Westminster Abbey owns many embroidered vestments, such as copes, and altar hangings for use during the church year.
The Abbey has many embroidered vestments and altar hangings in its collection. Unfortunately the rich items owned by the Benedictine monastery, which included more than 300 copes, no longer remain at Westminster. However items given by royalty to the Abbey still survive elsewhere – for example the Stonyhurst cope and the so-called Westminster chasuble.
The colours of vestments vary according to the seasons or festivals during the Church year. The many altars have frontals, or panels covering the front section of the altar. The High Altar, dedicated to St Peter, also has some dorsals which hang at the back of the altar. For the Lent period (beginning on Ash Wednesday) each altar is covered with white linen hangings which also cover any altar paintings. This ancient English custom was revived at the Abbey in 1921. Copes, or semi-circular full length cloaks fastened at the neck, are worn by the Dean and clergy at church festivals and special services as well as at coronations and royal occasions. A Tunicle is a tabard style vestment with short sleeves worn by the cross bearer. Some of these items are described here.
A medieval wooden chest made to store copes can be seen in the Pyx Chamber in the east cloister. The oldest surviving copes are those of crimson and purple velvet dating from the reign of Charles II. The applique decoration of flowers and stars, with pomegranates also on the purple version, is in gold and silver. The crimson cope was worn by the Dean at the 1953 coronation and the purple by the Dean at the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002. These can be viewed in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. Only three of the 17th century cloth of gold copes remain today and are very fragile. An early 18th century French cope in blue and gold with a crimson lining, from the time of Dean Sprat, was last used at Edward VII's coronation as it was lighter for the frail Dean to wear.
Most copes date from the early 20th century onwards. Jocelyn Perkins, the Abbey’s Sacrist (the clergyman in charge of all the plate and textiles) was instrumental in enlarging the collection with the support of Dean Armitage Robinson. For the 1902 coronation of Edward VII rich copes of crimson velvet with a stamped design of flowers and crowns were designed by the Abbey Surveyor J.T. Micklethwaite. These were made by Watts & Co. to complement the High Altar hangings for this service. They were also worn at George V’s coronation and are still in use today. A blue velvet cope uses some orphreys, or panels on the front edge, taken from the Dean’s 1937 coronation cope with the initials G and E (for George VI and Elizabeth). The green copes for this coronation have not been retained. Watts also made the blue and gold silk copes for Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953, used by the Canons of Westminster, to a design by Keith Murray. These are embellished with a lion and a unicorn with jewelled eyes. One of these is also on display in the Galleries.
A set in rose, white and gold with a crown design were given in 1965 by Mrs B.N. Stuart to mark the 900th anniversary of the founding of St Edward the Confessor's Abbey. These had been woven in Lyons on looms used for Louis XVI of France.
Other copes regularly used by the Dean include a flowered blue damask silk cope with 17th century flower embroideries, a cloth of gold cope originally belonging to Joost de Blank, Archbishop of Cape Town, and a gold one made in 2010. This has a morse, or fastening, of turquoise and precious stones designed by Omar Ramsden.
In 2013 the Guild of St Faith made a set of red copes showing the cross and martlets from the coat of arms assigned to St Edward the Confessor and the crossed keys of St Peter with St Edward's ring, with a matching frontal. This fabric was specially woven for the Abbey.
For the service marking the 750th anniversary of the dedication of Henry III's church in October 2019 a new set of copes in white and gold were made by the Guild of St Faith. These include designs showing St Peter's keys and the cross of St Edward the Confessor, with shields of arms of Henry and Edward and the cypher of Queen Elizabeth II.
The most decorated of these are the blue and the white tunicles. Floral designs on the white one, given by Carol Rivett in 1947, depict the four seasons. The blue, or Holy Innocents, tunicle was made in 1910 by Christine Angus (Mrs Walter Sickert) and presented by her to the Abbey in 1920. This elaborate embroidery shows birds, flowers and butterflies with children from her extended family, including the young Peter Scott who became an eminent naturalist. This was extensively repaired by the Guild in 1992 entailing 680 hours of work over many months.
This sleeveless garment is used by the celebrant at Eucharist services. A scarlet, plum and orange one, representing tongues of fire, was designed by Thetis Blacker in 1992 and made by the Guild of St Faith. In 2017 a white and gold chasuble was commissioned.
A rich white silk frontal worked by Hannah Wyatt was given by her family and first used in 1905. The main scene is the Transfiguration of Christ with hosts of angels either side. As well as the rich red hangings used on the High Altar at the 1902 coronation there is also a fine white frontal and dorsal presented by George V and Queen Mary for their coronation in 1911. This was designed by W.R. Lethaby and includes small kneeling figures of the king and queen. The frontal used in 1937 for George VI’s coronation, designed by J.N. Comper, is fragile although it was extensively restored by the Guild. Unfortunately the blue frontal designed by Stephen Dykes Bower for the coronation in 1953 was not completed in time and the 1911 array was used. The blue one includes carnations, daffodils, roses, thistles and Flanders poppies and was worked by Miss Peppiatt.
