The Bacton Altar Cloth

The Bacton Altar Cloth is an extraordinary example of what appears to be very high quality English late 16th or early 17th-century embroidery, in polychrome silks and gold wrapped threads worked upon a cream-coloured silver chamblet silk (or cloth-of-silver). This textile, which may once have formed part of a garment of some kind, has been cut and reworked at some point in its long life into the form of an altar cloth, which for many years performed its service at the church of St Faith’s in the small town of Bacton, in Herefordshire. It was later removed from the altar and framed behind glass, and hung upon the wall of the church to be admired by visitors. Such visitors included Janet Arnold, who wrote about the Altar Cloth in her magnum opus, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, in 1988, and in 2015, Eleri Lynn, curator for Historic Royal Palaces.

The Bacton Altar Cloth (maker unknown, thought to be English embroidery originally made c. 1590 – 1610, owned by St Faith’s Church, Bacton, Herefordshire) on display with the ‘Rainbow’ Portrait at Hampton Court Palace in October 2019. (The ‘Rainbow’ Portrait of Elizabeth I, attributed to Isaac Oliver or Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c. 1600, Hatfield House, Hertfordshire). (Photo credit: Natalie Bramwell-Booth).

Lynn oversaw the relocation of the Bacton Altar Cloth from Bacton to the conservation studios at Hampton Court, where extensive cleaning and conservation took place. The Altar Cloth went on display to the public at Hampton Court in October 2019, alongside the ‘Rainbow’ portrait of Elizabeth I, on loan from its home at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. The opportunity to observe both the painting and the textile close together gave viewers a chance to see first hand the striking resemblance between the design of the embroidery on the cloth, with that of the bodice the queen wears in the portrait.

A close-up of the embroidered bodice of the ‘Rainbow ‘Portrait. It shows a similar design to that of the Bacton Altar Cloth, (pictured below), featuring motifs of flower and plant cuttings of various species, placed in rows, upright, upon a cream or ivory ground. (Photo credit: Natalie Bramwell-Booth)
The surface of the Bacton Altar Cloth, as it appeared when on display to the public in October 2019. The surface of the silver chamblet has been worn completely through in places, showing the conservator’s cloth beneath. (Photo credit: Natalie Bramwell-Booth).

The original beauty of the Bacton Altar Cloth is clear, even though the surface has faded and much of the ground fabric has suffered the effects of time. However, a better sense of the original vibrancy of the coloured silks of the embroidery can be seen on the back of the fabric. Here much of the original colour of the embroidery threads is preserved, having been hidden from sunlight and protected from wear.

The back of the Bacton Altar Cloth. Here we can see some of the original colours of the embroidery, and can also enjoy an insight into some of the working methods and techniques employed by the embroiderers who created it. (Photo credit: Natalie Bramwell-Booth).
This close-up shows the use of two different coloured threads drawn through the same needle, to achieve some of the gradual shading in tone or ‘needle painting’ effect that we can see in on the surface. (Photo credit: Natalie Bramwell-Booth).
In this close-up, the vivid colours of the indigo-dyed silk threads are evident, but so is the lavish amount of thread that has been left at the back of the embroidery. A more thread-saving technique, which can be found in examples of other embroideries from the period, used a form of detached buttonhole stitch to fill in areas of colour, such as the petals and leaves of flowers. This helped to keep most of the valuable silk on the surface of the work, where it would be seen. (Photo credit: Natalie Bramwell-Booth).
The Bacton Altar Cloth (Photo credit: Natalie Bramwell-Booth)

The Bacton Altar Cloth is a truly fascinating and beautiful textile survival, which will be explored on this site and over at Adventures in London with Challe Hudson as part of the Medieval Dress and Textile Society’s Bacton Altar Cloth study group over the next few weeks and months…so stay tuned for more.

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