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Saviour Christ. The celebrated standard of the Danes had the sacred raven worked on it; and the ill-fated Harold bore to the field of Hastings a banner with the figure of an armed man worked in gold thread: to the same field William bore a standard, a gift from the Pope, and blessed by his Holiness.
It is recorded of St. Dunstan, who, as our readers well know, excelled in many pursuits, and especially in painting, for which he frequently forsook his peculiar occupation of goldsmith, that on one occasion, at the earnest request of a lady, he tinted a sacerdotal vestment for her, which she afterwards embroidered in gold thread in an exquisitely beautiful style. Most of these embroidered works were first tinted, very probably in the way in which they now are, or until the freer influx of the more beautiful German patterns, they lately were; and it is from this previous tinting that they are so frequently described in the old books as painted garments, pictured vestments, &c, this term by no means seeming usually to imply that the use of the needle had been neglected or superseded in them. The garments of Edward the Confessor, which he wore upon occasions of great solemnity, were sumptuously embroidered with gold by the hands of Edgitha, his Queen. The four princesses, daughters of King Edward the Elder, were most carefully educated: their early years were chiefly devoted to literary pursuits, but they were nevertheless most assiduously instructed in the use of the needle, and are highly celebrated by historians for their assiduity and skill in spinning, weaving, and needlework. This was so far, says the historian, from spoiling the fortunes of those royal spinsters, that it procured them the addresses of the greatest princes then in Europe, and one, "in whom the whole essence of beauty had centered, was demanded from her brother by Hugh, King of the Franks."
Our fair readers may take some interest in knowing what were the propitiatory offerings of a noble suitor of those days.
"Perfumes, such as never had been seen in England before; jewels, but more especially emeralds, the greenness of which, reflected by the sun, illumined the countenances of the bystanders with agreeable light; many fleet horses, with their trappings, and, as Virgil says, 'champing their golden bits;' an alabaster vase, so exquisitely chased, that the corn-fields really seemed to wave, the vines to bud, the figures of men actually to move, and so clear and polished, that it reflected the features like a mirror; the sword of Constantine the Great, on which the name of its original possessor was read in golden letters; on the pommel, upon thick plates of gold, might be seen fixed an iron spike, one of the four which the Jewish faction prepared for the crucifixion of our Lord; the spear of Charles the Great, which, whenever that invincible Emperor hurled in his expeditions against the Saracens, he always came off conqueror; it was reported to be the same which, driven into the side of our Saviour by the hand of the centurion, opened, by that precious wound, the joys of paradise to wretched mortals; the banner of the most blessed martyr Maurice, chief of the Theban legion, with which the same King, in the Spanish war, used to break through the battalions of the enemy, however tierce and wedged together, and put them to flight; a diadem, precious from its quantity of gold, but more so for its jewels, the splendour of which threw the sparks of light so strongly on the beholders, that the more steadfastly any person endeavoured to gaze, so much the more dazzled he was—compelled to avert his eyes; part of the holy and adorable cross enclosed in crystal, where the eye, piercing through the substance of the stone, might discern the colour and size of the wood; a small portion of the crown of thorns enclosed in a similar manner, which, in derision of his government, the madness of the soldiers placed on Christ's sacred head.
"The King (Athelstan), delighted with such great and exquisite presents, made an equal return of good offices, and gratified the soul of the longing suitor by a union with his sister. With some of these presents he enriched succeeding kings; but to Malmesbury he gave part of the cross and crown; by the support of which, I believe, that place even now flourishes, though it has suffered so many shipwrecks of its liberty, so many attacks of its enemies."*
It is not to be supposed that at a time when the "whole island " was said to "blaze" with devotion, and when, moreover, her own fair daughters surpassed the whole world in needlework, that the English churches were deficient in its beautiful adornments. Far otherwise, indeed. We forbear to enumerate many, because our chapter has already exceeded its prescribed limits; but we may particularize a golden veil or hanging (vellum), embroidered with the destruction of Troy, which Witlaf, King of Mercia, gave to the abbey of Croyland; and the coronation mantle of Harold Harefoot, son of Cnute, which he gave to the same abbey, made of silk, and embroidered with "Hesperian apples." Richard, who was abbot of St. Alban's from 1088 to 1119, made a present to his monastery of a suit of hangings which contained the whole history of the primitive martyr of England, Alban.
* Will, of Malmesbury, 156.
Croyland Abbey possessed many hangings for the altars, embroidered with golden birds; and a garment, which seems to have been a peculiar, and considered a valuable one, being a black gown wrought with gold letters, to officiate in at funerals. The enigmatical letters which were worked on ecclesiastical vestments in those days, were various and peculiar, and have given abundant scope for antiquarian research. We have heard it surmised that they took their rise in times of persecution, being indications (then, doubtless, slight and unostentatious ones) by which the Christians might know each other. But they came into more general use, not merely as symbolical characters, but individual names were wrought, and that not on personal garments alone, for Pope Leo the Fourth placed a cloth on the altar woven with gold, and spangled all over with pearls. It had on each side (right and left) a circle bounded with gold, within which the name of his Holiness was written in precious stones. In many old paintings a letter or letters have been noticed on the garment of the principal figure, and they have been taken for private marks of the painter, but it is more probable, says Ciampini,* that they are either copied from old garments, or are intended to denote the dignity of the character to which they are attached.
We will conclude the present chapter by remarking that one of the most magnificent specimens of ancient needlework in existence, and which is in excellent preservation, is the State Pall belonging to the Fishmongers Company. The end pieces are similar, and consist of a picture, wrought in gold and silk, of the patron, St. Peter, in pontificial robes, seated on a supurb throne, and crowned with the papal tiara. Holding in one hand the keys, the other is in the posture of giving the benediction, and on each side is an angel, bearing a golden vase, from which he scatters incense over the Saint. The angel's wings, according to old custom, are composed of peacocks' feathers in all their natural vivid colours; their outer robes are gold raised with crimson; their under vests white, shaded with sky blue; the faces are finely worked in satin, after nature, and they have long yellow hair.
There are various designs on the side pieces \ the most important and conspicuous is Christ delivering the keys to Peter. Among other decorations are, of course, the arms of the company, richly emblazoned, the supporters of which, the merman and mermaid, are beautifully worked, the merman in gold armour, the mermaid in white silk, with long tresses in golden thread.
This magnificent piece of needlework has probably no parallel in this country. * Vet. Mon cap. 13.