The Bacton Altar Cloth. What the experts didn't notice.
I sewed Queen Elizabeth's dresses for over 25 years
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The Bacton Altar Cloth is a mystery. This priceless relic is thought to have been made from a dress belonging to Queen Elizabeth 1.*
It was found in the lovely St. Faith's Church in Bacton several years ago. It was restored by Historic Royal Palaces and can be seen there Here . For a great detailed explanation by an expert in weaving and embroidery go to Natalie Rachel Walkers website.
I am going to state emphatically the Bacton Altar Cloth was made from one of Queen Elizabeth's dresses. I am going to provide you with solid proof and tell you what isn't known about it from memories I have of a previous life when I was Anne Vavasor who was a chamberlady to Queen Elizabeth. For over 15 years I was in charge of making Queen Elizabeth's dresses including the dress that the Bacton Altar Cloth was made from.
-I am going to show you what hundreds if not thousands of people have looked at but not one of which noticed and reported.-
The dresses of Queen Elizabeth had an incredible unreported detail to them. We sewed between and next to the threads in the cloth and not just haphazardly through the cloth when embroidering her dresses. All the embroidery on her dresses was done this way. She was the only person known to use this extremely highly precise and expensive woven embroidery.
This is absolute proof that the Bacon Altar Cloth was made from one of Queen Elizabeth's dresses.
For example look at the close up (above) drawing of the piece of cloth on the right. You will notice that the threads of the embroidery go around the individual threads of the weave and not just stabbed through it. The embroidery is literally woven within the weave of the cloth itself! I have arrows pointing out a stitch that is one thread long and three that are two threads long.
It made for an extremely flat, tight and low profile uniform weave/embroidery.
We had to gently work the needle between the threads in the weave! Do you realize just how incredibly difficult and time consuming it is to sew between the threads of the weave of a piece of cloth? I sewed like this for thousands of hours and it was a pain. Finally after about 17 years of sewing like this my eyes gave out and I had to assign the job to someone else.
I read up a bit on the different analysis of the Bacton Altar Cloth and can find no other reference to this highly precise type of woven embroidery. Nobody noticed it except yours truly so I must have been Anne Vavasor, chief seamstress and chamberlady to Queen Elizabeth I in a previous life. People have noticed that the embroidery is directly sewn into the dress (not separately and then sewn on) but nobody else has noticed that the embrodery is woven into the cloth.
Now for some details. How many seamstresses did Queen Elizabeth have working on her dresses? Usually there were about two dozen. They were all needed. You can do the math. Remember that she had over 3000 dresses but she made about 4000. There was from 500 to 1200 hours work invested in each dress. She reigned for 45 years (1558-1603). That works out to be about one dress every 5 days and it actually took that long to make each of them. We usually worked on about 6 dresses at a time. We had each one on a round table at which up to 12 people could embroider at one time.
When I started out working for the queen as a novice I embroidered animals. There were three of us that did mainly animals. A senior seamstress and two novices. I worked my way up to senior seamstress then I was placed in charge of all embroidery and finally in charge of her majesties entire sewing operation which I headed for over 15 years.
One reason for doing embroidery this way is that the weave of the cloth formed a matrix like the dot matrix of the screen that you are now looking at. That made each object eminently reproducible. For example a dogs nose might be 5 threads long by 3 threads high on either a sketch (made on paper with cross hatches) or copied from another dress. This way a whole dog could be easily identically reproduced 100 times over and even upside down by a novice. In a way Queen Elizabeth invented pixels!
The sewing room buzzed with the shouts of women "Is that 5 long by 3 high or 4"?. It was pretty loud in that room. Often times four people were trying to talk simultaneously.
The main reason for sewing between the threads is that the embroidery could be easily removed without damaging the dress. Once you push a needle through a thread of the cloth and drag along with it more thread then the cloth is damaged and looks horrible to a queen. There is no way to avoid that damage without embroidering by going through the spaces between the weave. This was mainly done with the very expensive silver and gold cloth with real silver and gold incorporated into the fabric. Queen Elizabeth preferred silver cloth as it shimmered in the light more than the gold whenever she moved. In a hall full of people she stood out like no one else.
