In 1890, in order to successfully identify its occupant, the tomb of Archbishop Hubert Walter (died 1205) was opened by Dr Sheppard and others. They discovered inside a collection of silver items and also the remains of the vestments that Archbishop Walter was buried in. Considering the fact that these vestments had been interred in the tomb for nearly seven centuries it is remarkable how well they have survived.
Vestments are the garments worn by the clergy and their assistants. Whilst Canterbury Cathedral has a wonderful collection of vestments, Hubert Walter’s are the only surviving garments from the pre-Reformation period which is astounding considering they are very pre-Reformation. They give us a truly unique insight into the fabrics, designs and styles of late 12th century vestments. Until the end of the 13th century, silks were still mainly used by the church for ecclesiastical furnishings and decoration as well as clothing. They were too expensive to be used in everyday secular life. It is thought that silks at that time were imported from weaving centres in the Middle East and in the later part of the 12th century from the Mediterranean, particularly Sicily.
Some of the vestments found were unidentifiable scraps, possibly parts of the alb, dalmatic and tunicle. But there were also some beautifully preserved items: an apparel, a pair of buskins (embroidered stockings worn by bishops), a stole (in pieces but easily recognisable), a mitre, braid, and a lovely pair of slippers, again heavily embroidered. These items were all originally thought to be of red and green in colour, but have a more orangey hue now. It is thought that all of the embroidery work on the items is English workmanship.
Of particular interest is the apparel. An apparel sits around the neck attached to the plain linen amice. The embroidery is of silver gilt thread in underside couching, and silver thread in stem stitch. The design shows seven circles, with foliate scrolls between: in the centre Christ enthroned and on either side the symbols of the evangelists. Oddly the symbols of Mark and Luke have been transposed. Presumably this was an innocent mistake and the high cost of silk and the level of workmanship of the item probably meant the mistake could be or had to be overlooked. In the outer circles are the Archangels St Michael and St Gabriel.
Another artefact of stylistic importance is the pair of slippers. They have silk uppers, embroidered with metallic
thread and decorated with garnets. The soles are made of amber silk. Their embroidered design includes two lion-type animals and two dragons. Some parts have decayed but the silk is mostly intact. There are also red gem stones adorning them. The slippers are 28cm in length which is about a size 9 in modern sizes. This is interesting as Walter was thought to be a statuesque man for his time. Gerard of Wales described him as tall and handsome. It is thought that the slippers would have been worn over the buskins.
The vestments were sent for conservation to the Textile Conservation Centre in 2006. This stabilised the mediaeval fabrics and also ensured they were mounted and housed in a way that would ensure their preservation for the future. Due to their delicate nature they are not on permanent display. The mitre, slippers, stole and buskins are currently on exhibition at the British Library as part of its Magna Carta exhibition until September 2015. The other items can be viewed here on our image gallery.
Madylene Beardmore- Inventory Administrator.
Please contact the Inventory Administrators at firstname.lastname@example.org for further information
For more details on the tomb of Archbishop Walter, and his successor Stephen Langton please look here.
To view the British Libraries exhibition page for ‘Magna Carta: Law, Legacy and Liberty’ please look here.