Posted by: Lynne Foley   in Medieval Miscellany

The following is the text of Lynne’s fascinating talk from the December meeting of the NSW Branch.

The transcendent, timeless beauty of medieval jewels has not diminished with the passage of time.  Made from precious metals – gold, silver and gemstones, the pieces that have come down to the present day still retain their beauty and quality of craftsmanship.

The humbler ranks in society had their jewellery too, but made of base metals, iron, pewter or copper, and  in place of gemstones, coloured glass. The less well-off left no wills or inventories of goods, no portraits so most of our information deals with the upper classes.

Silver was much more common in the 12th and 13th century and rich mines in Germany supplied silver in great quantities.

Gold was the most valued metal of all, and Cheapside, the principal thoroughfare from St Paul’s to the Tower, became the hub of the goldsmithing industry.  Some goldsmiths were in holy orders and monasteries were good customers, in need of chalices, cups, censers etc. used in services.  Abbot Sugur of St Denis, well known for his love of rich vestments and gold pieces, justified the work of goldsmiths at his abbey by saying that such display was to praise God.

Due to a shortfall in gold from the mines of Western and Central Europe, recycling of older pieces was high.  Ancient coins, jewellery or other gold objects were melted down and reused.  We are lucky that in such circumstances, so much has survived.

Gemstones were largely supplied by trade. Travelling merchants obtained   stones  such as rubies, sapphire, emeralds, diamonds and turquoise from the East – India, Ceylon, Arabia and Persia.  Germany and Russia were sources for amethysts.

All metals – base or precious – were worked by a smith beginning with an ingot which was hammered into a sheet for working, or the metal could be heated until molten and poured into a mould. Such a mould was found in Ashill in Norfolk. It was dated to about 1300 but its current location is unknown.

Surface decoration took many forms – engraving of patterns or letters using a fine tool on the front of the piece; the use of a hammer and punch on the back of the sheet, and adding colour by setting the piece with gems.

Another way to add colour was enamelling – this technique is essentially ground glass fired at very high temperature onto the metal surface. A type of enamelling found on medieval jewellery is champlevé, the metal was deeply engraved with a design, filled with ground glass and fired. Basse taille was translucent enamel which allowed light to be reflected from the gold or silver surface, giving a sparkling effect that as Campbell asserts, no modern goldsmith has ever surpassed.

Perfected in Paris as early as 1400, émail en ronde basse, is the technique which allowed objects to be enamelled in the round by fusing molten glass to gold.

An item showing the beauty of enamel work is the Dunstable Swan. It was found on the site of a Dominican priory in Dunstable, Beds. and owned possibly by a member of the De Bohun family, whose sign was a swan.

Until the fifteenth century, gems were polished, not cut, and irregular gems were held in place with a lip of metal or a four or five-pronged claw setting. Pearls were pierced for sewing onto clothing or mounted on a tiny rod projecting from the body of the pearl.

Several hoards of medieval jewellery have been found – the Fishpool Hoard was voted one of the top ten British treasures. The hoard contains 1237 gold coins mainly dating from the reign of Henry VI and gold jewellery.  Possibly it may have been part of the Lancastrian treasury; concealed by a survivor of the Battle of Hexham who may have died of wounds or killed in a subsequent battle before the treasure could be retrieved. The hoard remained secreted in Sherwood Forest until 1966.

One of the most famous hoards is that called the Cheapside Hoard found in a cellar in 1912.  Again death being a probable reason why the pieces were never retrieved.  Although, as it falls at the end of the period under discussion, it deserves a mention.

The hoard is a veritable Aladdin’s cave; the pieces date from the Elizabethan to Jacobean period and are of the highest quality. An emerald watch is not only one of the most spectacular items in the hoard, it is unique. Other medieval watches exist but none like this.

The maker has cut the lid and case out of one rough emerald or two prisms of matching size, colour and translucency. In fact, there is so much light, the case need not be opened to tell the time. The dial features champlevé enamel; Roman numerals mark the hours and the dots half hours. The hands are lost as is the mechanism, but x-rays have revealed how the watch was driven. The loss of the hands and mechanism may be due to the watch being ajar, allowing water to enter.

The salamander was a popular jewellery design throughout Europe, particularly Spain.  The Cheapside example is made of emeralds; its feet and undercarriage display opaque white; it has flecks of black enamel indicating the scaly flesh of a salamander and a coral tongue, though the tip is snapped off – perhaps during recovery.

For any member who may be visiting London from now until the 27 April 2014, the jewels are on at the Museum of London, Docklands.

Two finds of interest to us are the Middleham jewel, found in 1985 and the Middleham ring, found in 1990.

The Middleham Jewel (photograph by Jonathan Cardy, obtained through Wikimedia Commons)

The Middleham Jewel is a lozenge-shaped pendant, engraved with religious scenes and figures. The front has a large sapphire, a Latin inscription and an engraving of the Trinity.  The reverse side has an exquisitely engraved Nativity scene. This piece is dated to the third quarter of the fifteenth century.  It has slots on the side for pearls, which over time have disintegrated.

