Opus Anglicanum, English Work – The Beauty of Holiness

Embroidered Chasuble Front Fifteenth Century courtesy V & A Museum, London

Opus anglicanum, or English work is very fine needlework carried out for ecclesiastical or secular use on clothing from about 1100 – about 1350. It was all about reflecting the beauty of holiness.

‘We sleep, but the loom of life never stops, and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up in the morning’*

The historical aspects of decorative needlework is both diverse and rich and there is still a lot we can discover from various fragments found in China, South America as well as in Egypt, where it is estimated they were enjoying the craft some 5,000 years ago.

Modern textile historians deduce a great deal about a society, its traditions and folklore from such fragments. Some scholars observe the love of colour produced in enamels, metals and glass was also an inspiration for various types of embroidered textiles in Ancient Egypt, which then flowed through the societies of ancient Greece and Rome mostly from this tradition.

Producing different styles of images of three dimensional quality, using only a needle and thread is nothing short of amazing.

Embroidering on textiles can be the measure of the development of an individual as they master such a skill.

Detail embroidery from an eighteenth century Chasuble, a vestment used by priests to celebrate the Mass…Photo courtesy Oreillers

It has been in the past, and is also still today, a powerful transmitter of wealth and status, as well as a measure for the development of a society from its primitive or early beginnings.

The skills that have evolved from its refinement over the centuries today attracts millions of people around the world to either view historic textiles in museums and galleries, or to take up the challenge of producing their own.

As the known borders of their world expanded Europeans were able to draw on many different cultural sources for inspiration to embellish garments for personal, state and ceremonial use.

The so-called Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy, France dates from the eleventh century. It is actually an embroidery and a document of great significance.

It represents, in its ground fabric, the history of textiles.

It records an event of major historical significance, the invasion of England by the Normans and the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Not only does it illustrate contemporary warfare, but also it provides a record of eleventh century costume, the social history of the time, details about methods of transportation as well as design and styles of architecture and furniture.

It also documents important information on nature and language and so, in every sense, it must be considered one of the most important textiles we still have.

Following the Birth of Christ the Roman conquests around the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea, as well as in Britain, brought new aspects of craftsmanship to bear on all art forms, including needlework.


Roman Emperor Augustus wearing his toga over his head in his role of priest

Although the birth of the Christian religion occurred in a province of the Roman Empire, it was unheralded in writing until the second century.

At that time Roman historian Tacitus made the remark that in Judaea ‘under Tiberius all was quiet’.

It was during the first century that Roman Emperor Augustus (Octavian) closed the doors of the Temple of Janus to mark the return of peace for the first time in 200 years.

This allowed a greater ease of communication and an expansion of trade. As well it hastened the rapid spread of the word telling about a single, loving and forgiving God.

Jesus, the Christ – Mosaics at Ravenna

Followers of a Jew named Jesus, who had been crucified in Jerusalem espoused the ‘good news’.

They believed that Jesus was the Christ, literally the ‘anointed one’ (from the Gk. Translation of the Hebrew word Messiah).

Now known as Christianity, the original ‘followers of the way’ at first kept their worship hidden in the catacombs at Rome or in the houses of the faithful.  It was in the ancient city of Antioch (nr modern city of Antakya, Turkey) about 240 ACE that the term Christian was first used.

Basically the first Christians were waiting for the second coming of Christ, which they believed would happen in their own lifetime so it explains why there was no immediate attempt to formalize their worship, or adopt a manner of dress to celebrate.

The organised Christian Church gradually emerged after three centuries of, more or less, oppressed existence when an edict was issued at Milan by the sole Roman Emperor of the West, Constantine in February 313.

This document granted civil rights and religious toleration to Christians throughout the Roman Empire. Constantine chose the Roman basilica as a building in which Christians could gather together to conduct their worship.

It was inevitable a hierarchical structure establishing the apostolic ministry of Bishop, Priest and Deacon, as related in the Acts of the Apostles written by Luke would emerge.

