One source for embroideries that survive from the 13th century is seal bags. These bags were used to protect the delicate wax seals attached to legal documents throughout the medieval and early modern period.
In the Monument Room of Westminster Abbey is a document dated 26th November 1280 to which is attached an embroidered seal bag depicting the Royal Arms of England and protects the Great Seal of Edward 1. This is the only example so far known of wool inlaid work surviving from medieval England.
The stitches used are split stitch and surface couching. The central motif is the arms of the crown of England, three lions of yellow on a red shield. It is surrounded by a scrolling vine and trefoil design. This pattern appears on both sides of the bag. The edges of the bag are decorated with tassels.
The main fabric used in the bag is twill wool (green for the ground, red for the shield and yellow for the lions). It is lined with a blue linen fabric. The various details, such as the eyes, talons and foliate design are all worked in split stitch using silk thread.
The technique used for the design is intarsia, a form of applique. In this technique the design is cut out of the fabric and a contrasting piece of fabric inserted into the gap. In this case, the red shield is inserted into a shield shaped cut in the green wool ground and the yellow lions are inserted into cut outs in the shield shape, so that there are not three layers of fabric in the finished design, but only one. Then each shape is outlined using linen cord. This type of technique is used in similar secular items of the period and is used elsewhere in Europe, especially in Scandinavia.
TRIVIA – A love story in stone
Edward I was born in the Palace of Westminster on 17 June 1239, the eldest child of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence, and was baptised in the Abbey. His nickname was “Longshanks”, being 6 feet 2 inches tall, and he is chiefly remembered for his battles against the Welsh and the Scots and for his legal reforms. In 1296 he brought to the Abbey the Stone of Scone, on which Scottish kings had once been crowned, and made a special oak Coronation Chair to enclose it. The Stone was returned to Scotland in 1996 and is displayed in Edinburgh Castle.
In October 1254, aged just 15, he married Eleanor (Leonor), daughter of Ferdinand III, King of Castile and Leon, at Las Huelgas.
Arranged royal marriages in the Middle Ages were not always happy, but available evidence indicates that Eleanor and Edward were devoted to each other. Edward is among the few medieval English kings not known to have conducted extramarital affairs or fathered children out of wedlock. The couple were rarely apart; she accompanied him on crusade and military campaigns.
Their household records witness incidents that imply a comfortable, even humorous, relationship. Each year on Easter Monday, Edward let Eleanor’s ladies trap him in his bed and paid them a token ransom so he could go to her bedroom on the first day after Lent; so important was this custom to him that in 1291, on the first Easter Monday after Eleanor’s death, he gave her ladies the money he would have given them had she been alive. Edward disliked ceremonies and in 1290 refused to attend the marriage of Earl Marshal Roger Bigod, 5th Earl of Norfolk; Eleanor thoughtfully paid minstrels to play for him while he sat alone during the wedding.
Eleanor’s death left Edward deeply affected, in a letter of January 1291, seeking prayers for the soul of his late wife, he wrote “whom living we dearly cherished, and whom dead we cannot cease to love.” In her memory, he ordered the construction of twelve elaborate stone crosses, known as the Eleanor Crosses, tall, pointed, highly ornamented monuments (of which three survive) marking the route of her funeral procession between Lincoln and London.
From St Catherine’s Priory in the south of Lincoln, the cortege took 12 days to reach London and between 1291 and 1294 for each place where the procession rested overnight an Eleanor’s Cross was erected. The stopping places were at Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, the Delapre Convent at Hardingstone, Northampton, Stony Stratford, Dunstable, Waltham Abbey, Cheapside and Charing Cross (deriving from chere reine cross- dear queen cross). The only remaining piece of the St Catherine’s cross left in Lincoln is housed in Lincoln Castle but there are three crosses remaining at Geddigton, Hardingstone and Waltham, replicas exist at other places.
Edward remarried some ten years after her death, he and his second wife Margaret of France, daughter of Philip III of France, named their only daughter Eleanor in memory of her. He delighted in the sons his new wife bore, but attended memorial services for Eleanor to the end of his life, Marguerite at his side on at least one occasion. Edward I was succeeded in 1307 by Eleanor’s only surviving son Edward of Caernarvon.
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