The Bacton altar cloth

Have you heard about the Bacton altar cloth? Also known as the lost dress of Elizabeth I? It’s a pretty exciting discovery in the worlds of both history and textiles that was on display at Hampton Court Palace until 23rd February 2020.

Length ways view of the Bacton altar cloth on display at Hampton Court Palace.
The Bacton altar cloth, aka lost dress of Elizabeth I, on display at Hampton Court Palace.

Since my Royal School of Needlework (RSN) studies are at Hampton Court, I’ve been lucky enough to see it a few times during my lunch break. Plus as a special treat I was able to join one of the RSN’s special classes that includes a private tour and talk with exhibition curator Eleri Lynn.

Eleri is the curator of historic dress for Historic Royal Palaces and the person who recognised the significance of the altar cloth. She is clearly very knowledgeable as well as passionate about the discovery. I could have listened to her for hours!

So what is the Bacton altar cloth?

Well, an altar cloth, obviously… But what makes it really interesting is that the fabric started life as one of Elizabeth I’s dresses. Making it over 400 years old. It is pretty much unique as a surviving piece of the Elizabethan royal wardrobe.

Let me share some of the fascinating facts that I learnt about the cloth…

Identifying the cloth as Elizabeth I’s dress

There were a few key bits of evidence that contributed to being able to say the cloth once belonged to Elizabeth I.

  • The altar cloth was found in the church of a village called Bacton, which is where Blanche Parry was from. Blanche was one of the people who was closest to Elizabeth. Having joined the royal household when Elizabeth was a young child, Blanche first looked after Elizabeth then grew into a lifelong confidante.
  • The quality of the fabric and skill of the embroidery implies a royal owner.
  • In the “rainbow portrait” of Elizabeth I, she is wearing a dress with similar fabric. This was a key bit of evidence needed to show that it was in fact worthy of the Tudor queen.
  • You can see signs of the pattern cutting required for a dress bodice within the altar cloth.
The rainbox portrait of Elizabeth I on display as part of the lost dress of Elizabeth I exhibition at Hampton Court Palace.
The rainbow portrait of Elizabeth I
Panels of Elizabeth I's dress sewn into the Bacton altar cloth. The diagonal cut and size of the piece is the same as would be used to cut a dress bodice.
In the left panel you can see evidence of the pattern cutting for a dress bodice.

A Tudor hi-vis status symbol

The base fabric is cloth of silver and some gold thread was used in the stitching. In Tudor times, what you wore at court was very dependent on your status. The higher up the status and power tree, the more sumptuous and colourful the clothing you could wear. A dress as vibrant and exquisite as this would have only been considered appropriate for the queen. All this ensured that in a crowded Tudor hall, Elizabeth would really stand out.

The dress shows the extent of the Elizabethan trade routes, with the cloth of silver coming from Italy and some of the thread dye from as far away as Mexico. No expense was spared. In fact, the whole thing would have been equivalent in value to a Tudor mansion!

Showing a number of large floral motifs and small animal motifs. The colours in this section of the cloth are the least faded.
The portion of the cloth where the colour has faded the least.
A photo of the reverse of the Bacton altar cloth that allows us to get a better idea of the original colours of the threads used.
This is the reverse of the altar cloth, which shows how much more vibrant the colours of the embroidered motifs were.

The stitching

I was surprised to learn that the embroidery was done by two different groups of people, about 10 years apart.

The dress originally just had the large floral motifs. These were stitched by a master embroiderer around 1590.

Normally, such motifs would first be stitched on a separate piece of fabric and then cut out to sew onto the main fabric as slips. So if you made a mistake, you didn’t damage your expensive fabric. However the motifs on this dress are stitched directly onto the super expensive cloth of silver. Essentially a display of exceptional skill (and confidence!).

Then around 1600, the smaller motifs were added. These were probably added by Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting to bring the dress up to date and make it fashionable again. The queen couldn’t be seen in last season’s style! These ladies in waiting would have been experienced embroiderers, although not quite at the level of the previous master embroiderer.

If you get to see the cloth, these smaller motifs are definitely worth a close look. There are lots of delightful animals to discover and some of the motifs even seem to follow on from each other to tell a story.

Close up of Bacton altar cloth showing a small bear motif in between larger floral motifs.
This bear was one of my favourite motifs.
A section of the Bacton altar cloth where the small motifs seem to connect to tell a story.
It’s a bit hard to see, but across the middle of this photo there are a series of small motifs that connect. First there’s a man in a boat, then a sea creature and finally an empty boat!

After Eleri’s talk, we enjoyed a class teaching us to stitch one of the motifs from the dress. During class we got to learn even more about the embroidery of the dress. Read about the motif stitching in this post.

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