St. Luke stated there was a clear distinction between Diaconus and Presbuteros, the original Greek words from which Priest and Deacon derive. Although at this stage there was not a clear distinction between Presbuteros and Episcopus from which the word Episcopal, or Bishop finally arrived.


A council assembled at Nicea (present day Iznik in Turkey) in 325. This was an important and significant event in the development of the early Church. Constantine summoned the attendance of 250 bishops, which illustrates how rapidly the church had grown in just 12 short years.

At this time pagan traditions continued to dominate the general way and manner of life, no less than the style of different forms of art.

To distinguish those called to the vocation of priestly life, garments were needed and the styles adopted were meant to distinguish the clergy from the laity. It is also natural that they would evolve from garments being worn for Roman secular life. priest-toga-1

The Tunic, or shirt was the indoor garment of the Roman. Made mostly of wool, it was worn short by men of action at first, and then long by women and old men, as well as those who held a senior position in the household or government. The only undergarment worn was the breech, or loincloth, a garment enforceable by law as complete nakedness was forbidden.

A length of fabric, the toga was fastened on the left shoulder and under the left arm by pins or brooches, leaving the right arm and shoulder free. It was loose and comfortable and required a girdle around the waist to keep it in place, as well as for decency’s sake, prevent the side from opening and the Toga was simply drawn up over the head by priests.

In order for us to discover the reason for embroidering ecclesiastical garments it will be necessary for us to first understand what they were, where they came from and how they were worn.

We will not attempt to discuss all the vestments but those that acquired embroidery over the centuries, starting in the fourth century, at the time of Constantine, and ending in the fourteenth century as Europe moved into the Renaissance.

From the earliest period Roman tunic evolved various types of clergy dress and by the end of the fifth century, under the influence of the Byzantine church, clerical dress began to be distinctly and permanently fixed.

Emperor Justinian at Ravenna

Preserved Roman Mosaics at Ravenna in Italy are a helpful source for styles. Many of these depict the Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565)and his followers wearing the long Tunica Alba, which came to be regarded as a dress of special dignity. It is the main garment that has been worn in the Christian church for some two thousand + years.

Originally the sleeves of this tunic were loose, as tight long sleeves were an oriental fashion considered effeminate. Nevertheless, the slim sleeve came into common use on a long tunic, which reached the ankles.

Made from linen, one of the oldest fabrics known woven from the fibres of the flax plant, as opposed to wool, the Tunica Alba was required to be clean and white indicating purity, continuing a Roman and Jewish custom of wearing white at ceremonies. (The more linen is washed the whiter it becomes, whereas wool fades to yellow and ceases to look ‘pure).

Within a short time an embroidered panel, known as apparel, was sometimes added to the cuffs and hem, as the Tunica Alba became the undergarment for many other vestments as they developed, and it was worn with a girdle and amice.

Detail Justinian Mosaic at Ravenna

The amice is a rectangle of white linen worn as a neckcloth, thought to have evolved by the sixth century into common use, and it often had added embroidered apparel.  It came about from an attempt to prevent more costly outer vestments from being spoiled by perspiration.

It was, and still is, the first vestment to be donned. Covering the head and shoulders it is crossed over the breast and held in place by two long tapes around the body. After the alb and other vestments is then put in place the amice is then rolled back, the head left uncovered for celebration.

The girdle, which goes around the waist, did undergo some transformation in the tenth century when it became a wide belt of white or coloured material that could be embellished with woven or embroidered designs, precious stones and gold thread.

However in the Latin Church the wide belt was replaced by a long white rope or cord with tasselled ends in which form it has survived to the present day. John, Bishop of Marseilles in his will of 1345 made a special bequest of his alb ‘that was wrought with English orfrais’.

