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Tapestries in the Royal Collection

Luxury hangings for royal residences

For many centuries tapestries were the primary decorative form at the royal court, far exceeding paintings or other works of art in status and expense. Their acquisition and use is closely linked to the history of court spectacle and to the furnishing of the royal residences.

The finest tapestries were designed by leading artists and then richly woven over many months with gold and silk. As a result, high-quality tapestry sets were the privilege of the very wealthy, and their opulence and relative rarity made them an important element of royal status and ceremony. Over 2,450 tapestry wall hangings were listed in the inventory taken after Henry VIII's death in 1547, and when they were valued for sale during the Civil War many were priced at thousands of pounds – far in excess of any other item in the Collection. 

Since the medieval period, tapestries had been a portable means of asserting magnificence, status and dignity. Easily rolled up and transported between locations, they brought colour and splendour to courtly interiors when the Royal Household was on the move. As well as indicating the Sovereign's presence, they were hung for official business and entertaining and for public celebrations and pageantry. Tapestries were displayed on the processional route following Henry VIII's (1491–1547) marriage to Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536) in 1509, for example, as well as at their double coronation later that year. At Hampton Court 'excessively rich' tapestries were displayed whenever foreign ambassadors came to see Elizabeth I (1533–1603). Rooms hung with tapestries were designed to impress, creating a majestic atmosphere suited to royal activity.

Tapestries were also used to express magnificence under the Stuarts. Lavish sets were hung for coronations and royal christenings, as well as for important political events like the official agreement of peace with Spain in 1630. Inigo Jones's designs for the Banqueting House at Whitehall, which he drew up in 1619, show that the whole of the lower wall was to be covered with tapestries when Charles I (1600–1649) was present. The king's father, James I (1566-1625), had established a tapestry manufactory at Mortlake near London in 1619 and Charles continued to employ the fine craftsmen there. With subjects ranging from Biblical scenes to classical heroes and heraldic symbols, their works of art offered a striking tool for enhancing the royal image.

The first permanent tapestry installations came following the Restoration of 1660, when Charles II (1630–1685) arranged pieces at Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle. During the Interregnum, sets had been displaced and disrupted and the need to create permanent wall-coverings led to the practice of cutting and reducing individual panels to fit rooms. Pieces bought by Henry VIII and Charles I, such as the Story of Abraham series (RCIN 1046), were re-used most often to emphasise the antiquity and legitimacy of the crown.

By the late-seventeenth century, tapestries were increasingly thought of as part of the historic fabric of the palaces, rather than as movable works of art. Large-scale backdrops were created from tapestries and wall-paintings for the new State Apartments of William III (1650–1702) at Hampton Court, and in 1825 30 pieces of French tapestry were bought by George IV (1762–1830)  for the vast refurbishment of Windsor Castle. All included the French form of border woven to look like a picture frame, and they were hung 'in the French manner', in fixed frames. This became the norm for the hanging of tapestries at Windsor and Buckingham Palace during the nineteenth century.  In 1882 Queen Victoria (1819–1901) sent 15 tapestries to Holyroodhouse so that 'unsightly gaps' around the State Apartments could be filled in.

Today, tapestries adorn the walls of many current and historic royal residences. The 50 or so tapestries at Hampton Court Palace rank among the earliest and most important works of art in the Royal Collection and include the outstanding Story of Abraham set made in Brussels for Henry VIII. The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh contains one of the greatest collections of seventeenth-century tapestry in the world, including the Diogenes series made at Mortlake and the French Diana series, both acquired by Charles II (1630–1685).

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The income from your ticket contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of The Royal Collection Trust are the care and conservation of the Royal Collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational activities.