Major family investment attempted to develop skills for an entirely new craft industry
THE ONE SAVING GRACE for Ralph Sheldon (1537-1613) during his many brushes with the establishment over his strict adherence to Catholicism was his continuing development of the tapestry-weaving industry he and his father, William, had established at Barcheston in Warwickshire.
Apart from the magnificent quality of the work, far superior to anything the established English weaving industry was able to produce at the time, it provided increasing employment opportunities for the poor, while at the same time developing skills and techniques hitherto alien to local weavers.
The development of this new, specialised industry came at a time when England was in the grip of an economic crisis brought on by a series of costly wars, successive bad harvests and a rapidly rising population.
Tapestries were great status items in Tudor times and hitherto had commanded extraordinarily high prices. There is evidence that Henry VIII in 1529 paid £1,500 – a sum comparable to the cost of a fully-rigged battleship for the Royal Navy – for a set of imported tapestries to decorate Hampton Court Palace.
Elizabeth I had inherited a kingdom burdened by debt, divided by religious dogma and weakened by a failed war against France. Added to this, the woollen cloth trade, so long the staple of the nation’s economy, was in serious decline, taxes and unemployment were rising and the population was growing at an unprecedented rate, increasing by a million during her 45-year reign.
Nonetheless, despite the turmoil that surrounded her, Elizabeth still managed to bring a measure of stability to the country despite further antagonising both Spain and France by entering into an alliance with the Dutch.
The Sheldon Tapestries, as they became known in more recent times, were produced in large numbers and were the height of fashion in the great Elizabethan houses of the day. And it wasn’t long before demand began to filter down into the homes of the wealthy middle classes, the merchants and bankers who were driving forward the national economy.
Made from only the finest materials – silk, wool, silver and silver-gilt thread – Sheldon Tapestries featured as wall hangings, cushion covers and bed valances, but were also sold as simpler, more personal items such as book covers, pin cushions and gloves.
‘The first in England to commence the Art of Tapestry Weaving’
It was against such a backdrop that government perhaps took a slightly more relaxed view of Ralph’s religious recusancy, particularly in the light of the widespread success of the Sheldon Tapestries, which hold a fascination to this day, with examples of the work still on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and at many other museums both in the UK and around the world.
The intention of this article is not to go into great detail about the Sheldon Tapestries since it has been the subject of intense and learned scrutiny over the last hundred years or so. There are links to more detailed information towards the end of this article for those who wish to find out more.
The discovery in 1908 of William Sheldon’s previously unknown last will and testament was the catalyst that fueled the interest of historians, though many clues had been available beforehand, not least in the Latin inscription on the monument erected to William’s memory in Beoley Church by son Ralph, a portion of which reads:
“A man born to aid the public good, so patriotic that he was the first in England to commence the Art of Tapestry Weaving, for which at his own expense he provided large sums of money, and left by will property and money to care for the workmen in that craft.”
Sheldon wealth was largely founded on sheep and William Sheldon had been long involved in all aspects of the wool trade, from production, to weaving and exporting. He was also an astute businessman, investing substantial sums in fledgling industries such as coal mining in Leicestershire and large-scale salt production at Droitwich, Worcestershire.
As a dealer in wool, he would also have been well aware that the quality of English weaving was way below that which existed on the Continent, notably in modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands, back then collectively known as the Low Countries.
According to our old friend EAB Barnard, the Sheldon historian, William sent his eldest son and heir, Ralph, on a European venture in the company of Richard Hyckes to learn about the mechanics of continental weaving and the skills needed to produce tapestry work of the finest quality.
Hyckes, or Heekes as he is refered to in William Sheldon’s will – a massive document that in translation runs to 34 A4 pages and to close on 18,000 words – subsequently became the Queen’s arrasmaker, overseeing the repairing and replacement of Royal tapestries and other fabrics at Elizabeth’s six palaces dotted around London, namely Whitehall, Hampton Court, Greenwich, Richmond, St James and Windsor Castle.
Generous bequest to further job prospects for young people
Long before his death, William had recorded in his will the details of the arrangement, clearly stating that he had granted Hyckes “the mill there and all the house, orchard, gardens, the going, pasturing and feeding of 17 kine (an old-English plural word for cattle), 6 horses and certain other cattle without paying any rent in money for the same but only to make certain malt for me and to carry certain of my corn and hay, and chiefly in respect of the maintenance of making of tapestry, arras, mockados, carolles, plumbets, grograms, says and serges.”
The will goes on to say that an agreement between the two parties required William or his heirs to continue to invest in the venture as required, at the same time acknowledging that Hyckes would need the money to provide the equipment for the workrooms.
In later life William, by virtue of his immense wealth, had become something of a philanthropist, declaring in his will the hope that his investment will be “greatly beneficial” to young people who learn the trade under Heykes’s tutelage, while at the same time keeping “great sums of money within this realm that will issue and go out of this realm for the same commodities, to the maintenance of foreign parties and to the hindrance of this commonwealth”.
Tapestry making started under the direction of Hyckes, initially at Barcheston but soon expanded to take in additional looms at Bordesley near Beoley.
So generous were the terms of Sheldon’s will that Hyckes overnight became a man of power and wealth in his own right. After his status and wealth was further enhanced by his appointment to the Royal household, Hyckes modified Sheldons original plan by establishing a pool of reliable and skilled sub-contractors, mainly other Flemish weavers based in and around London, allowing Hyckes to act on the one hand as Master Weaver for the most important and valuable orders destined for the looms at Barcheston, while with the other acting as designer and middleman for smaller Sheldon orders and for work related to his Royal duties.
This outsourcing has led one or two experts to question the providence of some Sheldon tapestries because they carry an unidentified weaver’s mark.