What is an orphrey? It is a piece of woven or embroidered fabric mainly applied the vestments worn for the eucharist, or mass. In the Middle Ages they included gold thread and are assumed to have taken their name from auriphrygia or Phrygian gold. Phrygia was an ancient country between the Mediterranean and Black sea in what is now central Turkey.

Alice Cole – Opus Anglicanum, Textile Conservation at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Phrygian kings contributed many oriental ideas to the early culture of the Greeks, especially in music. The most famous of these we would know is King Midas, who is mentioned in Assyrian records of the eighth century.

He reputedly had the power to turn to gold anything he touched.

The term opus anglicanum (English work) is met in inventories in France, Italy and Spain.

Couched gold threads were used expansively in the background for figures that were then embroidered in gloriously coloured silks.

Another characteristic of opus anglicanum was the modeling and wonderful expressions created by a needle and thread.

For example to suggest rotund cheeks and black, popping eyes they used split stitches working spirally.  Birds and animals were beautifully worked and represented and they figured largely in all decorative schemes.The very best pieces are gloriously detailed and splendid works were exported to the Low Countries, France and Italy.

The Vatican at Rome has more English work than any other museum with such textiles. opus anglicanum appears to have reached the height of its popularity during the mid thirteenth century and the embroidered bookbinding pictured is one of the great examples of the work now known as ‘English work,

250px-Embroidered_bookbinding_13th_century_Annunciation‘The Felbrigge Psalter was worked by a nun in the convent of Minoresses at Bruisyard, Suffolk during the latter half of the fourteenth century and it perfectly illustrates the skill associated with the technique. Anne de Felbrigge was very deft at couched gold thread and split stitch work. Its durability against wear and tear was a direct result of the couching thread being on the reverse side where it was protected. It a thread was accidentally broken it did not give way along an entire line. Also it had flexibility an invaluable quality for a garment destined to hang in folds. The couching was done in such a way it often formed geometric patterns on its own, such as lozenges, fleur de lis or brick patterns and sometimes jewels and beads were also worked into the pattern’.

Pope Benedict XVI Celebrating Easter wearing the Pallium

Early twentieth century embroidery historians note that its distinct period of achievement was between 1250 and 1509, however in English embroidery historian Lanto Synge’s splendid opus The Art of Needlework published in 2001, he details its highpoint as between 1275 and 1350 with its decline starting with the Black Death of 1348. This was when so many of those men involved in the work that was carried out in the professional workshops that abounded at London where they filled domestic and foreign orders, were dying.

The Pallium, was a rectangle three times as long as it was broad, worn wrapped round the body with 1/3 hung in front from the left shoulder to the knee and enveloping the upper arm. The remaining 2/3 were drawn across the back, under the right arm, across the front and again thrown over the left shoulder where it was fastened or draped over the left forearm.

St. Peter himself wore a Pallium with his tunic, according to the first of the apostolic fathers, Clement of Rome (d101). Usually white, it was without decoration except where small tapestry or embroidered designs were applied on each of its four corners. It represented the cosmopolitan aspect of the Empire and had been worn by Jesus the Christ and his apostles, as well as the philosophers and intellectuals of the Greek civilized world.

The Pallium by the fourteenth century was a symbolic style of stole that represented the fullness of Episcopal authority.

Embroidered Dalmatic

The Dalmatic was an ungirdled short tunic and foreign importation from Dalmatia, famous for the rich and skilful decoration of its garments. From the beginning the Dalmatic was richly ornamented or else plain, dyed to a rich colour and worn over the tunic.

It adopted the clavi, which had sometimes also been used on early albs. These bands usually ran from the shoulder to the hem and were repeated again on the wide sleeves.

The Dalmatic became the dress of deacons, from the Greek diakonos (deacons) meaning servant, who ranked below the priest. As well as the clavi the Dalmatic sometimes had small patches of embroidery of the brightest and richest of colours in silks and fine wools that stood out like gems against the plain fabrics of the tunic.

