Altar cloth may be last surviving Elizabeth I gown
A piece of fabric described as the 'holy grail of fashion history' will become one of the star attractions at Hampton Court Palace after it was identified as the only surviving piece of clothing worn by Queen Elizabeth I.
Leading experts on Tudor 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.
Eleri Lynn, curator of historic dress at Historic Royal Palaces, first discovered the cloth hanging on a wall in the 13th-century church of St Faith, Bacton, last year.
"When I saw it for the first time I knew immediately that it was something special," she said. "As I examined it, I felt as though I had found the holy grail, the Mona Lisa of fashion. None of Elizabeth I's dresses are known to have survived - but everything we have learnt since then points to it being worn by Elizabeth."
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 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 said: "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."
It was while researching a blog on Welsh connections to the Tudor court that Ms Lynn came across the Bacton altar cloth. 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.
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. It will then be displayed in Hampton Court.