Post-classical history


The Lancastrian Esses Collar

Most readers will have at some point come across a Lancastrian livery collar of esses. Whether an original in a museum, a representation on a church effigy, or a detail in a fifteenth-century painting, it is recognisable as a distinctive chain consisting of interlinked metal esses (letters ‘s’). It was of great significance to the Lancastrians, like the celebration of Maundy Thursday donations (see Appendix One), and thus it has received much attention regarding its origin and significance, including what the esses stand for. However, this attention has not always been based on the best evidence. Nor has every commentator on this arcane subject considered the logical implications of their suggestions. Therefore this appendix has been drawn up to bring together some new evidence and a few commonsense suggestions to illustrate what the ‘esses’ collar meant to Henry, and to refer to an important possibility connected with this interpretation.

The earliest references to livery collars in Henry’s accounts are those for the year 1387–8, distributed to his supporters, Lord Darcy, William Bagot and John Stanley.1 On John of Gaunt’s return from Castile in 1389, it is noted that Richard II took John’s livery collar and put it around his own neck. This would place the origin of the Lancastrian livery collar in or before 1386, the year in which John departed for Castile. There is no reason to doubt that this collar was composed of a series of esses: all the representations of Lancastrian collars from this time onwards show a form of esses, and Henry himself was known as ‘the one who wears the S’.2 Certainly by the early 1390s the collar assumed this esses form, as proved by the many references in Henry’s accounts. As for the earliest possible date for its use, it is highly likely that the Lancastrian collar postdates the first known reference to a livery collar, which is the king of France’s grant to his chamberlain of the right of wearing a livery collar in 1378.3 This would date the invention of the Lancastrian livery collar to the time of Henry’s youth.

Many antiquaries have speculated on the meaning of the esses. The author of the brief description of an example included in the catalogue of the Gothic exhibition at the V&A Museum quotes the work of R. W. Lightbown, who suggests soverayne (sovereign),souveignez (remember) or a combination of sainteté, sagesse, sapiencé and seigneurie (sanctity, wisdom, learning and lordship).4 Other suggestions have included St Simplicius.5 Only two of these are supported by the extant evidence: sovereign and souveignez. Of these two, it is ‘sovereign’ which has received the most support. The key evidence amounts to the following three facts: that Henry’s tomb at Canterbury has a carving of an ‘esses’ collar around the royal arms which bears the motto Soverayne; that the mottoSoverayne appears on the scabbard of the ceremonial sword he presented to the mayor of Dublin in 1403; and that the motto Sovereigne was used by Henry’s son, John.6 However, all these references date from after he became king, when he was indeed the ‘sovereign’ lord of England. It would have been treasonable for Henry and his father to use such a motto during Richard’s lifetime. Every secular appearance of the word ‘sovereign’ relating to an individual on the parliament rolls relates to the sovereign power of the king, or the king himself, and no other member of the royal family.7 When Henry used a motto incorporating the word ‘sovereign’ before 1399 (as on his seal as earl of Derby), it was in the qualified form ma souveroine (‘my sovereign’), in the feminine, a motto alluding to the ‘sovereign’ power of a lady.8 It has been suggested that ‘sovereign’ was adopted as a motto by John of Gaunt because of his claim to be king of Castile. This is demonstrably incorrect. John sold his claim on Castile in 1389. Even more significantly, Henry’s accounts mention many esses collars in the 1390s although he himself had no claim on Castile at all.9 Consequently, we may be confident that the esses cannot stand for ‘sovereign’ as this would imply John and Henry were claiming a share in the sovereignty of the realm from at least 1391 and probably before 1386, which would have been tantamount to treason.

