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To explore the story of tapestry in the UK is to unpick the threads of the nation’s past. In medieval times, decorative tapestries were used as wall hangings to brighten and insulate damp and chilly buildings. The portability of tapestries was particularly useful for royalty and nobility; as they moved regularly from one residence to another.
Appropriately, it is a tapestry that commemorates perhaps the most pivotal events in English history – William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066 and the death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Probably commissioned in the 1070s by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William – as propaganda to support William’s claim to the English crown, the Bayeux Tapestry is over 70 metres long.
The Tudor monarch, Henry VIII, was an avid collector of tapestries, commissioning and displaying them at court as a way of demonstrating his wealth, power and political ambition. After his break with Rome and appointing himself as head of the Church of England, he increasingly chose biblical themes to adorn his great rooms of state. At his death in 1547, he owned a collection of almost 2,500 items.
The royal connection with tapestry continued into the Elizabethan period with Mary Queen of Scots. A keen needlewoman Mary would embroider during her Council’s meetings while she was Queen of Scotland, but it was during her 19 years incarceration by Elizabeth I, that Mary produced most of her tapestries – many of which still survive today. Not surprisingly, many of Mary’s tapestries disguise political messages, hidden in simple scenes. In one of the best known, ‘Catte and Mouse’, the red-headed Elizabeth I is shown as a large ginger cat and Mary as her mouse plaything.