Elizabeth I’s only surviving dress to go on show

By Public Domain, Wiki Commons

She dressed to impress, using clothes and jewels as a way of establishing her power as she fought and succeeded in making monarchy a woman’s job and now what’s thought to be the only surviving gown worn by Elizabeth I is to go on display. The silver fabric that was once used by Gloriana herself will be on show at Hampton Court Palace from this autumn.

The cloth in question spent centuries in a small church in the English countryside before experts began research which led them to the conclusion it must once have been worn by Elizabeth I. And over a century after a vicar first argued that the material, covered in intricate gold and silver embroidery, had once belonged to the queen, its link to Bess and her fabulous court has been proved.

The cloth itself is no longer shaped as a dress. For centuries, those who ruled England were supporters of the ultimate form of royal recycling as they passed on their faded clothes to those who served them. Little medieval or Tudor royal clothing actually survives as monarchs, princes and princesses handed down what no longer suited to those around them who did they same once they themselves had finished wearing them. Once priceless outfits, used to demonstrate power and wealth, could end up as bedcovers as the material continued to be put to use.

It’s thought that the silver chamblet silk, about to go on display at Hampton Court, was sent to Bacton in memory of someone very dear to Elizabeth. For years, she was served by a woman called Blanche Parry who acted as Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber to Elizabeth. The queen was known to have passed many clothes on to Blanche who had looked after her since her earliest years and who retired to the village of Bacton as she entered old age. The dress was turned into an altar cloth which ended up in Bacton parish church where Blanche had also commissioned a memorial to herself underlining her service to Elizabeth who is shown in the monument as the glorious Virgin Queen.

In 1909, the rector of Bacton, Charles Brothers, made the first claims that the material was in fact a gown once belonging to Elizabeth I. After much research, that theory has been accepted. In 2016, experts from Historic Royal Palaces which looks after Hampton Court, began the delicate process of restoring and preserving the fabric for display. This autumn, visitors will get a chance to see it on show in Elizabeth’s former home.

The material will sit next to a famous painting of the queen in which she wears a gown bearing a striking resemblence to the Bacton Altar Cloth. The Rainbow Portrait, loaned by Hatfield House, is one of the most famous images of Elizabeth from the later part of her reign. It was commissioned by Robert Cecil, one of her chief advisers, and it’s filled with symbolism including the use of eyes and ears on her outfit denoting that the monarch heard and saw all that went on around her. The new exhibition will allow visitors to compare the painting with the material for the first time.

The exhibition opens on October 12th 2019 with admission included in the ticket price for Hampton Court. It runs until February 23rd 2020.

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Lydia is a writer, blogger and journalist. She's worked in the media for over twenty years as a broadcast reporter, producer and editor as well as feature and online writer. As well as royals and royal history, she's a news junkie and podcaster.