Sometime in the 1580s, Ralph Sheldon, a wealthy Warwickshire landowner and gentleman, commissioned a set of four tapestry maps to hang in his newly built house at Weston, near Long Compton in south Warwickshire. The maps depicted the counties of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, and were made to hang together in one large space, creating a dramatic and colourful panorama of the English Midlands stretching from London to the Bristol Channel.
The maps were probably woven at the Sheldon tapestry workshop which had been set up by Ralph’s father, William Sheldon, at Barcheston near Shipston-on-Stour. The Warwickshire tapestry is the only complete surviving map from the series, its border was added in the 17th century and it measures 5.1m x 3.9m, and is woven mainly in wool, with silk used to highlight key areas.
It is a rare and wonderful pictorial representation of Elizabethan Warwickshire!
Why is the tapestry important?
The tapestry is of major importance for cartographic history, providing a rare view of Warwickshire when modern map-making was in its infancy. It shows how Warwickshire looked 400 years ago, and how it has changed over time – for example, the tapestry shows trees covering much of north and west Warwickshire, with the woodland broken by deer parks enclosed by fences. This was the Forest of Arden, inspiration for many of the forest landscapes in Shakespeare’s plays, but now largely disappeared.
Elizabethan Coventry appears as a medieval city with walls and spires, much of which vanished through bombing and redevelopment in the 20th century. It is also important as an example of English tapestry weaving, at a time when most tapestries were imported from the Low Countries.
Warwickshire as Shakespeare knew it
The tapestry shows Warwickshire as William Shakespeare knew it, and you can explore Elizabethan towns on the map. Some towns you will recognise, some are there, but the names are different. Some towns you would expect to see on a 21st century map are not on the 16th century one!