The stole, or orarium was a narrow strip of material, made of white wool or coloured silk and worn over the shoulders in various ways as an indication of the rank of the Roman official that wore it.

It was also adopted by the Church and in the first half of the sixth century Isidore of Pelusium said ‘the orarium in white wool was a symbol of the lost sheep around the good shepherd’s shoulders’.

Mosaics at Ravenna

The stole originally took the form of a scarf worn and protected the neck exposed by the broad opening of the paenula and dalmatic and a such, preserved a sense of decency and dignity.

Historically a priest wears it crossed at the chest and tucked through his girdle to hang down. The Bishop wears it hanging straight down and has it fixed by his girdle, whereas the Deacon wears it over one shoulder.

Adopted by all clergy, it was forbidden by the Council Aurelian in Canon 20 to monks in 511. As with all other vestments it eventually became an elaborate piece, gaining embroidery and sometimes semi precious stones.

The maniple derived from the mappa, a practical rectangle of linen, which developed into an emblem of rank in pre Christian Roman culture. It was held in the right hand of the consul as he had no pockets, and he often waved it as a sign for the games to start.

It ended up as a folded object worn on the left forearm and was later transformed into as symbolic miniature embroidered stole worn over the left forearm. It represents the towel used by Christ at the washing of the feet of his disciples.

Interesting sidebars are also sandals, shoes and trousers. Sandals were commonly worn and adopted by monastic orders that retain them to this day. The shoe (calceus) was worn with the Roman toga, and denoted the dignity of the Roman citizen. The church did not adopt it until centuries later.

The Romans did not consider trousers at all. They were a form of dress associated with barbarian hordes and in works of art from ancient Rome trousers are frequently used to portray ‘foreigners’.

From the third century however, they began to be worn more generally and became the precursor of modern male attire. However they bear no relation to the development of ecclesiastical dress, as even in northern climes they never appeared in a church or monastery.

Silver Cross

The use of embroidered banners in festal processions is of ancient origin. The Anglo-Saxon scholar, theologian and historian the venerable Bede related how St. Augustine and his priests arrived in England in the sixth century carried a silver cross and a banner with a figure of the Lord. These became richly embroidered and a safe effective pattern consisted of a figure of a saint in a tabernacle.

It was in the twelfth century that liturgical colours were first set down as special to a season. However, all these colours were not taken too seriously it seems until the end of the nineteenth century in England, as many churches still continued to prefer to use their best vestments for important festivals, irrespective of colour.  The colours established were:

Black: Worn at Masses for the Dead and on Good Friday – the Christian holy day observed on the Friday before Easter, commemorating the death of Jesus on the Cross – Crucifixion.

The trim could be silver, not gold.

Liturgical Colours

White/Gold: Colours to celebrate Christmas, Easter and Epiphany (a Christian festival observed on January 6, celebrating the divine manifestation of Jesus through the Three Wise Men’s visit, or as in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the baptism of Jesus).

Red: Apostles, martyr saints (except female virgins) Pentecost (a Christian festival celebrated on the 7th Sunday after Easter that commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles – called Whitsunday in England, Shavuot in the Jewish faith where it commemorates the Law being given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai).

Violet: Lent (the period of 40 weekdays before Easter observed as a period of prayer, penance, fasting and in some churches, self denial) Advent (the four week period leading up to Christmas, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day) and Rogation Days (three days before Ascension day)


Green: less traditional, but served as the all purpose colour and to represent the Trinity (the condition of existing as three persons or things.

Blue: No liturgical significance but a popular colour associated with churches named for Mary as it was a colour designate during the Byzantine period as being associated with her.

White: For Purity, worn at the Feast of Virgin Mary; virgin saints

Textiles produced from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries were enriched with secular embroidery, which was extremely colourful. European royal and princely courts impressed each other and their subjects with luxurious costumes designed to emphasise and re-in-force their status and power.

