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Blue silk could be Garter ribbon worn by Charles I in Van Dyck’s famous portrait, scientific analysis shows

Release date: Thursday, 2 May 2013

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A length of blue silk attached to a book in the Royal Collection may well be the Garter ribbon worn by Charles I as he sat for Sir Anthony van Dyck’s famous triple portrait, scientific analysis has revealed.  The portrait and the ribbon will be brought together for the first time in the Royal Collection Trust exhibition In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, which explores the fashionable attire of European royal courts in the 16th and 17th centuries and opens next month at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace (10 May – 6 October 2013).

Charles I placed great importance on the Order of the Garter, the oldest and highest order of chivalry in England.  He took an interest in maintaining its traditions, such as holding a procession of Garter Knights at Windsor Castle – today a similar procession is held each year by Her Majesty The Queen – and wore a Garter badge to his execution in 1649.  Fourteen years earlier, in Van Dyck’s portrait, the monarch is shown wearing a pale blue Garter ribbon suspending the Lesser George badge of the Order. 

When the Van Dyck portrait was selected for the exhibition, Royal Collection Trust curators decided to take a closer look at four lengths of blue silk ribbon attached to the binding of a copy of the Eikon Basilike (‘The Royal Portrait’) published in 1649 and now in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle.  An inscription in the book reads, ‘This Book was the gift of Sir Oliver Flemming Master of the Ceremonies to King Charles the First, together with ye ribband strings which were the garter His Majesty wore his George on.’  Sir Oliver Fleming (d.1661) was not only one of Charles I’s courtiers, but also the cousin of Oliver Cromwell, who played a central role in the King’s demise.

Royal Collection Trust’s curators were initially guarded about the claimed association, as the inscription appears to have been added in the 18th century, many years after Fleming died, and little is known about the provenance of the book before it was presented in 1949 to Queen Mary, a keen collector of objects related to the Stuarts.  Furthermore, after Charles I’s execution, a large number of artefacts became associated with the monarch as the cult of the martyred king became increasingly popular.

A detached fragment of the silk ribbon was sent for radiocarbon dating, which uses the decay of the radioactive isotope of carbon to estimate the age of organic materials. The results indicated that the fabric could indeed date from Charles I’s reign, placing it between 1631 and 1670.  Further investigation during conservation of the ribbon revealed that the silk is also the right width (10cm) and length (136cm, when each piece is placed end to end) to have been a Garter ribbon, worn either around the neck, as in the Van Dyck portrait, or over the left shoulder.  These discoveries led Royal Collection Trust curators to believe that the silk might well have formed a Garter ribbon – perhaps that recorded by Van Dyck.

The Eikon Basilike contains accounts of various events and hardships encountered by Charles I in the years preceding his defeat and was probably, at least in part, written by the King himself.  The book was first published ten days after the monarch’s execution on 30 January 1649 and quickly became one of the biggest selling books of the 17th century, fuelling the image of Charles I as a martyr.

Anthony van Dyck’s portrait depicts the monarch’s head in three positions. It was commissioned by the King for the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome, who was to create a marble portrait bust of the monarch.  Bernini famously referred to the painting as ‘the portrait of a doomed man’.  The sculpture was to be a gift from Pope Urban VIII to the King’s consort Queen Henrietta Maria and was presented to the royal couple on 17 July 1637.  It was admired ‘not only for the exquisiteness of the worke but the likenese and nere resemblance it had to the King’s countenaunce’.  The original bust was destroyed in the fire at Whitehall Palace in 1698.  However, a bust thought to be a later copy will go on display in the exhibition In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion alongside the portrait that inspired it.

The three views of Charles I show him to be sporting the controversial curling lovelock – hair worn longer on the left-hand side than on the right.  Although the style was fashionable at the time, critics viewed it as effeminate and even a sign of the degeneration of society as a whole.  Charles I was an image-conscious monarch. In the same year that the portrait was painted, he ordered 30 suits, two cloaks, two tennis suits, one coat, four riding coats and a chamber gown costing the equivalent of nearly £20,000 today.

In the portrait, the King is wearing a lace collar or ‘cloak band’, decorated with a soft scallop design popular during the mid-17th century.  A rare surviving lace collar, thought to have been worn by Charles I and dating from around the same year as the painting, has been lent to the exhibition by The Bowes Museum from its world-famous Blackborne Lace Collection. 

Anna Reynolds, Royal Collection Trust’s curator of In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, said, ‘The exhibition presented us with a unique opportunity to bring the painting back to life through some of the fashionable items the artist recorded the King wearing and to compare the three-dimensional objects with the two-dimensional image.  It’s incredible to think that these lengths of silk could in fact be the Garter ribbon in one of the most enduring images of the King.’


The exhibition In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 10 May – 6 October 2013.

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Tickets and visitor information:  www.royalcollection.org.uk, T. +44 (0)20 7766 7301.

A selection of images is available from www.picselect.com.  For further information and photographs, please contact the Royal Collection Trust Press Office, +44 (0)20 7839 1377, [email protected].


The Bowes Museum (www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk) is a registered charitable trust, no. 1079639.  Its aim is to foster a deeper understanding of art and culture for people of all ages and backgrounds through engagement with the fine and decorative arts.

The Blackborne Lace Collection, which contains more than 7,000 items of lace, was donated to The Bowes Museum by the descendants of Anthony Blackborne (1824-78) and his son Arthur Blackborne (1856-1952), London-based antique lace dealers.  They held a Royal Warrant from 1863 to 1912, received from Alexandra, Princess of Wales and later as Queen.