The Allerton Cope (circa 1490)
Some unanswered questions
(With thanks to Fiona Torrens-Spence for researching this article and giving us permission to include it here)
The Allerton Cope (a mantle worn by a church man) is one of history’s unresolved mysteries. It was discovered at the bottom of a coffer in Allerton church in the nineteenth century and was given to Somerset County Museum.
Analysis showed that it dated back to pre-Reformation times, and even today it is possible to see that the cope was once a thing of great beauty. The embroidery of the assumption of the Virgin Mary is exquisite and even the details of the cherubs’ tiny faces are beautifully worked. The fabric out of which the cope was made and the richly coloured embroidery threads which once gave the cloak an alluring glitter, were extremely expensive and included silver threads. It was as much a treasure in its own period as it is today.
In the late medieval period the tiny church at Chapel Allerton was just about the most insignificant place of worship in the diocese of Bath and Wells. It was not even dignified with a saint’s name and was probably administered by Wedmore Church (the mother church). Standing on the edge of the, as yet undrained, malarial Somerset marshes, it was the back of beyond and the end of an extremely muddy track. The pretty church we know today was largely built in the nineteenth century and the late medieval church would have resembled a low barn or store house. So how did a richly embroidered medieval cope come to be found there?
Historians think the answer may lie in the Chapel Allerton connection with John Gunthorpe, Dean of the diocese of Bath and Wells amongst other things. He was an exceptionally learned and important man who held key positions under Edward 1V, Richard 111, and Henry V11. This was an extraordinary achievement, given that England was in the midst of the Wars of the Roses and these King’s were at each others throats.
John Gunthorpe became Dean of Bath and Wells when he was quite old and he purchased the little parish of Chapel Allerton shortly before his death, and left it to the Bishop of Bath and Wells on the condition that Masses should to be said for his soul at Allerton church. It is thought that his cope, his greatest earthly treasure, was sent to Chapel Allerton as a gift to the church. It would have served a similar purpose to a relict and the cope of this great man would have been venerated by the local clergy and people.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries happened about forty years after the cope was given to Chapel Allerton and it probably survived the general looting and destruction of relicts because Allerton was so far from the madding crowd. The frightened clerics of Chapel Allerton could have furtively wrapped up this treasure and hidden it at the bottom of a chest in a dark corner of the church.
The question which remains is, did the people who lived in the Allertons guard the secret of the cope because they still believed in the old Roman Catholic Faith, or were they so far off the beaten track that there was simply no contact with the outside world? We will probably never know the answer, but the cope has a very interesting history and is the earliest textile item in the collections cared for by the Somerset Heritage Service.
If you visit the Museum of Somerset at Taunton Castle you can view the cope in the medieval room. It has been beautifully and painstakingly restored and the detail is breath taking although the colours are sadly faded and the silk discoloured by time. It just goes to show that the art of the late medieval period was far from the grey two-dimensional work that we are inclined to think of. Fiona Torrens-Spence