Great symbolism was attached to many of the designs rendered and heraldic embroidery was an important decorative device as it reflected recognition of patronage.

Linking subjects and stories within an orderly framework of pointed arches or niches that were inspired by Gothic architecture was a very successful method of dealing with changing shapes.

Clerical vestments became very gradually more and more elaborate and costly over the following centuries and changed shape according to usage.

Although little real evidence of early embroidery has survived changes in fashion or use, many texts remain that describe their magnificence.

They also acquired mystical associations and sacred connotations, especially following the fall of Rome when their origins became blurred and lost, as did much of the knowledge of antiquity (except by monks in monasteries) until it began to be rediscovered from the fifteenth century.


Changing Shapes of the Chasuble

Embroidery on a Chasuble Front

The essential feature of the Holy Roman Empire during its greatest phase was the union of Germany and Italy (except the kingdom of two Sicilies) under one ruler. Sicily had a reputation for sumptuous embroidery, especially during the twelfth century.

There was a definite oriental influence, including the outlining details on the animals, which are highlighted by double lines of fine pearls, and as well, there are further enrichments with gold ornaments, enamels and jewels.

The Chasuble (from the Latin Chasula) became the principal vestment used by the priest for the celebration of the Mass. They developed from the paenula and were a semi circle with a hole left for the head.

The Chasuble was made initially from wool and then silk, embroidered all over and sometimes set with pearls and semi precious stones, however they became so heavy the priest had great difficulty performing the manual acts of the Mass.

Because it was such an important symbol of status the English Act of Parliament of 1364 forbade anyone below a certain income to wear bejewelled costume and others below another sum, to wear any embroidery.

As an art form, embroidery ranked in dignity with sculpture and painting. It was one of the most important subjects of instruction in mediaeval convents and monasteries and not only was its production a business or profession, but it was also a favourite pursuit.

Many monasteries record the handiwork of the monks and even Abbots did not consider it beneath their dignity to practice this art form. During the thirteenth century the Chasuble became reserved for the celebration of the mass and the Cope and Mitre were adopted.

Mitre of the Bishop of Argyll – Nineteenth Century

The Mitre, the official headwear of Bishops, was being worn by the end of the eleventh century by all western bishops and granted to many abbots.

At first only a simple white cap, it became during the twelfth, one of the seven vestments of a bishop signifying purity and chastity.

This colour, with a few exceptions, was maintained until the nineteenth century.

It had two lappets hanging from the back that became elaborately embroidered as part of the processional insignia of the bishops and as a sign of temporal power, rather than assuming liturgical significance. Leoffin an abbot of Ely had a ‘red mitre of wonderful workmanship’, which was ‘broidered underside and on the top with flowers, continued on the back liked as something stoned with gems and gold’.

The Syon cope, English, late 13th–early 14th century; in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It also gained embroidered orphreys front and back, and the headband was often inset with gems and pearls, embroidered with inscriptions or, there is fragments of one that survives from the fourteenth century that seems to have been entirely made from red velvet. The low triangular shape of the original mitre rose progressively from the fourteenth century and became high and arched like a great Gothic Cathedral.

The Cope was a ceremonial version of an outdoor cloak worn during the latter days of the Roman Empire. It became established during the eleventh and twelfth centuries as part of the ceremonial vestments worn at non-Eucharistic ceremonies, i.e. baptism, marriage and procession.

The Syon Cope 1300 – 1320 (pictured) is considered one of the finest examples of opus anglicanum. It is embroidery on linen with a fabulous orphrey and outer band depicting heraldry and was taken away to the continent in the fourteenth century by Bridgettine Nuns fleeing the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII.

They carried it through Flanders, France and Portugal and when they eventually returned to England in 1830, brought it back with them. England’s Earl of Shrewsbury is recorded as showing great kindness to the nuns and in return they presented him with their most precious relic.

