The Sudbury Embroideries

These priceless treasures belong to St. Gregory’s Church but are currently in the care of Ipswich Museum. For almost twenty years they were displayed in a glass cabinet in St. Peter’s but were removed to the museum for safe keeping when the church was declared Redundant.

The Sudbury Pall

Of the two pieces the most important is The Sudbury Pall, a ceremonial cloth of embroidered velvet, which was placed over a coffin during the burial service of important persons. It dates from the latter half of the latter half of the 15th century and is a splendid and rare example of English church embroidery from that period.

Strangely the very first mention we have of the cloth appears in the old Town Book of 18th December 1569 where it States John Rushbrooke of Borehamgate…’gave up two spouts of lead weighing 135 lbs and a cloth of gold and velvet called The Pall which did belong to the church of St. Peter aforesaid, being taken from there by the said John Rushbrooke to recover payment for certain charges he had been at for the said church, which he now agreed to remit…’

It next appears in an inventory for St. Peter’s in 1675 described as ‘One Burying Cloth embroidered with gold and Silver. Only in the late 18th century do we see it described as The Alderman’s Pall on a label attached to it which states ‘The Alderman’s Pall repaired 1784’

It is interesting to compare the descriptions for the earlier one places the emphasis on gold.
This can he explained for close scrutiny of the flat surface shows clear evidence that a large area was covered originally with an embroidered Crucifixion. This would have been in gold thread but Crucifixions in any form were banned in the middle 17th century so it would have been carefully unpicked and the gold thread salvaged. The Second description of 1675 is more appropriate for the Pall as seen today.

The Pall is made of maroon silk velvet which would have teen imported from Italy. The Side and end folds are embroidered with elegant stylised vases of lilies in gold and silver thread.

Each fold also has a kneeling figure in a shroud worked in coloured silks. Each figure has a prayer scroll encircling its head. The prayers are quotations from the Vulgate, the Latin Bible. Translated into modern English the above reads as – “Though l have sinned I hope to see the goodness of the Lord”, those on the other 3 sides when translated are as follows:

“I Trust in Thy Light to lighten my darkness”
“Heal Thou my Soul O Lord for l have sinned against Thee”
“Haste Thee to help me O Lord”

These are supplications from the dead person direct to his Saviour. Had they been requests for others to pray for their soul then the Pall would nothave survived the 17th century. The Pall in edged with a fringe of coloured silks, which seems to have been added in the 18th century, probably the ‘repair’ mentioned above.

Throughout the early middle ages English embroidery using gold and silver thread was famous throughout Europe and called 0pus Anglicanum. A Vatican inventory of 1295 lists over 100 pieces. One of the most famous embroiderers was Mabel of Bury St Edmunds who regularly appears as working for Henry III between 1289-1244. Nuns in religious houses did much of this work but by the 15th century specialised workshops were established in various parts of the kingdom employing men. The Sudbury Pall would have come from such a place.
How did St. Peter’s come to own such a piece/ The most logical answer is that this was probably made for Sudbury College for the burial services of the Masters and was passed to the church after the Reformation. If so, it would have been used to drape the coffin of William Wood. Who knows? He may even have commissioned it.

The Pulpit Cloth

From the time of Henry VIII it was compulsory for churches to display the Royal Arms to acknowledge the sovereign as head of the church in England. Sometimes they were painted on board or even carved in wood and many have survived.

When St. Peter’s was restored in 1685, the same year James II came to the throne, a new set of arms was provided in the form of an embroidered panel on velvet. For display purposes the panel was mounted on some other embroidered panels cut from a cope, which the church owned and had no further use for. The whole ensemble was then suspended from the pulpit, which had become the focal point of church services and not the altar as in pre-Reformation days.

The arms of James II beautifully worked and below them in a smaller version of the Borough arms. The panels, which were cut from the cope, are of Italian embroidered silk from the late 15th or early 16th century. The combination of the two types of embroidery, pre-Reformation and post-Reformation, makes this an outstanding and unique possession.

Simon Danown, in his will dated 1457, leaves 6/8d ‘… towards payment for new copes bought for the church of St. Peter….’ Another wealthy man, Thomas Easton of Sudbury donated an embroidered cope to the church in 1503.

The above articles are taken from the booklet entitled “More Sudbury History”, produced in 2003 by Sudbury History Society and is the © of Barry Wall

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