As It Happens

Remnants of Queen Elizabeth I's sole surviving dress discovered in a rural church

For centuries, a rural church in England housed a lost Tudor treasure without anyone even knowing it.

The silver in the material was 'worth as much as a Tudor mansion,' says royal historian Eleri Lynn

Curator Eleri Lynn examines the altar cloth made from a dress that belonged to Elizabeth I of England. (Historic Royal Palaces/David Jensen/St Faith’s Church Bacton)

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For centuries, a rural church in England housed a lost Tudor treasure without anyone even knowing it.

Eleri Lynn was researching for her book, Tudor Fashion, when she came across the image of an altar cloth in Herefordshire, England, four years ago.

Intrigued, she paid a visit, and ended up discovering what is believed to be the sole-surviving dress of 16th-century monarch Queen Elizabeth I — or at least, some of it. 

"We know in our research … that the amount of silver in this object was worth as much as a Tudor mansion," Lynn, the collections curator at Hampton Court Palace, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "So we really are looking at a real treasure."

The restored cloth is on display in the palace until February, for a special exhibit called "The Lost Dress of Elizabeth the I."

Dress unparalleled to others of the 1590s

When she first saw the T-shaped altar cloth at St. Faith's Church, Lynn said that she "immediately" thought it might be a dress worn by Elizabeth I.

"The real clincher was that it was embroidered on cloth of silver, and in Tudor times cloth of silver was reserved for the immediate members of the royal family," she said.

Evidence of pattern cutting showed that it used to be a dress. With its embroidered flowers and vegetation in silk, silver and gold, Lynn says she had never seen such high-quality stitching from the 16th century — meaning that only one person could have worn the material.

"At the time that this dress dates from, Elizabeth was nearing 70 years old and, in fact, she guarded, very jealously, all the finest fabrics and dresses for herself," Lynn said. 

A close-up of the Bacton altar cloth. (Historic Royal Palaces/David Jensen/St Faith’s Church Bacton)

The Virgin Queen was fond of her male courtiers, and did not like having other women at court swaying their attention, she said.

"Most of the other women who were allowed to be there were quite elderly ladies or were women who were expressly told to dress down so as not to incur the wrath — the wrath of the rather sort of notoriously mercurial queen," Lynn said.

"It's very unlikely that Elizabeth would have granted permission for anybody else to have worn something like it."

Only known surviving dress out of 2,000

While the former Queen's wardrobe housed some 2,000 luxurious dresses upon her death, none were known to have survived until now. Much of her clothing burned during the Great Fire of London of 1666 in a royal storehouse.

"The fact that this has survived really makes it a unique piece and a fantastic window into the past," Lynn said. 

The dress likely made its way to the village of Bacton because it was the birthplace of Blanche Parry, Elizabeth I's first lady of the bedchamber, Lynn said. Parry was beloved by Elizabeth I and received many gifts from her.

The altar cloth survived centuries due to the care it received as a sacred object by the parishioners.

When Lynn told the church that their cloth was formerly a dress worn by Elizabeth I, "their faces went slightly white," she said.

"They always knew that their cloth was special. Local tradition had that it was associated somehow with Blanche Parry and with the court of Elizabeth I," she said.

"But they thought that … Hampton Court Palace was full of things like this. They didn't realize how rare it was."

Lynn said that "they were very pleased" about the treasure and were happy to let the conservators borrow and work on the cloth. A replica currently hangs in the church.

A 'labour of love'

Although the cloth was in good condition, a thousand hours of research and restoration were still required. The canvas backing was starting to pull and tear at the silk.

"We removed the canvas and carefully stitched it onto a new special silk backing," Lynn said.

"But the stitching was done with a monofilament thread, which is roughly the same sort of dimensions as a human hair and done with surgical needles. 

"So you can imagine that doing that very carefully and precisely took a very long time."

This altar cloth is a key piece in a new exhibit at Hampton Court Palace called The Lost Dress of Elizabeth I. (Historic Royal Palaces/David Jensen/St Faith’s Church Bacton)

The thread dyes were also telling of trade at the time — Mexican cochineal red, indicating evidence of some of the first luxury commodities being traded across the Atlantic, and Indian indigo that travelled via Portugal.

"At a point in the conservation … we removed the backing and saw the unfaded colours on the back for the first time, and that was really quite incredible because they were really vibrant — almost neon kind of yellows and greens," she said.

To conservators, the work has been a "real labour of love."

"They've actually now spent as much time conserving it as the original embroiders took to make it in the first place," she said. "We've now become a part of its history as well."

In its case at a palace where Elizabeth I once walked the hallways, the cloth's threads sparkle and glitter in the lights.

"To think about how that must have looked, being worn at court 400 years ago with the silver sort of glistening in the light, wearing this kind of fantastically embroidered cloth of silver," Lynn said.

"You'd have been in no doubt that you were looking at the Queen."

Written by Chelsey Gould. Produced by Sarah Cooper. With files from Katie Geleff and Morgan Passi.


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