William of Orange and tale of the linen tablecloth

Sam Wilson, the owner of the linen tablecloth, at the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast. He is holding a reproduction of the tablecloth design, which is itself displayed in the glass cabinet behind him.
Sam Wilson, the owner of the linen tablecloth, at the Museum of Orange Heritage in Belfast. He is holding a reproduction of the tablecloth design, which is itself displayed in the glass cabinet behind him.

The full story was told this week of a 340-year-old artefact that was given to William of Orange to mark a key victory which saw him become the effective “leader of the free world”.

Belfast solicitor Sam Wilson is the proud owner of the nine by eight foot Damask linen tablecloth that was presented to the Prince of Orange in 1675 by his people in gratitude for his victory against the forces of Louis XIV of France at Grave in the Low Countries.

Woven into the linen is the message “Long life to the victorious Prince of Orange” with an image of his subjects giving thanks for their deliverance.

“Following that, the combination of [European] allies realised there was not much point in having joint commanders against Louis XIV. So they agreed to make William their leader,” Mr Wilson said.

William then led the Dutch republics where Calvinists, Jews, Mennonites and Catholics lived together in harmony and from where he forged an international alliance to thwart the tyrannical ambitions of absolute monarchy and Louis XIV.

“This effectively made him the leader of the free world at that time,” Mr Wilson added.

Mr Wilson told the full story of the artefact at the Orange Order’s east Belfast headquarters and museum on Monday night at an inaugural lecture in honour of the late historian and archivist Cecil Kilpatrick.

The event marked the first time the full story of the artefact has been told since it was formally unveiled in its new home at the order’s new Belfast headquarters in June.

Mr Wilson believes William of Orange brought the tablecloth to England when he took the throne with his wife Mary in 1689.

After his death his belongings were put into storage at Sandringham. And when household staff from Sandringham went to fight in World War I, their widows were given the linen as compensation by Queen Alexandra.

Some of the widows then moved to Bedford where many of them bequeathed their belongings to the esoteric Panacea Society.

Mr Wilson – who lived in Bedford – then heard that the society was auctioning off possessions.

As his father had been a general manager in the Belfast linen industry with Ewart & Sons, he was able to ascertain the linen’s value – which he now describes as “priceless”.

“It was sold for a lot less than it was worth,” he said.

The Rijksmuseum, the Museum of the Netherlands, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, both asked him to leave it to them in his will.

However, he declined in light of the major role linen production played in the history of Ulster.

“That is why it is important for it to be here in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Dr David Hume, Grand Lodge Director of Services, described the lecture as “inspiring”.

He said: “This outstanding artefact has been a talking point for many visitors to the museum and we were delighted that Sam, a notable collector of Irish damask linen, should providing a fascinating insight into its historical significance.

“He covered everything from the politics of the Dutch Republics to the creation of damask linen, the foundation of the linen industry and the Huguenot connection in Ulster and more. All of it was entirely engaging and we are indebted to Sam for allowing this unique artefact in Williamite history to form a centrepiece of our educational outreach.”