Medieval England Jewelry: Fifteenth Century England Jewelry

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Of the objects selected for the purpose are preserved in the inventories of the Exchequer, and among the city archives. In spite of attempted restrictions, and notwithstanding the disastrous Wars of the Roses, immense demands appear to have been made upon the productive powers of the jewelers throughout the whole of the fifteenth century.

The remarkable list of Henry IV’s jewels in the inventories of the Exchequer, and the most important of royal English inventories of the Middle Ages, that taken after the death of Henry V in 1422 serve to show that until the end of the century, which may serve as the termination of the period, extraordinary extravagance in the style and nature of ornaments as well as of costume was the order of the day.

Every one who had acquired wealth, or even a modest competence only, displayed a magnificence far beyond his means. It was a time when wealth was required in a compact and tangible form. Owners did not hesitate to melt down their jewels when desirous of employing them for other purposes.

The change of taste which shortly came about tended towards similar destruction while the Wars of the Roses involved the breaking up of much that was most sumptuous in material and beautiful in workmanship.

Throughout the whole of the Christian Middle Ages the highest efforts of the goldsmith were directed to the enrichment of the Church and the adornment of its ministers, and the magnificence which the ritual of the Church fostered found expression in the jeweled ornaments of ecclesiastic vestments.

In Norman times ecclesiastical jewelry was extremely luxurious and costly, and the illuminations of the period show the cope and chasuble richly bordered with precious stones. St. Thomas a Becket wore an extraordinary profusion of jewels, and descriptions are preserved of the magnificence of his own person and of his attendants during a progress he once made through the streets of Paris.

Innocent III, memorable in this country as the Pope to whom the pusillanimous John surrendered his crown, is recorded to have commented on the richness of the costumes and ornaments of the English clergy, with a hint at the possibility of extracting further sums for the increase of the papal revenue.

The early inventories all record the splendor of the vestments used in public worship, and show how pearls, precious stones, and even ancient cameos, all rendered more beautiful by exquisite settings, were employed for their enrichment. No bishop, indeed, was suitably equipped without a precious miter with delicate goldsmith’s work and inlaid gems, without a splendid Morse or brooch to fasten his cope, and without a ring, set with an antique gem or a stone en cabochon, to wear over his embroidered glove.

Of all these rich ornaments scarcely any examples have survived save a number of rings recovered from the graves of ecclesiastics. All the more precious, therefore, are the jeweled ornaments bequeathed in 1404 by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, to New College, Oxford, where they are still preserved as relics of its munificent founder.

These unique examples of medieval jewelry date from the closing years of the fourteenth century—the period of transition from Decorated to Perpendicular architecture: a time when Gothic art had reached its climax ; and not only the architect, but the painter and the goldsmith were still devoting their utmost efforts on behalf of the Church, the center of the whole medieval system.

The New College jewels originally decorated William of Wykeham’s precious mitre. Portions of the groundwork of the mitre sewn with seed pearls, and its original case of cuir bottilli or boiled leather, stamped with fleurs-de-lis and bound with iron straps.

Continued in Part 3

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Author: fairydew1

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