The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Dunstable Swan Jewel

The Dunstable Swan Jewel

The Dunstable Swan Jewel, British Museum

Some time ago I wrote a post about goldsmiths and used this item as an illustration of their work. What I didn’t realise at the time was how tiny it is. It’s about an inch and a quarter high and I walked past it before I realised it was there. I included the information cards in the shot so that you can see how small it is.

The swan was created around the beginning of the fifteenth century. It’s gold with a white enamel known as émail en ronde bosse. This was a technique that fused molten glass onto the gold. The surface of the gold was roughened before it was covered with the glass. This method was only perfected at the end of the fourteenth century.  It’s not known whether the jewel was made in France where the technique was developed, or in England.

Swans were considered an expression of nobility.  When that and the value of the jewel are taken into consideration, it must have belonged to someone of an elevated status, possibly from the de Bohun family or House of Lancaster, both of which used the swan as their symbol. You probably can’t see it from my photograph (this one is better), but there’s a crown around its neck which is, apparently, a very strong indication that it belongs to the house of Lancaster. One of the reasons for the confusion, though, is that Henry of Lancaster (later Henry IV) married Mary de Bohun in 1380 and adopted her family’s badge.

The jewel was a livery badge, which enabled others to identify the wearer’s family and political allegiance. Other members of the household would have worn a much cheaper version of the badge.

It was discovered in Dunstable at the location of a Dominican friary. Since many tournaments were held at Dunstable, it’s possible that the jewel was lost there by a knight or his lady. More prosaically, it might have been left with the friars for safe-keeping during the rather turbulent fifteenth century and its owner either forgot about it or was a victim of the turbulence.  I know which version I prefer.


Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

Medieval Goldsmiths – John Cherry


Filed under Fourteenth Century

15 responses to “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Dunstable Swan Jewel

  1. How delicate and beautiful this is!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m intrigued by the chain & ring. By chance might the ring have been worn on a finger? While It would be cumbersome having the jewel dangle, perhaps it was attached by some means to the sleeve of the wearer?

    Perhaps also it was attached by some means to a headdress or helm.
    Oh, the possibilities!

    And clearly, the DeBohun connection MUST be true. No one could wear the badge without the family’s permission.


    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s some thought that it could have been. worn as part of a necklace. It’s just about small enough for that. It could also have been pinned to outer clothing with a brooch.

      It is a wonderful piece.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. How excited the people/person who found it must have been! Archaeologists?


  4. I think a period’s art reveals much about the times. I would love to see this piece in the ‘flesh’.

    Liked by 1 person

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