The Early 16th-Century Tapestry

St Mary's Hall

16th Century Tapestry at St Mary’s Guildhall © Paul Gardner

The wool and silk tapestry below the north wall window of the guildhall’s Great Hall is the oldest tapestry still hanging in the place for which it was originally designed. It has been dated, stylistically, to the first quarter of the 16th-Century, probably between c 1505 and 1515. It was woven in the southern Netherlands, which was then the premier location for the manufacture of fine tapestries. The most likely location is likely to be Tournai, although Brussels is another possibility.

The tapestry depicts a king and queen either side of the ascending Virgin Mary. Beside them are male and female courtiers and in the upper register, male and female saints. Above St Mary is the figure of Justice, which is a late 16th century addition, replacing what was probably a depiction of the Holy Trinity.

The principal saints displayed are St Mary, St Katherine and St John the Baptist, the patron saints of the Trinity Guild which played such an important part in the commercial and religious life of late medieval Coventry. The figure of Justice is a late 16th-Century addition, replacing a depiction of the Holy Trinity, the fourth of the guilds that made up the Trinity Guild.  The ruling elite of the city in the 15th and early 16th-Centuries were nearly all members of the Trinity Guild or the junior Corpus Christi Guild.

The king and queen depicted are Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. Coventry was especially favoured by the king and queen and stayed in the city frequently, especially between c 1456 and 1460. In that period, during years of dynastic conflict that split the country known as the Wars of the Roses, the king and queen effectively made Coventry their headquarters. In 1451, Coventry was favoured by the king with the award of county status, separate from Warwickshire. The tapestry mostly likely refers to this period, Coventry’s heyday, when it was commended by the king for being “the best governed in the kingdom”.

The tapestry is therefore a special commission made around c. 1510 to depict a scene 60 years earlier. By the early years of the 16th-Century, Coventry’s economic boom period was over and there was periodic unrest over the enclosure of common lands outside the city walls. In addition, Lollard sentiment in the city threatened the ruling Catholic orthodoxy. The tapestry therefore has a message to the citizens of Coventry at a time of instability – referring to a golden period of good government with power and authority emanating from the heavens to the king and queen, and with the mayor and his brethren seated below the tapestry on the raised dias.

We do not know who commissioned the tapestry as no records survive. There is merely a reference to a repair made in 1519. It is most likely to have been a commission made by the Trinity Guild, perhaps in anticipation of a royal visit, probably Henry VII (1485-1509). Henry would have been especially impressed by the reference to Henry VI, his half-uncle.

This would have been an expensive commission, especially at a time when the city’s economy was in decline. There would have been a cartoon or template made, which the weavers would have followed. A tapestry of this nature would have taken three to four years to complete. It is possible therefore that the tapestry was not finished before Henry VII died, and the first monarch to have seen it was probably his son, Henry VIII.

The tapestry has long been acknowledged as being one of the most important Renaissance tapestries in Britain, if not the world. There are tapestries of a similar style and quality on display at Hampton Court Palace, the V&A, The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York and elsewhere. The tapestry was taken down for cleaning and restoration in 2021 and put back in a new display case in its original position beneath the 15th-Century window.

This restoration, the first for over 20 years, allowed a rare glimpse of the reverse of the tapestry which has enabled us to examine its repair history and the original colours. Cleaning has also brought out some of the finer features of the tapestry such as the finer costumes worn by the principal figures, architectural columns and facial features such as eyes and beards. This has enabled us to compare the tapestry with others with similar features and where the provenance is better documented, such as the Story of Judith and Holofernes in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels. Wool fragments that came off during cleaning, have been carefully preserved and will be scientifically analysed in a laboratory specialising in historic textiles. This will enable us to analyse the original dyes used and add further information on Coventry’s international trading links. Gradually the tapestry is giving up its secrets.

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