A stitch in time: masterpieces of English medieval embroidery

Jenny Davenport marvels at all the astoundingly intricate works of medieval English embroidery in Opus Anglicanum, a major exhibition on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London


‘Everyone attests to the great needlecraft of English women in gold embroidery’ – so writes the Norman historian William of Poitiers. The term Opus Anglicanum was never actually used in England but it is used in inventories, fiscal accounts, correspondence and histories found elsewhere in Europe to refer to the embroideries associated with English embroiderers, particularly in the period 1250-1350. According to the catalogue that accompanies Opus Anglicanum Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery, a sumptuous exhibition currently on show at Victoria & Albert Museum, it referred specifically to ‘a combination of embroidered figural scenes, gold backgrounds, pearl and rich decoration’.

England’s fame for embroidery dated from Anglo-Saxon times. St Etheldreda of Ely (636-679) was said to have made vestments for St Cuthbert and spectacularly beautiful examples of later (circa 909-916) fragments of vestments buried with him and are no on show in Durham cathedral.

1 and 2. The Syon Cope, embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread and coloured silks in underside couching, split stitch, cross stitch and plait stitch and couched work on linen, 1310-20, England. H. 150.5cm. W. 305cm. Victoria and Albert Museum. BELOW Detail with Archangel Michael (centre), saints and seraphim.

As early as 1098 an English embroidered cope was described at the Council of Bari. This exhibition has brought together works commissioned from as far away as Holar in Iceland in the north and Madrid and Toledo in the south.

At its height Opus Anglicanum seems to have represented an international status symbol, the epitome of magnificence suitable for ecclesiastical gifts, particularly to Popes. We know of two copes given by Edward I to Popes in the 1290s. One of them, The Vatican Cope, is displayed in the exhibition. Other treasures, like the Bologna Cope, were given by Popes to Churches associated with their earlier lives or their families.

3. The Whalley dalmatic. Body: polychrome silk elvet cloth of gold, with borders of voided silk satin velvet brocaded with gold thread and coloured silks. Orphreys: embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread and coloured silks in underside couching and split stitch with a little raised work, on linen, 1420-35, England. H. 120cm. W. 86cm (shoulders). Burrell Collection, Glasgow.

But it seems that England’s predominance in embroidery faded after 1350, perhaps never recovering after the Black Death, which is likely to have hit the craftsmen particularly hard, concentrated as they were in the St Mary le Bow area of St Paul’s in London. There are still some lovely examples of later work in the exhibition, like the panel on the Fishmonger’s Funeral Pall (11), dating from circa 1512-1538, but much of it is less elaborately or expensively worked, with quicker surface couching, for example, replacing underside couching and satin stitch replacing rows of split stitching. The value of the materials used, in particular the jewels embedded in the embroidery, especially pearls, and the gold thread – actually usually silver gilt – has contributed to the loss of many opus anglicanum vestments. It seems that the work could be stripped down or even, in the case of the goldwork, burnt to extract the wealth from the materials. For example, the worn-out chasubles and copes of Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury (circa 1005-1089) were reduced to ashes in 1371-3.

But there are also moving stories of how some of the finest ecclesiastical embroidery in England survived the Reformation. The Syon Cope (1 and 2), for example, was smuggled out of the country by Bridgettine nuns in 1559 and taken to Flanders, France and Portugal. It was returned to England, with them, only when the order was restored in 1810. The Whalley vestments (3, 4 and 5) were saved by the recusant Sir John Towneley at the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s and continued to be used by priests of the Towneley family.

4 and 5. Details from the Whalley vestments showing the Virgin and Child and a Nativity scene (below).

It is believed that only 19 Opus Anglicanum copes survive. Alastair Macleod, Chairman of Hand & Lock, the embroidery company who have sponsored this exhibition, estimates that each of them is likely to have taken about 50,000 hours of work. He says this would represent between five and six years’ work for four people, which leads us to wonder about the lives of these embroiderers and the economics of the industry. In fact we know little about those who made, designed, sold or commissioned these projects, but there is some surviving evidence.

6 and 7. The Bologna Cope, embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread and coloured silks in underside couching and split stitch, with laid and couched work, on two layers of linen, 1310-1320, England. H. 149cm. W. 326cm. Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna. Detail from the Bologna Cope showing the Garden of Gethsemane (below).

