Altar Cloth in Rural Church May Be Rare Segment of Elizabeth I’s Gown

Historic Royal Palaces
Historic Royal Palaces / Historic Royal Palaces

A British historian may have found the only surviving garment from Queen Elizabeth I’s legendary wardrobe. The gown was not discovered in a museum's basement, nor the home of a private collector, but rather hanging on the wall of a country church.

Members of St. Faith’s Church in the village of Bacton have long held that their fine altar cloth (that’s how the gown had been used) was a relic of Elizabeth’s reign. But rumors of the cloth’s provenance had stayed within the community until Tudor historian Tracy Borman visited the church. Borman was in Bacton looking for information about Blanche Parry, the Queen’s Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber.

As one of Elizabeth’s most intimate companions, Parry helped the queen into and out of her resplendent gowns and jewels. The queen had rooms filled with finery and would frequently pass on her used clothing to beloved ladies-in-waiting, including Parry. But wearing the queen’s dresses, even used ones, was taboo, so her attendants often cut up the gowns and gave them away or sold the pieces. Of all Elizabeth’s clothing, not a single piece has been found—until now.

It’s likely, Borman says, that the St. Faith’s Church altar cloth was such a gift from local-born Blanche Parry. The altar cloth itself is made of a fabric called cloth of silver, which was made by twisting hair-fine strands of real silver together with silk threads. The cloth is beautifully embroidered with flowers, plants, and all kinds of animals, and it appears to have been cut from the panel of a skirt.

Image Credit: Historic Royal Palaces

For further evidence of the cloth’s royal provenance, St. Faith’s parishioners point to Elizabeth’s famous Rainbow Portrait, in which the proud queen is wearing a gown of strikingly similar material.

Image Credit: Unknown artist via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Borman, who is also joint chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, was elated with her discovery. “This is an incredible find,” she said in a press statement. “Items of Tudor dress are exceptionally rare in any case, but to uncover one with such a close personal link to Queen Elizabeth I is almost unheard of. We’re thrilled to be working with St. Faith’s Church to conserve this remarkable object, which will now be further examined by our conservation experts at Hampton Court Palace, where we hope to be able to conserve and display it in future."

Charles Hunter is church warden of St. Faith's Church. "The altar cloth is one of our greatest treasures," he told the Daily Mail, "and we have been trying for many years to find out more about it. We're looking forward to getting all the relevant agreements in place, so that HRP can conserve the altar cloth and look after it for us."