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