‘A Marvel to Behold’: Gold and Silver at the Court of Henry VIII
Dr Schroder, thank you so much for joining us. Before we begin, would you please tell us something of your work and studies to date?
That’s an easy starter for ten. I’ve always been involved with the field of silver and goldsmiths’ work: my first job was in the silver department at Christie’s. It’s the best learning environment there is because you see so much – not only things that come in for sale, but also great ancestral collections that you are asked to value or advise on. From there I went to LACMA as Curator of Decorative Arts. They needed to appoint someone with my specialist knowledge, but I enjoyed the wider responsibilities that the role offered too. Once back in England (where I worked as a dealer for a while) I was invited to catalogue the silver collection at the Ashmolean Museum. The collection is stupendous and it was a huge task that took almost twenty years to complete (eventually published in three volumes in 2009). Meanwhile, other roles, such as setting up the museum for the Gilbert Collection in Somerset House, and leading on the reinstallation of several permanent collection galleries at the V&A, have been great opportunities for engaging with wonderful material.
The life and reign of Henry VIII are, of course, somewhat beyond the scope of the Medieval Herald but since your book tells us much about royal court culture do you agree that it may still be of interest to medieval historians?
I remember a rather old-school history master telling us, in true Yeatman and Sellar style, that the English Renaissance is ‘difficult to date exactly but lasted roughly from 1485 to 1603’! But I soon discovered that contrary to that memorable sound-bite, the medieval world didn’t come to a full stop at the Battle of Bosworth and that most of the customs and conventions in place when Henry VIII came to the throne would have been entirely familiar to someone from the previous century. The shift was gradual and the throne that Henry inherited in 1509 was still essentially medieval.
In short it focusses on Henry’s vast collection of gold and silver. What form did this precious collection take?
The part of Henry VIII’s treasure that we know most about was kept in the jewel house at the Tower of London, because this was inventoried whenever a new master took office. It comprised all the plate and jewels not in day-to-day use and the quantities were huge. The 1521 inventory (for example) runs to some 900 entries, in all weighing slightly less than four tonnes of precious metal. It lists everything from the crown jewels at one end of the spectrum to ordinary domestic wares at the other. Many pieces, especially among the gold display plate (covered cups, salts and so on), were set with gems, so the total value of the store was far greater than the weight of gold and silver. A large part of the list – more than 160 entries – was made up of sacred silver, including dozens of ‘images’. Many of these would have been old at the time and some of the secular plate was inherited too. Some dated back as far as the reign of Richard II and the only surviving piece from the list is the wonderful gold and enamelled cup in the British Museum that was made in Paris around 1400. But the most important thing about the jewel house store was that it wasn’t a ‘collection’ in the modern sense; it was an expendable resource and when the king needed cash it could be trundled across to the mint and turned into coin.
Commissioned, purchased, gifted or even taken – where did it all come from?
Much of it was inherited, as I’ve said. But the jewel house was a revolving door with things coming in and things going out. The king was constantly buying new plate (as did Henry VII before him), especially artistic plate from France, Germany and elsewhere. But the most fruitful sources were new year’s gifts and attainder plate: the traditional exchange of gifts of plate between king and court went back to at least the reign of Henry III and involved a considerable outlay for the king. But since the value of the gifts coming in tended to be higher than the gifts going out, it was ultimately an income generator. Attainder was a major but more erratic source. When the duke of Buckingham was arrested in 1521 his confiscated plate – all listed in the inventory – came to many thousands of ounces. All of Cardinal Wolsey’s plate, too, went to the king (although Henry tended to have the cardinal’s arms removed and replaced with his own) and when the huge quantities of monastic plate were seized in the 1530s the king got to choose what he wanted to keep before sending the rest to the mint.
What was the greater significance of having a collection on the scale of Henry’s?
In a word, power. Magnificence – as Richard Barber will tell you – was a key tool in the projection of majesty and power in the Middle Ages, and that didn’t change with Henry VIII. It was important to project a visible aura of wealth, because wealth underpinned power, and although this was done through many media – sumptuous tapestries, splendid banquets, music, tournaments and so on – perhaps its most effective channel was plate and jewels. For several reasons: for those in the know these were the easiest asset classes to assess; plate and jewels could also be remade or reset in the latest styles (and to be truly magnificent one also had to be up-to-date); and, in extremis, gold and silver plate could even more easily be converted into coin.
Did he ever use it for anything? Was it displayed or was it simply stored?
Plate was used for just about everything: for lighting, washing, worshiping, for eating, drinking and so on. And this wasn’t just showing of: when it came to smart domestic wares, there weren’t too many options in the early sixteenth century; tin-glazed pottery and glass were only just starting to appear in northern Europe and Chinese porcelain likewise. Pewter was widely available but regarded as very second-best. So, plate was pretty well ‘de rigueur’ and it was used all the time. But it was more nuanced than that and when it came to courtly dining plate, there was a definite hierarchy. The rich would all use plate if they could, but a prince wouldn’t be worthy of the name if he didn’t eat off gold, or even better. There’s a very nice account of a banquet given for Francis I by Katherine of Aragon at the Field of Cloth of Gold where there was a clear distinction between the king and queen, who ate off gold set with jewels, and others at the royal table, who ate off gold without jewels. Meanwhile, lesser mortals at the other tables had to make do with mere silver-gilt. But, of course, when we talk about ‘use’, this had a wider sense too. Display was a use too and great shelved structures called buffets, stacked high with showy plate that were there only for display was a familiar aspect of princely magnificence. There were scores of pots and flagons and cups in the jewel house, many of which were regularly carted over to Westminster or Greenwich or where ever the king happened to be when he hosted a great feast.
