Tudor treasure: exploring an artefact rich in royal imagery

A pendant adorned with symbolic motifs linked to Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon was recently unveiled at the British Museum. Carly Hilts spoke to Dr Rachel King and Teresa Gilmore to find out more.

It seemed fitting to have a gold heart-shaped pendant on show for the packed press briefing at the British Museum – it was only a couple of weeks before Valentine’s Day. With an entwined ‘H’ and ‘K’ picked out in red enamel adorning one side, the object could have been taken as a sentimental – if rather ostentatious – sign of a couple’s devotion to one another. As to the couple’s identity, the other side of the object held unmistakeable clues, having been decorated with the distinctive red- and-white bloom of the Tudor rose and a pomegranate bush – symbols used by Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon.

Decorated with the Tudor rose and a pomegranate bush – emblems associated with the 16th-century royal families of England and Spain respectively – as well as the initials H and K, this pendant’s imagery suggests a link to the court of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Image: The Trustees of the British Museum

The necklace, which was found by a metal-detectorist in Warwickshire farmland, was presented to the press at the launch of the latest annual reports for the Treasure process and the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Made of around 300g of 23- to 25-carat gold, it has a 75-link chain, at the centre of which a gold-and-enamel hand emerging from a cloud would have originally connected it to the central pendant. This latter component is hinged like a locket, and was originally secured using two pins; as well as the decoration described above, both sides bear the inscription ‘tous iors’, from the French toujours, ‘always’.

Although at the time of writing the artefact was yet to undergo its coroner’s inquest in accordance with the 1996 Treasure Act, it had already been designated a ‘find of note’ and of national importance. Following its discovery in 2019 (which the finder immediately reported to Teresa Gilmore, Finds Liaison Officer for Staffordshire and the West Midlands), the artefact underwent initial investigations in Birmingham, as well as conservation by Drakon Heritage, before travelling to the British Museum for further scientific analysis. Although COVID-19 restrictions limited the work that could be done, the team is satisfied that the necklace is indeed a 16th-century object rather than a later creation; its gold content, marks, and solder are all compatible with what you might expect for the Tudor period, reports Dr Rachel King, Curator of Renaissance Europe at the British Museum.

Initial examinations – including X-rays and XRF analysis – and conservation were undertaken by Birmingham Museums Trust and Drakon Heritage, before the pendant travelled to the British Museum for further research. Image: Drakon Heritage

In terms of a more precise date, Henry’s marriage to Katherine was his longest, spanning 1509-1533 – almost two-thirds of his 38-year reign, with his other five wives crammed into the remaining 14 years. As a result, an object naming any of his other queens would immediately offer a much smaller date range – but the pendant does preserve some chemical clues to help narrow things down a bit. Helpfully, its decorations include black enamel, and the recipe for this material changed in the 1520s and 1530s. The enamel seen on the necklace is the earlier version, suggesting that the artefact might date to the earlier years of Henry and Katherine’s marriage – possibly before he began his pursuit of Anne Boleyn in 1526.

A slapdash spectacle

As for the pendant’s purpose, although objects, armour, and architecture decorated with the king and queen’s initials were common at the Tudor court, this find is not thought to have a direct link to Henry or Katherine themselves. Detailed inventories from the royal household survive, documenting possessions including individual items of jewellery, and nothing similar to the Warwickshire necklace is mentioned in these records.

The kind of black enamel used in this inscription provides a clue to the pendant’s date, as the recipe changed in 1520s and 1530s. Image: Birmingham Museums Trust

Might it have been worn by a high-status supporter, then, as a show of loyalty or an exuberant way to show off that its wearer had been at the royal court? The small circumference of the necklace’s 43.3cm (17.2 inch) chain might hint at a female owner – though the fact that it has no clasp to separate the strands could have made it difficult to put on. Was it intended to be worn at all?When I spoke to Teresa Gilmore at the press briefing, she highlighted that, in stark contrast to the purity of the gold used, the necklace seems to have been ‘knocked up quite quickly’. As the report on the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s database (see ‘Further information’ on p.16) elaborates, some elements seem decidedly slapdash in execution, such as the pendant’s ‘skewed and uneven’ hinges. Why would such a beautiful object warrant such rushed workmanship? The team’s current thinking is that this was not meant to be a piece of jewellery, but a bauble for a court entertainment – perhaps a prize in a tournament.