Angel-webThe design is of interlacing barbed quatrefoils in red, the intervening spaces being green, and filled with winged seraphim standing on wheels. Originall the Cope had a hood and reached down to the heels open in front and fringed at the bottom. As it became increasingly ceremonial the hood ceased to be functional and was reduced to a decorative element on the back of the garment. It was made in the colour appropriate to the season or position of the wearer.

The church has always been an outstanding keeper of records and despite the ransacking of monasteries, fire and destruction through warfare, many have survived providing us with some comprehensive inventories and detailed accounts of those that existed.

One account by Matthew Paris in 1246 records the Lord Pope, having observed that the ecclesiastical ornaments of some Englishmen, such as the choir Copes and Mitres, were embroidered in gold thread, after a very desirable fashion, asked where these works were made, and received an answer, in England.

“Then” said the Pope, ‘England is surely a garden of delights for us. It is a truly a never failing spring; and there where many things abound, many much be extorted’. He duly sent for orphreys and in the Vatican inventory of 1295 opus anglicanum is mentioned 113 times.

Copes detailed in the inventory of Christ Church at Canterbury in England and worn by Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury (1070-89), were recorded as being embroidered with gold and also with gold tassels. In an inventory of 1540 there were 262 copes at Canterbury. When they wore out they were often reduced to ashes in order to recover the precious metal. At Canterbury there is still today in their collection a stunning black chasuble that belonged to Archbishop Lanfranc as well as the so called fiddle-back Chasuble, named for its violin shape and a shield shape.

Embroidered Cope from Ghent

By the thirteenth century English clerics were wearing Copes embroidered with gold and with attached gold worked Orphreys depicting saints or symbols of the church.

Many of the fabrics for making these stunning vestments were of secular origin and bequeathed to the church by benefactors.

It was the quality of the textiles and quantity of rich silks or silver and gold threads that made up the rich vestments, worn to the glory of God, that were the most important. Many of them were also woven with silk in a variety of forms used, including damasks, taffeta. a plain thick woven silk imported from Persia and the pen ultimate, velvet.

There was a Cope listed among the possessions of Franc’es Jean, Duc de Berri in 1403 and in England in a Leicestershire nunnery of Benedictines, there are indications in an inventory of 1485 of a whole sacristy full of embroideries, including altar frontals and suits of vestments.

One famous black damask vestment was embroidered with roses, stars and red trewlyps (true lovers’ knots, not tulips). The monk in English author, poet, philosopher, bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prologue is described as fastening his hood with a pin fashioned in the form of a love knot.

And for to festrie his hood under his chyn
He hadde of goldy wrought a ful curious pyn;
A love-knotte in the gretter ende there was.

Detail of the Life of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, on the ‘orphrey band’ on a Chasuble c1450

During the Middle Ages various councils and synods attempted to regulate clergy dress, both outdoors and indoors, and it became an obligation for those in holy orders to conform.

By this time styles, types and use of ecclesiastical vestments were more or less established and embroidered work free to take on broader terms of reference. From about the thirteenth century onward great suites of vestments were made from the same fabric i.e. Dalmatic, Tunicle, Chasuble and Cope.

The Tunicle was a simpler garment worn by the bishop under the Dalmatic and Chasuble. It was an over garment with sleeves and although originally completely plain, it followed the Chasuble and Dalmatic and became richer and more elaborate.

Although they had no intrinsic liturgical significance, Copes lent splendour and magnificence to great feasts and ceremonies and became an important addition worn by the principal officer at the Mass in procession.

The mantle of the Virgin is one of a set of vestments that survive probably made in Brussels C1450 again, for the Duke of Burgundy.

As the Church in Europe prospered and grew the changes that occurred in vestment attire became more or less set. English work reaches a highpoint of style maturity with vestments that became ornaments of the clergy, rather than just costume.

Detail Robe Chancellor Rolin

Velvet made its appearance in the closing years of the thirteenth century and large motifs such as Tudor roses, double headed eagles, and fleur de lis, pomegranates and other designs were worked on linen and applied to the velvet.

