Medieval England Jewelry Part 1

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FEW brooches and finger rings are almost the only surviving examples of English jewelry of the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries. Yet there is evidence from existing records of an abundance of the most beautiful objects as accumulated in the ecclesiastical treasuries, and the great shrines, like that of St. Thomas of Canterbury, or of Our Lady of Wal-singham Priory, which not even the Santa Casa at Loreto, or the shrine of St. James at Compostella, could surpass in renown, or equal in the reception of rich and costly gifts.

Vast quantities of jeweled objects, which must have been in great part native productions, have also been tabulated in the inventories of our monarchs, princes, guilds, and corporations. Judging from extant examples of English painted glass, sculpture, and particularly embroidery, some estimate can be formed of the high quality of the goldsmiths’ work, which was scarcely excelled in the Middle Ages by that of any other country in Europe.

The English goldsmiths, in fact, after the Norman Conquest seem to have lost none of the skill which is displayed on their earlier productions. A love of finery seems to have characterized the Court of William the Conqueror and his successors.

The jewelry of the ladies became exceedingly extravagant, and is bitterly inveighed against by the religious De Mely and Bishop satirists.

Neckam, an Anglo-Latin poet, towards the close of the twelfth century, accuses them of covering themselves with gold and gems and of perforating their ears in order to hang them with jewels.

Henry I had the tastes of a collector. That he collected gems is known from a letter written by a prior of Worcester to Edmer, Anselm’s biographer, in which he suggests that for money Henry might be persuaded to part with some pearls.

King John was greatly attached to his jewels, and their loss in the Wash is commonly supposed to have hastened his death. The record is preserved concerning the loss on an earlier occasion of certain of his precious stones “which we all want to wear round our neck.” The stones must have been credited with miraculous powers, for their finder was very liberally rewarded.

Henry HI, one of the most indigent of monarchs, made such extravagant presents of jewelry to his wife, that he was afterwards obliged to pawn not only his regalia, but a considerable portion of the jewels and precious stones accumulated at the shrine of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey.

Dating first from about this period are a number of inventories of personal ornaments, and it is by a perusal of the inventories of the most wealthy, and particularly those of sovereign princes, that an estimate can be obtained of the nature of every type of ornament in use at the period, in its most elaborate form.

Among the earliest and most important royal inventories that have been published are those preserved in the Wardrobe Account of Edward I, for the year 1299. The jewels include a large number of morses or clasps given by the king to bishops, and restored after their deaths.

ENGLAND, FOURTEENTH CENTURY objects offered by the king or queen to various shrines ; while among other jewels are brooches, many rings, a pendant, belt, and bracelet.

About this time masses of precious stones, the spoils of the Crusades, began to find their way into this country, and to be employed for ” embroidering” or sewing upon the garments. Edward II and his extravagant favorites, such as the worthless Piers Gaveston, loaded themselves with precious stones.

Lists of jewels belonging to Gaveston on his attainder in 1313, and to the king in 1324, show the magnificence of their ornaments, and the vast sums at which they were valued. The king’s jewels, described in considerable detail, are inventoried under the following headings: {a) Stones and other objects, (b) Crowns of gold and silver, including cercles and chapelets, (c) Brooches of gold, (d) Rings of gold, [f) Girdles and diadems.

From this time onward there is an increase of such documents and of wills, and also of sumptuary laws specially connected with personal ornaments. The brilliant reign of Edward IIP was favorable to the full display of jewelry.

New luxuries were imported in great abundance, and there was hardly a lady of position who had not in her possession some portion of the spoils of plate and jewels from cities beyond the sea; while those who, like the Knight of Chaucer, had been at Alexandria ” when it was won,” returned with cloth of gold, velvet, and precious stones.

In the thirty-seventh year of this reign (1363) the Parliament held at Westminster enacted several sumptuary laws against the extravagant use of personal adornment. These state what costume is suited to the various degrees of rank and income, and are of value for the information they supply on the prevailing fashions in jewelry.

Restrictions of this kind, re-enacted from time to time, and apparently of little effect, seem to have been intended not so much to prevent the gratification of an instinctive desire for bravery and splendor, as to make different classes proclaim their rank and station by their dress.

Chaucer in the Prologue of his Canterbury Tales affords in a charming manner additional information about the personal ornaments of the different grades of English society of his time. He gives detailed description of the brooch of the yeoman and the nun, and pictures the merchant with his richly clasped shoes, the squire with short knife and purse at his girdle, the carpenter’s wife with her collar fastened by a brooch as ” broad as the boss of a buckler,” and various tradesmen who, in spite of sumptuary laws, wore pouches, girdles, and knives of silver. Her knives were caped not with bras But all with silver. Her girdles and her pouches as well.

The passion for personal ornaments, or ” bravouries ” as they were termed, reached its zenith in England during the reign of the elegant and unfortunate Richard II, whose courtiers out vied one another in such extravagances.

An anonymous writer of the period quoted by Camden in his Remains concerning Britain speaks of hoods, even those worn by men of moderate means, as commonly set with gold and precious stones, while ” their girdles are of gold and silver, some of them worth twenty marks.” The king, in constant want of money, was obliged on several occasions to deposit the royal jewels with the Corporation of London as security for loans.

Continued in Part 2

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Author: connielimon2014

Bead Jewelry Artisan, mother of one daughter and grandmother of two grandsons, daughter of Korean War Veteran.

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