In 1925 a frontal and dorsal of black silk was designed by W.H.C.Blacking for use mainly at funerals and was worked by the Royal School of Needlework. It shows the shields of St Edward and Henry III together with many coats of arms of early benefactors to the Abbey whose carved shields still hang in the church. These include Simon de Montfort, Roger Bigod and Richard Earl of Cornwall. It was used at the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002.
Many other frontals are used on the High Altar and one of the most recent is a blue and cream design using metallic thread. A white and gold frontal was made in October 2019 to mark the 750th anniversary of the dedication of Henry III's church.
The array used during Lent was originally designed by W.D. Caroe consisting of a large rood and symbols of the Evangelists on the linen dorsal. The frontal has three crosses with guttae or drops of blood.
An altar in the nave, dedicated to the Holy Cross, was brought into use when bomb damage in 1941 meant the High Altar could not be used for some time. In 1948 a new frontal for this altar was presented anonymously by a lady in memory of pilots from Rhodesia who died during the war. It was made up from a rare early 19th century red mohair damask from Perth in Scotland. The crucified Christ is in the centre flanked by figures of saints including St Andrew, St Margaret of Scotland and St George. On the black frontlet along the top is an inscription which can be translated "Behold the Cross of the Lord. The lion of the tribe of Judah" (St Anthony's prayer).
In thanksgiving for her wedding in the Abbey in 1982 Pamela, Lady Wedgwood presented a white and gold altar cloth for the nave, designed and made by Belinda Scarlett. The theme is the fire and the rose, inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding. He quoted from Julian of Norwich "When the tongues of flame are infolded with the crowned knot of fire and the fire and the rose are one". The tongues of flame are a reference to Pentecost. Three sets, with matching vestments, were designed by David Gazeley of Watts & Co. for Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee in 2002. In 2013 a new cloth of gold one was dedicated, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the 1953 coronation. The royal cypher, EIIR, is shown at each corner. In 2018 a new Lenten frontal was made by a member of the Guild of St Faith.
The altar of Our Lady in Henry VII’s chapel is a copy of Pietro Torrigiano’s original and was dedicated in 1935. Among frontals used here is a white one embroidered in coloured silks and silver and gold thread being Italian work of the late 17th century. The RAF chapel was dedicated in 1947 and this frontal is of cream silk lavishly embroidered with flowers and foliage with a central crown flanked by the cross keys of St Peter. This was worked by the Royal School of Needlework. The black marble altar in the south aisle of this chapel, where Henry VII’s mother Margaret Beaufort is buried, was erected in 1929. The white satin and coloured silk frontal of Italian work of the 17th century with an elaborate design of flowers, fruit and medallions has recently been removed from this altar and restored.
The altar in St Edward’s chapel dates from 1902 and various armorial frontals were designed for this by W. Blacking. There are white ones commemorating Elizabeth I, Mary I and James 1, a crimson for Henry VII, gold for Henry III and others in blue, green and red for other monarchs.
The altar table in St Faith’s chapel (used for private prayer) dating from 1904 is adorned with three oil paintings but these are covered by a frontal. In 1993 a double weave wool design by Jacqueline James was created for ordinary (non-festal) use.
The altar of the Holy Name in the lower Abbot Islip chapel was designed in 1940 and has both frontal and dorsal. A red and gold brocatelle design and one worked in metallic thread were used as dorsals for many years. The present red design also has a frontlet in black showing the coat of arms of the Abbot and his rebus (pun on his name).
The Guild was founded in 1982 to repair and make new vestments and hangings for the Abbey and for St Margaret’s Church. There are now groups working two days a week with 13 voluntary helpers supervised by Maureen Jupp, former Canons’ Verger. Four complete ‘sets’ of vestments have recently been made and two more will soon be completed. The sets are green, red, blue, black, murrey and white. The volunteers also work on repairing albs, cassocks, uniforms and anything else the Abbey requires. Frontals for all the various chapels are also made or repaired. At present the Guild is making 12 stoles and a new cope for St Margaret’s. And work has been done on the Westminster Dragoons guidon (flag) now placed in St George’s chapel.
Photos of many of these items can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
Westminster Abbey. Its Worship and Ornaments by Jocelyn Perkins, 3 vols. 1938-1952.
Sixty years at Westminster Abbey by Jocelyn Perkins, 1960
An inventory of the vestry of Westminster Abbey taken in 1388 by J.Wickham Legg, Archaeologia vol. LII, 1890 [original manuscript now in Canterbury Cathedral Library]
The inventories of Westminster Abbey at the Dissolution edited by Mackenzie Walcott, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society 1873
The cope now owned by Stonyhurst College in Lancashire is on loan to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The Westminster Chasuble is at Wardour Chapel.
You are surrounded by history at the Abbey, not like a museum where it’s just displayed, but here you are standing where history has happened.