One of the most famous representations of gold embroidered velvet (detail pictured) is featured in Jan Van Eyck’s fabulous Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (1435) now in the Musée du Louvre at Paris.

Cloth of gold was a rich stuff made of silk (a damask or velvet), inter woven with pure gold thread and manufactured in Baghdad. Like damask however, the name velvet describes the technique of weaving rather than the fibre it is composed of. Damask was a rich silk figured by using the sateen effect of the warp or the wet interchanging in a special design.

Among the objects found decorating various vestments in a 1368 inventory in Norfolk include a great variety of flowers, especially roses for the Virgin Mary and coats of arms of the donor and his or her family were often added.

The Chasuble continued as a great vehicle for display with added bands of woven or embroidered textiles, and in some instances, gems and pearls, enamels and semi precious stones were used as well as embroidery.

Detail from Altar Frontal St John's Cathedral Brisbane

Embroidered detail from Altar Frontal St John’s Cathedral Brisbane, Qld, Australia

During Elizabeth 1’s reign (1558 – 1603) women of substance were kept busy embroidering banners, tunics and horse trappings required for tournaments and court ceremonial and some early embroidered heraldic needlework has survived.

The dissolution of the monasteries and the after effect of the Reformation saw a cessation of ecclesiastical embroidery and a wholesale destruction of vestments and other embroideries already existing in churches took place.

The command was that altars all over the country should be pulled down and destroyed and plain tables placed in their stead and the destruction of sacred embroidery was seen as a necessary consequence.

Some managed to be saved by being hidden, some were cut down as hangings for domestic use and many private men’s parlours were hung with copes instead of carpets.

When the first destructive enthusiasm of the Reformation was over, surviving fragments were put together to serve as pulpit or desk hangings or palls, especially during the reign of England’s Charles 1 and a number of these are preserved in the halls of the City Guilds and Churches.

It was Archbishop William Laud (1573 – 1645) who restored the chapel at Lambeth in England and set up an altar with a cloth of arras behind it, on which was embroidered the history of the Lords Supper.

His favourite phrase was ‘the beauty of holiness’ – to mean order and ceremony in the Church and he set himself the task to raise the Church of England to its rightful position as a branch of the Church Catholic, to root out Calvinism in England and Presbyterianism in Scotland.

Copes were brought back into use as he tried valiantly to restore lost traditions. However, eventually voted guilty of endeavouring to overthrow the Protestant religion as an enemy of Parliament he was beheaded on Tower Hill.

Catholicism survived however, driven underground by the strength of the Puritan movement and no vestments were retained except in complete secrecy with many vestments removed abroad.

Frederick Augustus, Lord Hervey at Rome

Following the Restoration of Charles 11 to the throne of England and for the whole of the eighteenth century the clergy and ministers of all denominations adopted, to a greater or lesser degree, contemporary fashionable dress.

Roman Catholic priests were effectively stifled and continued their ministry in secret or disguise, as tutors, schoolmasters and ordinary citizens.

The clergy of the newly established Church of England wore ordinary dress during the week with some special garments with modifications continued. The most predominant colour was black, with a suit, a knee length coat and vest over knee breeches with a neckcloth or cravat preferred. With this was worn the Wig which the clergy adopted and made their own.

During the eighteenth century there were many difficulties with the Church in England and a lack of liturgical discipline also seemingly encouraged English ecclesiastical eccentrics. The Bishop of Derry is one of the most well known examples.

Clever, cultured and eccentric from all accounts Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol (1730-1803) known as the Earl-Bishop wore some extraordinary outfits.

He traveled around the continent dressed in red plush breeches, a broad brimmed white or straw hat and was often asked if it was the canonical costume of an Irish prelate.

It seems he loved purple red and puce and in 1783 was reported as ‘clad in purple, his knee and shoe buckles blazing with diamonds, his gloves white with gold tassels hanging from them wearing a hat of the Colonel of the Volunteers as an indication of his military rank’.