It seems that by 1200 at the latest that there were professional workshops, and that work was no longer done solely in domestic settings or convents. We actually have the names of some of the embroiderers from contracts which survive. A certain lady named Mabel of Bury St Edmunds is perhaps the best known. Her name appears at last 24 times in the household accounts of Henry III (1216-72). While noted in the expenses of Thomas Copham (linen-armourer to Edward III)) for a pair of haunchers for a horse in 1330 names four draftsmen, 10 male and six female embroiderers who worked on the commission. Needless to say the male embroiderers were paid more than the women: 4¼d per day compared with 2¾d.

It is clear that some of these large commissions required considerable sized enterprises to manage them. The Guild of Embroiderers was not granted its Charter until 1561. Possibly the lack of incorporation played into the hands of merchants. In 1246 the English monk and chronicler Matthew Paris (circa 1200-1259) writes of London merchants selling embroidered vestments to the Cistercian abbots of England ‘at whatever price they chose’ after the Pope had requested them.

8. A page from the De Lisle Psalter, ink and pigments on parchment, circa 1320 (before 1339), England.
H. 35cm. W. 23cm. British Library, London.

The 13th-century politician Adam de Basing, Lord Mayor of London from 1251-2, seems to have been involved in financing and commissioning works and the sums involved were considerable because of the cost of the materials.

9. The Toledo Cope, embroidered with silver-gilt thread and coloured silks in underside couching and split stitch on two layers of linen, 1320-30, England. H. 169cm. W. 322cm. Tesoro de la Catedral, Museo de Tapices y Textiles de la Catedral, Toledo.

Although some work, such as the Bologna Cope (6), was done on linen, much of it was on silk. Silk threads had to be imported from Asia, via Italy or Paris. The gold thread was made by winding a slender metal strip around a silk core; such work was highly skilled and inevitably expensive. Materials for an altar-frontal for Westminster Abbey in 1271 showed the materials, including thread, pearls and other jewels costing £220 (about £120,000 in today’s money), while the labour of four women for 3¾ years was an additional £36.

10. Detail from the Toledo Cope, showing Edward the Confessor trampling on an unknown unfortunate.

Much of the value of the finished items of course came from the design as well as from the quality of the workmanship. Again we know little about who actually designed opus anglicanum works. There is evidence of considerable cross-over between embroidery design and other art works. Figures of saints in The Clare chasuble (1272-94) bear a strong resemblance to those in the Oscott Psalter of 1265-70; the positioning of figures in incredulity of Thomas in the Syon Cope (1310-20) is uncannily similar to the wall-painting in the South transept of Westminster Abbey (circa 1270-1290). It is possible that the patrons commissioning an artist for the wall-painting might have turned to an established artist to design the embroidery, too. There is evidence of this practice in Spain, but none that we know of in England.

We do know, though, that professional artists were employed by the royal court to ornament or design a range of artefacts from painted walls to chairs, saddles and carriages, so it seems likely that they would also have designed items which were embroidered such as decorated clothing, horse-coverings etc. As with so much in medieval art, it seems that the artists will remain anonymous. But at least we can enjoy their works.

11. Detail of a mermaid from the Fishmongers’ Pall, embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread and coloured silks in split and satin stitch, with couched and raised work, on linen; figures worked on separately then applied, 1512-circa 1538, England. L. 232cm. W. 55.9cm. The Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, London.

The highlights of this exhibition are the copes. As you enter the exhibition, in the very first room, is the Bologna Cope (6) dating from between 1310-20. It would be worth visiting for this alone. Like many of the copes it tells a story in a sort of strip cartoon fashion. The bottom row is the story of the nativity of Christ and the top one the story of the last week of his life, death and resurrection. These copes were worn during processions at the great Church festivals, so it seems fitting that the two great festivals of Christmas and Easter should have had their stories told. I do wonder, however, how visible the detail would have been to the congregation standing in the nave of a dark church. Quite apart from not being able to see the exquisite detail, the fact that the cope was being worn – as opposed to displayed in a large glass case – must have made much of it invisible from the back.

12 and 13. Panel showing the Tree of Jesse and a detail of the head of King Solomon, embroidered with silver-gilt thread and coloured silks in underside couching, split and tent stitch with raised, laid and couched work, on linen, 1320-35, England. L. 158cm. W. 45.5cm. Musée des Tissus, Lyons.

Fortunately, we can see the detail and each panel has its own delights. The garden of Gethsemane scene (7) shown here comprises just one of the 19 panels of the Bologna Cope. Each of the figures surrounding Christ is an individual and we can recognise in the foreground the story of one of Jesus’s followers cutting off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. Surrounding the main panels are a company of angels – they are ubiquitous on these copes – and figures of the saints. The whole cope glows slightly with the background of underside couched goldwork.

