Pulling the Threads Together – The Mystery of the St Mary’s Hall Tapestry.


Covsoc members Peter Walters reports on a recent Coventry Conference.

Coventry Society members were well represented among a near sell-out audience of around 150 at a conference held in the city’s St Mary’s Hall on September 27 to consider its magnificent Tudor tapestry.

Over nearly seven hours, some of the country’s leading experts attempted to answer questions that surround the tapestry, regarded as the oldest in Britain still hanging on the wall for which it was designed, but in many respects still a mystery.

Where was the tapestry woven and when? Who commissioned it? Who are all the characters flanking the central figures of King Henry VI and his Queen, Margaret of Anjou, and what was the purpose behind the creation of such an expensive work of art?

The conference, organised by Medieval Coventry’s Mark Webb, alongside colleagues from the Tudor Coventry group, opened with a presentation from the distinguished Tudor historian Professor David Starkey, setting out the challenges of trying to ‘read’ a tapestry that does not appear in the official record of the time.

He was followed by Mark Webb, reminding the audience of Coventry’s status as the regional capital of the Midlands in the years 1480 to 1520, and then Dr Joanna Laynesmith from Reading University, a specialist in the study of medieval queenship, whose subject was the relationship between Margaret of Anjou and Coventry, dubbed at the time as her ‘secret arbour’.

Buildings archaeologist Dr Kate Giles, from the University of York, set St Mary’s Hall in the context of other public buildings from the Middle Ages. And the final presentation of the morning session was given by Professor Maria Hayward, a textile conservation expert from Southampton University, who put forward a possible location for the tapestry’s manufacture (the Brussels area) and its probable cost (around £15).

Dr Jonathan Foyle, historian and archaeologist, took as his theme the fifteenth century ‘nine kings’ stained glass window that hangs above the tapestry and put forward a new interpretation of it, including the likelihood that the kings actually appear in the wrong order in the glass.

The Coventry-based independent historian Fred Hepburn, who followed him, applied a forensic interpretation to the tapestry and the characters in it. As a specialist in sixteenth century portraiture, he believed that the character hitherto thought to be Richard III was in fact his father, Richard, Duke of York, and that the tapestry was of a later date than had been supposed – 1510 at the earliest, instead of around the turn of the century.


The final speaker, Mika Takami from the tapestry conservation team at Hampton Court Palace, reported on her earlier brief study of the tapestry, confirming that it is in reasonable condition, but posing further questions about its conservation, in the event that it is possible to access the case in which it hangs and take a closer look.

With so many historians in the room, it was predictable that simple answers to all of the questions surrounding the tapestry would not emerge by the end of the day.

But there are plans to publish the presentations and conclusions of all the speakers and the conference achieved its broader aim of opening up the St Mary’s Hall tapestry to the kind of expert focus and attention it should be exposed to as a work of international importance.

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