Tapestry weaving continued at Barcheston under the direction of Hyckes and his son Francis beyond Ralph Sheldon’s death in 1613. Richard Hyckes died in 1623 – at the age of 97 it was said – after which little more is heard of it.
3 Ralphs + 2 Williams + 1 Edward = confusion!
Attempts have been made in recent times to downplay the scale of the Sheldon Tapestry operation, but there are just as many holes in the modern-day counter-arguments as the naysayers claim to have found in the original submissions that followed the discovery of William Sheldon’s will.
One source often quoted by historians who accept the substance of claims made about the extent of the tapestry-making operation is that of Anthony Wood (1632-1695), an antiquarian and Oxford University scholar, who was close friends with two members of the Sheldon family.
Confusingly, both were called Ralph, one a grandson of Ralph Sheldon (1537-1613) and the other his great-grandson, both of whom would almost certainly have had intimate knowledge of the tapestry work.
Ralph Sheldon (1591-1659), of Steeple Barton in Oxfordshire, was the grandson in question, the son of Edward Sheldon, the main heir to the Sheldon fortune.
Wood knew Ralph well enough to describe him as an accomplished musician, and was also a close friend of Ralph Sheldon (1623-1684), a grandson of Edward and main beneficiary of William Sheldon, Edward’s son, who inherited Beoley.
Having three Ralphs, two Williams and an Edward all within five generations is confusing to say the least, so the accompanying simple diagram helps to make sense of it.
Whatever the merits of these scholarly arguments, many examples of Sheldon Tapestry work survive to this day, in both public and private collections, and are extremely valuable. Several are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, including The Flight into Egypt cushion cover, which has an arcade and side borders with men and women, and hunting scenes at top and bottom.
Tapestries were made for one Walter Jones for his house in Worcester, which included The Story of Judah in four large panels, each about 10 ft by 8 ft, with the initials of Walter and his wife Eleanor, and texts from the Breeches Bible of 1560.
Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, once owned by Thomas Seymour, who Ralph’s father had served as steward, has a tapestry 15ft by 6ft, which is described as the finest piece in its collection. Its subject is The Expulsion from Paradise, and it contains eight small medallions representing Justice, Temperance, Providence, and so on, placed in a background of a large variety of English flowers and various animals and birds, some shown with human faces, and a border with a succession of country scenes.
Tapestry maps uniquely represented the English landscape
Among the most famous products of the Barcheston business were four tapestry maps, each 12ft x 15ft, commissioned in 1588 specifically to adorn Ralph Sheldon’s home at Weston, which was then then under construction.
The tapestry maps went on display side by side in the Great Hall when the house was completed in 1589 – giving an idea of the magnificent scale of the house. Ralph was a great one for entertaining his many wealthy neighbours and friends and no doubt his unique tapestry maps were a great talking point at the many grand balls, dinners and soirees he staged at Weston.
The tapestries are of major significance in cartographic history, forming a unique representation of the landscape at a period when modern cartography was still in its infancy.
All four tapestry maps were in the Sheldon family’s possession until 1781 when they were sold, along with the remainder of the contents of Weston House.
Their content was largely derived from the county maps of Christopher Saxton, which were surveyed and published in the 1570s. Their design and production were ground-breaking in their melding of the cartographic and the decorative arts.
The maps were of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, and Oxfordshire with Berkshire, and were bordered with a mixture of flowers, mythological figures and architectural motifs.
What remains of two of the original set, Oxfordshire and Worcestershire, now belong to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, which received them in 1909 as a gift from a Richard Gough, significant portions of their content having been lost to moths.
The Gloucestershire map was broken up into many parts down the years, not all of which have survived. A sizeable portion of it was purchased by the Bodleian at auction in 2007 to complement two smaller sections already held in the collection. Other parts of the Gloucestershire map remain in private hands.
A few years ago specialist National Trust tapestry conservators carried out major conservation work on all three of the Bodleian’s tapestry maps and on a small set of accompanying fragments. A detailed account of the project can be found on the Bodleian website.
The final tapestry in the set, that of Warwickshire, belongs to the Warwickshire Museum Service and is last reported to be on display in the Market Hall Museum in Warwick. It is the only one of the four to survive completely intact.
Cleaning and conservation of the Warwickshire map was carried out in 2011, prior to its temporary exhibition at the British Museum in 2012. During this treatment the lining was removed from the back, where some fragments of the Elizabethan original were found.
The original colours could also be seen, bright green and yellow, though on the front of the tapestry they have faded to blue. Cleaning also highlighted previously hidden details, like the cottages hidden among the trees of the Forest of Arden and the stone circle near Great Rollright, possibly the earliest depiction of the Rollright Stones, a group of Neolithic and Bronze Age megaliths on the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire border.
Further reading and references
Any internet search will quickly reveal a large pool of information relating to the Sheldon Tapestries.
One of the best sources of information is a book by the American academic, Mary Bryan H Curd entitled Flemish and Dutch Artists in Early Modern England: Collaboration and Competition, 1460-1680, which is available in both paperback and hardback through Amazon.
Also worth a look is the website put together by historian Hilary L Turner at http://www.tapestriescalledsheldon.info which offers a less charitable view of the work.
Warwickshire County Council’s Heritage and Culture branch of its Museum Service, which houses the best surviving example of Sheldon Tapestry work, the famed Warwickshire Map, has detailed information. Find out more at The Sheldon Tapestry Maps
The Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University, holds two of the other county maps that made up the set of four, namely Oxfordshire and Worcestershire, and a sizeable part of the fourth, the Gloucestershire map, which have been the subject of a recent major conservation project.