The Oxburgh Hangings

Stork-The-Shrewsbury-HangingOf course, the outstanding exhibit at Oxburgh Hall is the needlework hangings embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots, Bess Hardwick (Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury) and their ladies-in-waiting between 1569 and 1584.  These hangings were NOT actually sewn at Oxburgh Hall, but arrived some time in the 18th century along with Mary Browne of Cowdray Park, a wife for the 4th Baronet, Sir Richard Bedingfeld.

The King’s Room, Oxburgh Hall circa 1973 showing the Marian Hanging above the fireplace and the Shrewsbury and Cavendish Hangings on the four poster bed. The hangings are now in a special room with no daylight and hang in sealed, moisture controlled display cabinets.

These embroidered panels are a visual and cultural expression of Mary’s time spent during her imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth 1. As such these embroideries are of a wider historical interest and significance than any part of the fabric of Oxburgh Hall or any other content of the hall, but, sadly, sewing is not such a crowd puller as a moat!

The Marian Hanging – so-called as many of these panels have either Mary Queen of Scots’ initials or cipher.
The centre square of the Marian Hanging shows a hand cutting down the unfruitful branches of the vine, with the motto ‘Virescit Vulnere Virtus’ (Virtue flourisheth by wounding).
Marian Hanging monogram octagon
This octagon above the centre square on the Marian Hanging shows the monogram ‘Marie Stuart’ crowned, with thistles, Mary’s cipher and motto ‘Sa Vertu Matire’ (In my end is my beginning).

In March 1569, three months into Mary’s stay/incarceration with the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife, Shrewsbury wrote of Mary

‘This Queen continueth daily to resort to my wife’s chamber where with the Lady Lewiston (Livingston) and the Mrs (Mary) Seton she useth to sit working with the needle in which she much delighteth and in devisisng works.’

From this we learn that both Mary and Bess worked together in the design as well as the execution of the embroideries. Many of the designs have motifs and Latin mottos taken from emblem books that were popular across Europe during the middle of the 16th century. It appears inspiration was taken from woodcuts printed in a selection of natural history books including ‘Icones Animalium’ by Conrad Gessner (1560), ‘Devises héroïques’ by Claud Paradin (1557) and ‘La Nature et Diversité des Poissons’ by Pierre Belon (1555).

Designs were drawn onto linen canvas and then embroidered. Coloured silks, silver thread and silver-gilt thread were used, employing both cross-stitch and tent-stitch, to create the finished pieces.

The present arrangement of embroideries at Oxburgh, mounted on green velvet, is believed to have been made sometime in the 18th century to create the three hangings. They are called the Marian Hanging (after Mary, Queen of Scots), the Shrewsbury Hanging (after Bess Hardwick) and the Cavendish Hanging (after Mary Cavendish, Bess’s youngest daughter). Individually, each embroidered panel may originally have been used for cushions and were sometimes given as gifts.

Some of the designs have hidden meanings for the imprisoned Queen, such as the despair of the yellow rose eaten by ‘canker’ (bottom right-hand corner of the Marian hanging but, sadly, it was too dark for me to get a photo in focus without a tripod!). Quite a few different birds are featured. They make interesting shapes to embroider, but, also, of course, a bird can always take to the sky, fly away, escape.

Not all the designs featured birds and animals from the wild. A few panels show domesticated animals and farm activities.

Whilst one or two panels depict mythical beasts in all their intricate glamour such as this cockatrice.

A cockatrice from the Marian Hanging. Such a mythical beast was said to be able to kill with a look!

This is only a small selection of all the beautifully embroidered panels. The hangings are in a small room with restricted lighting, but they do look so much better in real life than in photos. Well worth a visit.

The Cavendish Hanging

Note – for any Art Historians who stumble across this post. There are currently two books available on the Oxburgh Hangings, ‘Emblems for a Queen: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots’ by Michael Bath (2008) and ‘The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots’ by Margaret Swain (1973). For detailed technical information the V&A Museum is a great resource.

A pair of scissors once owned by Mary, Queen of Scots displayed in the King’s Room at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk.


Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

23 thoughts on “The Oxburgh Hangings”

  1. Wow, they have held up so well. Do you have any info on the dyes used? I assume all from nature, as this is too early for the – I don’t know the right word – industrially made ones.

