Wednesday, 24 June 2015

KING JOHN'S BLING by Elizabeth Chadwick

King John's tomb Worcester Cathedral
As a writer,  much of the need-to-know detail for my novel is the background material culture of my settings. While it's vitally important to get the mindset and attitudes right so that I don't end up with modern people in fancy dress, a part of this is knowing the world in which my characters lived, and immersing myself in it as thoroughly as I can in order to convince the readers – although the more I study the more I realise how much in the shallows I still am even after more than 40 years of research!

Since King John and Magna Carta are so much on the agenda at the moment I thought this might be fun for my June post on The History Girls.

Supposing King John walked in on us right this minute. What might we see? Let's take it that it's a decent time for him and not too politically fraught. He is prepared to be affable. What does he look like?
We don't have a lot to go on from his own time. Contemporary historian Gerald of Wales tells us that his height was slightly below average and he was not as tall as his father or his older brothers Henry and Richard.  His tomb in Worcester Cathedral was opened in 1797, where he was found to have been placed in a stone coffin. The corpse was somewhat decomposed with the dried skins of maggots dispersed over the body. He had been dressed in a full length robe of red damask. That's a kind of wool fabric woven with silk and often patterned. There was a badly decomposed sword and scabbard in his left hand. He didn't wear a crown, but on his head was a coif that the antiquarians thought was perhaps a monk's cowl, perhaps placed on his head to cut down the time he might have to spend in purgatory. Modern historians now believe the cowl to be the cap he wore on his head at his coronation that was intended to soak up the holy oil with which he had been anointed. So it was in its own way as Royal as a crown. The skeleton was measured and turned out to be 5 foot 6 1/2 inches tall. So we know John's height and part of what he was wearing. It's the same outfit more or less, that is on his tomb effigy today. He may well have worn this robe to his coronation too.

We don't know what colour his hair was. People often think that he was dark-haired but that comes from books, film and TV. An illuminated sketch of him hunting from a century after his death shows him as being blonde, but really we have no idea.
A blonde king John out hunting - made 100 years after his death.


We do know from his correspondence that he liked to wear jewels around his neck and a black leather belt. Here's the letter about the jewels:
  'The King to Geoffrey FitzPeter. We had lost the precious stones and jewels which we were accustomed to wear around our neck: and Berchal the bearer of these presents, found them, and liberally and faithfully brought them unto us; and for his service we have given him 20 shillings worth of rent at Berkhamsted, where he was born.'

And the piece about the black leather belt
'on 27 June at Winchester, know that on the Friday next after the nativity of St John the Baptist, we received at Winchester 12 silver cups, and amongst other articles is specified the plain black leather belt with which the king was usually girt.'
Plaster cast mould of John's effigy in the Cast Court
at the V&A Museum. Note the jewelled collar and red robe
So, we can imagine him in a full-length red patterned gown, jewels around his neck and a black leather belt around his waist. He might have one of those silver cups in his hand and it will contain wine. Perhaps a strong one from Poitou. We know his wife liked to drink strong wine from that region because he ordered it for her when she was at Marlborough. John himself enjoyed wine from Le Blanc near Poitiers. 150 casks of it were delivered to his sellers at Southampton sometime before September 1202. There were numerous wines at that period and they had different qualities. The wines of Auxerre were famous for being as 'clear as a sinner's tears.' Or how about this one  - here's a description of a raisin wine from John's time, written by Alexander Nequam who have been Richard the Lion heart's breast-brother.  Oz Clarke eat your heart out!

'Raisin wine which is clear to the bottom of the cup, in its clarity similar to the tears were penitent, and the colour is that of an ox horn. It descends like lightning upon one who takes it – most tasty as an almond nut, quick as a squirrel, frisky as a kid, strong in the manner of a host of Cistercians or grey monks, emitting a kind of spark; it is supplied with the subtlety of a syllogism of Petit-Pont; delicate as a fine cotton, it exceeds crystal in its coolness'

Royal servants Reginald of Cornhill and John Fitzhugh were vitally important in the procurement of luxury goods in John's household and the maintenance of the same. Luxury goods they purchased included spices, fabrics, fruit, nuts, fresh fish, wine and wax. Cups and dishes were bought and mended. There is a mention on the accounts requiring five drinking horns to be ornamented with silver, and for the Kings own drinking horn to be ornamented with gold. So perhaps we ought to take that silver cup off him and put a drinking horn in his hand instead, and it will be decorated with emeralds rubies and sapphires. Rings were bought from Italian merchants at one point amounting to £226 13s 4d. The major producer of emeralds, rubies and sapphires were India and Sri Lanka (the latter known in the Medieval period as Sarandib), so these jewels had a long way to travel. At this point in history the faceting that we see today on gemstones was unknown and the jewels would have been polished in the smooth cabocchon style that makes them look like lumpy boiled sweets!
Cabochon tourmaline ring circa 1200