Alastair Macleod estimates that this work would have taken about six hours per square inch. The figures themselves are mainly worked in silk shading with the distinctive striping effect for hair, beards and garments.

One surprising feature of the cope, at the end of the sequence about the journey of the Magi in the nativity row, is a scene of the murder of Thomas à Becket. What is this doing here? Nor is he the only English saint to find his way on to a cope commissioned and intended for an overseas recipient.

On the Toledo Cope (1320-30) – another gem – we have the figures of Edward the Confessor, St Athelbert, St Dunstan and St Edmund of Bury, as well as St Thomas. The Madrid cope also features a trio of English saints. It is not clear why these figures were used. In the case of the Toledo Cope it has been surmised that it may have actually been commissioned initially for someone else, but there is no real explanation.

There are 10 copes in the exhibition, not all of them complete, but each of them displaying exquisite detail. Particularly fine are the fragments of the Steeple Aston Cope (1330-40), embroidered with arious angels on horseback playing musical instruments. One horsehas a delicious dappled body and a quizzical expression (16) which is wholly charming.

Copes are by no means the only vestment treasures in the exhibition. There are numerous orphreys (embroidered bands), several of which show the Tree of Jesse (12). A detail showing King Solomon’s head (13) demonstrates the quality of workmanship – the detail of the embroidery, with underside couching giving a textured background of gold, with the distinctive opus anglicanum circular cheeks and stripey hair of the king. It is also clear where the jewels were sewn in on his crown.

14. Fragments from a horse trapper, embroidered with silver-gilt and silver thread and coloured silks in surface couching, running stitch and split stitch, with couched cord and applied ornaments, on silk velvet with an interlayer of silk in plain weave, 1330-40, England. H. 51cm. W. 124cm. Musée de Cluny, Paris.

To choose just one other from the myriad examples, three panels of another ophrey, depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin, have delights in every one – from the shepherd playing his bagpipe to the ox and ass looking lovingly at each other in the Nativity panel.

15. Seal bag, with inlaid work and appliqué in wool with embroidery in coloured silks in split stitch, with laid and couched cord, lined with linen in plain weave, circa 1280, England. H. 13.2cm.
W. 12.3cm. Westminster Abbey, London.

As well as the Church vestments there are also some curiosities. The episcopal stockings (17) and shoes from the tomb of Archbishop Hubert Walter (d 1205) are extraordinary, not just for their detail and workmanship, but also for the fascination of seeing items connected with a known historical figure. Also from Canterbury and associated with a named person is the surcoat of the Black Prince, which originally hung above his tomb. This padded garment would have been worn under his armour, and still has traces of the fleur de lys and heraldic lions.

16. Detail from the Steeple Aston Cope showing an angel on horseback playing a lute, embroidered with silver-gilt thread and coloured silks in underside couching and split stitch with a little raised work on silk twill reinforced with linen. The Rector and Churchwardens of St Peter and St Paul, Steeple Aston on loan to V&A since 1905.
17. Episcopal stocking from the tomb of Archbishop Hubert Walter, embroidered with silver-gilt thread in underside couching and coloured silks in stem stitch, on woven silk compound twill; tablet woven bands, 1170-1200, England. H. 69cm. L. 29cm. (heel to toe). Canterbury Cathedral.

Much of the non-ecclesiastical embroidery here was commissioned by the royal household. There is a tiny seal bag (15), embroidered in wool and fragments from a magnificent horse-trapper (14) also featuring the lions of England. It seems that royal commissions were often not popular; there is evidence of a threat of imprisonment for refusing to work for the king, and this may have been connected with demanding schedules. The work here for example uses relatively speedy surface couching and running stitch, while the seal bag uses appliqué which implied that more than one person could work at a time and the finished article then compiled.

As well as the embroidery there are other fine examples of medieval art in this exhibition, including books and manuscripts, like the De Lisle Psalter (8), showing the gold background and enchanting detail familiar from the opus anglicanum embroidery, ivories and reliquaries. Fortunately the exhibition is laid out so that there is space to devote to studying these lovely works, both the other artefacts and the opus anglicanum for which English embroiderers were so justly famous.

• Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery is on show at the Victoria & Albert Museum (vam.ac.uk/opus) until 5 February 2017. The catalogue is available in hardback at £35? The exhibition is supported by the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts and by Hand & Lock.