Buried Secrets: The Middleham Jewel – And An Interview With George Easton, Jeweler of the Crown for Richard III
Prologue: August 31, 2014.
That time of the year was upon my husband Erik and me again: our wedding anniversary. It’s an occasion that can haunt husbands and wives alike. You make a miscalculation and you have a year’s penance to do. Do you get something practical, like a new roasting pan? Not very romantic, but granted, there’s nothing more fulfilling to martial happiness than feasting on a well-browned roast that is delivered warm and fragrant from the oven to the dinner table.
We were celebrating our 18th year of wedded existence, and it seemed like the “traditional wedding anniversary gift guide” was utterly useless, when one is commemorating two years short of two decades of wedded bliss. The traditional guide has a gift for every year, from the first (paper) to the fifteenth (crystal). Apparently, after you hit 15 years, the need for annual gifts lapses into five year cycles, perhaps in recognition that if you’ve managed to be in a relationship for that long already, you should probably stop expecting a gift every year. Or maybe in recognition that time really does fly when you get older and five years of marriage actually does feel like only one. Some, however, may disagree and say the opposite is true.
Noticeably, the “modern wedding anniversary gift guide” corrects this glaring omission and it proscribes a gift for every year, even the eighteenth. It is porcelain. Now, my very first reaction upon hearing “porcelain” was to envision something even more utilitarian than a roasting pan. I thought about vitreous porcelain, the kind that is certainly useful to a happily married household, but is rather flushingly banal: sinks, tubs and toilets. While I was mentally contemplating how to incorporate porcelain into my gift for Erik (a new plunger?), it turns out that Erik did the smart thing and threw all gift guides, traditional or otherwise, out the window.
What he presented to me with this (as seen from the front, and then the reverse sides):
To many Ricardians, we know this to be the “Middleham Jewel”, a large gold pendant with a sapphire that would have been worn around a very fashionable lady’s neck in the late 15th century. I was utterly flabbergasted that I was holding it in the palm of my hand.
“What, did you steal this from the Yorkshire Museum?” I said in stunned disbelief.
“No, you silly woman, this is a replica of the real jewel that I commissioned from George Easton. The same jeweler who made the crown that John Ashdown-Hill made for Richard III.”
I sat and marveled at the beautiful object for many silent minutes.
“Well, I got you a roasting pan,” I said with a small voice, “but I promise to make you roast befitting a King.”
That was several months ago, and I am happy to report we are still married. One thing that keeps a marriage together is having shared interests, and Erik and I are both thoroughly intrigued by the 15th century in England, its history, people, traditions, architecture and art. The gift of the Middleham Jewel inspired me to look into the history of this fascinating object of beauty, the amazing story of its discovery, the twists and turns of how it became reappropriated to the United Kingdom. And it brought me into contact with the very talented jeweler who fashions 15th badges, livery collars, rings, sword hilts, brooches and pendants from his workshop in Sussex, England.
Part One: September, 1985.
Ted Seaton, a metal-detecting enthusiast and antiques dealer who lived in Castle Barnard, asked a farmer, Edmund Tennant, if he could bring a couple of friends with him to detect on one of the farm’s grassy fields near Middleham Castle in North Yorkshire. The endeavor proved fruitless at first, but Mr. Seaton “felt he had to go back” and as he was metal detecting along an ancient path wending from Jervaulx Abbey to Middleham Castle to Coverham Abbey, his equipment emitted a faint signal and he started to dig. He was about 200 yards from the castle that was known to be Richard, duke of Gloucester’s home, in the waning years of his brother, Edward IV’s, reign.
As reported by Trevor Brookes in the Teesdale Mercury , “[e]ventually at a depth of more than 10 inches he found something. He saw a glint of metal and put it in the cloth finds bag”. At first he thought it was a non-descript ladies’ compact for powder. Mrs. Vera Seaton, later that evening, “washed it under the tap to reveal a beautifully engraved double-sided pendant of gold set with a carbuncle sapphire. The item was engraved and there was a Latin inscription.”
