Work of Dr. Mike Sheldon - Sheldon Tapestries

This page is part of an archive of the work of Dr. Mike Sheldon from his closed website.

The Sheldon Tapestries

There is a bit of an argument going on about the Sheldon Tapestries.Here are two accounts from recent publications -

First an article taken from the Warwickshire County Council web site and second an analysis by Norman Hammond, published in The Times which throws doubt on the origin of several of the tapestries. Note that in this article he quotes extensively from the research carried out by Hilary Turner.

The web site of Hilary Turner which considers the Sheldon Tapestries is

Warwickshire County Council website

The Sheldon Tapestry Maps

Text and pictures taken from the Warwickshire County Council web site at about the Sheldon tapestries. The Sheldon Tapestry Map of Warwickshire has been in the Warwickshire Museum’s collection since the early 1960s. The tapestry was commissioned in the late 1580s by Ralph Sheldon (1537-1613) to decorate his newly built house at Weston, Long Compton.

It was one of four tapestry maps showing the counties of Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire. These would have hung together to create a panoramic view of England, stretching from London to the Bristol Channel.

Making of the Sheldon Tapestry

Tapestry weaving in Warwickshire

In 1570, Ralph Sheldon’s father, William Sheldon, set up a tapestry weaving venture at Barcheston in Warwickshire.

He made provision in his will for Richard Hyckes to have the family's manor house at Barcheston rent free, on condition that he wove tapestries and a range of other textiles.

Sheldon also set up a fund, to be lent at fixed amounts, to employees of Hyckes. At that time, Flemish weavers were the most skilful. They were employed in the royal tapestry repair department in London from the 1490s onwards. Between 1559 and 1619 more than 110 emigrated from Holland and Belgium to England, and many of them also worked for Queen Elizabeth I.

Richard Hyckes acted both as Sheldon's manager, and held the title of Queen’s ‘Arrasmaker’. It has been suggested that Richard Hyckes was an Englishman, but this is unlikely, as the position of Queen's Arrasmaker had always been held by Flemish weavers.

Features of the Sheldon Tapestry

Origins of the Designs: The idea of making a tapestry map probably came from the series of engraved maps of English counties produced by Christopher Saxton between 1574 and 1579.

For the most part his maps were closely followed, and the tapestry even reproduces several of Saxton’s mistakes - for example 'Barford' is named ‘Bearfoote’.

There was also a lot of new pictorial material not present on the Saxton maps - for example, trees, hills, church towers and spires. Roads, mills, houses, and the sketches of towns, such as Warwick and Stratford, were also new additions. The towns were always shown seen from the south, the common cartographic practice of the time.
Many of the details added to the tapestry are pictorial representations of the places important to Sheldon. His house at Weston is shown as being larger than the whole village of Long Compton, as is the windmill near by. At his other house, at Beoley in Worcestershire, fanciful turrets decorate the building.

History of the Sheldon Tapestry

The four Sheldon Tapestry maps showed the counties in which Ralph Sheldon (pictured below), his friends and family, owned land- Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire.

They probably hung in the same room to create a panoramic view of the Midland counties, stretching from London to the Bristol Channel.


Both the Sheldons' houses, at Beoley and Weston, were looted during the English Civil War (1642-47), and it is possible that the original Oxfordshire and Worcestershire tapestries were damaged during this time.

Ralph Sheldon’s great grandson, another Ralph (1623-84), arranged for copies to be made using information from the older tapestries.

He also took the opportunity to do some updating, such as including his own coat of arms and changing the borders.

From Weston to Warwick

In 1781, when the Sheldons' house in Weston was sold, the Warwickshire map was bought by Horace Walpole, along with the 17th Century Worcestershire and Oxfordshire tapestries.

He gave them to his friend Lord Harcourt, whose heir, later Archbishop of York, gave them to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in 1832.

After a long period on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Warwickshire tapestry finally returned to its home county in 1960, when the collection was again sold.

In brief

The Sheldon Tapestry map of Warwickshire was one of four tapestries commissioned in the late 1580s by Ralph Sheldon (1537-1613) to decorate his newly built house at Weston, in Long Compton.

Although covering an area that spread from London to Bristol, the four main counties illustrated were Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire.

In 1781 the Sheldons’ house was sold and the Warwickshire map was bought by Horace Walpole.

In 1832 it passed to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and went on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In 1960 it was sold again and became part of the Warwickshire Museum’s Collection.

Puzzle of the Sheldon Tapestry

In the 1920s it was suggested that there were two sets of Sheldon tapestries, one dating to the 16th century and the other to the 17th century.

