Lincolnshire’s lost jewel

Words by:
Helen Cox
Featured in:
April 2014

In 2013, in a field near Horncastle, metal detectorist Lisa Grace made the discovery of a lifetime. She unearthed a fabulous jewel: a golden hoop tightly bound with twisted gold wire, encircling a burst of sunrays with a gem in the centre and three short gold chains hanging underneath.
Lisa was intrigued as well as delighted. What was this beautiful object? How did it come to be lying in a field in the middle of nowhere – and who might it once have belonged to?

Lisa set about answering these questions by having her find examined. The amethyst coloured gem in the middle proved to be a sapphire, and the three chains probably ended in pearls which have since dissolved in the soil – so it must have belonged to someone very wealthy.

Other clues to its age and origins lie in its design. The style is that of a hat jewel, made to ornament the fashionable headgear of a medieval nobleman or woman; and it probably dates to the second half of the fifteenth century, because prior to this period, gemstones were set en cabochon (polished but not facetted).

This places it at the time of the Wars of the Roses – the great dynastic struggle for the crown between the rival royal Houses of Lancaster and York – a date also suggested by its sunburst motif. The ‘sunne in splendour’ was adopted as a heraldic device by Edward, Earl of March (later King Edward IV), to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross in February 1461, at which the phenomenon known as a parhelion (or ‘sun-dogs’) was famously sighted: ‘Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun, not separated with the racking clouds but sever’d in a pale clear-shining sky.’ Shakespeare, King Henry VI Part 3.

Since medieval jewels frequently contained layers of meaning, the three pendant chains (instead of the usual one) may relate to the Holy Trinity – or to the appearance of this triple sun. So this is probably a Yorkist jewel, commissioned to advertise its owner’s affiliation. Equally, it may have been bestowed by a Yorkist king (Edward IV or Richard III) as a gift to a relative, friend or supporter for services rendered. Either way, the likeliest explanation for its find-spot is that the attachment broke while the owner was out riding, and the loss was not noticed until any hope of finding and retrieving the jewel was gone.

Who then might have lost this fine item, no doubt much to their dismay? Fifteenth-century sumptuary laws (a form of dress code) restricted the wearing of gold and gems to the highest reaches of the nobility – not that ordinary working people would have been able to afford them – and one such magnate with local connections was John de la Pole. The eldest son of the second Duke of Suffolk and Elizabeth, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York, this cousin of Edward IV and Richard III was created Earl of Lincoln in 1467, and killed at the battle of Stoke Field in 1487 while attempting to oust Henry VII in favour of the pretender Lambert Simnel.

However, in practice, people who could afford to pay the fines often bent the sumptuary laws to wear richer clothes and jewellery than they were entitled to. So the jewel may have belonged to a wealthy commoner or member of the knightly class like the well-connected Bourchier family, owners of nearby Tattershall Castle. The castle was inherited by Joan Stanhope, niece of its childless owner Ralph, Lord Cromwell, who had been an ally of Richard, Duke of York (King Edward’s father). When Joan died, Tattershall passed to her husband Sir Humphrey Bourchier, third son of the Earl of Essex and another cousin of the Yorkist kings. Sir Humphrey and his father Henry were both staunch Yorkists; Henry had fought for the Duke of York at the first Battle of St Albans in 1455 and at Towton in 1461, while Humphrey was killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, fighting to restore Edward IV to the throne after the brief ‘readeption’ of the hapless King Henry VI.

Another possible local candidate is Sir Thomas Burgh, who inherited the manor of Gainsborough from his mother and made it his main home, building the famous Old Hall there (probably to replace a house destroyed in the 1470–71 rebellion against Edward IV).
Sir Thomas was a friend and supporter of Edward IV and the chief royal agent in Lincolnshire throughout the Yorkist period, being an officer of the royal household, a Knight of the Body and Master of the Horse; his Yorkist affiliation survived King Edward’s death in 1482, and he was created a Knight of the Garter by Richard III.

(Despite this longstanding record of service to the House of York, he was reconciled to Henry Tudor after King Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, and elevated to the peerage as Lord Burgh of Gainsborough in 1487.)

So the Bourchiers and Burghs were both Yorkist families of sufficiently high wealth and status to have owned such a jewel. Although it might not have belonged to a local person at all, but to someone simply passing through the Horncastle area, since many people of the period travelled extensively. Monarchs with huge retinues went on progress, showing themselves to their subjects; landowners visited their estates, which were frequently scattered over a very wide area; wealthy families paid social visits to one another; merchants and businessmen pursued their professional interests; couriers of all kinds rode from place to place carrying messages; and of course at times of tension, large numbers of men of every social class followed their liege-lord’s call to arms and marched the length and breadth of the country to fight.

Tantalisingly, we have no idea of the circumstances under which this jewel was lost. Was its owner out enjoying a day’s hunting or a cross-country gallop? Or were they riding in frantic haste to help Edward IV regain his throne in 1470–71; to fight for Richard III at Bosworth; or for John de la Pole at Stoke Field in Nottinghamshire 1487 in the last gasp of the Wars of the Roses? It seems unlikely that we will ever know.

Meanwhile the jewel is going through the Treasure Trove process, after which it may be acquired by a local museum; and thanks to Lisa Grace and her lucky find, this wonderful Lincolnshire treasure buried for over 500 years is no longer lost.

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