16th c. frescoes found in Palazzo Vecchio’s “secret staircase”

Plaster removal from the vaulted ceilings and walls of an unused “secret” staircase in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio has revealed 500-year-old frescoes in the grotesque style. Surviving records note that the secret staircase was built in the middle of the 16th century to provide a quick escape route to Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Tuscany, and his wife Eleonora di Toledo, from the Terrace of Saturn to the ground floor exit on Via dei Leoni. Over the centuries, the barrel vaulted ceilings and walls were covered in multiple layers of plaster. The grotesque paintings emerged after restorers painstakingly removed layer after layer to reach the original plaster. There has been some paint loss and delamination of the plaster from the wall, so as the decorated surfaces are exposed, conservators having been working to restore and stabilize them.

The Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall built in the early 1300s, became the Medici ducal palace as well as the seat of government in 1540 when Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici moved there. He was the second duke of Tuscany, the first to inherit the title since its establishment as an inherited title. The first duke, Alessandro de’ Medici, was embroiled in scandals and was ultimately assassinated by a family member with a competing claim to the duchy. Alessandro had no legitimate issue, so the dukedom went to Cosimo, a distant relative from a junior branch of the family.

The teenager had never even lived in Florence and was a complete unknown in the city. He was on shaky political ground, and sought to shore up his power by associating his rule with Florence’s (and his family’s) history. Moving into the Palazzo Vecchio conveyed continuity and strength while reinforcing his position as the sole ruler of the duchy. Given the tenuousness of his position, having a secret escape route built so he and his new bride could get out of the building without having to descend the monumental staircase was only prudent.

When conservation is complete, the staircase will be integrated into the emergency exit system for the palace offices, thereby returning it to its original function.

Tudor gold signet ring linked to Boleyns on display at Hampton Court Palace

A gold and enamel signet ring engraved with the head of a bull, emblem of the Boleyn family, has gone on display at Hampton Court Palace.

The ring’s bezel is engraved with the head of a bull facing forward with large horizontal ears and vertical horns. Between the horns is a letter that is hard to make out. It could be an “e,” an “r” or a “t.” Solar rays filled with white enamel radiate down the shoulders of the bezel. On each shoulder is a flattened oval panel engraved with religious figures — Virgin and Child on one side, St. Catherine of Alexandria on the other.

The bull was on the arms of Thomas Boleyn, Anne’s father, and the arms of his son George. As with many signet rings, the iconography is probably canting, a play on the family name. In this case, “Boleyn” was often written as “Bullen,” which is why bull heads were incorporated into the family arms. They’re usually in profile, though. No other examples of a facing bull are known from Boleyn signatures or arms.

The find site is further evidence of the ring being connected to the Boleyn family. It was discovered in 2019 near Shurland Hall on the Isle of Sheppey, an island off the northern coast of Kent. Less than 50 miles east of Hever Castle, the Boleyn family seat where Anne was raised, Shurland Hall was one of the greatest estates in medieval Kent. The original 13th century castle was rebuilt between 1510 and 1518 by Thomas Cheyne, a relative of the Boleyns and a trusted courtier to every Tudor monarch from Henry VII to Elizabeth I. He was Sherriff of Kent, Justice of the Peace for Kent, Lord Ward of the Cinque Ports and also served as Treasurer of the Household, privy councilor and as ambassador to France three times.

He was a particular favorite of Anne Boleyn’s who advocated successfully for his promotion before her marriage to Henry. In October 1532, Cheyne was singled out for the cripplingly expensive honor of hosting the royal couple and their retinue of hundreds. They spent three days at Shurland Hall on their way to Calais to secure the support of King Francis I of France for their marriage. Henry and Anne would marry in secret one month later.