It was thought that the Sheldon Tapestry map of Warwickshire was part of the second set of tapestries, which also included maps of Worcestershire and Oxfordshire.

The picture frame-style borders were similar in all three tapestries, whereas the borders of the earlier tapestries had floral, mythological and architectural designs.

However, current research has shown that the Warwickshire map is the only complete Elizabethan tapestry of the original four to survive.

Its original border was cut off and replaced with the fashionable picture frame style of the later 17th century, to match the re-woven and re-designed versions of the Oxfordshire and Worcestershire tapestries.
Taken from the Warwickshire County Council web site and other associated web pages on the web site
Downloaded 9th Sept 2009

From The Times - February 23, 2009

Tapestry story looks a bit threadbare

(Chris Harris) Crocker Sheldon tapestry
Norman Hammond, Archaeology Correspondent

Note that Norman Hammond is mainly quoting from the research of Hilary Turner as published in the Antiquaries Journal vol 88 published in 2008. Her web site with full details may be accessed by clicking here. [Hyperlink omitted to avoid confusion, the address is]

Sheldon tapestries are proudly displayed at stately homes from Hatfield to Chastleton, and in museums including the Victoria and Albert. Some of the most splendid show detailed maps of the Cotswolds, another set has the four seasons, and yet others bear coats of arms and were apparently made as cushion covers.

Named after William Sheldon, a 16th-century gentleman, the tapestries are held to embody a native tradition of weaving based on workshops set up in Elizabethan times at Barcheston, Warwickshire. Documentary research early last century led to the recognition of the Sheldon workshop, hailed as an independent artistic movement not closely related to the Continental tapestry-weavers of Brussels and northern France.

The discovery was especially meaningful in the wake of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century when William Morris and his colleagues sought to recreate the glories of English craftsmanship. It has come as a shock, therefore, to find that the entire reality of the Sheldon tapestry tradition may be the result of expectation rather than evidence.

The existence of the workshop at Barcheston was inferred from the will of William Sheldon, who died in 1570, and a subsequent account by the Oxford antiquary Anthony Wood, who died in 1695, Hilary Turner notes in The Antiquaries Journal. The provision in the will for short-term loans to men employed by a master weaver, and for them then being able to occupy premises rent-free, was interpreted as evidence of the establishment of a tapestry-weaving venture at Sheldon’s Barcheston manor house. “This was an unusual proposition in a country with no earlier indigenous tapestry-weaving tradition,” Turner says.

William Sheldon’s epitaph recorded that “he had introduced the art of weaving into England and set aside lands and money for the weavers’ maintenance”, while Anthony Wood said a century later that Ralph Sheldon had sent Richard Hyckes — whose name appears on one of the maps — abroad as an apprentice, after which Hyckes had settled in Barcheston.

Although the Barcheston venture, whatever it was, did not last long, and the Sheldons were involved only in providing premises, not in running the establishment, their name was a convenient label when in 1919 eight tapestries were discovered at Chastleton House, Oxfordshire (now a National Trust property), and subsequently sold at Sotheby’s. John Humphreys, a retired dentist, associated these with the two groups of Sheldon hangings already recognised, the Four Seasons at Hatfield and the Cotswold maps, both bearing the Sheldon arms.

From this, and its enthusiastic endorsement by A. F. Kendrick of the V&A, “the workshop’s style was instantly established”, Turner says, and in 1924 Humphreys presented an even larger oeuvre in a talk to the Society of Antiquaries which “conjured up a workshop of skilled weavers producing large tapestries with a floral or grotesque field”. Once the Barcheston workshop had become an apparent reality, “tapestries continued to appear and to be recognised as Sheldon products with more enthusiasm than expertise”, and a review instigated by Alan Wace of the V&A left the situation pretty much as it has remained until Turner’s re-evaluation.

Her study now shows that most of the historical assumptions that Humphreys had relied on were false, including the closeness of the association between the Sheldons and the Jones family of Chastleton, the identity of the tapestries found in 1919 with those listed in a Chastleton inventory of 1633, and the single workshop manufacture of the 1919 hangings. In fact, not a single piece can be reliably attributed to the supposed Barcheston facility, and it seems far more likely that London weavers, many of them refugees, made many of the “Sheldon” pieces. Others, such as the Four Seasons, now known to have been made in Bruges, were of Continental manufacture.

“The brutal truth is that if William Sheldon’s will had not survived, no one in the 1920s would have dreamt of a tapestry workshop in a sparsely populated area of south Warwickshire,” Turner concludes. “On no count does the evidence support a major tapestry-weaving hub in the area where it was said to exist.” This cheering story of rural industry in a pre-industrial age seems to have been wishful thinking.

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