“For a few minutes,” Mrs. Seaton told the reporter, “I was speechless. I eventually recovered and spoke. ‘Ted, look at this.’ Having sold jewelry in our shop for a few years, I knew instinctively that this was something very special. We looked at one another in disbelief. It was a moment in our lives that we would never forget.”
The piece was heavy, 62.7 grams in weight, suggesting it was solid gold. And rather large: 6.5 cm in height, 4.8 cm in width and 1.0 cm in depth. The front side was engraved with a Trinity, showing God the Father holding his Son to the Cross, with the Dove of the Holy Spirit acting as intermediary. Around the frame is etched the following inscription: Ecce agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi / Miserere nobis / tetragrammaton ananizapta. Traces of pigment suggest the inscription was done in blue enamel. The reverse side showed an engraved Nativity scene above the Lamb of God, done in very fine detail, with an ox and an ass peering out of a manger as Mary kneels in adoration of Christ, and Joseph clutches his staff and raises a clenched hand, as if in worry or in defense of the precious child. The Star of Bethlehem beckons in the sky, and God the Father appears at the pinnacle of the scene, giving a blessing to what is depicted below. Fifteen saints are shown in the surrounding frame.
As required by British law, Mr. Seaton reported his find to the authorities, and the Coroner at Thirsk performed an inquest. It was determined not to be treasure trove; the Coroner’s court was actually more concerned with the discovery of 1,500 silver and gold coins, with the Middleham Jewel thought to be worth only a few hundred pounds. So Mr. Seaton was permitted to keep the jewel, and sell it on the open marketplace, sharing the proceeds with the owner of the land and his metal-detecting partners. (A lawsuit was filed by one of Mr. Seaton’s metal-detecting friends who did not show up that day; his argument was based on the premise that he still deserved a share of the proceeds notwithstanding his inability to be physically present during the discovery. A creative argument that, nonetheless, did not prevail.)
According to the Teesdale Mercury, despite the buzz in the press about the discovery, “York Museum remained unmoved, as did The British Museum which said the jewel was rather primitive.” Dave Stewart, from the band Eurythmics, visited their shop in Barnard Castle expressing an interest in buying it. Even more dramatically, almost like a scene out of a movie, the Seatons received a knock on their door at their house in Barnard Castle, and “a mystery bidder” offered them Ł500,000.
According to the Teesdale Mercury, the mystery man said that “no questions are to be asked and you must also leave the country and never return. The money will be paid into a numbered bank account outside of this country so that you will not have to declare it”. Mrs. Seaton, wisely alarmed by such stipulations, told the reporter that she and her husband “were not interested ‘in doing a disappearing act’.” Mrs. Seaton has since written a full account called “The Saga of The Middleham Jewel” which is available for purchase by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or by contacting Karen Laver at the Teesdale Mercury.
Part Two: December 5, 1986
Every season, the New York Times publishes a feature in its Arts section that is sure to provoke interest in folks who follow auctions and the art world in general. Sometimes great masterpieces are presented for sale, and rumors gather like storm clouds over such turbulent questions as: What will it sell for? And – Is it right that a buyer from some far-off place will take that work to their private residence in Japan or casino in Macao?
True to form, the New York Times, on December 5, 1986, more than a year after Ted Seaton’s discovery, ran a feature about auctions that were to occur at the venerable Sotheby’s in London and Christies in New York City. There were two items in particular they reported on. One was the Middleham Jewel, which was to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s the following Thursday. The other was Joseph Stella’s amazing painting “Tree of My Life”, a futurist work from 1919-20 that is rich in floral and spiritual imagery, which was to be auctioned off at Christie’s.
According to the New York Times reporter, “Richard Camber, a former assistant keeper in medieval art at the British Museum, who is Sotheby’s medieval specialist in London, said this week that the jewel is acknowledged by scholars to be the most important addition to the surviving body of English medieval jewelry uncovered since World War II.” The estimate was that it would sell for $280,000-$430,000 – well short of the Ł500,000 offered by the mystery man who knocked on the Seaton’s door one night.
