January 08, 2017 by: Ben Heimsath

The tradition of covering an altar with a special cloth goes back centuries. In September, I blogged about the importance of altar linens, and how the tradition began as early as the 4th Century. This past year, perhaps one of the most unique and important historic altar cloths was discovered. Curators had suspected it came from a garment once worn by Queen Elizabeth I, famous for her long and historically influential reign.

Victoria I dress Altar Cloth.jpg 

Up to the point of this discovery, there are no surviving linens from the English royalty of the 16th Century. Fabrics of the time were precious and were often passed on for generations or reused in other items like pillows. And, in the years after Queen Elizabeth, Oliver Cromwell sold off much of the monarchy’s possessions. But through a lucky series of events the Queen’s linen made it’s way to a small, rural church in Herefordshire, England. This week, the altar cloth’s provenance was confirmed, it is fabric from the Queen’s dress.

 Queen Victoria image I-915584-edited.jpg

Actually, the altar cloth had never been lost. The highly embroidered fabric served as a formal faire linen at St. Faith’s Church in Bacton for hundreds of years. At one point it was stored under the Vicar’s bed, presumably for safe-keeping. By 1901, the treasured cloth was finally retired and mounted on display among the church’s other treasures.

That’s where, just recently, the cloth was seen by an experienced archivist who noticed the patterns and suspected their origin. The distinctive shapes of the embroidery and the silver threads in the cloth pointed to 16th Century royalty. The pattern closely resembled one that was rendered in a famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Further tests confirmed the age of the fabric and with other detailed information, experts were confident enough to declare the altar cloth was, as one of them described it, “the Holy Grail of fabrics.”

St Faith's Church in Bacton.jpg

So how did Queen Elizabeth’s dress wind up on an altar in rural England? The township was the home of the royal’s favorite lady-in-waiting, Blanche Parry. She was known as a benefactor of the church and memorial to her is also among the church’s historic artifacts. It is clear now that the queen gave the garment, or at least the fabric, to Blanche Parry as a favor. Parry’s donation of royal fabric would have been a huge gift for the church. There’s no doubt the rarity and significance of the fabric would have been understood as a perfect way to honor the church’s altar.

Now undergoing conservation and restoration, the Queen Elizabeth fabric will soon be on display, back at home at Hampton Court Palace. Since this highly unusual artifact is connected to such a famous person, it is unlikely it will every be used again to grace an altar. But in my opinion, its use for centuries of worship makes it even more special.

Worship Space/ Liturgical Arts