A centuries-old altar cloth from a rural English church turned out to be the ‘lost dress’ of Elizabeth I, and it’s set to go on public display

An altar cloth that turned out to be part of a gown belonging to Elizabeth I is going on display at Hampton Court after undergoing an extensive conservation treatment.

A lost dress that once belonged to Elizabeth I will star in an upcoming exhibition at Hampton Court Palace this autumn after lengthy conservation work saved it for the nation.

Fabric from the gown emerged a few years ago, almost by chance. It was found in the tiny church of St Faith’s, in Bacton, Herefordshire, where it had been used as altar cloth and preserved for centuries.

Bacton was the birthplace of Blanche Parry, one of the Elizabeth I’s servants, who rose in the ranks to become her Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber and local lore had it that the St Faith’s altar cloth was somehow linked to Parry and Gloriana.

And indeed, when Historic Royal Palace (HRP) curator Eleri Lynn examined the cloth, she discovered seams that showed it had once been part of a skirt. Importantly, the richly embroidered fabric, which features deer, flowers, plants and even lowly caterpillars, also looked remarkably similar to the one used in the gown that Elizabeth I wore in her Rainbow Portrait, commissioned by Robert Cecil and thought to have been painted between 1600 and 1602 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, which depicts the Queen in all her glory.

The fabric found at St Faith's Church in Bacton resembles the gown Queen Elizabeth I wears in The Rainbow portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

The Bacton altar cloth resembles the gown Queen Elizabeth I wears in The Rainbow Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Credit: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photos

Further investigation by the Historic Royal Palaces also revealed that the cloth, made of silver chamblet silk, was dyed with indigo and a rare red dye from Mexico and embroidered with real gold and silver thread, all of which pointed to it having originally belonged to someone of the highest status.

It is now thought to be the only surviving example of Elizabeth I’s dresses. It may have made its way to St Faith’s Church because the Queen gifted to Blanche Parry or sent to Bacton to commemorate her servant after she died.

Another great surprise for the HRP curators — almost as great as finding a remnant of the Queen’s gown four hundred years after her death — was the discovery that the intricate embroidery had been done directly on the hugely expensive fabric, which was extremely unusual (and risky!) at a time when needlework was generally done on cheaper material that was then appliqued to the more expensive ones.

An altar cloth found in Bacton turned out to be a remnant of a gown belonging to Elizabeth I

The altar cloth found at St faith’s church was intricately embroidered, © Historic Royal Palaces Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton

Although it had been kept safe behind a glass case in Bacton, the fabric, say HRP, required ‘urgent conservation’. It took three years of work at Hampton Court Palace’s textile studio to stabilise and restore the fabric.

Now that the cloth’s future is secure, HRP are holding an exhibition to celebrate the extraordinary finding. Elizabeth I’s lost dress, on loan from Bacton’s St Faith’s Church, will be the centrepiece, alongside the Rainbow Portrait, on loan from Hatfield House.

The Bacton altar cloth is thought to be a remnant of a gown belonging to Queen Elizabeth I

The fabric required three years of conservation work, © Historic Royal Palaces / Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton

‘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,’ says Ms Lynn.

‘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 two showpieces will be surrounded by other striking examples of 16th-century embroidery and by a selection of books that would have provided inspiration for the motifs found on Tudor dresses. Together, they will provide an insight into the Tudor Court, the women who lived and worked there and the secret symbols that the rich embroidery work often represented.

The Lost Dress of Elizabeth I will open on October 12, 2019 and close on February 23, 2020 at Hampton Court Palace.