For me, the appearance of the Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace has been a highlight of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Joined by members of her family, including her great grandchildren, she clapped at the spectacle of more than seventy aircraft performing a flypast above. Her delight was evident when the RAF typhoons made a surprise formation, positioning themselves into the number 70 to mark the 70th anniversary of her Majesty’s reign. Earlier that morning, a crowd of thousands had gathered in the Mall enjoying the spectacular Trooping of the Colour ceremony with its magnificent horses and immaculate soldiers, the latter resplendent in their red tunics and bearskins, marching in perfect time and order. However, all eyes were waiting to catch a glimpse of the Queen, this remarkable woman, who has dedicated her life to the service of her country over her long reign.

Naturally enough, there was much interest in the outfit that the Queen would choose to wear on this historic day. When she appeared on the balcony, the speculation was over. The Queen was wearing a dusky dove blue Charmelaine wool dress and jacket, which perfectly matched the colour of the sky on this sunny June morning. It was embellished with a pearl and diamante trim around the neckline, which cascaded down the front of her coat. She paired the look with white gloves and a matching hat with a turned up brim that was likewise, embellished with a pearl and diamante trim.

Interest in the dress of a Queen is nothing new. Monarchs have always used fine clothes to dazzle and attract attention, none more so than our Queen’s predecessor and namesake, Queen Elizabeth I. Back in 2019, I read an amazing story about a dress that had once belonged to Elizabeth I. Remarkably, it had ended up as an altar cloth in a tiny parish church in Herefordshire, where it had been on display for centuries. How did it get there and what was the proof that it really was one of Elizabeth’s dresses? It all started when an expert in Tudor fashion, Eleri Lynn, spotted a photograph of the altar cloth at St Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire. In 1909, the church had decided to frame this sacred altar cloth and mount it above the pews in the church.

Bacton Altar Cloth restored June 2019,_Bacton).jpg

Lynn, an expert in Tudor fashion at the Historic Royal Palaces, thought that the cloth was late 16th century in origin and arranged to view it in person. Closer examination revealed the quality of the material, the Italian silver silk, and the stitching of exquisite embroidery, which unusually, had been stitched straight onto the fabric. Analysis of the dye used revealed that cochineal from Mexico and indigo from India had been used. The cloth was T-shaped and had been pieced together from panels of various sizes. Incredibly, the silver thread alone would have cost as much as a substantial house at the time it was made. Under Sumptary Law, silver thread was reserved only for members of the royal family. It could only have been worn by the richest of ladies and no one was dressed as finely as Elizabeth I. She had forbidden the ladies of the court to dress too elaborately, so no one else could compete with her grandeur.

Despite the lavish wardrobe of Elizabeth I, not one dress of hers is believed to have survived. However, due to the existence of many portraits, we know something of her dresses. In particular, the Rainbow Portrait, was of particular interest to Eleri Lynn. The dress Elizabeh was wearing in this painting was decorated with floral motifs, embroidered caterpillars and butterflies, along with hunting and fishing scenes: these were also depicted on the altar cloth. This famous portrait is dripping with symbolism: the rainbow Elizabeth is holding signifies her celestial power, the serpent represents wisdom, the pearls, her purity, and the eyes and ears on her cloak, her vigilance. After three years of study and conservation at Hampton Court, experts concluded that the altar cloth had indeed been fashioned from a dress, similar to the one that Elizabeth wore in the Rainbow Portrait. The question is how did it arrive in a small village church in Herefordshire?

A close up of the left-hand-side of the Bacton Altar Cloth, showing mistletoe, roses, peas in the pod, and various animals like a deer, birds and caterpillars.

A lady at court, who was Elizabeth’s first lady of the bedchamber, was a woman named Blanche Parry. She had never married and had been devoted to Elizabeth, being by her side for fifty six years as her personal courtier. As a favourite of Elizabeth, she would have been the recipient of gifts from her mistress and crucially, she was a native of Bacton. At first it was considered that Parry might have donated the dress to the church but since she died in 1590, prior to the portrait being painted, that possibility was ruled out. The most likely theory is that the Queen, or one of the ladies at court, sent one of her finest dresses to Bacton in memory of Parry.

The Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I dated ca. 1600-1602

The Bacton Altar Cloth is now on display at Hampton Court Palace where it can be admired by visitors. This physical piece of evidence, along with the portraits of Elizabeth I in all her regal finery, give an idea of the huge impression that the Queen must have made on her subjects when they were in her presence, just as her Majesty, Elizabeth II still does today. However, at this point you may be wondering what this remarkable story about an altar cloth and its provenance, (however interesting), has to do with family history? Is there something that we can take away from this as family historians? Many of us are custodians of heirlooms that have been passed down to us in the family. Some of these objects in our homes may be beautiful and even of great monetary value whilst others may be ordinary but precious because of their significance in our family history. Although we may know who they belonged to and the story behind them, is this information going to get lost in the future? What are we going to do to preserve the story, as well as the artefact or treasure, so this too can be valued and appreciated by future generations. It’s something to think about!

© Judith Batchelor 2022

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