This estimate, however, was dwarfed by the one given to the Stella painting. It was roundly considered one of his masterpieces, and it is moving to hear Stella’s own description of what inspired him to paint it, as he told the magazine Art News in 1960: ”And one morning of April, to my amazement, against the infernal turmoil of a huge factory raging just in front of my house emitting in continual ebullition smoke and flame, a towering tree arose up to the sky with the glorious ascenting vehemence of the rainbow after the tempest.” He went on to describe the painting, at the top of which are flowers ”symbolic of the daring flights of our spiritual life.” The middle, he wrote, depicts scenes of his youth in Italy that are transfigured, ”exalted by the nostalgic remoteness.” Notwithstanding that this work was a profound commentary of a 20th-century painter’s spiritual reflections in a modern industrial era, the estimate of what it would fetch at auction was in the vicinity of up to $1,000,000.
Both the Middleham Jewel and Stella’s “Tree of My Life” far surpassed both estimates. The jewel ultimately sold for Ł1,300,000 to an undisclosed buyer outside the United Kingdom. It took six seconds to reach that enormous amount. The Stella painting sold for a record-breaking $2,200,000, similarly to an anonymous buyer. When news reached Mr. and Mrs. Seaton, he was out metal-detecting – this time on a sandy beach in Spain, where the couple had moved. Reflecting on the rumors, the lawsuits, and the disruptions to their lives caused by Mr. Seaton’s discovery, Mrs. Seaton said to the Teesdale Mercury reporter: “The roller-coaster ride we were on made us stronger as a couple”.
Maybe this sounds strange, but I think that the Stella painting and the Middleham Jewel have connections. The 1994 exhibition catalogue to the Stella painting, when it was shown at the Whitney Museum, describes Stella’s painting as follows: Tree of Life (1920), like many later Stella works, is “baroque and operatic,” a garden scene out of Bosch (1450-1516). His figure studies (usually female, often Madonna-like) are decoratively, extravagantly embellished. His numerous floral works border on the surreal but, in their lushness and excess, could not accurately be characterized as a part of the Surrealist movement. Critic Lewis Mumford called him a “puzzling painter” at that point, commenting, “I have seen the fissure between his realism and his fantasy widen into an abyss.” When you study the meaning behind the images engraved on the Middleham jewel, there is almost a Baroque operatic quality behind them. The symmetry, a feature of Baroque art, cannot be denied. The front depicts the trinity of man’s path to salvation with Christ on a brutal tree of crucifixion. The reverse shows the same triumvirate but in different form, one that depicts landscape and floral elements, atmosphere and adolation. Stella’s painting is very much similar but in the context of how he was reacting to a remembrance of his own past, how he felt about industrialization. It’s almost like he created a reliquary, in painted form, for what use to be considered the paramount forces of life: Nature and remembrance. History and nostalgia. Very powerful forces that inflect a lot of art, and still influence us today.
Part Three: Sometime between 1450-1500
The Middleham Jewel is believed by scholars to have been produced by an English goldsmith, working in London, sometime in the third-fourth quarters of the 15th century, based on comparisons to Flemish portrayals of the Nativity. It is also believed to have been originally set with pearls on its outer edge, consistent with similar pendants produced and worn by ladies during the period. The ravages of age have caused the outer settings to become lost.
What was entirely unknown to Mr. Seaton and to many in the art world in 1985-6, is that the Middleham Jewel contained secrets of its own, and, as it was later discovered, it, too, was a reliquary for someone who wanted to maintain a connection to some greater spiritual element that was entirely personal, meaningful and magical. In other words, like the Stella painting, it exemplified the fissure between realism and fantasy, but in a special place that we call religion.
One of the more fascinating features of the Middleham Jewel is that the backplate slides off to reveal a storage chamber, most likely a space to store relics or objects that were important to its owner.
