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An unknown artist’s copy of an original portrait of Richard III (1520, Royal Collection)

An unknown artist’s copy of an original portrait of Richard III (1520, Royal Collection)

Richard III is indelibly remembered as the dark antihero of Shakespeare’s great play, but his real life seems to have been even more complicated and ambiguous. The last king of the House of York of the Plantagenet dynasty was killed during the Battle of Bosworth Field by means of a halberd blow which shaved off the back of his skull.  We suddenly know a great deal about Richard III because his remains were discovered a few years ago under a car park (which had once been the churchyard of the Church of Grey Friars) in suburban England!

A photographic portrait of Richard III ca. present

A photographic portrait of Richard III ca. present

The discovery of Richard III’s body in 2012 makes for fascinating reading and we learned all sorts of amazing things, but the researchers and archaeologists were left holding a surplus dead medieval king (and a rather sinister one at that). What to do?

A modern funeral crown in medieval style for the (second?) funeral of Richard III

A modern funeral crown in medieval style for the (second?) funeral of Richard III

For reasons of pomp and tradition, it was decided to reinter Richard’s remains in a fashion befitting an English King—and this required a crown (since such prop is an essential ingredient for royal funerals).  The original medieval crowns of England were lost during the age of the Protectorate (except for the little wedding crown of Richard III’s sister).  The modern crowns of the sovereigns of England are inappropriately anachronistic (not to mention super-valuable)…plus the queen hardly wants some long-dead evil king handling her cool stuff.   Yet there could hardly be a kingly reburial without some sort of crown, so history enthusiasts built their own funeral crown out of copper with gold plating.  The crown featured white enamel roses and cabochon rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and turquoise.  They based the crown on that of Margaret of York, and on descriptions of the open crown which Richard III wore during his last days.

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Funeral crowns purpose-built for the exequies of kings were not unknown during the Middle Ages.  Often these crowns were kept at churches or sacred sites near the burial place of the monarch.  Presumably this will be the future for this strange yet beautiful piece of modern medieval jewelry for the strange and disturbing king.

The Coronet of Margaret of York

The Coronet of Margaret of York

Two years ago, Ferrebeekeeper featured the crown of the renowned king Henry VIII of England. To my eyes it has been the prettiest crown so far featured here…but it’s fake, of course. All of the real historical medieval crowns from English history were melted down and sold in the aftermath of the English Civil War (which ended in 1651) when Oliver Cromwell and the protectorate took over the United Kingdom and ruled with a puritanical iron fist. Well, technically all of the actual medieval crowns from English history were destroyed…except for two. Above is the finer of the two, the coronet of Margaret of York, who, though never a queen, became duchess of Burgundy, one of the richest and most important ducal territories in all of Europe. This crown survived England’s tumultuous history by the simple expedient of not being in England (which sort of describes Margaret of York as well).

Anonymous portrait of Margaret of York, ca. 1468, Louvre

Anonymous portrait of Margaret of York, ca. 1468, Louvre

Margaret was born the daughter of England’s most powerful lord, Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, who served as lord protector of England during the madness of Henry VI (the pious but weak king who briefly ruled both France and England). Two of Margaret’s brothers were kings of England– Edward IV and Richard III (famous forever as a Shakespeare villain, whose remains were rediscovered 3 years ago under a parking lot in England). Margaret’s personal history of conniving nobles, kings, wars, alliances, betrothals, marriages, murders, horsing accidents, scurrilous sexual rumors, and complex treaties would make George. R. R. Martin pull out his beard in frustration, although Wikipedia amazingly manages to summarize it all in approximately 3 incomprehensible pages. When Margaret was married to Charles the Bold (whose untimely death precipitated two centuries of major wars) she wore this coronet. Burgundy was known for its wealth and extravagance. During her wedding the city was decorated with ornamental pelicans which spewed wine on the crowds!

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Margaret’s coronet is tiny—a mere 12 centimeters (five inches) in diameter and height, but it is richly “ornamented with multi-coloured enamel, pearls, gems set in white roses, a diamond cross, the coats of arms of England and Burgundy, and letters forming the name: margarit(a) de (y)o(r)k. Margaret of York.” The reason the beautiful object has survived history in such good shape is that Margaret visited the Imperial city of Aachen in the summer of 1474 and donated her coronet to the statue of Mary in the great cathedral there. The little crown has remained in the cathedral’s treasury for the ensuing 541 years. It should be noted that the meticulous Germans have also kept the original leather case (which makes the crown more valuable for serious collectors?).

The Crown of Ardra (made by an unknown goldsmith, 1664)

Behold the majestic Crown of Ardra!

Well actually, the crown might look regal, but it is only made of velvet, copper, and glass.  It was crafted in 1664 by an unknown English goldsmith as an impressive (but inexpensive) gift for the king of Ardra, a tiny slave-trading kingdom on the Bight of Benin.

Though worthless (aside from its antiquity and workmanship), the crown reveals a great deal about the era during which it was made.  In 1663, the Duke of York (Lord Admiral of the British Navy and brother to Charles II ) had sent an expedition to the West African coast to capture Dutch forts and trading posts.  Then in 1664, the English expelled the Dutch from North America by taking over the New Netherlands colonies (which were renamed in honor of the Lord Admiral).  The lands in North America were not especially valuable, however the Dutch coveted access to Africa, so in 1664, the Dutch navy struck back.  A fleet led by Michiel de Ruyter recaptured the African posts (before sailing across the Atlantic to make a punitive raid on the English colonies in North America).  This colonial grasping served the purpose of both sides–each of which was trying to goad the other into outright war.  The 2nd Anglo-Dutch War was declared in 1665.

Michiel de Ruyter (Ferdinand Bol, 1667, oil on canvas)

During de Ruyter’s 1664 mission, the Dutch fleet happened to capture the crown of Ardra, which was kept as a trophy of war and sort of survived the centuries by accident.  Today it is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and visitors can see it for what it truly is—a piece of junk meant to impress a tin-pot king and thereby pry open the African vertex of the triangle trade (which was key to controlling the valuable slave trade).

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