She was a sea of light. It's nearly impossible to describe the direct effect this shimmering wave had on people but I will try. The various countries would send ambassadors to negotiate treaties or trade agreements. They would step off the boat not having seen a woman for up to two months and be taken directly to see Queen Elizabeth. She would immediately descend from her throne shimmering in all her grandeur with the sun reflecting off her gorgeous dress which in turn accentuated her perfect figure. Everyone would be in awe. The men would often faint. The rest of the visitors would stand there looking like fools, half with their mouths agape. We kept a running count of the men who proposed to her on the spot. Even men who were known to previously deride her wanted to marry her once they had laid their eyes on her Majesty. She would gently take the ambassador by the hand over to her throne and a servant would bring him a pre selected chair that made him not quite as high as she was...but as it was the only other chair in the room it made him feel special. They would sit and talk and within five minutes every man felt like he knew her completely. You got lost in her most beautiful eyes which shown out into yours in childlike wonderment and joy in equal measure. Time evaporated and an hour became as two minutes and two minutes stretched into an hour.
If this did not convert the ambassador then her bird treatment would do so every time.
What did you need to become one of the queens seamstresses? You had to show up at the front entrance of the palace with excellent eyesight, a note from your vicar stating that you were 14 years old and a sample of your work. The guard would send for the chamberlady Anne Vavasor (me) and if she was not busy she would come down immediately. If Anne felt that you would work out then she would send your work up to the queen for her quick assessment and approval while she got the girl about 15 pounds of food including a roast and a cooked chicken as a gift. When was the last time that you went on a job interview and walked away with 5 days of food whether you got the job or not?
Women from all over Europe would vie for these few position. Some women took classes for up to three years. After an apprenticeship of a few years as one of the queens seamstresses they could work anywhere in the world for twice or three times what the average seamstress made. That is how you got to work on the queens dresses. There were usually about 30 but sometimes over 100 applicants for every position but Anne found work for many of the others including making costumes in the theater and as cooks.**
Queen Elizabeth's clothes are not the only things that got embroidered. Everything did. It was said that if you stood still in the palace for more than five minutes you got embroidered. Sir Francis Drake was partial to lions. For Burghley it was horses and large trees. But he said he really liked going to the mainland because there he didn't have to deal with embroidery.
Everything was embroidered. Pillows, blankets, tapestries and banners, we did them all. Hand towels were stolen so often that we automatically embroidered 10 a week. This was planned for by Queen Elizabeth. The countries of Europe thought the English inept and without culture...country bumpkins. Imagine the wife of a visiting ambassador showing her friends back at home a stolen English towel with embroidery that put every woman in their country to shame. Oh, those ambassadors wives were an envious lot.
I can't figure out what the theme and the story of this dress was. At first I thought it was one of Queen Elizabeth's dresses devoted to the New World but then I noticed a peacock which is native to the Indian Subcontinent. Those New World dresses, of which there were at least six are what she wore when the Spanish envoy was in town. It was her way of staking an English claim to the new world. Because there is a bear we know it isn't about England. Notice that the plants are all different. There are about 70 of them and they show the core of the stem just like in a scientific study. They were likely taken directly from a botany book of the time (which is exactly what I used to do). Anyone seen the book that I copied these patterns from? Hey, when you are in charge of embroidering several thousand unique dresses for the queen you start to run out of ideas and take short cuts.
The plants on the altar cloth (left) are displayed in the same manner as about half of the plates in the 'Tudor Herbal 1520' (right) with their stems cut at an angle and without their roots. However, none of them seem to be copied from that particular herbal. It's pretty obviously from a later herbal printed in the second half of the century. All other herbals of the time except the Tudor Herbal show the roots of the plants but I only have access to the few herbals that are on the internet. It would not surprise me if the book it came from is still in a London Library. Unfortunately we have a dearth of London libraries here in the Arizona desert. Let me put it out there that this would be a good project for someone. Why, they might even be able to milk it for a masters thesis. I'd like co author credit.
