Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Religious and Personal Symbolism in Richard III’s Jewellery

In two portraits of Richard III, the king wears jewellery that carries both religious and personal meaning for him. In the first, now belonging to the Society of Antiquaries, Richard wears a hat-brooch in the shape of a rose. The petals, formed of black stones, encircle a ruby, which represents the centre of the rose. These black stones could be jet or black agate. Jet symbolises grief and mourning and as such might represent Richard’s continued mourning for his father, Richard of York, and elder brother, Edmund of Rutland. Jet also signifies safe travel: appropriate to one who was called upon to make many journeys, whether to do with going into battle, travelling to or from the court in London, or on prolonged royal progresses.
   Black agate also has attributes appropriate to Richard: courage, boldness, vigour and prosperity. The first three qualities particularly exemplify Richard’s military skills, while the last reflects his personal wealth and that of his family.
   The ruby, which forms the centre of the rose, is a classic symbol of royalty. The brooch could symbolise the White Rose of York, but this jewel reflects a deeper symbolism than the heraldic. In the Christian tradition, the rose represents the flower of Paradise, but it is also one of the icons of the Virgin Mary.
   In the portrait belonging to the Royal Collection, Richard wears a collar that features what are probably roses, in this case four-petalled ones, contained within lozenge-shaped settings. The lozenges are embellished with a pearl on each face and are alternated along the length of the collar with rubies cut into an oval shape. Inside the inner angles of the lozenges are golden fleurs-de-lys. Four-petalled roses represent the four-square division of the cosmos, although it is difficult to see how this fits in with Richard’s theology. More probably, they are meant to depict the Virgin Mary, particularly as they are placed within the lozenge-shaped settings. The lozenge represents the feminine creative principle, depicting as it does, the female reproductive organ. When set alongside pearls, the lozenge reinforces their symbolism of the virgin birth. Pearls also represent purity and spiritual grace.
   The fleurs-de-lys are stylised lilies or lotuses and are one of the emblems of France. They, therefore, symbolise Richard's Plantagenet heritage as well as the English territories of France, some now lost, over which Richard is king. They also represent royalty and the Trinity. However, the fleur-de-lys is also another icon of the Virgin.
   Finally, the oval cut of the rubies contain the same symbolism as the lozenge, while the rubies themselves signify royalty. Perhaps there is a further connection here with the Virgin Mary, who was crowned Queen of Heaven at her assumption.
   Richard, therefore, expresses his royal status and displays his devotion to his house, to the Trinity and, more especially, to the Virgin Mary in the very jewellery he wears.
   Also in the portrait belonging to the Royal Collection, Richard wears a hat-brooch in the form of a Greek cross, with five pearls and a ruby in the centre. The Greek cross is one of the earliest forms of the Christian cross and is often found in conjunction with the ankh, a symbol of life.
   The Greek cross does not represent the cross of the crucifixion. Rather, it signifies the four cardinal points, representing the spread of the Gospel in accordance with Christ’s commission to his disciples (Matthew 28.19-20) and the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. Perhaps even more importantly for Richard, the Greek cross provides the basis of the cross of St George, first brought to England during the twelfth century. This saint is an obvious connection with Richard’s murdered brother, George, Duke of Clarence, and another object of mourning for the king. By the 14th century, St George had been adopted as the patron saint of England and of the Order of the Garter. Here is yet another association with Richard, who was made a member of the Order of the Garter at the age of about fourteen: the order was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Edward the Confessor and St George. This brooch, then, is yet another tribute to St George, whose banner was featured prominently in Richard’s procession at York, alongside that of St Cuthbert. George and Cuthbert are also among the saints after whom stalls are named in Richard’s Collegiate Church of St Mary and St Alkelda at Middleham.


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