The ring is not thought to have belonged to Anne herself, due to the fact she bore her own arms after her marriage to King Henry VIII, with this signet ring also being a typically male item of jewellery which would have been too large for a woman. However, both Thomas and George held the title of Viscount Rochford from 1525 and 1529 successively, meaning that either man would have been entitled to bear the monogram for Rochford. The ring features an initial that could denote the letter R – further strengthening the claim that it has links to the two Boleyn men. […]

The religious symbolism may well also hold the key to the ring’s original owner, with St Catherine being known for her scholarly defence of her faith, and the choice of saint perhaps referring to Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon. There is a possibility the ring may have alternatively belonged to another wealthy Tudor who bore the same badge, although this does not change the fact that is a remarkable piece of surviving jewellery from the era.

This exquisite object has been acquired by Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) – the charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace. It will now be shown to visitors in the Great Hall, which sits at the very heart of the surviving Tudor palace (the apartments built for Queen Anne Boleyn were lost in the 17th century). Home to the last great medieval hammerbeam roof hall in England, work began on the Great Hall began in 1532 to mark the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, with motifs relating to the new Queen incorporated into the design.

Tudor locket celebrating marriage of Henry VIII to Katherine of Aragon found

A unique gold and enamel heart-shaped pendant bearing the initials and emblems of King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon has been unveiled at the British Museum. It is in impeccable condition and of such exceptionally high quality that it could plausibly be connected to the royal couple themselves.

The jewel was discovered by Birmingham café owner Charlie Clarke while metal detecting in a field in Warwickshire on a very auspicious Friday the 13th, December, 2019. After his screaming abated, Clarke notified the Finds Liaison Officer who in turn contacted Historic England. A subsequent excavation of the find site did not return any further artifacts.

The pendant is a heart-shaped locket enameled in red and white on both sides. The obverse is decorated with an engraved floral design in the center. Accented with translucent red enamel leaves, the stalk splits into two with a red and white enamel Tudor rose on the left and a pomegranate, emblem of Katherine of Aragon, on the right.

The reverse features a central design of an “H” and a “K” in Lombardic script entwined with a ribbon. The initials are enamelled in red, the ribbon with white. The ribbon ends with a thistle-shaped tassel in red and white enamel.

Both sides have a banner unfurled at the bottom inscribed with red enamel lettering reading: + TOVS + IORS. That same inscription is on the reverse of the pendant under the initials only with black enamel. This is the French “toujours” (meaning “always”) broken into two parts. Iterations of this inscription have been found on other pieces from the post-medieval period, for example this simple gold posy ring from the 16th or 17th century inscribed on the inner band: + TOVT IOVRS LOIALL (“forever faithful”). Rachel King, curator of Renaissance Europe at the British Museum, thinks the pendant’s inscription may also be a play on words, splitting “toujours” into “tous” (French for “all”) and “iors,” which is phonetically the same as the English “yours.”

The chain consists of 75 links for a total length of 17.2 inches. At one of the chain is a red and white enamelled, begloved hand at one end. The hand is clenched in a fist with fingers curved back under the thumb flat against the side. The cuff of the glove is white enamel with black speckles suggesting ermine trim. A rectangular sleeve decorated in translucent red enamel extends past the cuff. The other end of the chain was modified at some point to create a hinged clasp behind the glove.

The whole necklace, chain and pendant, weighs 317 grams of 24K gold. It is very high in gold content even in its most minute parts. The suspension loop, hinges, wire border are more than 98% gold, with just a trace of silver and a soupçon of copper.

British Museum researchers were able to narrow down the date of the pendant based on the Lombardic script and decorative motifs. It was made later than 1509 and before 1530. That fits the political timeline as well. Henry married Katherine in 1509 and banished Katherine from court in 1531, so the market for entwined H&K initials on heart jewels came to a screeching halt at that time. Their marriage was annulled in 1533.

Despite initially seeming almost too good to be true, said King, careful scientific analysis has proved the pendant to be genuine. What experts have not been able to uncover, however, despite scouring inventories and pictures of the time, is to establish a personal link to Henry or Katherine.

“Nonetheless, its quality is such that it was certainly either commissioned by or somehow related to a member of the higher nobility or a high-ranking courtier.”

One hypothesis, based on careful analysis of its iconography and other historical records, is that the pendant may have been commissioned to be worn or even given as a prize at one of the major tournaments of which Henry was so fond, around the time of the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. Though its size suggests it would only fit a woman, it may not have been meant to be worn at all.

