for permitting study of their treasured embroidery.
Hudson, C., Jackson, C., Bramwell-Booth, N, Carnie, C., and Worrall, J. 2022. Unpicking the Bacton Altar Cloth: innovative methodologies for interpreting embroidered textile artefacts. Archaeological Textiles Review (64): 132-137. https://www.atnfriends.com/download/ATR_64_complete_webversionFINAL1.pdf
Website of The Bacton Altar Cloth Research Group (Challe Hudson and collaborators): www.bacstitch.org
Website of Tudor Embroidery: An investigation of the art of the anonymous 16th century embroiderer (Cythia Jackson): https://tudorembroidery.com/
Bramwell-Booth, N, 'Speaking Stitches, Laughing Flowers: an emblematic reinterpretation of the Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I', the University of Hertfordshire, 2019: https://nataliebramwellbooth.com/speaking-stitches-laughing-flowers-an-emblematic-reinterpretation-of-the-rainbow-portrait-of-elizabeth-i/
About the author:
Challe Hudson is an independent researcher specialising in late medieval and early modern English fashion. She has a masters in Science Education from North Carolina State University focusing on museums studies and a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Biology from The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. With over 25 years of experience as a costumed living historian she has researched and recreated clothing from multiple eras, cultures, and social classes. She is currently studying the depiction of Tudor women’s fashion preserved on church monuments, effigies and monumental brasses. She is the Webmaster of the Medieval Dress and Textiles Society and a member of the Monumental Brass Society Council.
From online talks to in person events, from blog posts to grants and awards, here at the Costume Society we champion community and strive to bring like-minded people passionate about the textile and fashion history together. Become a member today!
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The Bacton Altar Cloth, conserved and mounted for display at Hampton Court Palace. Image credit: Challe Hudson
A mysterious flower resembling an asian clematis, from the side of the Bacton Altar Cloth. Red and yellow roses grow on the same bramble, from the top of the Bacton Altar Cloth. Image Credit: Challe Hudson
The filbert tree and squirrel on the front of the Bacton Altar Cloth, surrounded by birds, insects, and caterpillars. Fruits and vegetables on the Bacton Altar Cloth surrounded by birds, insects, and caterpillars. Image Credit: Challe Hudson
Fruits and vegetables on the Bacton Altar Cloth surrounded by birds, insects, and caterpillars. Image Credit: Challe Hudson
The primrose motif on the top of the Bacton Altar Cloth, surrounded by additional embroidered motifs representing an aquatic scene, caterpillars, and golden trees. Image Credit: Challe Hudson
Red and yellow roses grow on the same bramble, from the top of the Bacton Altar Cloth. Image Credit: Challe Hudson
Cynthia Jackson explaining some of the BACStitch Group’s recent research to a curator during a visit to the store rooms at Hampton Court Palace. Image Credit: Challe Hudson
Tomb monument of Blanche Parry, chief gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth I, in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. Image Credit: Challe Hudson
Challe Hudson visiting the tomb erected by Blanche Parry in the church of St Faith, Bacton, Herefordshire, depicting Blanche and Queen Elizabeth I. This tomb was not used for her burial because the queen herself paid for a second memorial to Blanche and her interment in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. Image credit: Cynthia Jackson.
The parish church of St Faith’s, Bacton, Herefordshire, where this altar cloth was preserved for so many years. Image Credit: Challe Hudson
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