The Sheldon Tapestry Maps

The Sheldon Tapestry Map of Warwickshire can be seen at the Market Hall Museum, Warwick.

The Tapestry Map has been in the collection of the Warwickshire Museum Service since the 1960s. It was commissioned in the late 1580s by Ralph Sheldon (1537-1613) to decorate his newly built house at Weston, near Long Compton, in south Warwickshire.

Ralph Sheldon.

It was one of a set 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.

Sheldon Tapestry

Sheldon Tapestry – click to zoom

In 1781 the contents of Sheldon’s house were 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.

Making of the Sheldon Tapestry

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 weavers emigrated from Holland and Belgium to England, and many of them 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.

Sheldon Tapestry

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 is quite a lot of new pictorial material on the tapestry that isn’t 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 from the south, the common cartographic practice of the time.

Many of the details added to the tapestry are pictorial representations of places important to the Sheldon family.

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.

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.