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The Henry VI Tapestry

The Henry VI Tapestry

At the far end of the North aisle in St Edmundsbury Cathedral, a set of steps to the left leads up to the choir-school. Before you turn off towards the school, however, you are faced, at the top of the stairs, with a tapestry that takes up the entire wall. It is a textile re-creation of a small illustration from a book by the poet-monk John Lydgate.

Lydgate lived and worked for most of his life in the Abbey of St Edmund during the 14th and 15th centuries and he was a prolific writer to say the least – over 145,000 lines of his work survive (more than Shakespeare and Chaucer combined, apparently!)

The image on which the tapestry is based is taken from Lydgate’s ‘The Lives of Ss Edmund and Fremund’ which he translated from Latin into English as a gift for the 12 year old King Henry VI. It was a commemoration of the King’s visit  to the Abbey from Christmas 1433 to Easter 1434 and depicts the boy-king himself kneeling before the shrine of St Edmund.

More than 560 years later, at the very dawn of the 21st century, the then dean of  St Edmundsbury, the late James Atwell, had an idea to recreate Lydgate’s image as a huge tapestry – not just to make a work of art to enhance the newest areas of the cathedral, but also to gather stitchers from all over the diocese to work on it together and bring their focus, skill and dedication into the building.

The word went out across the county through village magazines, church bulletins and sewing clubs and a large working group was assembled – although, inevitably, it tailed off during the more than three years that the project took, leaving a hardcore team of embroiderers towards the end of the work.

Lydgate’s image was digitally expanded and squared-paper patterns were created with an intricate code of dots, lines, triangles and other cyphers in each little square to indicate what colour each stitch should be. In all there were forty-seven different colours of thread used, seventeen of which were shades of brown! Although mostly woollen thread, the sections that required the most luminosity and shine, namely the golden shrine and the young King himself, were worked in silk to help them catch and reflect the light. The stitches are single tent-stitches, rather than cross-stitches as can be seen by expanding the photo.

The stitchers worked from a weekly timetable, in shifts of three eye-boggling hours each, taking a 10 inch square of the pattern each time. Whenever a stitch was worked, it was crossed off on the paper pattern so that the person taking the next shift knew exactly where to pick up from. Occasionally someone was given the job of double checking that no stitch had been missed.

The huge work was divided up onto three separate looms to be reconstructed on completion, so that some sections could be worked off-site. The main central loom remained in the sacristy of the cathedral, though, and the stitchers came to work together on it. The project quickly became a social gathering as much as an artistic one.

The tapestry, finished at the end of 2005, is not only beautiful and a fabulous example of community endeavour, but it is also brings to life a wonderful depiction of a historical moment in time. If you wander the ruins of the abbey, you can, in one or two places, still see examples of the chequered tiles that are shown, here so beautifully worked in red and yellow wool, beneath the feet of the pilgrims.

You can see the tapestry whenever the Cathedral is open to visitors.

(With thanks to Frances Roberts and also to Christine Kreckler and Glynis Bannister.)

Lynn Whitehead, Bury St Edmunds Tour Guides