Elizabeth Boleyns Embroidery c.1530

detail, Elizabeth Boleyns Embroidery

Elizabeth Boleyns Embroidery c.1530
On loan from a private collection.

Catalogue notes by Suky Best

Linen embroidered in silk with metallic thread detail. Back (Holbein) stitch. Contemporary restoration worked in unbleached cotton.

This remarkable fragment of embroidery probably the central part of a cupboard cloth (1) has been attributed to Elizabeth Boleyn. Thought to have been made in the winter of 1529/30, in the heady days proceeding her daughter Anne Bolyen being married to King Henry VIII and crowned queen of England. It satirically depicts a falcon with Tudor roses (the badge of Anne Boleyn) pecking at a pomegranate (the badge of Katherine of Aragon Henry VIII first wife)(2). The French Ainsi sera, groinge qui groinge (that’s the way its going to be however much people grumble) written around the central design, was Anne’s motto during this period.

Elizabeth and her daughter didn’t have a particularly close relationship and perhaps this embroidery was an attempt on the mother’s part to ingratiate herself with her daughter to whom she owed the families newly exhaulted wealth and position in society. Elizabeth although of royal decent from Edward I (3) was relatively impoverished.

When Anne Boleyn and her brother George Boleyn Viscount of Rochford were arrested on (trumped up) charges of treason May 2 1536 it seemed very clear to everyone involved that they were going to be found guilty. Anyone close to the family was thrown into fear for their own safety and survival. One of the main prosecution witnesses at their trial was George’s wife, Jane Rochford. It was not unheard of for associated family members to be arrested and imprisoned. A design such as this would have been evidence of treason as it would have been a reminder of Henry VIII’s bewitchment by Anne.

George and Anne Boleyn were tried and executed within three weeks of their arrest. During these weeks one imagines that Elizabeth decides to destroy objects that could be classed as treasonable, in panic and shock at the probable fate of two of her three children. Already all evidence of the queen is being obliterated from the royal places. Elizabeth cuts out the central part of the cupboard cloth into many pieces and hides them behind panelling at Greenwich Place, where she was living; sadly none of the rest of the cloth survives. There the embroidery remained until the extensive restoration of Greenwich palace undertaken by Charles II in the mid-seventeenth century. It was found by a craftsman working in the building and sold to someone newly indulging in monastic memorabilia after the English civil war.

Incredibly this fragment survived although sadly not in one piece. It has been part of a private collection ever since.

(1) A cupboard cloth was used to create a stage on which precious vessels could be displayed; they could also be used in bedchambers and often showed scenes of an intimate nature.

(2) Embroidery technique is characteristic of amateur blackwork, this technique was used on both furnishings and dress. The design may have been drawn for Elizabeth directly onto the cloth my a court artisan, The illustration copies one found in a music book held in the British library.

(3)Elizabeth Boleyne was also the grandmother of Queen Elizabeth I.

installation view at Museum of Garden History