As anyone who has looked at Henry’s accounts will be aware, the vernacular phrase most frequently found among the Latin entries is ‘souveyne vous de moi’. This can be translated as ‘remember me’ but it also can be read as the name of the forget-me-not flower. It appears in at least a dozen entries in Henry’s accounts between 1391 and 1398.10 For instance, his goldsmith’s account for 1391–2 records a payment for a wide belt for Henry ‘made in the form of a trail of soveigne vous de moy hanging copiously with gilded silver leaves and fronds’.11 In the embroidery section of the same account we may read of ‘a mantle and short loose gown for the lord of velvet motlee with St John’s Wort and soveyne vous de moy’.12 There are later references on this same folio to hundreds of gilded silver ‘leaves of soveigne vous de moy’. These relate to pictorial representations of flowers. Several entries in later accounts make this explicit; for example, ‘for mending a collar of the lord in the form of flowers of souveyne vous de moi … with a swan newly enamelled’, and ‘for a collar of esses and flowers of souveyne vous de moys’.13 These flowers obviously trailed all over Henry’s clothes and livery chains, and his swan badges hung from chains of golden forget-me-nots.

The ubiquity and exclusive use of these flowers of souveyne vous de moi suggest that they are a rebus (a picture representing a word or phrase), standing for the motto ‘remember me’. A rebus is a common feature of heraldic emblazons, livery collars and banners at this time. Thomas Mowbray’s livery collars incorporated mulberry leaves; Thomas of Woodstock’s banner included a woodstock. Evidence that the flowers indeed stood for a motto and were not purely a design feature is to be found in Henry’s separate use ofsouveignez (without any reference to flowers) in at least two instances. Descriptions of the windows in his new buildings at Eltham Palace state that they incorporated the motto ‘soueignex vous de moy’.14 And his wedding present to his second wife was a jewelled collar ‘engraved with the motto soviegnez [sic] and the letter S’.15 This last example is a particularly striking juxtaposition of the soveignez motto and the esses. Similar juxtapositions may be found among references to Henry’s own collars, such as ‘for a collar of esses and flowers of souveyne vous de moys’.16 Thus there can be little doubt that the esses in the Lancastrian livery collar relate to the motto souveignez vous de moi. The Lancastrian collar should be understood as an exhortation for the family to remember someone.

Without further evidence we can only speculate as to who should be remembered. An intimate source is not ruled out by the use of ‘vous’ (not ‘tu’), as it could be an exhortation to several people to ‘remember me’. It is possible that the phrase (as a Lancastrian motto) dates from 1368, long before the invention of the livery collar, and is connected with an exhortation by Blanche (Henry’s mother) to her children and husband to remember her. Such an explanation would explain why Henry particularly was described as ‘the one who wears the S’, and it fits with the fact that John chose to be buried by her side, not beside his other wives. Alternatively we might suggest these were final words spoken to John of Gaunt by Edward III or the Black Prince. Further research might clarify the date at which the motto ‘Remember me’ was adopted by the Lancastrians, and this might strengthen or weaken the above suggestions. However, we are unlikely ever to know its exact source and relevance.

A far more important question arises from an implication of the above analysis. What is the origin and relevance of the motto which does not relate to the esses, ‘sovereign’? The document on which the seal with this motto (in the form ‘so / ve / rey / ne’) is first found is dated Leominster 31 July 1399.17 That document describes Henry as duke of Lancaster, naturally. But the seal itself describes him as ‘Sir Henry of Lancaster, duke of Hereford, earl of Derby and Northampton, lord of Brecon’ (see here). The seal was thus made sometime between his creation as duke of Hereford (29 September 1397) and the death of his father (3 February 1399). There is no record of Richard granting the use of this motto to Henry so it would appear that Henry assumed it for himself. As noted above, it is unlikely that he did so at the time the seal was created, during Richard’s reign. But it is quite possible that it was engraved as an addition on his return to England, probably after his oath-swearing at Doncaster.18 This would explain the basis on which Henry appointed the earl of Northumberland as warden of the Marches of Scotland on 2 August 1399, while Richard was still king, for the grant was authenticated with this seal.19 The implication would be that, at Doncaster, Henry agreed to become regent: to allow Richard to remain king in name and lineal right while he (Henry) henceforth exercised sovereign power (as the regent and Richard’s heir apparent). Whether Henry formally did divide these two aspects of kingship – the title of king and royal sovereignty – prior to his accession is not proven (and might not be provable) but it would explain many things and must be considered one of the most important historical questions from the summer of 1399 yet to be answered.

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