Beaumont's legacy in Medieval Embroidery

Detail of the Butler Bowden Cope: Beaumont Union
Detail of the Butler Bowden Cope: Beaumont Union

Former students of Beaumont College have planned a series of special events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its closure. The school in Old Windsor, Berkshire, was founded by the Jesuits in 1861 and, although it closed in 1967, its spirit lives on through the Beaumont Union of Old Boys. One of the highlights of the year will be a visit in May to the First World War Verdun Battlefield. It is believed that up to 50 Beaumont alumni fought at Verdun, either in the main battle in 1916 or in subsequent battles before Armistice Day.

Another source of pride for Beaumont College Old Boys during this anniversary year has been the English Medieval Embroidery, which belonged to a former Beaumont family, the Butler Bowdens, and is now owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington where it was placed on display in an exhibition over the winter.

It was thought that, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, various vestments and other valuables were given to Catholic families for safe keeping – among them, the Butler Bowdens of Pleasington Hall in Lancashire. The first members of the family to come to Beaumont were John, Lancelot, Jermyne and Bruno who arrived in 1865 and left in 1869. In the next generation, it was just the sons of John who came to Old Windsor: Leonard, who went out to Natal where he died in 1904, and his elder brother William, who went on to Sandhurst. In 1955, William sold the cope that had been in the family for centuries to the V&A for £33,000.

An amazing innovationThe Butler Bowden Chasuble, 1398-1420

"From the 12th to the 15th centuries, England enjoyed an international reputation for the quality of its luxury embroideries, often referred to as Opus Anglicanum (English work)," explains Robert Wilkinson of the Beaumont Union. "Made by professional craftspeople in the City of London and rich in their intricacy, they were sought after by kings, queens, popes and cardinals from across Europe."

Among the items that were on show at the V&A were the Butler Bowdon Cope (1330-1350), which was made from some of the richest materials available to an embroiderer in 14th-century England. "This was a time when English embroidery was one of the most highly regarded art forms in Europe, and wealthy people spent staggering amounts commissioning pieces for themselves, or for diplomatic gifts," says Mr Wilkinson. "Silk velvet had only been woven in Europe for a short time before this embroidery was made, and it would still have been seen as an amazing innovation, with the soft plushness of its pile."

The central images on the Butler Bowden Cope, which would have appeared down the wearer's back, celebrate events from the life of the Virgin Mary: the Annunciation, the adoration of the Magi and the Coronation of the Virgin. Beneath the other arches there are apostles, and male and female saints, while the spaces between the arches are filled with angels holding stars.

To find out more about Beaumont College, visit the Beaumont Union website.