    1. I don’t have any specific info re these particular embroidery silks, but I’m guessing that as they are over 440 years old it would be ‘natural’ dyeing of the thread using seeds, leaves, flowers, roots and bark and possibly using a urine mordant. And, of course, Royal purple came from the Mediterranean sea snail. Naturally, the Ladies didn’t dye their own embroidery silks, they had them purchased for their work (account documentation still survives regarding purchases).
      Actually, I didn’t mention it in the post but they also had professional embroiderers on the ‘accounts’ too at their residences where some of these panels were sewn. There is evidence that a professional embroiderer, Pierre Oudry, joined Mary’s household for a while. His name is on a portrait of Mary now at Hardwick House. However, the fact that Mary signed much of her own work has assured the significance of these hangings.
      And, yes, truly industrial/factory, chemical dyeing didn’t get into its stride until the late-18th and 19th century with the Industrial Revolution.

      1. What a different world, with these occupations such as professional embroiderer. And that people spent significant time and money on these kinds of works. Even more remarkable when you think of how little clothing the average person had, for instance – and how long it took to do these.

      2. It’s not quite so different – last weekend I read of a Parisian Haute Couture house selling a one-off dress for £100,000 ($132,000) – it’s just that the contemporary richest 1% are not all Kings and Queens, and Lords and Ladies these days, but hedge fund people and tech wizards!!!

      3. My goodness, one dress. I guess people could have said the same thing about the tapestries – my goodness, don’t people have something better to do with their time? And look what we remember and cherish – the tapestry, because the everyday things haven’t survived, not considered unique.

  2. Those woodcuts by Gessner are quite something. That toucan really IS a toucan. I always feel sad, when looking at wall hangings, that we simply can’t see them as they were intended to be. Instead of the rich yet subtle shades of natural dyes, we have faded images that are often little better than beige. The ones at Oxburgh seem to have held up better than most. Have you read Tracy Chevalier’s ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’? Though it’s a work of fiction, I liked the insight it gives into the lives of those people who made their living turning out tapestries for those with money and the power to call the tune.

    1. I so agree with you about the colour issue – beautiful though faded work has lead many to a glib appreciation of ‘muted’ as tasteful and historically accurate. It’s not just textiles, but frescoes and particularly ancient sculpture that was originally significantly more colourful. In fact, in some cases so colourful that nowadays it would be considered tasteless. It would be lovely to see these hangings with their original, natural colours in their full glory, but I suppose we just have to appreciate that they have survived at all.
      No, I’ve not read the Chevalier, but will put it on my list. I always think that well-researched historical fiction actually brings the period to life more effectively than reading the dry, academic papers. But having whetted the appetite with fiction it’s surprising how often you follow up some of the references!!

  3. Yes, I like the notion of living history, conserving our cultural and material past, but not necessarily all the ‘families’ with their generation on generations, tenacious grip of multiple aspects of our society.

  4. These tapestries are so fascinating – I do enjoy these fabric art masterpieces although I know some would cringe at me using that word. The work that went into these and the dreams of escape that they may have represented too – just so moving. How did you get so close or do you have a good telephoto lens and tripod?

    1. Yes, I think these tapestries are very poignant.
      Getting the photos was a bit awkward. No tripods, no flash, small space, but as they are behind glass you can get very close. It was just a case of a slow shutter speed, wide aperture, stand firmly and hold one’s breath – and hope!! I did take a lot of pics and I’d say over half just weren’t sharp.

  5. I visited Oxburgh yesterday with no prior knowledge of these tapestries – just wandered into the display and was blown away. As you say, I had a sense they were the most important thing in the house, yet no great fuss made about them. To me, they are works of political protest art through needlepoint. Great to find this blog so that I could read more about them – thank you.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I agree with you about their political content. There’s a lot more to them than I have included in this post.

      During my visit in the spring of 2016 and with my Art Historian’s hat on, I thought the Oxburgh Hangings would make a great subject for an interdisciplinary PhD. It seems I wasn’t the only one. I recently saw “Virtuous needleworkers, vicious apes: the embroideries of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick” by M. A. Katritzky, was deposited in 2017.

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