One of the things I like to do both when I am giving tours or merely pottering around the countryside in my own time is to stop off an explore village churches. Each one is a veritable box of delights and you can never tell what you will find inside. Almost always there will be something of interest inside and you can get to tell a lot of the history of the village and surrounding area when you learn how to read a church properly.
Often they have quite unique features or even treasures as a result of an unexpected historical blip or wealthy benefactor centuries ago. Sometimes you find something really special in an isolated church, miles from anywhere. The locals unaware of the significance of an item that has been an ever-present for centuries or even longer and the church never having been visited by anyone with the knowledge to make the discovery.
Over the last year or so, something of a major discovery has been made in the sleepy village church of Blacton in the rural county of Herefordshire.
As with most church altars, they are covered in beautiful cloths, sometimes, embroidered, often ancient and intricately designed. Like pew cushions, wall hangings and other items in churches, they are often recycled and put together by local parishioners. The Altar cloth at Blacton though has been found to have an extra special heritage.
Eleri Lynn, curator of historic dress at Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), first discovered the cloth hanging on a wall in the 13th-century church of St Faith, Bacton, last year.
The botanical pattern on the cloth bears a striking resemblance to that on a bodice worn by Elizabeth in the so-called Rainbow Portrait of 1602 and Ms Lynn believes it is “not inconceivable” that the skirt, which cannot be seen in the painting, is part of the same outfit.
The country’s leading experts on royal garments have spent the past year piecing together clues about the provenance of the beautifully embroidered textile, which had been cut up and used for hundreds of years as an altar cloth in a Herefordshire parish church.
They say all the evidence points to it having once been a skirt worn by the Tudor queen, making it the only known survivor of her famously lavish wardrobe.
The story of how the cloth came to be hanging in a glass case in the church is almost as fascinating as the fabric itself.
Ms Lynn explained: “We have 10,000 items of clothing and accessories in storage here, including many items worn by kings and queens, but there is almost nothing from before the reign of Charles II.
“In Tudor times, clothing was so expensive that it would be passed on from one generation to the next, or taken apart and reused for something else, like cushion covers.
“On top of that, Oliver Cromwell sold off every item of clothing in the royal stores, so the only things we have, including a hat which might have been worn by Henry VIII, have come back to Hampton Court after they have survived elsewhere.”
It was while researching a blog on Welsh connections to the Tudor court that Ms Lynn came across the Bacton altar cloth and paid a visit to the church.
She said the embroidered design, featuring roses, daffodils and other flowers, was typical of the late 16th century, and noticed straight away that it was made from cloth of silver, which, under Tudor sumptuary law, could only be worn by the monarch or immediate members of the royal family.
The connection to St Faith’s made sense because its parishioners included Blanche Parry, Elizabeth’s favourite lady-in-waiting, to whom she is known to have given clothes.
Animals embroidered on the cloth, including butterflies, frogs, squirrels and caterpillars, were added at a later date, and Ms Lynn’s team discovered an illustration of a bear in a book published in 1594 that exactly matches a bear embroidered on the fabric.
When St Faith’s realised the importance of the find, it loaned the altar cloth to HRP, which is about to undertake an 18-month restoration, unpicking stitches from a crude Edwardian renovation and sewing it on to a new backing cloth.
It will then be displayed in its rightful home in the Tudor palace of Queen Elizabeth I, Hampton Court Palace which you can visit with myself at Ye Olde England Tours as indeed you can to her childhood home at Hatfield House where amongst other things, you can see the fabulous painting of the Tudor monarch.