Now for the rest of it. The sailors are in a monster filled North Atlantic. It may be a Bible story. She had a bunch of Bible themed dresses for church. Maybe it is the New World and the peacock got accidentally added. I think it was a dress of plants that got the animals added to it when it 'stood still in the palace for more than five minutes'. On second thought this dress, when it had on it just plants, was probably one of the dresses that the queen found boring as she often did or as we might say 'in need of bling'. As such a second theme, a little travelogue, was added consisting mainly of animals from around the world.
I have it. Most likely this dress, before the animals were added, was what she wore when mushroom and herb collecting. It served as a handy field reference for her and her attendants. Before she was 50 Queen Elizabeth often organized outings with her court and sometimes it was to gather herbs. She quit the outings after she became 50 because of Spanish assassination and kidnapping plots. Since the dress was no longer needed 'in the field' it may have then been modified.
I remember years later (as Anne) when I was taking communion I looked over and almost fell down laughing when I noticed that the purificator was made from a dress that I had worked on.
I only want to clarify and justify the great things the monarchy has done for the UK and the world. Specifically, the great things that were done during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and the first part of King James's. More will be added to this web page as I remember it.
If you would like to read more of my memories of Queen Elizabeth's clothing and her quintuple entendre to parliament.
Here is the story behind the mystery of her Ermine Portrait at Hatfield House. It's wickedly funny.
Geez. I spent over 15 years sewing this way and these days nobody even notices. It's kind of weird feeling as though I wasted 15years in a previous lifetime.
*Realize that the Anglican Church was new in the early 1600's. Catholicism and all things Catholic were still seen as a threat. So the Catholic Saints had to go along with their relics but there were few Anglican Saints and almost no Anglican relics to replace them with.
However the people were used to venerating Catholic relics so in their absence the people and the Church of England felt that a substitute was needed. For being the head of the church and for all that she had done the clerics and population felt that Queen Elizabeth was a saint. The Anglican Clerics hounded Queen Elizabeth half to death for even spoons she had eaten with. Something had to be done.
Queen Elizabeth had quit riding regularly when she was about 63 years of age having been an avid sportswoman all of her life. By 65 she had enough of a spread that about half of her dresses no longer fit 'comfortably'.
Finally, I think it was in about 1599 when none of her chamberladies could find a single comb for her hair that about 50 of her ill fitting dresses were ordered to be altered into about 300 'relics' and were then sent out to various Anglican Churches. They were sent to churches all over England and even to the Isles and in Scotland (four churches in Edinburgh). Soon the queens combs and brushes stayed around for longer than a month.
There may be one of these converted dresses in the Hatfield Chapel. I am pretty certain that I put some relics that were curtains in there.
That is how a dress belonging to Queen Elizabeth ended up becoming an altar cloth in Bacton. The main point being is that the Bacton Altar Cloth was not a 'one off' item. There are probably still quite a few dresses in churches having been changed into not just altar cloths but also vestments, vestment linings, curtains, chalice veils, etc. These were all made from the very best of Queen Elizabeth's dresses. They were in no way discards or seconds. They were of the same absolute highest quality as the Bacton Altar Cloth and I think they were mainly of silver cloth. Probably to match the silver chalices, patens, etc.
I'll bet there are some in the storage rooms of the Church of England. Unless they were stolen for the silver and gold content then many of them should still be around. I mean as sacred objects you couldn't sell, give or throw them away.
**Novice cooks (and servers) were often hired from the women who applied for jobs other than as cooks such as seamstress. Since a cook or server could easily poison the queen we made certain to hire women who didn't come looking to be a cook or server. The wannabe seamstresses worked out perfectly as we knew they were not sent as spies or assassins yet they wanted to work for the queen.
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