EXTREMELY rare fragments of Anglo Saxon embroidery from Worcester, nearly 1,000 years old and hidden away for decades, are currently being painstakingly restored and conserved by specialists.

The exquisite fragments are the only surviving pieces from the same period as the famous Bayeux Tapestry in France and are among the very earliest examples of English embroidery.

And tantalising too, is the real possibility that they may have been part of vestments which belonged to St Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester from 1062 until 1095. The 1,000th anniversary of his birth is being celebrated this year.

The fragments were discovered in a stone coffin in 1870 during building work in the Lady Chapel of Worcester Cathedral and are thought to have been concealed there by monks who venerated St Wulfstan and feared the embroidery pieces might be destroyed at the time of Henry VIII’s Reformation of the monasteries in 1540.

Alas, the fragments languished in a drawer in the ancient Library of Worcester Cathedral for decades after their 1870 unearthing, but were recognised in more recent times as being perhaps unique surviving examples of delicate and beautiful Anglo-Saxon needlework.

They are magnificent in the use of gold and silver threads and costly silks from the Orient and there are hardly any works that have survived to compare.

It is believed they may date from the second half of the 11th-century, in which case the only contemporary surviving piece known is the Bayeux Tapestry dating from not long after 1066. Significantly, there are a number of stylistic similarities between the Bayeux Tapestry and the Worcester pieces.

Thanks to a generous private donation, the exciting and nationally important Worcester fragments were sent away more than a year ago to be minutely analysed by experts at the University of Southampton’s Textile Conservation Centre in Winchester.

And since then a significant donation of nearly £5,000 has been made by the Friends of Worcester Cathedral, enabling the same specialists at Winchester to undertake restoration and conversation work on the fragments.

This painstaking task should be completed soon, and the Friends’ grant will also cover the cost of mounting and framing the fragments so that they can be put on display at Worcester from time to time for all to see.

The cathedral is thrilled to have such pieces in its collection and proud to have preserved them for the nation.

The now treasured Anglo Saxon embroidery pieces come from a bishop’s vestments and include a stole (scarf), a maniple (a strip of material which hung from the left arm, derived from a napkin), and four wedge-shaped panels.

It would seem that most embroidery of this date was done in noble households, for who else could afford the silks from the Orient and the gold and silver thread? For example, Queen Margaret of Scotland, who died in 1093, was noted for her production of church vestments.

There were probably workshops at convents and priories, but none seem to be recorded at this time. St Dunstan (924-988), Bishop of Worcester and later Archbishop of Canterbury, was a famous designer of vestments.

The high quality and splendour of the Worcester fragments shows that they come from robes worn by a bishop on feast days in the Church’s calendar.

It is thought they may have belonged to St Wulfstan and, because of their association with a saint, were venerated by the monks of Worcester Cathedral who at the time of the Reformation concealed them for safe-keeping in a Lady Chapel stone coffin, beneath the effigy of a bishop.

The exquisite stole originally consisted of strips which totalled approximately 7ft 6 ins in length, with panels each containing a standing figure about six ins high with a halo behind his head. The figures are of apostles whose names are embroidered in gold above their heads.

The condition of the Worcester pieces was far from perfect when they were first sent to Winchester but they have a tremendous character and personality.

● Article based on expert notes supplied by Worcester Cathedral Archaeologist Christopher Guy.

Photographs courtesy of the Textile Conservation Centre, University of Southampton.


This illustrated article on the Anglo Saxon Worcester embroidery fragments is one of several fascinating features compiled by Mike Grundy and others on the long history of Worcester Cathedral and its environs, published in the 2008 edition of The Shield, the annual publication of the Friends of Worcester Cathedral. It is available at the Cathedral Gift Shop, price £2 to non members of the Friends.