If we are looking at the years around 1520, this was a time when Henry VIII was eager to be seen in a positive light on the international stage – it is the time of the Field of Cloth of Gold, a grand spectacle in Calais where Henry went all-out to impress François I of France. Perhaps this object, too, was intended to be visually impressive but short-lived: a flashy prize that could be produced at speed and in quantity, and then melted down and recycled for the next grand event.

Just for jousts?

As the Portable Antiquities Scheme report notes, the find suggests: an object made for a setting in which the appearance and impression at a distance were key, possibly without the expectation that it would endure for any length of time. It is recorded in a missive of July 1517, following a joust and banquet for the Flemish ambassadors at Greenwich, that the event had been four months in preparation, producing metalwork with the letters H & K and other royal emblems for the garments of more than 100 individuals and many horses. This suggests a huge amount of metalwork being hastily prepared with visual impact in mind, none of which was intended to have longevity. [The Warwickshire find] could have been made in similar circumstances. Elsewhere prizes are recorded for jousts (values are given but no objects are described, rings, other jewels). Might [the pendant] be a visual token of financial reward?

The clasp of the necklace, which depicts a hand emerging from a cloud, hints at a possible link to imagery used at the Shrovetide jousts in 1521. Image: Birmingham Museums Trust

Elements of the necklace’s design hint at a link to tournaments, Teresa added. The inclusion of a hand emerging from a cloud, initials, and the emblems of the two royal houses is reminiscent of embroidered horse cloths that are described as being in storage at Greenwich Palace, one of the most important Tudor royal residences. These references mention a hand gripping a Tudor rose and a pomegranate branch, appearing from a cloud and accompanied by the letters H and K – imagery tantalisingly close to that of the Warwickshire pendant. The descriptions date to March 1521 and, given that Henry VIII is known to have ridden at Greenwich a month earlier, as part of the Shrovetide jousts, it seems likely that the embroideries would have been used then – might the pendant have been presented as a prize at this event?

As for how the necklace ended up in rural Warwickshire, far from where royal jousts would have been held, this remains, for now, a mystery. The county boasts a number of castles, and, during the Tudor period, was home to notable families who could have participated in such events or owned such a lavish bauble. Intriguingly, the circuit of the necklace’s chain appears to have been deliberately torn open, but it is not known whether it was accidentally lost, or whether it had been buried in the hope of later recovery – a question that will be key during the artefact’s Treasure inquest. If it was purposefully buried, this could have occurred much later in the object’s history, perhaps when it had already become an heirloom item – Warwickshire was particularly active during the English Civil War, for example, Rachel commented.

Latest news from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

The Warwickshire pendant was unveiled at the launch of the latest Treasure Annual Report and the Portable Antiquities Annual Report, which cover 2020 and 2021 respectively. Although both reflect a period greatly affected by COVID-19 restrictions, which included lockdowns during which people were allowed to leave their homes only under strict conditions, some 45,581 new archaeological discoveries (96% of which were made by metal-detectorists) were recorded on the PAS database, including 1,085 Treasure cases. Gloucestershire was the county with the most PAS finds in 2021, totalling 8,113, followed by Suffolk (4,676) and Lincolnshire (4,247). For the same year, the most Treasure reports were made in Norfolk (85), followed by Kent (74) and Lincolnshire and Wiltshire (both 68). The PAS database has entries for over 1.5 million objects; its data has contributed to 872 research projects to-date. You can browse the listings at www.finds.org.uk.

Further information
To read the full Portable Antiquities Scheme description of the pendant, see www.finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/985944 or search for WMID-A51F34 on the PAS database.
All finders of potential Treasure are legally required to report their discoveries. In England and Wales, they should contact their local Finds Liaison Officer; see www.finds.org.uk/treasure for more information on the definition of Treasure and how the process works. In Scotland, they should contact the Treasure Trove unit; see https://treasuretrovescotland.co.uk.