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18/06/2017: The Bacton Altar Cloth

Last Friday I attended a service of rededication and songs of praise in honour of the altar cloth at St Faith's church, Bacton, in Herefordshire. That might sound a bit weird, but this was something that had to be done because the altar cloth in question isn't the original one, it's a facsimile - the original is at Hampton Court being restored by a team of textile specialists, a job which will apparently take something like 1000 hours (or 18 months)!

Some of you may have already heard the story of how this altar cloth was discovered last year and was found to be something extraordinarily special. For over a hundred years it had hung on the wall of St Faith's, a tiny village church that dates back to the 1500s, and before that it had been used to cover the altar until a new, bigger one, was installed.

It looked like nothing more than a grubby piece of material, in dull and faded colours, and cut into a strange T-shape. Most of the parishioners probably hardly glanced at it whenever they attended a service.

St Faiths and Bacton village are, however, connected with royalty, sort of. Queen Elizabeth I's 'Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber' and confidante was someone called Blanche Parry, and she was born in this tiny village. She wanted to be buried there too, but the queen decreed otherwise and kept her in London (she's buried at St Margaret's, Westminster), so St Faith's has a monument to her instead, which she'd commissioned herself, thinking she was going to retire there. And at some point, probably after Blanche's death, the little church was also given an amazing gift - the altar cloth. Except that's not what it was originally.

A local historian and some of the parishioners eventually realised that it hadn't always been an altar cloth, and textile expert Eleri Lynn, curator of historic dress at Historic Royal Palaces, now believes it was part of one of Queen Elizabeth I's dresses. Possibly even the skirt of the one she is wearing in the famous Rainbow Portrait. Because when the material was sent for restoration, it was discovered that it's made from cloth of silver with the most exquisite and detailed embroidery, all done on this one piece of material. (In Tudor times, apparently most embroidery was done on separate pieces which were later affixed to the clothing, but that wasn't the case here). The wearing of cloth of silver was restricted by law at that time (the sumptuary laws) and only the monarch herself or immediate members of the royal family were allowed to use it. Since the material dates from the last decade of the sixteenth century, that meant only one person could have owned it - Elizabeth herself. There were no other royals at that time.

Eleri Lynn attended the rededication service and told us how finding this piece of one of Elizabeth's dresses was, to her, like finding the Holy Grail. She said that if anyone had ever asked her what she would most like to find, this was it. There are hardly any pieces of clothing left from Tudor royals, only what is assumed to be one of Henry VIII's hats. Of Elizabeth I's vast wardrobe there was nothing until now - so this is the only surviving item. Eleri had brought along another facsimile of the altar cloth, which we were allowed to take a closer look at after the service. It was fascinating to see the botanical pattern up close. She also showed us photos of some parts which have been restored already, and the difference was incredible! Instead of the dull and faded colours, there were the most vivid blues, greens and yellows. Amazingly beautiful!

The piece of cloth will eventually go on display when it has all been restored (a massive job, as I said) and I can't wait to see it in all its glory. It's going to be magnificent!

I love when discoveries such as these are made - so exciting!

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