Arts & Tradition

A Detectorist in a Royal English Court

BY Michelle Plastrik TIMEApril 30, 2023 PRINT

A popular children’s pastime of hunting for buried treasure begins with dreams of unearthing pots of gold or a cache of jewels, but usually ends with potholes in a backyard revealing nothing more than sticks and stones. Those who continue to try their luck as adults use a better tool than a spade and shovel: a metal detector, with which some do actually find bits and bobs. It is exceedingly rare for anyone to discover a “holy trinity item” with gold, jewel, and royal provenance. A once-in-a-lifetime find of just such an object was recently revealed by the British Museum.

It is a Tudor-era heart-shaped pendant decorated with royal symbols suspended from a gold chain made of 75 links, authenticated by careful analysis of its materials and construction. This spectacular object was discovered by a café owner, who had bought his metal detector a mere six months previously, while exploring a friend’s farmland in Warwickshire, UK. This find has delighted and flabbergasted experts throughout the country, as nothing on its scale has been found before.

Tudor Emblematic Pendant

Tudor Pendant discovered
Tudor pendant, associated with Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, found by a metal detectorist in Warwickshire, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Tudor Pendant discovered
On the other side of the pendant are ornately engraved letters: “H” for Henry and “K” for Katherine tied together by a sinuous ribbon.(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

One side of this early 16th-century pendant is decorated with a pomegranate bush, the emblem of Katherine of Aragon, who was the first wife of the Tudor King Henry VIII. Her name, “Catalina,” was anglicized to Katherine in accordance with the contemporary usage in England. After the introduction of the Napoleonic Code (the French civil code enacted in 1804), the spelling of the name was changed to Catherine and standardized.

Also depicted is a double-headed red and white rose, a symbol of the House of Tudor, entwined with the bush. On the other side of the pendant are ornately engraved letters: “H” for Henry and “K” for Katherine tied together by a sinuous ribbon. It is speculated that this pendant was gifted to a member of their court.

Alas, the real-life couple did not stay entwined. Theirs was a messy divorce that led to a change in official religion for the country, from Catholicism to Protestantism. It was unwise for King Henry’s courtiers to show allegiance to the tossed-aside former queen, so few objects connected with Katherine are known today. As chief executive of Historic England, Duncan Wilson articulates fittingly, “This beautiful pendant is a thrilling discovery giving us a tangible connection to Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon and enriches our understanding of the Royal Court at the time.”

Catharine of Aragon pleading her cause
Katherine of Aragon pleading her cause before King Henry VIII, 1802, by W. Ward after R. Westall. (Wellcome Collection gallery/CC BY 4.0)

While the historical value of this pendant is priceless, a monetary value has yet to be placed on the piece. Whether it will be sold to a private collection or go on public display at a museum remains to be seen. Under the Treasure Act of 1996, any precious metal item more than 300 years old must be reported to the government. Once the object is valued, and if no public museum wants to purchase it, the item can be sold at auction or privately. This pendant recalls another spectacular British detectorist find from 2002, an intricate 14th-century gold ring with a point-cut black diamond, beautifully engraved initials, and poetic inscription.

Royal Ring

ring discovered in Delamere Forest in Cheshire, UK
Gold ring, attributed to the 14th-century King Edward III, was discovered in Delamere Forest in Cheshire, U.K. (Portable Antiquities Scheme/CC BY 2.0)

The ring, discovered in Delamere Forest in Cheshire, U.K., is important as there are only a handful of rings from this period that still exist. As no museum decided to purchase the piece, the detectorist brought it to the auction house Christie’s. He had spent years researching it and was convinced the ring had a royal connection. The forest had been a favorite royal hunting ground of the 14th-century King Edward III, and there were three E’s engraved on the ring along with a mysterious V and A. The ring’s inscription, “loyauté sans fin,” translates from the French as “loyalty without end.”

When the ring was brought to the attention of Helen Molesworth, then a jewelry specialist at Christie’s and now a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum, she thought the inscription marked it not as a love ring, but a sign of political loyalty. As she recounted in a video interview with Beekman New York Fine Jewelry, while researching the ring, she came across a Flemish textiles tycoon from the period named Jacob Van Artevelde. She wondered if he might be the V and A on the ring. She later learned that Van Artevelde and King Edward had been dear friends and godparents to each other’s children, and concluded that the King had gifted this ring to his friend and political supporter.

In the interview, Molesworth describes how the ring was consigned to Christie’s, and that on the day of the 2006 sale the British Museum showed up with lawyers. She was concerned that they were going to demand the lot be pulled from auction. However, they did not, and the ring sold for £84,000. Molesworth’s theory about the ring is now universally accepted and has been published in subsequent books.

Detectorists Charlie Clarke and John Wood both “struck gold.” By doing so, they uncovered a window into the past that further enriches our present day understanding of history.

Portrait of Henry VIII of England
Portrait of Henry VIII of England, circa 1537, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Oil on panel. Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Madrid, Spain. (Public Domain)
Michelle Plastrik is an art advisor living in New York City. She writes on a range of topics, including art history, the art market, museums, art fairs, and special exhibitions.
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