For centuries, parishioners of St Faith’s in Bacton, England have retold the legend that the altar cloth in their church was once worn by a queen. Now one of Britain’s leading historians is convinced that it is the only surviving fabric of a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I.
Tracy Borman, joint chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, spotted the richly embroidered cloth by chance when she visited the church to research the life of Blanche Parry, who was born in Bacton and later became Elizabeth’s favourite personal attendant.
Parry is known to have been given clothing by her mistress and the design on the cloth is strikingly similar to that on a dress worn by Elizabeth for the Rainbow Portrait that hangs at Hatfield House, her childhood home in Hertfordshire.
Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, and commissioned by Robert Cecil, it was painted around 1600–1602, when the queen was in her sixties. In this painting an ageless Elizabeth appears dressed as if for a masque.
The silk cloth, embroidered with caterpillars, butterflies, squirrels, stags, frogs, flowers and rowing boats in gold and silver thread, is of such importance that for security and conservation reasons it has been removed from St Faith’s. It is hoped that it might eventually go on display at Kensington Palace for all to see.
The symbolism of the painting
The wings mean she was a messenger for her country.
The serpent represents wisdom.
The eyes and ears mean she saw and heard everything.
A jeweled serpent is entwined along her left arm, and holds from its mouth a heart-shaped ruby. Above its head is a celestial sphere. The serpent symbolizes wisdom; it has captured the ruby, which in turn symbolizes the queen’s heart. In other words, the queen’s passions are controlled by her wisdom.
The pearls symbolized Purity.
The ruby’s symbolized love.
Elizabeth’s gown is embroidered with English wildflowers, thus allowing the queen to pose in the guise of Astraea, the virginal heroine of classical literature.
Blanche Parry (Blanche ap Harry) (1507/8-1590), was the daughter of Henry Myles and Alice (Milborne) of Newcourt, Bacton.
She was introduced at Court by her aunt Blanche Herbert, Lady Troy, who was Princess Elizabeth’s Lady Mistress. Lady Troy provided a stable, happy environment for the childhoods of Elizabeth and her brother (later King Edward VI).
When Lady Troy retired (when Elizabeth was about 12 or 13 years old) she intended Blanche Parry to succeed her, but Elizabeth’s governess, Kate Ashley, was appointed. Blanche remained as second in the household until Kate Ashley died in 1565, and then she became the Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s Jewels (she had been in charge of the jewels since the reign of Queen Mary).
Blanche had supervised the rockers of Elizabeth’s cradle and regularly slept in the little girl’s room. As she rode with the Princess she was allocated food for her horses and stabling.
She remained single throughout her life and was so devoted to Elizabeth that she accompanied her to the Tower during Elizabeth’s imprisonment there.
For Elizabeth’s coronation Blanche was given 7 yards of scarlet, 15 yards of crimson velvet, 1¼ yards of cloth of gold yellow with work and ¾ yard cloth of gold black with work, which must have been made into truly beautiful dresses. Her salary of £33 6s 8d remained unchanged throughout Elizabeth’s reign.
Blanche was in charge of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Chamber (her “Head” Chamber), the Queen’s jewels, the Great Seal of England, and the Queen’s furs, books and personal linen. She received money on the Queen’s behalf, was a conduit for passing information to the Queen, channelled Parliamentary bills and acted as the Queen’s confidante.
She worked closely with Lord Burghley, her cousin. She may have helped with the publication finances of the Welsh Bible. Her unused monument in Bacton Church, dated before November 1578, is the first known instance of Queen Elizabeth being depicted as Gloriana, as an icon.
The inscription on the monument in Bacton church said: “With maiden Queen a maid did end my life”.
Blanche became blind in the 1580s but continued to live at Court. When she died she was buried at Saint Margaret’s Church, adjacent to Westminster Abbey. The Queen paid for her funeral which had the status of a baroness.
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