The Middleham ring is inscribed with 12 letters ‘S’ on the outside and on the inside with the word ‘sovereynly’ which is thought to mean ‘in a lordly manner.’

The significance of medieval jewellery goes beyond its material or decorative value – in medieval times it served many more purposes than today.

Jewellery was used as symbols of affection or to cement alliances such as the betrothal ring sent to Margaret of York by Charles the Bold; stones were thought to  have magical powers; mainly in powdered form, gems were used as medicines. Before the existence of banks, gemstones and jewellery were well regarded as security for loans and were a form of portable wealth. Jewellery served also religious functions and complemented clothing both for adornment and practical application – brooches were useful in pinning together layers of clothing.

For the nobility, gemstones and jewellery were an unmistakable signal of social standing, wealth and influence.

At the highest end of the social scale was the king, who was expected to maintain a grand estate appropriate to his royal dignity. In this, Edward IV did not disappoint.

From surviving accounts we know that Edward’s routine expenditure on jewellery was considerable. In July 1461, he redeemed from the executors of Sir John Falstoff two valuable jewels which had been pledged by the king’s father Duke Richard, who had owned also a jewelled collar valued at £2,666 – a fabulous sum for the times.

Edward spent £125 on a jewelled ornament ‘against the time of the birth of our most dear daughter Elizabeth.’  In 1469, although a cash-strapped Edward was pawning jewels to raise money, he still found spare change of  £930 for jewels supplied by John Barker and Henry Massey, two London goldsmiths.

A bill survives from Cornelius the goldsmith which gives an idea of what purchases comprised. A few examples are: a gold cross set with a diamond, 4 rubies and 7 pearls; a flower shape with a green sapphire; a toothpick of gold, garnished with a diamond, ruby and pearl; and gold rings garnished with 4 rubies.

On another occasion, Ross says that Edward had bid – unsuccessfully – £3000 for a huge diamond and ruby ornament owned by the Grimaldi brothers.

On his accession, Edward not only reformed coinage but also changed the design of the noble. Featuring a king holding a sword standing in a boat. Edward placed a rose on the boat and practically obliterated the cross on the reverse by his sign of a blazing sun and another rose.

Considered to be one of masterpieces of the medieval times, it is the position of the suspension loops that is notable. Suspension with either side showing would render the design either askew or upside down.  Therefore it is thought that the pendant was designed to be held up to the face. The coin was not reissued after 1471 and existing stocks were popular. The surviving example would have been owned by a supporter of the family York or of Edward himself.

Upon Edward’s death a coat of gilt mail with his arms embroidered in pearls, gold and rubies, survived until 1642 when it was destroyed by the Parliamentary soldiers.

King Richard was no less aware than his brother of the need for kingly magnificence and display, but with one exception, it is difficult to find evidence of his ownership and use of jewellery.

The exception mentioned is that as Duke of Gloucester, Richard wished to buy a fine emerald owned by Sir John Pilkington. He refused to sell and Richard had to accept that decision.  In his will, proved in 1479, however, Pilkington stated that “I will that my lorde of Gloucestre shall have a emerald set in gold for which for said lorde would have given me c marc.’

In 1529, Henry VIII gave Ann Boleyn a fine emerald – the same one? We will never know.

Ecclesiastical jewellery was just as beautiful as that made for secular use.  Reliquary rings and pendants were used to house alleged relics whose power was their proximity to the body.

Another well-known example is the Wyckham jewel. Made in Paris about 1400, it is set with a ruby in the middle; it shows the Annunciation and carved into the letter ‘M’ for the Virgin Mary. It was given to New College Oxford by its founder, Bishop William Wykeham.

Nature as a source of design was prominent from the late C14th to the early C15th.  The All Souls jewel, made of sheet of gold shaped into a flower, is covered with opaque white enamel and set with a pink tourmaline is rare in two respects–  the ronde bosse enamel is intact and pink tourmaline was a gem not used in quantity until the19th century.

Campbell suggests that the condition of the jewel was probably due to its coming into the care of All Souls College soon after its manufacture. An extant record shows that it was received by the college in 1466.

I would like to conclude this introduction to the world of medieval jewellery with this thought:

‘Very many people find that a single gem stone alone is enough to provide them with a supreme and perfect aesthetic experience of the wonders of Nature.’
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 37, ‘On Gems.’


1.   Marion Campbell, Medieval Jewellery. V & A Publishing, 2011
2.   John Cherry, Medieval Goldsmiths
3.   John Cherry, The Middleham Jewel and Ring
4.   Gareth Dean, Medieval York. The History Press
5.   Princely Magnificence: Debrett’s Pty Ltd 1981
6.   Hazel Forsyth, London’s Lost Jewels. Museum of London Publishing 2013
7.   ‘The Will of Sir John Pilkington’ – published by the Richard III Society, 2012
8.   Alan Robinson, Masterpieces:  Medieval Art. British Museum Press  2008
9.   Charles Ross, Edward IV
10. Dora Salley, ‘Medieval Jewelry’, Central European University http://web.ceu.hu/medstud/manual/SRM/jewel.htm#raw


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