Late Medieval English Vestments

Norwich Castle Museum in Norfolk, has a small but significant collection of late medieval English embroidery and among the collection are a number of items for church use: two funerary palls and the remains of two copes.  I had the privilege of being able to view and photograph these items in the museum in 2013.  It was a rare treat to be able to see such items on a table at close hand, as a lot of medieval vestments in England are kept behind glass.  The remains of two copes, which I want to share with you in this post, both originate in Norfolk parish churches.  The first the 'Pockthorpe cope' comes from the parish church of St James Pockthorpe in Norwich itself, now redundant and a puppet theatre.  The second the 'Bircham cope' belonged to Bircham Newton church near King's Lynn.  The vestments still belong to these respective parishes and have come to the Castle Museum store because for many years they were on public display in the St Peter Hungate Museum of Ecclesiastical Art, now long closed.  Of course, during the English Reformation, vestments were confiscated by order of the crown and both vestments only survive, because they were recycled and given a new life in the reformed liturgy of the Church of England.

The Bircham Cope

The Bircham cope is a large fragment of a vestment.  At the Reformation, a fine red velvet cope was cut up and converted into a rectangular 'table carpet' that would have adorned the top of the Protestant communion table.  In post-Reformation England, Communion tables were treated in the same way as domestic tables and the Book of Common Prayer ordered them to be given a degree of dignity by being covered by a 'carpet of silk or other rich stuff' in exactly the same way that tables were covered in high-status homes.  These fragments of a medieval cope continued in use in their new form as a table carpet until the nineteenth century, when their true value and origin was recognised.  The centre of this table carpet is formed from red silk velvet that represents the main body of the cope and this is embroidered all over figures and motifs and we will return to those in a moment.  The edges of the carpet are formed from the cut-up remains of the orphreys and these seemingly had figures of the saints standing under canopies.

Many of our readers will have heard of 'Opus Anglicanum', the great English embroidery tradition of late thirteenh and early fourteeenth-century.  In that period England was prized across Europe for the quality of its embroidery output and English embroiders even received commissions from the papal court.   By the time we get to the middle of the fifteenth century when this cope is made those days were long gone and English embroidery had hit the doldrums.  Embroidery by this period was increasingly a 'craft', taught in cities via the apprentice system and controlled by the incestuous world of the guild.  This highly controlled environment privileged profit over creativity and spontaneity. The Bircham cope is a typical product of a city embroiders workshop of the last half of the 15th-century, it lacks the flair of 'Opus Anglicanum' and though it's a rich garment, it's decoration is somewhat generic.  

Its visual impact as a work of art is down to the richness of effect the embroidery creates in combination with the textile ground. The red silk velvet of this cope is 'powdered' with appliques, individually worked on a canvas backing, and these are crowded on to the fabric with little in the way of space between.  In the centre of the panel, which was the back of the cope, there is a centrally placed Assumption of Our Lady, this is flanked by seraphs on wheels and double-headed eagles.  As we move to what was the front of the cope, we have what in late medieval parlance were called 'water-flowers' i.e. stylised water lilies.  In between all this crowded embroidery, is crammed an additional motif: white roses 'en soleil', the badge of King Edward IV - and we may well date this vestment to the 1460s or 70s on the basis of their inclusion.  There is nothing particularly unique about any of the imagery on this cope.  We find the motifs used on this fragment, repeated time and time again on surviving vestments of this period, so much so that the general assumption is that these appliques were more or less mass produced in the embroiders workshops of the period, by journeymen and apprentices and simply kept in stock ready to be applied to the next cope when it's ordered. 

The Pockthorpe Cope

It is a little surprising that the images of the Assumption and of the Seraphs on the Bircham cope survived the Reformation and even more surprising that they survived three centuries adorning a Protestant Communion table.  The St James Pockthorpe cope was less lucky.

This was also re-purposed at the Reformation and converted into a table carpet, but at the end of the nineteenth century with the coming of the Ritualists, the bits were all stuck back together again and a cope remade from them.  It was adorned with some of the same motifs as the Bircham cope: double-headed eagles, water-flowers, fleur-de-lys.  In the centre, there was as at Bircham an Assumption and a pair of Seraphs.  However here, the Protestant sensibilities of someone got the better of them and the head and torso of Our Lady and the Seraphs have been neatly removed leaving a shadow behind on the velvet.

Although the decoration of these two vestments is generic, the glorious combination of the red velvet and the gold appliques is undeniable and they would both have had an extraordinary visual impact when used for their original purpose in the liturgy of the church. 

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