Society of Antiquarians of London
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Collecting for Britain

Many Fellows of the early Society of Antiquaries were collectors as well as scholars. They exhibited an astonishing variety of items at Society meetings and donated them for study. Manuscripts, paintings and printed books began to increase in number after 1751, when the grant of a Royal Charter permitted bequests. Documents as well as artefacts and monuments were judged important by antiquaries. Manuscripts, such as the Henry VIII Inventory, were acquired as significant sources for the study of British history.

(left) The Royal Charter, 1751, Pen and ink on vellum

Essay: Collecting for Britain (pdf)

Magna Carta, the Great Charter of English liberties, was first issued by King John in 1215. This is a contemporary copy of the final revision issued by Henry III in 1225. Written in Latin, the most famous clause starting 'Nullus liber homo' translates as 'No free man shall be ... imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions ... except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.'

Magna Carta
Jousting cheque for a contest at the Field of Cloth of Gold

This roll of arms starts with those of the French King, François I, and Henry VIII. The two monarchs met near Calais in 1520 and a tournament provided the entertainment. The scores for nine pairs of knights who competed in mounted combat have been added. This example of a jousting cheque was presented to the Society in 1796 when interest in heraldry was reviving.

Properties in Winchester (Winton in Latin) were surveyed around 1110 and 1148. These surveys form the earliest and most detailed descriptions of any European town of the early Middle Ages. The manuscript was purchased for the Society in 1790. The covers of the original binding are exceptionally well preserved and depict figures such as birds with human heads, dragons, deer and feeding animals.

Winton Domesday
St Thomas Becket Casket

This ornate enamelled reliquary was designed to hold the remains of St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. It is one of the few to depict all four knights responsible. One side represents St Thomas's martyrdom and the lid shows his burial. The casket was presented to the Society by Sir William Hamilton in 1801.

This book of psalms was owned by Robert de Lindesey, Abbot of Peterborough from 1214 to 1222. The initial B shown here is the opening of Psalm 1: 'Beatus ...' or 'Blessed is the man ...' The illumination is filled with lions, squirrels and rabbits framed by seated figures from the Old Testament. The psalter was bequeathed in 1768 by Charles Lyttelton, President of the Society.

Lindsey Psalter
Inventory of Henry VIII

Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547, leaving his nine-year-old son to inherit the English throne. A list was made of the late king's moveable goods, and, in the resulting document, the 17,810 entries include a wide variety of items, ranging from ships and their ordnance to musical instruments, paintings, maps and furnishings. The Society purchased this portion of the inventory at auction in 1790.

Before national museums and galleries

Until 1860, by when the British Museum had created its first department dedicated to British antiquity and the National Portrait Gallery was founded, the Society of Antiquaries was one of the few institutions engaged in collecting British archaeology and historical works of art. The progress of the Industrial Revolution, the intensification of agriculture and the expansion of transport infrastructure generated spectacular finds of all periods. Some outstanding discoveries, such as the Bosworth Cross, were made at this time. In 1828 the Reverend Thomas Kerrich donated an important collection of royal panel portraits. By the close of the nineteenth century, the national museums and galleries had taken on a statutory collecting responsibility for British antiquity. The Society’s role adapted from one of rescue to one of supporting research and excavation and communicating their results.

(left) Meeting of the Society of Antiquaries at Somerset House, March 1844, Engraved by H.S. Melville from the drawing by F.W. Fairholt

This portrait of Edward IV (1442-1483), who succeeded Henry VI, is perhaps the finest to have survived. It is a copy of a lost original, which may have been painted from life, and includes Yorkist symbols such as the white rose. The wooden panel on which it is painted came from the same tree as the portrait of Edward's brother, Richard III.

Edward IV
Richard III

This portrait of Richard III (1452-1485) is probably the earliest surviving version of an original made during the King's reign (1483-85). It is the only one to show him toying with a ring on the marriage finger of his left hand. The panel comes from the same tree as the companion portrait of his brother, Edward IV.

