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Unpicking Archbishop John Morton’s ‘cope’ (c.1480-1500)


The Morton ‘cope’ is a rare survival of medieval vestments associated with a known individual, Cardinal John Morton, who was both Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor (c.1420-1500). Copes are ceremonial clock-like garments worn by bishops or priests. However, this piece is now in the form of a flat textile made up of oblongs and triangles of blue velvet which may have been used as an altar frontal or dorsal. As a frontal, the piece is connected to an élite recusant Roman Catholic family, the Huddlestons, through its provenance at Sawston Hall, Pampisford, Cambridgeshire. It is now at Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland and will be exhibited in their new Faith Museum.

This project aimed to deepen understanding of the nature of this fragmented and remade vestment and 'unpick' its complex biography  with the goals of contributing to understanding of the changing religious and iconographic significance of a ‘recycled’ garment and, generating new insights into the material culture of the Roman Catholic faith before, during and after the  period of repressive anti-Catholic legislation in England known as the ‘penal’ period (c 1558−1829) and thus to contribute to its interpretation for visitors to Auckland Castle. 

The reason the ‘cope’ could be firmly associated with Morton is because some of the pieces bear his embroidered rebus. This is a visual pun on his name which comprises a bird, known as a ‘mor’, and a barrel or ‘ton’, thus making up the word MORTON, along with his monogram MOR.  Other visible embroidered motifs include a unique example of a Lily Crucifix, which shows Christ hanging, not from a cross, but from a lily, a flower traditionally associated with Mary. This is placed beneath a motif of God the Father and surrounded by, fleur-de-lys, large stylized flowers, wavy stars and some later laid and couched work. The presence of three rose-en-soleil motifs, the badge of Edward IV, suggest Morton’s links with this King.

The first stage of the research focused on the altar frontal. The original intention was work out how the numerous oblongs and triangles of worn blue velvet had once formed a cope. The piece was recorded photographically by Jeff Veitch (Department of Archaeology, Durham University) and X-radiographed at Northumbria University. This enabled the seams, stitches and selvedges to be mapped in detail. This was particularly important as the reverse was partially covered by reddish wool backing embroidered with a large IHS Christogram. This backing, a later addition, had nevertheless suffered considerably but still formed a barrier to viewing the reverse of the central motifs. As the analysis proceeded, it became clear that there was more than one blue velvet fabric and more than one vestment present. Technical analysis of the fibres, silk and metal threads, sequins, weave structures and construction established that the frontal was actually made up from at least two vestments, one a cope and the others possibly the back and front of one or more chasubles. It was possible to map their transformation, through fragmentation, removal and re-modelling, into an expression of suppressed faith, from vestment to frontal and the various intermediary stages. These changes possibly took place in a concealed liturgical context during the penal period.

One significant alteration became clear as a result of the X-radiography which highlighted stitch holes indicating the removal of a motif of the Annunciation. Combined with the Marian devotion implicit in the use of the Lily Crucifix motif, it then became possible to speculate about other missing motifs and what these may reveal about the nature of Morton’s personal faith and, later on, the practices of recusant Roman Catholics in both preserving and, possibly,  remaking medieval vestments. The dates of the fragmentation of the vestments and transitions between the various removals, additions and re-makings remain unclear.

This research has corroborated the existence of a cope within the Auckland frontal along with at least one other previously unsuspected vestment, possibly a chasuble. The latter can be directly associated with Morton through the presence of his rebus, but the cope’s links to Morton are more tenuous. However, the use of similar materials, techniques and the Marian imagery suggests the chasuble and the cope formed part of a set of vestments. These vestments have moved from an overt liturgical practice to covert use by recusant Roman Catholics before returning once more to overt use. Morton’s use of the power of vestments has become clearer, indicating authority as well as, potentially, a personal statement of his practice of faith and devotion.

Prompted by the unusual nature of these remade blue velvet vestments when compared to the other surviving red velvet vestments associated with Morton, the second phase of the research was a comparative study of all these pieces. Copes with Morton’s rebus survive at St Mary's College, Oscott, Birmingham, the Statens Historiska Museum, Stockholm, and Arundel Castle, West Sussex. A chasuble, cut from an earlier cope, at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Monmouth, is also linked with Morton. The aim was to study their designs, materials and constructions and, establish their histories as far as possible to see  whether they had common origins, and then compare their features with the more unusual features of the vestments now forming the frontal at Auckland Castle.

