A Medieval Swap Shop?: Medieval Embroidery Fragments in Worcester Cathedral Library

This blog post has largely been constructed from an article written by Maggie Perkins. For a full account of the embroideries, their background and this theory, see Perkins, ‘A Stole, Maniple and Four Other Embroideries in Worcester Cathedral Library’, Sixteenth Worcester Cathedral Symposium Report (March 2006), ed. Christopher Guy, pp. 3-11.

 

This week it felt as if Christmas had come early to the library. We received a precious package from the Victoria and Albert Museum, which contained two lots of medieval embroidery that had been on loan to them from Worcester Cathedral.

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David opens a package from the V&A. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The story behind the Worcester embroidery fragments is particularly intriguing. Among a number of treasures discovered by the Victorians as they worked extensively on the Cathedral were some pieces of medieval fabric that were recovered from unmarked tombs. The medieval tombs and effigies of the Cathedral have been opened and moved so often that it is difficult to be certain which ones the fabric came from. The first collection, referred to as the ‘Cantilupe fragments’ and traditionally thought to have come from the tomb of Bishop Walter de Cantilupe (d. 1266) was found in the wall of the north side of the quire in 1861. The second lot, known as the ‘Blois fragments’ and thought to be those of Bishop William of Blois (d.1236), was discovered in a tomb in the Lady Chapel in September, 1870.

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‘Cantilupe fragment’. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Although it may look rather dog-eared and unimpressive to the casual viewer, this scrap of fabric was once a part of a magnificent bishop’s vestment from the mid-thirteenth century, and has survived under the floor of the Cathedral for 750 years. Vestments are the liturgical garments worn by members of the clergy, which include a chasuble (a robe), a stole (a long band hung around the neck), and a maniple (an embroidered band that hangs from the left arm). These could have been made in an array of colours and styles of embroidery, which would have required a considerable amount of skill and expense. Often the most beautiful medieval vestments were handmade by royal women; for example, Queen Margaret of Scotland’s confessor said that she produced admirable church vestments, and Queen Gisela of Hungary was known as an accomplished embroiderer. Few others could afford the costly silks and gold and silver thread used to make the sumptuous garments.

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An example of bishops’ vestments from the Glossary of Ecclesiastical Ornament and Costume (1844). Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

When the tomb in which the ‘Blois fragments’ were discovered was excavated in 1870, it was found to have already been opened before; it contained the skeleton of a man in his burial vestments but it had been emptied of valuables and partly filled with post-Reformation “rubbish”. Two embroidered crosses have survived from the tomb, one from the maniple – which would have lain on top of the body –and one from the centre of the stole, which, being placed under the neck, is normally particularly vulnerable to decay and rarely survives. The fact that this fragment of the stole has survived may suggest that the corpse was not wearing the vestment when he was buried, and that the garments may have been laid, with great respect for their sanctity, within the coffin.

Although the ‘Cantilupe fragments’ do seem to date from the thirteenth century, the embroidery of the ‘Blois fragments’ was made in a remarkably different style. In 2006 they were examined by Linda Wooley of the V & A, who said: “The traditional dating of the fragment is to between 1190 and 1220, which obviously bears out a possible association with William de Blois. However, I consider that the fragments may also be of an earlier date, perhaps later 11th century”.

They are now thought to be Anglo-Saxon, which makes them some of the earliest surviving clothing fragments in the UK. There is very little from the second half of the 11th century to compare them with; one well known example of English embroidery which we can date to shortly after 1066 is the Bayeux tapestry. Some stylistic similarities between the two are evident: both show turreted arches over figures and feature a characteristic style of lettering, especially a curved ‘E’ and use of a ‘V’ for the letter ‘U’.

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A scene from the Bayeux tapestry. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

How, then, did these Anglo-Saxon vestments end up in the supposed tomb of a Norman bishop? Maggie Perkins has presented an intriguing theory that, firstly, the tomb was not that of William de Blois and, secondly, the vestments found in the tomb were not made for the current bishop but were handed down from St Wulfstan, who lived nearly two centuries earlier.

In the 11th century the spheres of religion and politics frequently overlapped. As well as being a highly respected church leader who did a lot for Worcester Cathedral and the wider Worcester diocese, St Wulfstan was held in high regard by Harold Godwinson, was spiritual adviser to King Edward the Confessor, and was confidante of King Malcolm of Scotland and his wife, Queen Margaret. As has already been noted, Queen Margaret was known for her production of fine church garments – it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Wulfstan’s burial vestments may have been made by such a royal embroideress.

The confusion of tombs, coffins and effigies in the Cathedral is well known, and the Lady Chapel altar seems to have been used as a focus for a post-Medieval rearrangement of effigies separated from their original coffins. One of the effigies, thought before to be Bishop Walter de Cantilupe, was attributed by Christopher Guy and Catherine Brain in 2005 to Bishop John de Constantiis (d. 1198). Records show that this Bishop of Worcester opened the tomb of St Wulfstan on the night of 6th September 1198 in the presence of the monks. The vestments and ornaments of Wulfstan were extracted from his tomb and deposited in one shrine, his bones in another. Although the Annals of the Monastery tells us that “The bones of the blessed Wulfstan which had been irreverently removed by night by John Constantius, Bishop of Worcester, were also replaced by night by the present Bishop, Mauger” in 1201, it doesn’t remark upon the whereabouts of Wulfstan’s vestments.

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Effigy attributed to John de Constantiis in the sanctuary of the Lady Chapel. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

The apparent muddle of tombs and effigies throughout the centuries has suggested that some of the tombs in the Lady Chapel may have been re-used by later bishops. Is it possible that John de Constantiis wished to confer sanctity upon himself by being buried in the old tomb of St Wulfstan, in pride of place in the Lady Chapel? Was the beautiful Anglo-Saxon vestment of one of Worcester’s most famous Bishops, perhaps embroidered by the royal hands of Queen Margaret of Scotland, buried in the coffin of the man who had dug them up in 1198?

Although there is no solid proof yet to confirm Perkins’ theory, the story that unfolds around these little scraps of old material – which may have been passed from queen to saint to bishop (and who knows who else along the way) – reminds us that the quiet stone walls of Worcester Cathedral hold many secrets, and who knows how many there are still waiting to be discovered.

 

Rosie Pugh

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