Richard III's reputation has fluctuated since his reign (1483-85) and most existing images show him with some measure of deformity. In this portrait, painted later than the other of Richard III on display, he is depicted with a withered left arm, a broken sword indicating his broken kingship, and a raised left shoulder. X-ray photography has revealed later over-painting to reduce Richard's deformity, reflecting a revival in his reputation.

Richard III with a broken sword
Henry VII

This portrait of Henry Tudor (1457-1509) is likely to be a replica of the portrait made to celebrate the marriage between Henry's heir, Prince Arthur, and Catherine of Aragon, which took place in 1501. This seems to be the first occasion on which Henry sat for a formal portrait. He is shown holding the Lancastrian symbol of a red rose.

This painting of Henry VIII (1491-1547), King of England from 1509 to 1547, is based on a portrait type which pre-dates Holbein's more famous image of the monarch. The image may have been produced within Henry's lifetime. His appearance - square-shouldered, bearded and with his hair worn short - is consistent with the image of him that emerges from written and pictorial sources around 1535.

Henry VIII
Late Bronze Age shield from Beith, Ayrshire

This impressive shield was discovered during peat extraction at a farm in Ayrshire, Scotland, in c. 1779. It was found arranged in a ring with five or six others, but only this example is known to have survived. The shield is identified as a 'Yetholm' type by its style. The thinness of the bronze suggests that its use may have been ceremonial.

This cross was found about 1778 on the site of the Battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire. The battle in 1485, at which Richard III was defeated by Henry Tudor, concluded the Wars of the Roses. The sunburst symbol, a Yorkist badge, on the reverse of the roundels, suggests that this processional cross was carried by Richard's supporters.

Medieval processional cross from the site of the Battle of Bosworth
King Athelstan

Shown here are the two largest sections from possibly the earliest cycle of paintings of Saxon kings; Athelstan was the first to call himself 'King of all Britain'. The panels were discovered in 1813 by Alfred Kempe at Baston House in Keston, Kent. He described how they were 'sadly mutilated to form the wainscot of a small closet'. The works were presented in 1880.

Shown here are the two largest sections from possibly the earliest cycle of paintings of Saxon kings; Athelstan was the first to call himself 'King of all Britain'. The panels were discovered in 1813 by Alfred Kempe at Baston House in Keston, Kent. He described how they were 'sadly mutilated to form the wainscot of a small closet'. The works were presented in 1880.

Unknown Saxon King
Opening the Tomb

Burial mounds were pillaged for treasure from medieval times but Antiquaries around the country were motivated more by building knowledge of ancient cultures. Others explored churches, with their tombs and monuments. Public reaction to these activities was mixed, however: were antiquaries Romantics, drawing new understanding of humanity from decay and ruin, or were they to be condemned for disturbing the dead?

(left) James Douglas (1753-1819), The Barrow Diggers, c.1787, Pen and ink wash on paper

Essay: Opening the Tomb (pdf)

When Edward IV's tomb was discovered at Windsor Castle in 1789, many relics were removed. John Douglas, Dean of Windsor and Bishop of Carlisle, presented the Society with some of the finds. These included this lock of Edward's hair, a phial of liquid from the bottom of the coffin and wood from the adjacent Queen's coffin.

Lock of hair of Edward IV
The Tomb of Edward IV at St George's Chapel, Windsor

The tomb of Edward IV (1442-1483) was discovered during the restoration of St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle in 1789. The architect Henry Emlyn superintended the restoration. The Society published Emlyn's account of the discovery and this diagram of the excavated tomb, showing the skeleton's feet immersed in liquid at the bottom of the lead coffin.

This caricature by Thomas Rowlandson was set in Westminster Abbey and recalled the opening of Edward I's tomb. It accompanied a poem by William Combe in his English Dance of Death: 'A curious wish their fancies tickled To know how royal folk were pickled.' Death's dart is aimed at the one of the antiquaries disturbing the dead.

Death and the Antiquaries
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