Technically, the chasuble bears some similarity with the copes but the iconography and the lettering on the barrels is far from conclusive. The copes, all dated to c. 1500, have some remarkable similarities in the depiction of the rebus, angels and flowers, suggesting they may have originated from the same workshop or from workshops working together and may, despite their differences, have been commissioned as a group. They clearly had different life-histories, yet to be fully unravelled. The Oscott and Stockholm copes have the same unusual blue and yellow velvet edging, strongly suggesting they were together at some point. However, the unexpected trajectory of the Stockholm cope is borne out by the additional coats of arms which are those of Johannes von Münchhausen (d. 1572), Bishop of Oesel and Courtland on the Baltic coast. Following the taking of Riga (1622), this cope became Swedish war-booty. There are also distinct differences such as the type and number of motifs on the different copes. Only the Arundel cope has double-headed eagles and more than three angels. The distinctive, even unique, nature of Auckland frontal’s motifs was confirmed. The quality of its rebus design and technique is higher but that of the angel is less good than those on the copes.

Research is on-going on this project and these issues will be further debated in forthcoming publications and conference papers. 

Research Team   

  • Dr Mary Brooks, Department of Archaeology, Durham University
  • Dr Sonia O’Connor, Department of Archaeology, Bradford University.  

Technical analysis

  • Dr Christopher Caple, Department of Archaeology, Durham University - analysis of metal sequin and threads
  • Dr Anita Quye, Centre for Textile Conservation and Technical Art History, University of Glasgow - dye analysis  


Phase 1 

  • 2016 Society of Antiquaries: Investigating the Morton Cope, Auckland Castle: Reconstituting a 3-D garment from a Flat Textile.; application led by Dr Pam Graves 
  • 2017 Auckland Castle Trust: Investigating the Morton Cope, Auckland Castle: Reconstituting a 3-D garment from a Flat Textile  

Phase 2 

  • 2018 Society of Antiquaries: Contextualising the Morton ‘cope’.           

Key publications  

  • BROOKS, M. M, and O’CONNOR, S. with CAPLE, C, GRAVES, P and QUYE, A. 2020. Fragments of faith: Unpicking Archbishop John Morton’s vestments. The Antiquaries Journal, 1-30. doi:10.1017/S000358152000027X (on-line) 

Associated activity

  • Public interpretation - The outcomes of this research will contribute to interpretation of the piece – currently being described as the Auckland frontal rather than the Morton ‘cope’ – when it is on display in the Faith Museum, Auckland Castle. Plans for associated lectures and a public workshop are under discussion following the opening of the Museum.  
  • Workshop - Investigating the Morton ‘Cope’ Workshop, Oriental Museum, Durham University 24 May 2017. As part of the Phase one research, a workshop was held to encourage debate on the nature of the ‘cope’. Fourteen specialists in medieval and later religious textiles and dress, dyes, embroidery, liturgical history and iconography were invited to a workshop to discuss the research findings, discuss the findings from the research, consider their significance, reflect on approaches to the cope’s interpretation and help frame research questions for further grant applications.
  • Conference and seminar papers - A sustained effort was made to introduce the ‘cope’ and its complex biography to a wide range of audiences in order to gain feedback from specialists and generalists alike.
  • 27 February 2020 Society of Antiquaries of London, Lecture: Mary Brooks and Sonia O’Connor Unpicking the Morton ‘cope’.
  • 22 Jan 2020 History of Christianity Seminar (Department of History & Theology), Lecture: Mary Brooks Unpicking Archbishop Morton’s ‘cope’, c. 1480-1500: changing historical, liturgical & social significance.
  • 20 April 2018 Archaeology and the Small Finds of North-East England Conference. Finds Research Group, Material & Visual Culture Research Group, Durham University, Architectural & Archaeological Society of Durham & Northumberland (AASDN), Lecture: Mary Brooks Unpicking the Morton 'cope': Exploring a Fragmented Medieval Vestment.
  • 12 April 2018 English Benedictine History Commission 43rd Symposium, Douai Abbey, Lecture: Mary Brooks The Raiment of the Lord: Investigating the Morton 'cope'.
  • 1 Oct 2017 Belief in the North-East 43rd Durham University / Heritage Lottery Fund Day School, Lecture: Mary Brooks Investigating the Morton 'cope': Evidence for Changing Faith and Practice.


Medieval Vestment

Image above: Frontal, front face. Photograph: Jeff Veitch. © The Zurbarán Trust/The Auckland Project. 

 Crucifix picture on blue medieval vestment

Image above: The Lily Crucifix. Photograph: Jeff Veitch. © The Zurbarán Trust/The Auckland Project.