Chapter 15. ROYAL PLATE

Table of Contents


Ancient plate-Tragic losses-Mediaeval royalty-After the Restoration -The King's dining table-Royal gifts.

THE collection of Royal plate is outside the scope of the " home connoisseur" hence the reference in this volume to the vast treasures which go towards making up the sum total of what constitutes that great mass of silver and gold plate which is and has been in the possession of the Crown in this country, and of the rulers in other countries, must be brief. It would, however, be a serious omission to leave out altogether some mention of those beautiful and costly treasures which belong to reigning sovereigns and which form part of the contents of the treasure houses of the peoples over whom they rule. In earlier times the jewels and plate found in royal houses was regarded as the personal property of the Kings and Queens, and they were in the habit of adding to or diminishing the stores at will. Much valuable plate has been lost through the foolish extravagance of royal owners, and no doubt many historic treasures that belonged to the nation were from time to time sold or destroyed according to the whim or caprice of the sovereign. On the other hand, we owe much to the wealth and personal influence of Kings and Queens who have at times been strong supporters of the arts, and who have often out of their personal incomes purchased many valuable pieces of plate which have been added to the nation's treasure.

It is thus somewhat hard to distinguish the difference between royal and national plate. Some of those better known pieces are connected with national and historic functions, and it would be unthinkable nowadays that they should be alienated from the rightful holder of the Crown. Some quite important pieces of plate belong to their present owners-they have been purchased by them or acquired by gift. Vast quantities of plate useful and ornamental, were given by wealthy sovereigns, by public bodies, and by colonial dominions to mark special occasions during the reigns of the late Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. These have passed into the custody of his present Majesty, who has himself been the recipient of many valuable gifts. Another youthful scion of the Royal House of Windsor, the heir to the throne of the greatest Empire the world has ever known, is beginning to collect " rare souvenirs of plate. All these treasures are being added yearly to the treasure chests and safe deposits at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and other places where the safety of such things can be assured. These are the royal treasures of to-day-and although perhaps among the most beautiful and representative of the highest art of the silversmith, they may not equal in interest the few ancient relics of a bygone age, which the connoisseur can discover in the royal plate chest. === ANCIENT PLATE The oldest known examples of ancient silver and gold plate in this country are those relics of the craftsmanship of Celtic workers in the precious metals, already referred to in another chapter. Then we come to the plate fashioned by Saxon workmen, of which although there are records of regal treasures of that period extant, there are few pieces surviving the destruction of former times when first plunder, then avarice, occasionally dire need and at times civil war and insurrection robbed the royal cupboard. The Chapel of the Pyx at Westminster Abbey formerly contained the royal regalia, and for many centuries in that quaint crypt might have been seen by the few privileged ones all the curious relics of former pomp and the insignia of royalty. The symbolic crown of the sovereign is now worn for a few brief moments on very formal ceremonial occasions. From old paintings and from the representations of Kings and Queens on coins and medals we are apt to look upon the Saxon and Norman monarchs as wearing their crowns as their regular headgear. Whatever may have been the custom at a still earlier period, it is evident from well authenticated documents that golden crowns and coronets were reserved for state ceremonials, although the arms of England might be embroidered on crimson and purple surcoats and damascened in gold on armour and painted on shields. William the Conqueror seldom wore the mark of sovereignty, although it is said he was very particular to observe the custom he had initiated of wearing it on three great festivals of the church which he punctiliously attended. Easter he kept at Winchester, the celebration of Whitsuntide was, however, observed at Westminster and he travelled to Gloucester at the feast of the Nativity. Stephen, we are told, was strict in his observance of the feast of the Nativity which he attended at Lincoln in 1145, on which occasion historians say he wore his crown. The crown, the most interesting symbolic piece of plate, is mentioned many times in ancient history and appears to have been worn not only on state occasions but when to wear it would appear nowadays to be a dangerous procedure. Henry V wore his crown at the Battle of Agincourt, and it is said not only exposed the precious ornament, but by thus indicating his identity risked his life. Another royal wearer was Richard III, whose crown on his defeat on Bosworth Field was straightway carried to the Earl of Richmond to whom it was offered. This very literal surrender of a crown and its acceptance by immediately placing it upon the new King's head has its earlier counterpart in the Biblical story of the crown being removed from the head of Saul and given to David ; it is also consonent with the usual declaration of the legions of Roman warriors by whom the Emperors of Rome were in so many instances proclaimed.