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The Earl of Leicester's armorial tapestry

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Tapestry; arms of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester

©V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The tapestry shows the arms of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, flanked either side by an oval cartouche enclosing a fountain, a foreground with game birds standing on an elaborate floral ground.  

The ideas behind the design are sophisticated, though the setting of a coat of arms in an elaborate floral ground is often found. The inclusion of fountains draws on an older fashion widespread in the earlier sixteenth century; the particular design seen here was taken from the architectural manual of Hans Vredeman de Vries (1553-1606). The birds in the foreground were perhaps based on the zoological dictionary of Conrad Gesner, Historia Animalium, (The History of Animals) and the flowers and foliage follow older tapestry vocabulary.

The tapestry's place of origin has been much debated. Modern opinion is that it was woven in a workshop somewhere in the Low Countries, probably in the 1580s.

MORE on Doubtful Attributions

In the 1920s it was associated with the Sheldon looms because :

The earl of Leicester knew of William Sheldon's venture. It seemed possible, therefore, that he might have been one of its patrons.

The narrow outer border is very similar to one seen on a small tapestry showing a griffin found at Chastleton House. Because that piece was considered to be a Sheldon product, it followed that the pieces which made up this set - two others, less elaborately designed, have survived - must also be Sheldon work. That border is now known to have been copied from a printed source.

More recently, a reference in the earl's accounts to 'three new pieces bought of Hix: with my Lord's armes in the midell thereof verie large and faire' has been interpreted as confirmation that Richard Hyckes was indeed the weaver. But the brief entry is ambiguous. The description would fit any of the other sets of armorial tapestries mentioned in inventories of the earl's possessions. Nor is it clear that Richard Hyckes wove the tapestries supplied or whether he had acted only as purchaser of goods woven in continental ateliers.



Museum number T.320-1977

9 ft 6 inches x 13 ft 2 1/2
2.90m x 4.77m 
Wool and silk


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