If John was feeling magnanimous, he might hand over some of these cups and jewels as gifts, or as diplomatic sweeteners. So for example he gave three gold rings set with sapphires to the King Norway

William, John's tailor (who also had brief to buy luxury goods for the King), in November 1214 was given a pile of textiles intended to be made into clothes as gifts from King John to Peter des Roches Bishop of Winchester. The materials included silk cloths, quilts, squirrel furs, scarlet cloth, grey cloth for a bed covering, six pairs of fasteners, and a gilded saddle with silk cloth and gilded bridle reins. Scarlet cloth cost eight shillings for a length of 37 inches -a measurement that was known as a cloth yard. Each finished cloth was made of 24 of these clothyards and required about ninety pounds of the finest English wool. This would take at least 36 sheep to provide and probably a lot more and that was before the cost of the dyestuff.  Just over three modern yards of cloth cost eight shillings which would be somewhere around a week's wages for a household knight.

If King John's cloak happened to be lined with super special ermines, that is the winter coat of the stoat, it would have cost him 100 shillings. Lambskin linings cost between six and seven shillings each, and a panel of northern squirrel fur cost 20 shillings.

If King John had walked into this room with his servants you would have noticed that their outfits were colour-coded. Stewards had robes of black and brown. Huntsmen wore blue and green. The nurses and washer women wore blue and green also

Back to John himself. In March 1213, Reginald of Cornhill supplied gold lace to William the Tailor to make a surcoat for the King. That's interesting because lace from the 13th century doesn't seem to have many surviving examples. In Winchester in 1210, miniver was bought to make John a nightgown. This doesn't mean he actually slept in it as such, it was more in the way of a luxurious dressing gown to lounge about in!

At Easter 1213 William the Tailor made three blood red robes, one for John, one for his queen and one for William D'Albini, although the latter's cost less. He also received a gift of a ruby red robe that was lined with green cendal (a form of silk). True red being such an expensive dye, it was commonly featured in royal robes. Ghent in Flanders was the centre for the best dyed red cloth. There are more accounts for robes lined with green cendal for members of the royal household including John's brother William Longespee Earl of Salisbury and John's own bastard son Richard FitzRoy.

John loved his jewels and display as we've already seen. One of his purveyors bought  150 gold leaves to gild 567 lances for theatrical display. We have a chamber receipt for 'one staff ornamented with 19 sapphires, and another with 10. A golden cabinet set with stones. 21 rings. A staff ornamented with six garnets, a silver cabinet with precious stones. Then there was the golden case made to hold the Kings 'ambergris apples' - an early form of pomander. This really gives you a feel for the colour and the richness of the period which you don't see in the bare shells of  the draughty castles that are all that are left to use,  but if you go somewhere like reconstructed interpretation of the King's bedchamber at Dover you begin to realise what a colourful, rich and textured world the 12th century aristocracy lived in.
casket late 12thc


You see reenactors today – and I'm one myself - who strive to emulate the clothing and trappings of the time, but in high status cases we cannot begin to replicate the wealth of a medieval king such as John. People often say that his reign wasn't his fault that inherited Richard's debts and a bankrupted realm. Does this look like bankruptcy? John, whatever you think of him has to be one of the most gifted fiscal geniuses in terms of raising money that England has ever known. It's also one of the reasons among many for Magna Carta.  But I just wish I could blur time for a moment and experience the full effect as it originally was.
Elizabeth Chadwick

Henry II's bed replica. Dover Castle


If you can get to the Magna Carta Exhibition at the British Library in London, do go - there are some bishop's accoutrements that give an idea of the wonderful textiles being produced in the 13thc, as well as a scrap of embroidered fabric from John's tomb.

Other sources used in this article:
Lost Letters of Medieval Life English Society 1200-1250 edited and translated by Martha Carlin and David Crouch - University of Pennsylvania Press 2013

A Description of the The Patent Rolls in the Tower of London to which is added an Itinerary of King John with Prefatory Observations by Thomas Duffus Hardy, F.S.A. of the Inner Temple. 1835

Serving the Man that rules: Aspects of the domestic arrangements of the Household of King John 1199-1216 - Henrietta Kaye.  Thesis submitted to the School of History at the University of East Anglia 2013.

King John - Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta by Marc Morris - Hutchinson 2015

5 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

Wow! That was a self-indulgent man! It would be nice to be able to take a look through a screen and see what it all looked like.

Libby said...

Love or loathe John he sure liked his accoutrements of royalty

Great blog Elizabeth

Clement Glen said...

Very informative and interesting post.

Marilyn said...

John and his court must have been a spectacular sight, with color coordinated servants no less. Enjoyed the article.

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