The cope of Henry VII travels to its final destination

May 29, 2023

Following its success in New York and Ohio, the US Metropolitan Museum of Art’s touring exhibition, The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England, travels to its final destination – the Legion of Honour art museum in San Francisco. You can find out more about the exhibition here.

One of the centre pieces of the exhibition is the cope of Henry VII, which is on loan from Jesuits in Britain. Copes are common liturgical vestments, but this one – one of the most expensive items commissioned by an English monarch – was meant to unite the power of Church and State to strengthen a dubious claim to the throne (that of Henry VII).

The cope's later history is shrouded in mystery. It was rescued from the iconoclasm of the English Reformation which saw the destruction of so much Catholic sacred art, literature, and architecture from the 1540s onwards. Its passage from Westminster Abbey to the safety of an English Jesuit community was facilitated by John Cotton, an English Catholic who was arrested along with Edmund Campion in 1581.

The cope was then smuggled out to the English Jesuit College of St Omers, founded in 1593 to provide a Catholic education for young English and Welsh boys in exile. At St Omers, the cope was at the centre of a programme of cultural, educational, and spiritual formation, pioneered by the Jesuits, the significance of which is only now coming to light.

For those not able to see the exhibition, Dr. Jan Graffius, curator of collections at Stonyhurst College, who has been instrumental in helping to arrange the loan of this and other important artefacts, takes a deep dive in this podcast. It is a fascinating story, which will enthral anyone with an interest in Tudor or Catholic history.

(Banner photo courtesy of Dr. Jan Graffius - the cope being installed at the exhibition space in Ohio).

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