This was not immediately apparent to Mr. Seaton or others who had initially examined the jewel in 1985-1986 because the fitting of the sliding plate was so tight. There was what appeared to be a “lock” on its outer edge. When the jewel was finally opened, pieces of small roundels of silk embroidered with gold thread were discovered along with roots and soil. According to John Cherry’s text The Middleham Jewel and Ring (Yorkshire Museum, 1994), the base of the material was a stout textile-like linen, with the type of embroidery (“underside couching”) that was common in England in the 11th-15th century. From whence these small pieces of textile originated is still something of a mystery.
Mr. Cherry believes that the Middleham Jewel was meant by its original owner to contain an Agnus Dei medallion, because the inscription Ecce agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi (“behold the lamb of god who takest away the sins of the world” – from John 1: 29) features prominently in “Agnus Dei” reliquaries. Such were common in the medieval period, usually round or heart-shaped, and of the same size as the Middleham Jewel.
Starting in the 12th century, the Pope would bless and distribute medallions made of virgin wax, balsam and chrism on Easter Sunday, while the choir sang the Agnus Dei portion of the Mass. Recipients would be the distinguished personnel – cardinals, clerics or prominent laymen – attending the Pope’s Easter mass. (For additional history, see http://vultuschristi.org/index.php/2007/03/ecce-agnus-dei/.) They would also be given as special gifts. In 1366, Pope Urban sent three medallions to Byzantine Emperor John Palaeologus. Agnus Dei medallions were highly desirable objects of piety; they were so highly sought after that illicit trade sprung up all over England in the 15th century to make unofficial copies. Whether the Middleham Jewel ever contained such a precious relic is unknown; perhaps the original owner desired to obtain one, but fell short in achieving that goal.
Aside from its potential use as an Agnus Dei reliquary, there are other mystical and religious implications that are worth mentioning. The large sapphire that is mounted on the original (mine is iolite) was believed to have an “amuletic” and medicinal purpose. John Cherry references the Liber de Lapidum (Book of Stone) by Marbodus, bishop of Rennes from 1067-81. In that ancient text, sapphires are said to be protective of the body, capable of arresting internal heat and excessive sweating, and were good for ulcers, eyes and headaches. A sapphire could cure a stammer. They were very suitable for kings and prelates as they promoted peace and reconciliation, could assist in the release of captives from prison, and inclined God to hear the owner’s prayers.
The inscription tetragrammaton ananizapta which is engraved on the frontpiece is especially curious, and frequently appeared on medieval rings. Tetragrammaton is the Latin word for the four Hebrew letters than represent God’s name (YHWH). Ananizapta was a magical word in and of itself, often invoked as a charm against drunkenness or the “falling disease” (epilepsy). Mr. Cherry believes that the totality of the Middleham Jewel’s imagery suggests a desire by its wearer to obtain protection against illness and death, and to promote safe childbirth. Notably, Isabel Neville, as duchess of Clarence, is depicted in the Rous Roll as wearing a lozenge-shaped pendant of a very similar style.
The amuletic purpose for safe child-birth is supported by the depiction of St. Margaret and St. Dorothy, two saints associated with giving help during labor, on the back piece’s frame. Very close examination of the fifteen saints reveals they can be identified by objects they are holding or are shown with. For instance, St. Peter is depicted holding a key, St. Paul with a sword, St. Barbara with a tower, St. Catherine with a sword and wheel, St. George slaying a dragon, and St. Anne teaching her daughter, Mary, to read. Also depicted are a bishop (possibly St. Augustine of Hippo) and a cardinal (St. Jerome). John Cherry notes the lack of “northern saints” such as St. Ninian or St. Cuthbert, leading him to conclude that there is no expression of a particularly northern devotional sentiment.
To this day, it is still unknown precisely who owned the Middleham Jewel or how it became lost in a grassy field near Middleham castle. Some speculate it might have been owned by Anne Beauchamp as she lived at Middleham in 1473, when Edward of Middleham — Richard III’s prince of Wales — was born. Other speculate that Richard III’s wife Anne Neville or his mother Cecily, duchess of York, were owners.
