The Lost Dress of Elizabeth I

Rare surviving piece of dress once worn by Elizabeth I currently on display at Hampton Court Palace alongside world-famous Rainbow Portrait

Following a three-year conservation project by Historic Royal Palaces, the spectacular Bacton Altar Cloth is on display at Elizabeth I’s former home this autumn, united for the first time with the iconic portrait in which it may once have featured

An elegantly embroidered altar cloth which may once have been part of a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I will is on display for the first time at Hampton Court Palace this October in an exhibition entitled The Lost Dress of Elizabeth I.  The ‘Bacton Altar Cloth’, discovered in a church in rural Herefordshire, is now considered to be one of the rarest survivals of Elizabethan dress in existence.  After undergoing extensive conservation work at Hampton Court Palace for the past two years, it is exhibited alongside a portrait of the ‘Virgin Queen’ featuring a dress of strikingly similar design.

The Lost Dress of Elizabeth I exhibition
(c)Historic Royal Palaces
David Jensen

The richly embroidered textile – named after the church in Bacton, Herefordshire where it was preserved for centuries – was identified by Historic Royal Palaces curator Eleri Lynn as being part of a high status sixteenth-century court dress back in 2016. The altar cloth has long been associated with Blanche Parry, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s most faithful servants who eventually became her Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber, and who was born in Bacton. Records show that Elizabeth regularly gifted her discarded clothing to Parry as one of her closest confidantes, and for years there was speculation that the altar cloth may have a connection to the Queen. On examining the textile, Lynn – an expert in Tudor court dress – was able to identify previously unseen features, studying the seams of the fabric to confirm it had once formed part of a skirt. 

Following the exciting discovery, Historic Royal Palaces – the independent charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace – agreed to commence a conservation programme to stabilise the fragile fabric in the palace’s world-class textile studio. Further examination of the cloth by experts has added weight to Lynn’s theory that it might once have belonged to the Tudor Queen.  Its creation from high-status silver chamblet silk, use of professional embroidery including real gold and silver thread, and distinct evidence of pattern-cutting all suggest that the item could have formed part of Elizabeth’s lavish wardrobe. The conservation team were also able to test the dyes within the fabric, discovering that it contained expensive Indigo and red dye sourced from Mexico – the kind of materials only available to a person a very high status.

Displayed alongside the altar cloth is the iconic Rainbow Portrait (c. 1600-1602), on loan from Hatfield House, which depicts Elizabeth I wearing a gown that bears a tantalising resemblance. On display for the first time ever at Hampton Court Palace, the portrait – attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger – was commissioned by Robert Cecil and is filled with symbolism including motifs of eyes and ears. Accompanying the painting will be a selection of rare domestic print books dating from the Tudor period, which would have provided inspiration for many of the embroidered motifs fashionable during Elizabeth’s reign – including those found on the Bacton Altar Cloth – brought together for the first time with other stunning embroidery work from the period. Unpacking the Virgin Queen’s now iconic style, the exhibition will explore the artistry and majesty of the Tudor wardrobe, Elizabeth’s inner-circle of women, how embroidery served as a way of female bonding at court, along with the fascinating world of secret symbols and Elizabethan codes. 

Eleri Lynn, Collections Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said “After three-years of painstaking conservation and research, we’re thrilled to finally be putting this exquisite object on display at Hampton Court Palace, Elizabeth’s former home. To have an item of Tudor dress with such a close link to Queen Elizabeth I is extraordinarily rare, and we are very excited to display the Bacton Altar Cloth next to the legendary Rainbow Portrait, with its prominent similarities to the fabric of the cloth itself.”  

The Lost Dress of Elizabeth I will run from October 12, 2019 until February 23, 2020 at Hampton Court Palace, on loan from St Faith’s Church, Bacton.  

For more information and images, please contact Sophie Lemagnen in the Historic Royal Palaces Press Office: sophie.lemagnen@hrp.org.uk/ 0203 166 6304

Historic Royal Palaces is the independent charity that looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and Hillsborough Castle and Gardens.  We help everyone explore the story of how monarchs and people have shaped society, in some of the greatest palaces ever built. We raise all our own funds and depend on the support of our visitors, members, donors, sponsors and volunteers. With the exception of Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, these palaces are owned by The Queen on behalf of the nation, and we manage them for the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Historic Royal Palaces cares for Hillsborough Castle and Gardens under a separate contract with the Northern Ireland Office. Registered charity number 1068852. For more information visit www.hrp.org.uk

All information is shared courtesy of Hampton Court Palace and Historic Royal Palaces.


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