Auckland Castle will host a display of lavishly embroidered garments brought together for the first time in 340 years.
The embroidered vestments chart the spellbinding tale of one woman’s religious devotion in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot that tore her Catholic family apart.
Helena Wintour was just six years old when her father and two uncles were hanged, drawn and quartered for their part in the notorious terror plot to kill the Protestant King James I and his Parliament on November 5, 1605.
Despite her first-hand knowledge of the horrifying punishment that awaited adherents to the Catholic religion following its suppression in the wake of the English Reformation, Helena dedicated her life to ‘the one true faith’ through prayer, good works, alms giving and the creation of a series of exquisitely executed church vestments.
Now her richly decorated ‘churchstuffe’ is to be reunited for the first time since her death in 1671 and brought to a new public audience in Auckland Castle’s latest high profile exhibition.
Plots and Spangles: The Embroidered Vestments of Helena Wintour, opening on October 16 in time for Guy Fawkes’ Night.
The showcase will not only bring Helena’s extraordinary pieces to life, but also the ‘gunpowder, treason and plot’ that had it succeeded would have killed the king, wiped out the establishment and triggered a history changing uprising.
Thirteen pieces of Helena’s needlework, fashioned on silk and velvet, in gold and silver thread and richly encrusted with sequins, precious stones and pearls, will be displayed alongside a collection of other 17th century artefacts that together reveal the complex religious atmosphere of the time.
The lantern that Guy Fawkes was carrying when he was caught red handed with 36 barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament is on loan from Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. It will join a 1623 first folio of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies with their veiled references to the perceived Catholic threat.
A recusant altar stone and chalice from Ushaw College, Durham, will also form part of the story, alongside 17th century devotional books of the type Helena would have read and used as inspiration for her vestments.
A startling relic in the form of the preserved human eyeball of Catholic martyr and priest Edward Oldcorne, who was executed alongside Helena’s uncle, John Wintour, in 1606, is another rare and moving object offering a poignant reminder of those who chose to die for their faith.
Clare Baron, Auckland Castle’s Assistant Curator, says Plots and Spangles has something for everyone.
“The story touches on the Gunpowder Plot which we still commemorate each Bonfire Night, the life of undercover priests in England at this time, and most importantly, Helena’s beautiful needlework.”
“It is thrilling to know that for the first time in more than 340 years Helena’s life work is being reunited and is being brought to wider public acclaim.”
“Helena dedicated her life to the service of her Catholic faith and embroidering these vestments. They are truly astonishing, and glitter with gold, silver, precious stones and pearls.”
“Decorated with overt Jesuit symbolism and iconography, the vestments are also prominently signed with Helena’s name or initials.”
“As a member of a notorious Catholic family, Helena would have been watched and she would have known that had she been caught making these overtly Catholic vestments she would have received a severe punishment.”
“She was an extraordinarily brave and independent woman.”
Highlights of Helena’s sumptuous needlework include The Wintour White Chasuble of 1655, which is
also known as the Alleluia Vestment, referring to the embroidered inscription it bears.
The piece shows the vision of the Lamb on the Altar from the Book of Revelation from the New Testament.
It is richly adorned with carnations, roses, tulips and pomegranates – common Jesuit emblems that appear throughout Helena’s works – which were understood as symbols of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, as well as the Virgin Mary.
While Helena’s virtuosic technique as a needlewoman has survived down the centuries, history sadly tells us little about the woman herself.
No images exist, although it is known she wore glasses, probably as a result of the many hours she spent doing her embroidery, never married, and was born, lived and died in her home county of Worcestershire.
Instead, she found a voice through her dazzling needlework.
Clare said: “It has been described as the single most important body of work by a named Englishwoman in early modern times. Through these vestments Helena was able to express herself, and demonstrate her unwavering faith. They were her way of communicating her devotion, but also her defiance.”
Plots and Spangles will explore not only Helena’s technique as a needlewoman, but also the role embroidery played in the devotional life of other Catholic women at this time.
It will also tell for the first time the fascinating story of what happened to her vestments following her death to the present day, a tale which is every bit as absorbing as the events which so tragically lay the foundation for her remarkable life’s work.