The story of who owned the Middleham Jewel in the 20th century does not end at the 1986 Sotheby’s auction. The owner who had purchased it for Ł1,300,000 later applied in 1991 for a license to export it. The United Kingdom’s Reviewing Committee for the Export of Works of Art deemed the piece to be of outstanding importance under the “Waverley criteria” and suspended the license, to allow it to be purchased by a British entity. This prompted the Yorkshire Museum to start a campaign to raise funds to purchase it, and they succeeded in obtaining Ł2,500,000 from a variety of individuals, foundations and governmental agencies. Today, it is still owned by the museum and is currently displayed there, where it has been seen by thousands of schoolchildren, tourists, local citizens and people like me with a passion for Ricardian history.
Epilogue: February, 2015
As I began to research the history of the Middleham Jewel, I also thought it would be important to mention the man who created my replica. His name is George Easton, and he is a very skilled jeweler whose works can be viewed on his Danegeld business website http://www.danegeld.co.uk/index.htm.
Mr. Easton was kind enough to grant me an interview in February, as I was making plans to visit Leicester in the buildup to Richard III’s reinterment there. Here is the text of my interview.
* * * * *
First, let me thank you for making my Middleham Jewel. It is one of my most treasured pieces of jewelry, and I’m impressed by its detail and the beauty of its design. I can’t wait to wear it during the re-interment ceremonies of Richard III this coming March. I’m sure some people will recognize it, and will want to know more.
Q: I see that, not only creating contemporary pieces for cutting-edge designers like Vivienne Westwood, you also design jewelry from the Roman, Saxon, Viking, Medieval and Renaissance periods. How did you become interested in making jewelry from the past?
A: I had been making modern pieces for a while when some of my friends asked me to make some Viking age replicas for their re-enactments. I always had an interest in history, so was quite happy to do it. Before I knew it I had a regular client base and didn’t have any time for my modern pieces. The historical time period that I recreate has expanded over the years as every age has different tastes and fashions, which gives me a new set of challenges with every job.
Q: In making historic jewelry, did you have to learn any special skills or techniques? Do you have to use any special materials? How is today’s jeweler different from one in the 15th century in terms of techniques, materials, etc. – if you know? Is it harder/more complicated/time consuming to make a historical reproduction than, say, a modern piece like a diamond engagement ring?
A: There isn’t really that much difference between a modern jeweller and one from the 15th century – either one could swap places and recognise most of the tools. The main advantages we have today are good lighting, an easily controlled heat source and a good range of suppliers, but to be fair it’s all subjective, a 15th century jeweller would be so used to his equipment, he’d have no trouble making the things we do today. Tastes and styles change but the basic techniques remain the same. Certain techniques are mostly confined to history, mercury gilding for example, mainly from a health and safety perspective. The challenges of making a historic reproduction are generally getting the measurements, etc., of the original and then figuring out how to replicate the way it was made but in a modern context. We have the advantage today (in the west) of being able to go to a bullion dealer and ask for a piece of metal the exact size and thickness we require, whereas a medieval jeweller would be melting it to an ingot, hammering it flat, or drawing out the wire, much like the jewellers in Africa or Asia still do today.
Q: I see that you’ve supplied costume jewelry for TV and movies like the Harry Potter series, Thor, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood and the Hobbit. Very cool! But aside from those looking for pieces for a theatrical “costume”, what type of customers are making requests for replicas or jewelry inspired by history? Are they usually English?
A: My main customers outside of stage and screen are re-enacters and collectors. I send things all over the world, mostly to Britain and the USA. I do have a lot of customers in Australia too and have also sent Saxon items to Fiji.
Q: How many Middleham Jewel replicas have you produced, and for whom? Are there any unique challenges – or pleasures – that come with the task of replicating it in particular? How long does it take for you to create it?
