The oldest known English embroidery on a book covers a 13th-century Psalter, which belonged to Anne Felbrigge in the latter half of the 14th century. It is known as the Felbrigge Psalter, now in the British Library (MS Sloane 2400).
It was probably written and illuminated in Northern France around 1250. Some time later it came to England where its calendar was altered. Somewhat later the psalter came into the possession of Anne Felbrigge, who was a nun in the House of the Poor Clares at Bruisyard in Suffolk. She was the daughter of Sir Simon Felbrigge, who was standard Bearer to Richard II. Her mother was Margaret, daughter of Primislaus, Duke of Teschen and a cousin to Anne of Bohemia, the queen of Richard. A note written in the psalter says that on the death of Anne the manuscript passed into the possession of the convent. Later the convent was dissolved and rebuilt as an Elizabethan Manor , which today functions as a stately home and wedding venue. Annes ancestral home is nowadays reduced to a moat, but in the nearby church the magnificent brass of her parents may be seen.
The psalter is foremost remarkable because of its binding consisting of two embroidered panels in Opus Anglicanum. The Panels now measure app. 20 x 13 cm; one is slightly smaller due to a rough and clumsy remounting done in the 18th century. Although worn, the embroidery is still remarkable. The panels may be dated to c. 1300 – 30.
The Panels are worked in coloured silks and silver gilt thread – gold coated on silver and wound around a core of silk – on a twofold linen ground, a fine upper layer on a thicker lower one. The silk is used in split stitching while the metal threads are couched on the surface in a chevron pattern and as background. The colours are naturally faded and also destroyed at some time, when they were given a coat of varnish. However, where they survive they show greens, blues, grey, browns, fawn and white as well as a deep rose pink.
The front cover depicts the annunciation with the angel Gabriel approaching the Virgin Mary from the left. The scroll he is handing in his left was probably embroidered with Ave Maria. She holds a book, a motif dating back to the 9th century. The back cover shows the crucifixion with Mary and St. John grieving, while at the bottom a small figure may have been the embroiderer herself.
The Felbrigge Psalter was carefully described in an article by Penelope Wallis as far back as in 1987 in the “British Library Journal” which is still published in electronic form . A few weeks ago the old paper-issues were digitized and all the articles were made available for all.
The article on the Felbrigge Psalter is just one of these treasures. Anyone interested might enjoy digging into the list kindly provided in the blog on medieval manuscripts