His attire for a night time jaunt on a horse caused a young Irish girl in 1803 the year he died to write ‘on his head he wore a purple velvet night cap with a tassel of gold dangling over his shoulders and a sort of mitre on the front, silk stockings and slippers of the same colour and a short round petticoat fringed with gold about his knees over which was thrown a silk dressing gown’

King George II wearing fabulous textiles

With the enormous upheaval that followed the break with Rome the connection between religion and art became almost lost, and while the great English tradition of embroidery continued it was now put to entirely secular use, not re-emerging until a movement for the revival of Catholic doctrine and observance in the Church of England began at Oxford University in 1833.

The Oxford Movement was aimed at the restoration of ‘High Church principles’ and several causes contributed to its being seen as desirable.

They included the decline of Church life, the spread of ‘liberalism in theology’ and the question of Anglican identity, which had suffered enormously during the eighteenth century with a lack of respect for clergymen generally.

George II (B 1683-R 1727 – 1760)  described the bench of bishops as a ‘parcel of black, canting, hypocritical rascals’; and there was a great deal of corruption due to a great divide between rich bishops and poor curates.

Pugin Cross

The Gothic Revival was already under way with when Victoria came to the throne of England with Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812 – 1852) leading the charge.  A convert to Roman Catholicism, Pugin did much to revive Gothic architecture in England and his aesthetic theories were widely influential and part of the Romantic movement.

When the Anglican Church reintroduced vestments during this time, the medieval church was looked on as the role model not the contemporary fashions of the Roman Catholics. At Cambridge with a revival of liturgical knowledge a widely diffused taste for ecclesiastical design in the fabric and furniture of the church sprang up, promoted by the works of Pugin who provided much of the foundation for what is known now as the Arts and Crafts Movement.

This was led by English architect, furniture and textile designer, artist, writer and socialist William Morris (1834-1896) and gave impetus in the making of vestments and the revival of embroidery generally.

Embroidery schools and societies began to be established and the Sisterhood of St. Katharine in Queen Square, Bloomsbury specialised in ecclesiastical needlework through the School of Medieval Embroidery.  The Roman Catholics benefited from all of this activity following Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and their first English made vestments were made by none other than the costume workshops of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden because there was no tradition of vestment manufacture to fall back on.

Gothic ChasublePugin took great trouble to study the history of ecclesiastical vesture and designed vestments and ornaments with a high standard of both scholarship and workmanship.

They were to combine together to create a whole new wave of beautiful embroideries and while it was a man who designed them, it was women who actually worked them.

The shield or violin (fiddle back) shape Chasuble was prevalent at the establishment of the Church of England and then the so-called Gothic shape, with a matching stole and maniple became popular from the nineteenth century.


English architect, furniture and textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist William Morris (1834 – 1896) had gone up to Oxford originally intending to become an Anglo Catholic clergyman. He wanted society to be purged of hypocrisy, philistinism, selfishness, puritanism, arrogant chauvinism, indifference to others and terrible class consciousness.

While he was there he also became interested in all forms of church furnishings and so later in his career when he established his decorative arts firm Morris and Co in 1861 it became one of the firms to supply vestments to the Church. Morris did not design vestments he did design altar frontals and took an avid interest in a revival of opus anglicanum taking part in the work himself alongside his daughter May who took over the embroidery workshops when she was 23 in 1885.

The introduction of mass-produced vestments meant the art of embroidery was not always upheld, and the shapes were perhaps not as graceful as those made especially for an individual. Chinese embroideries were purchased too, bringing vestments within reach of far flung parishes who could purchase their own.

Today the dress of ecclesiastics of all denominations has lost none of its importance, although in the decade or so of the twenty first century the emphasis has dramatically changed. But that is another story.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2014

*Henry Ward Beecher 1813-1887

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