Despite all the research done on this period of English history, Tudor embroidery and those who practiced the profession remain a bit of a mystery. Most history of embroidery books skirt past this period of important English art. It was preceded by the very well-documented period of English ecclesiastical embroidery known as Opus Anglicanum, which had effectively drawn to a close by the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Religious embroidery continued to be in high demand, but it was produced for local consumption, and did not receive the international acclaim of the earlier era.
In the 1530’s, Henry VIII famously broke all ties with Rome over his desire to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn in the early 1530’s. It was a tumultuous period. First the large religious institutions, such as abbeys and convents, were dismantled. Then the property and all the ecclesiastical furnishings were confiscated by the crown. During Edward’s short reign, every parish church in the country was stripped clean. Effectively, embroiderers had been deprived of their main source of income and were challenged to find a way to maintain their craft and their livelihood.
How did the professional embroiderer survive that difficult period? What type of embroidery was done? How did the craft expand to the extent that we see in the portraiture in Elizabethan period? How did it become so popular in the Stuart period that many ambitious people, men and women spent fortunes that they didn’t necessarily have dressing in embroidered finery to keep up the illusion of wealth? Can we discover more about those skilled embroiderers who made it happen? Who were they and how did they endure that difficult period? And, importantly, can we reproduce the techniques to ensure the Tudor art of embroidery survives?