Nothing remotely similar survives from the period, said King. “In the British Museum, we’ve got the largest collection of objects from the early Tudor periods in precious metal; none of them are anything like this.”

Red ink added to Armada maps in 19th c.

Conservators have discovered that the red ink on the set of 16th century hand-drawn maps of the Spanish Armada’s failed invasion of England is of far more recent extraction. They look integral and original, but all of the red accents — ships on fire, city markers, compass points — were added in the late 19th century to enhance the maps’ salability.

The 10 maps in the set are the only surviving contemporary drawings depicting the progression of naval battles that led to the scrappy English fleet’s surprise defeat of the much larger and more powerful Spanish Armada in 1588. They were drawn by an unknown Flemish artist in 1589.

They were sold by the Astor family to a private US collector in 2020, but the Ministry of Culture barred their export because of their unique historic importance. The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) was able to raise the funds to acquire them and keep them in Britain. The museum sent the set to the National Archives in London for study and conservation.

Initial examination found that the maps were in good condition, with only a few areas of mold repair and water damage from a flood at Hever Castle, in the 1960s.

Non-invasive tests including x-ray fluorescence spectroscropy revealed Flemish watermarks, which, with some marginal notes, suggests a craftsman probably working in London at a time when the Flemish were recognised as the best cartographers in Europe. The iron gall ink was 16th century and in good condition despite slight fading and paper corrosion—but the surprise was the reds, only available from the late 19th century. “The only possible conclusion was that the original maps were not coloured,” says Natalie Brown, the senior conservation manager at the National Archives. The work has implications for hundreds of antique maps in their own collections.

At the museum, curator Annabelle Cameron says that, while 300 years of their history remains unrecorded, by the early 19th century the maps were owned by Roger Wilbraham, the collector and MP—and may always have been in his family—and were seen by the British Library in 1828. They were sold by Sotheby’s in 1899 to the bookseller J. Pearson and Co, who sold them in turn to William Waldorf Astor in 1903. Either could have added the coloured ink to make them more attractive, which Brown said was common practice at the time. It certainly helped bump up their price: Pearson paid £30 for the maps and sold them for £90.

The maps are still undergoing conservation, but conservators have deemed them stable enough to go on public display. Only two have been exhibited since the purchase, and those were in Liverpool. The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth plans to exhibit all ten of them together in the near future.

Rare Elizabethan ship found in Kent quarry

The remains of a rare 16th century ship have been discovered in a sediment layer in a quarry in Kent, southeastern England. Despite the enormous significance of this period in English seafaring history, very few ships built in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I have survived.

Over 100 timbers from the ship’s hull were recovered, with dendrochronological analysis, funded by Historic England, dating the timbers that built the ship to between 1558 and 1580 and confirming it was made of English oak. This places the ship at a transitional period in Northern European ship construction. When ships are believed to have moved from a traditional clinker construction (as seen in Viking vessels) to frame-first-built ships (as recorded here), where the internal framing is built first and flush-laid planking is later added to the frames to create a smooth outer hull. This technique is similar to what was used on the Mary Rose, built between 1509 and 1511, and the ships that would explore and settle along the Atlantic coastlines of the New World.

The aggregate quarry on the Dungeness headland is now 1000 feet from the coast, but when the ship was built, the find site was likely on the coastline. It’s not clear from the remains if it met a violent end in a clash against the headline or if it was simply abandoned when it stopped being worth repairing and left to sink. The discovery has the potential to shed new light not just on Elizabethan shipbuilding and trade, but on the natural history and the commercial development of the Kent coast as well.

The ship has been documented, photographed and laser-scanned to create a detailed 3D model that can be studied without exposing the ship to the elements. Once the excavation and recording of the ship is complete, it will be reburied in the same sediment layer where it was found so the timbers will be preserved as they have been for almost five centuries.

Still from a 3D model of the remains of the Elizabethan ship. Photo courtesy Wessex Archaeology.