Thursday, 1 January 2015

It's 1392 ....Happy New Year..

New Year 

Gift Giving in the House of Lancaster 


Jewels all the Way


Anne O'Brien

What value do we put on a man who is more than happy to buy gifts for the members of his family? 

 A man who is generous with the amount he spends?

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and his son Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby (later to become Henry IV after the deposition of Richard II), were both supremely generous gift givers, and how fortunate we are to have some details of the presents given by Henry in 1392.

My interest in this family developed through my novel of Katherine Swynford, The Scandalous Duchess, and my more recent writing about Elizabeth of Lancaster, Henry's sister, in The King's Sister. It was a very close knit family, always meeting to celebrate at the end of the year where the giving of gifts played a major role along with the festive dressing up, tournaments and mumming. I expect the tradition was particularly established by Edward III, father of John of Gaunt, who loved flamboyant games and costumes. In 1337, for games at Christmas, Edward ordered an artificial forest with gold and silver leaves, together with a hundred masks, some in the form of baboons' heads, to entertain the court

So back to the sparkling gifts ...

In the late fourteenth century, for this royal family the time for exchanging gifts was New Year's Day rather than Christmas, and the giving of gifts by an important man was more than simply a way to mark the day. One purpose of it was of course to bind the lucky recipient into an unbreakable bond of loyalty with the giver. Another was to exhibit the power of the giver in the value and ostentation of the gift. But some gifts were simply to give pleasure and show affection to a loved one.

And how open-handed Henry Bolingbroke was on New Year's Day in 1392 when a large number of the Lancaster family had met to celebrate Christmas at Hertford Castle, Duke John bringing his own minstrels with him. Henry might only be 25 years old, but he had obviously learned the value of largesse from his father.

These are Henry's gifts on record:

To the King (Richard II and cousin to Henry) - who was not present at Hertford - a gold brooch in the style of a panther with sapphires and pearls.

To his father the Duke of Lancaster, a gold swan with a ruby and pearls.

To Mary, his young wife, a golden hind covered in white enamel with a gold collar.

To Dame Katherine de Swynford (not yet married to the Duke but who clearly had a very close association with the whole family and was present at Hertford) a gold ring set with a diamonds.

To Joan Beaufort, illegitimate daughter of Dame Katherine and the Duke of Lancaster, a pair of paternosters - rosary beads - of coral and gold.

Jewels were also given to Constanza, the Duchess of Lancaster, who was not one of the party.

Also to Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester, Mary's sister.

And to Elizabeth, Countess of Huntingdon, Henry's sister.

I wish that we knew what these last gifts were.

Of all these gifts, the white enamelled hind is the most interesting. The use of white enamel was rare in jewellers' art, requiring great skill, and although there is no trace of Mary's golden hind, we have the famous and absolutely exquisite Dunstable Swan Jewel, which is breath-taking. It is a livery badge of the highest quality, made from opaque white enamel fused over gold with a gold chain and coronet. And this astonishing workmanship is tiny, only 3 cms high. It can be seen in the British Museum who bought it in 1966 when it was discovered in an excavation of a friary at Dunstable.

Dunstable Swan

Did the Dunstable Swan belong to Henry?  In the same account of these New Year's Gifts is a reference to Henry paying Ludwing the Goldsmith for the mending and enamelling of a gold swan of his own, which he had broken.  Was this the Dunstable Swan Jewel?  Or something very like it?  The swan was one of the heraldic symbols of the Bohuns, Mary's family.  It may be that the Dunstable Swan too belonged to Henry.

Henry continued to give extravagantly.  In future years - such as 1393 - when he ordered the making of two suits of armour which were then sent on to Hertford for himself and Thomas Beaufort, the youngest son of Katherine and Duke John.  Tournaments were part and parcel of the celebrations for this family and the new armour was to be displayed in the jousts.
In that same year, Henry's wife Mary and Dame Katherine were each presented with four lengths of white damask silk for gowns for the celebrations.

What a pleasure it is to see these personal touches, when much of history is taken up with politics and, battles, treachery and thwarted ambitions.  How fortunate that the men of the Lancaster household kept personal accounts of where their money was spent.

And how splendid that the Dunstable Swan was discovered by chance in an archaeological dig.

Huge thanks to Anne for starting off  2015 with such a stunning glimpse of the past.

Anne's latest book 

The King's Sister is available to buy from Amazon and all good book stores


You can find Anne on her website
Twitter @anne_obrien


  1. Huge thanks Anne for making New Year 2015 get off to such a fascinating start ....

  2. Have just finished reading The King's Sister and loved every word :)

    1. Hi Elma - thanks for taking the time to read Anne's guest post. Glad you enjoyed The King's Sister x

  3. Ok. Not sure if the first one went through as i am on my mobile. I said too bad e cannot sneak into the past and actually see events and people. This is the next best thing. A book that makes us use our imagination. To see in our minds eye what might have been


Thanks for taking the time to comment - Jaffa, Timmy and I appreciate your interest.