Do you know if any later monarchs collected on the same scale?
In England, not really, although Charles I and George IV did their best. But in France, Louis XIV must have had as much at one point, although the cost of his wars meant much of it got sent to the mint. For example, all his opulent silver furniture, made for Versailles, was melted down soon after it was made. An amazing array of Habsburg treasures can still be seen in Vienna today, but it’s only a fraction of what was owned by the Emperor Rudolf II in the early seventeenth century. And then we mustn’t forget the Russian tsars, who kept everything and whose staggeringly opulent ambassadorial gifts from all over Europe survived the revolution and still remain in the Armoury Museum at the Kremlin.
And what became of Henry’s riches? Is it true that very little still exists?
Today we know of just four survivals (out of several thousand gold and silver objects that he owned). But others will surely emerge. When A. J. Collins published his great account of Elizabeth I’s 1574 inventory he described the French royal gold cup as the sole survivor from Elizabeth’s (and Henry’s) holdings. A decade later John Hayward recognised a gold and jewel mounted bowl in Munich as a piece described in the 1547 inventory; next came the clock-salt which now belongs to the Goldsmiths’ Company; and then, in the 1990s, I discovered the Henrician origins of a rock-crystal vessel in Florence. So, it would be surprising if others did not eventually emerge. Possible hunting grounds might be the Vatican, or some of the largely uncatalogued cathedral treasuries in Spain.
How did you go about researching a collection that’s largely lost?
The objects may be lost but the documentation isn’t. Or much of it, anyway. The obvious starting point was ‘L&P’ (Letters and Papers), the calendars of state papers from the reign of Henry VIII which contain a wealth of evidence. Not that you would know it if you relied solely on the indexes. These are excellent for names but hopeless for themes, especially if the theme is something like material culture. So, I spent several years gradually ploughing through all the volumes. (I don’t think British history online existed when I started, but I preferred working through the printed volumes anyway – you can see where you are with a book!). Then there were the calendars of papers in Venetian and Spanish archives, with all the ambassadorial dispatches. Gradually my notebooks filled with priceless material, most of which, inevitably, ended up on the cutting room floor. Clearly, I couldn’t examine all the originals of such a vast quantity of documents and it was a judgement call as to which to go and see at Kew or the British Library, but doing so was seldom disappointing.
Do you have a favourite piece?
Oh, I do! Two, in fact: the ones in Florence and Munich. The first because it’s the only survivor of the hundreds of pieces supplied by the royal goldsmiths, because it was a royal gift to the pope (we assume) and reminds us that for most of his life Henry was a good son of the church, and because I discovered it – so it’s ‘mine’! And the second because it’s wonderful beyond belief. Made of rock crystal, gold and enamel and set with precious stones and pearls, I was privileged to be allowed to examine it close up a couple of years ago and was astonished by its virtuosity. The crystal bowl itself probably dates from the fourteenth century and the exquisitely worked mounts date from shortly before the end of Henry’s reign. There is a long, long tradition associating the bowl with Hans Holbein and a seventeenth-century painting of the bowl is inscribed ‘Holbein fe[cit]’. But it has nothing to do with Holbein and was probably made in a south German court workshop.
What is next for you now? Do you plan more work in this field?
I think I need to let the dust settle and continue making sure that this book gets properly ‘out there’. But, yes, there are a couple of possible projects forming at the back of my mind. One is on a great sixteenth-century Nuremberg goldsmith and polymath called Wenzel Jamnitzer. He was, if you like, ‘Germany’s Cellini’, and although much of his work was eventually consigned to the melting pot he was immensely famous in his own day and is still celebrated in Germany (he recently featured on a special issue postage stamp). But outside Germany he is not so well-known, and he should be. The other is a project closer to home. It would be a book focusing on the City of London and on the many historic treasures that survive in the livery companies, churches and other institutions. But it wouldn’t just be about objects; it would be about benefaction and community memory: I, the benefactor, give this piece of plate because it will enrich and be useful to my company or my church and because it will ensure, through the inscription I cause to be put on it, that I am remembered; you, of a later generation, want to preserve it (if circumstances allow) because it shows (increasingly, as time passes) the longevity of the institution and because it will encourage others to do the same. A fascinating bi-product of this process is that it ensures that we remember people who would otherwise have faded entirely from the collective memory.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
I don’t have a current academic affiliation, but I am fortunate to be a member of the London Library and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, both of whom are active in acquiring new titles in my field and in subscribing to journals. Conferences are a vital link in the chain. Of course, many this year have been cancelled or have morphed into virtual events. These are pluses and minuses to these: on the plus side it is easy to attend events where ever they may be, but on the minus side, they lack the personal contact that is so important for siloed researchers. We have much to learn from all this (I’d never heard of Zoom before Covid!) and when things return to normal I hope that it will become the norm for all face-to-face conferences to be accessible by Zoom. Publishers might consider using the technology in some form or other to help authors promote their new books.
TIMOTHY SCHRODER was Curator of Decorative Arts at the Los Angeles County Museum and a Consultant Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. More recently he has twice served as Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company; he is also a member of the Westminster Abbey Fabric Commission.
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