The Butler-Bowdon Cope

The Butler-Bowdon Cope (a ceremonial cloak made for use in church services and processions) is made from some of the richest materials available to an embroiderer in 14th-century England.

This was a time when English embroidery was one of the most highly regarded art forms in Europe, and wealthy people spent staggering amounts commissioning pieces for themselves, or for diplomatic gifts. Silk velvet had only been woven in Europe for a short time before this embroidery was made, and it would still have been seen as an amazing innovation, with the soft plushness of its pile.

Gold, silver and coloured silks were used to create the embroidery, and intricate details were marked out in freshwater seed pearls and glass beads. The pearls originally formed acorn shapes, which hung from the twining oak boughs which grow over the surface of the cope – a fairly unusual design within medieval embroidery – elegantly dividing it into rows of arches with different scenes and figures beneath.

The central images, which would have appeared down the wearer’s back when the cope was worn, celebrate events from the life of the Virgin Mary; from bottom to top these are the annunciation, the adoration of the Magi and the coronation of the Virgin. Beneath the other arches there are apostles, and male and female saints, while the spaces between the arches are filled with angels holding stars.

Explore the the cope in more detail below.

The Butler Bowdon Cope, 1330 – 50, weaving Italy, embroidery England. Museum no. T.36-1955. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London