A: I made 5 of the Middleham jewel. The first was for a customer in England, also Switzerland, the US and most recently for the BBC’s “Hollow Crown” production (due out next year) . I think it’s going to be worn by the actress playing Anne Neville. The jewel was a massive challenge, all of the engraving was done under a microscope and the first one took me about three weeks. The only thing that still bothers me is that I haven’t made a version with the enamelling. It’s still one of my favourite pieces!
Q: Did you have access to the original Middleham Jewel in designing your replica? If not, how did you come up with the design specifications? Did you have to do any research into how the jewel would have appeared in the 15th century, as obviously the original was buried in the ground for centuries, and it seems to have lost some bits, such as the pearls that are set on the outer frame.
A: I did go and see the original, but didn’t ask for access to it. There is a book by John Cherry (Middleham Jewel and Ring) that provided all of the measurements and very good photographs. There are also a couple of 15th century depictions of people wearing similar pendants.
Q: Do you have any sense about the meaning of the Middleham Jewel, or the type of Medieval lady that would have worn it?
A: It’s definitely a statement piece that must have been worn by a very wealthy woman. The workmanship is superb, the amount of gold and the large sapphire say it all, but ultimately it’s a reliquary, so the contents are the important part, which i believe were English made silk discs that may have been from a bishop’s robe?
Q: Have you noticed an uptick in requests for “Ricardian” or Medieval-inspired jewelry since they discovered the skeleton of Richard III? What is the most frequently requested item? Any boar badges – Richard’s personal cognizance?
A: Yes, there has definitely been an increase in interest in the medieval period as a whole since the discovery. The boar badge is probably my most popular medieval piece and orders have increased in the last year.
Q: I understand that you were commissioned by John Ashdown-Hill to create the lovely crown for Richard III, and which (we hope) will be used during the re-interment in March and perhaps put on permanent display. What was the design and production process?
A: John contacted me with some ideas and a range of pictures of crowns of the time. The design process took a long time, but between the two of us we flushed out a design based on pieces from the other crowns. We wanted to avoid an elaborate crown of state and were keen on having a “fairly” basic crown that could have been worn in battle. The crown is made from gilded brass with lab-created sapphires and rubies. The stones in the crosses are natural turquoise and emeralds. John was very keen on having emeralds in the crown.
Q: What do you think about Richard III, the man and the king? Did you have any interest in him before his remains were discovered under a car park in Leicester? (Be careful, we Ricardians are a sensitive lot!)
A: History is always written by the winners. I’ve always thought he had a bit of a raw deal, if you look past the obvious and focus on what we really know, he was quite a guy! I’ve had a strong interest in the Wars of the Roses for a long time and so in turn have been very curious about Richard, in a time of so much change and controversy in the country, there is bound to be a lot of misinformation and bad PR put on to the old regime.
Q: Is there any piece of historic jewelry you’ve made that you are especially proud of? Why?
A: As unlikely as it may sound, it is still the Middleham jewel that I am most proud of! The reasons are numerous: it was a good challenge to make; John Ashdown Hill first contacted me in relation to it, so I wouldn’t have been involved with the crown for Richard without it. In the summer I also happened to be doing fight scenes on the “Hollow Crown” production. During filming the costume designers discovered that I had made the Middleham Jewel replica and commissioned me to make another one for their production. So all in all it’s been a very good piece for me.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
A: I’m really pleased that there are so many people out there with a passion for history. The discovery of Richard has generated a renewed media interest, which in turn makes people curious to find out more. Groups and societies like yours play an important part in keeping the public’s interest alive. Without that interest, I would not get the chance to bring these artifacts out from behind their glass cabinets and back to life for history enthusiasts everywhere!
* * * * *
Mr. Easton is available via his Danegeld website (noted above) to accept inquiries about his historic reproductions and contemporary jewelry designs. He also maintains a Facebook page – Danegeld historic jewellry – for those who desire to follow him there.
Photograph of George Easton copied with permission by the owner. All other photographs and text are copyrighted by Susan Troxell, February 2015.