James VI and I’s Golden Medallion

Our third blog from the 2016-17 class is written by Claire Deighan, and focuses on a golden medal portrait/badge of James VI and I from the early seventeenth century, housed in the Hunterian Coin Collection (GLAHM 38090). 

‘A cabinet of medals is a body of history’[1] and at the Hunterian museum, the archives boast a large and unique collection of medieval and Renaissance medallions detailing the cultural, political and social contexts of different periods and reigns in our world history. Hunter’s original display and the coins and medals contained within the museum are Scotland’s premier collection in this subject[2] and hold many unique or extremely rare objects.

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The bust of James I, three quarters, right, (GLAHM:38090) is a Renaissance medal and an overt example of power and splendour, showing James himself on the front and a religious motif on the back of a ship sailing in the sea.  The medallion is very intricate and highly detailed and is of extremely fine quality. It weighs 31.35g and measures 57x42mm and has a golden loop at the top, suggesting it was designed to be worn and suspended either on a chain or through a ribbon.

James is wearing impressive and luxury clothing garments as well as a hat that is decorated with feathers and is fastened by a jewel. He wears a falling lace collar and a George of the garter medallion which is suspended to a riband. Around the perimeter of the medallion we have a Latin inscription reading IACOBVS D G MAG BRITA FR ET HI REX which states ‘James, by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland’.

On the back of the medallion we have an ark sailing on the waters of the sea and, again, we see a Latin inscription which reads STET SALVVS IN VNDIS: ‘May It stand safe amid the waves’.

The two sides of the medal have been joined together, but cast and chased separately. Evidence of this is in the rim going around the object which suggests the two sides were joined together to form the one medallion. Whilst we do not specifically know where the medal was manufactured, it was most probably made in London. The refined and intricate decoration on the medal points to this. Additionally, the number of medals produced in general, and in London, rose considerably with James’s move to London, with most of the works and designs on them relating to and representing English events[3].

The medal is dated to 1624, however, there is perhaps some debate on this, as records kept on the item in the Hunterian state that its earliest date of manufacture could have been 1604 and its latest 1624. The medal is, therefore, put in a set time frame, definitely after the Union of Crowns and certainly before James’s death in 1625.

The medallion has silver (AR) copies in the British museum and in St Petersburg and another Gold one in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Like most of Hunter’s collection, the purchase history or ownership of the medallion is not known, however it was bequeathed by Dr William Hunter in 1783 and since then has been a part of his wider numismatics collection which is now stored in the Hunterian museum at the University of Glasgow.

James’ medallion is of great significance as its details and the inscriptions on it put it into a set period of his reign and in the history of Great Britain. It was certainly made and distributed after 1603, when the Union of Crowns took place and James was named King of England and Scotland, because he is referred to specifically as the king of ‘Great Britain’. After 1603, as Michael Lynch states, ‘new emblems of a British identity were created and a wave of British histories, seals, flags and coinage engulfed James’s subjects on both sides of the Border[4]’. It makes a bold statement about James himself and how he views his kingdom. This is most obvious with the depiction of the ark on the back of the medal which represents the state. It shows Great Britain and how she must stand safe amidst the sea of Catholicism during this time of religious and political upheaval. The Reformation and its dramatic consequences impacted the lives and teachings of so many Scottish and English citizens and made James’s rule, and support for him, precarious. The ark has also been supposed to typify the Church which under James’s direction lay in calm waters after coming through the turmoil of the Reformation[5].

This golden medallion was perhaps issued to his supporters as a reward or even for propaganda purposes to highlight and reinforce one’s support for the King and indeed, for Protestantism. It could be seen as an overt mark of loyalty to the reign of King James and a definitive symbol against the Counter-Reformation and lingering Catholic support.

The Medallion was perhaps intended as a badge for naval commanders or more probably for presentation to court favourites as the design symbolises the state of the nation after the disturbances created by the Reformation and could have been distributed to those who safeguarded her during this time. The strong strokes and rays of sunshine depicted on the back hand side of the coin point to this and suggest that God himself is shining down and guarding James and his kingdom. This ties in with James’s ideas about divine kingship and how he viewed himself as being personally guided and watched over by God. The medallion plays a significant role in allowing us to understand the religious and political ideas and events of this time, whilst also shedding light on James and his beliefs about Divine Kingship.

James’s medal could also have been influenced by Queen Elizabeth who, in 1588, commissioned a medal for the defeat of

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the Spanish Armada (above) and this was used as a naval reward and a physical symbol and reminder of England’s global standing. The two bare certain similarities including Latin inscriptions and religious imagery and it is even thought that James’s medallion could have been given out to Elizabeth’s supporters and the ones who the Spanish Armada badge had not reached[6].

James’s golden medal is one of three stored in museums around the world, however different copies and similar productions have been made and distributed too which suggests the medal was part of a larger body and collection. The British museum copy is of the exact same design- but in silver- dating to the same time period. With a few medallions we gather that whilst they were not common, their certainly existed a fair number. People and establishments linked to James perhaps received one and we could argue that a friend or ally of the King in Scotland received one, explaining how the golden breast medal came to belong to William Hunter and appear in his collection in the same city.

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The different styles of this same design and motif can be seem in medallion records, each varying slightly from the one stored at the Hunterian. Most do not compare in terms of intricacy or the type of material used, yet it shows a clear progression in terms of the design and the likeness to James of this stunning medallion. The golden badge, compared to others like it, appears to be the crème de la crème of this particular design and shape which fits with this idea of it being given out as a sort of reward or physical tie to the King’s favourites. It reinforces the unknown details of its production date too, as many of these similar medals were made at different times in the early seventeenth century.

The portrait of James is also very similar to those that we find on other medals as well as in portraits of the King. James certainly looks older in this portrait, again, reinforcing that it may have been made as late as 1624, only one year before the King’s death.

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The medal is important also, as James wears the order of the garter around his neck. This is the highest order of chivalry and is dedicated to the image and arms of England’s patron saint – St. George. This badge was given to a set number of people including the sovereign, the Prince of Wales and twenty-four other select individuals. It was an elite and exclusive order and the badge was worn on ceremonial occasions. In the same way, James’s medal could have been commissioned for the same purpose; to be given to a select and special grouping of people whom the King favoured or deemed to be important. It shows the King’s loyalty and dedication to the English nation. At Linlithgow Palace, the Order of the garter is displayed above the fore entrance along with three other coat of arms to reinforce Scotland’s power and international connections. The garter links the two countries and the monarchy to an extent.

Scotland’s relationship with England and the intrigue and controversy surrounding this union makes the connection between these two countries a highly talked and debated issue. Just recently we saw the Scottish referendum and how it evoked strong emotions and reactions from the everyday people of Scotland. Issues surrounding the union and the political and religious dynamics of British history and identity are of much interest to people in this present day, more so than in years gone by I believe. Additionally, major components of our society have religious convictions and with issues of nationhood and statehood being in the political forefront more regularly, there lies more interest in the roles and histories of the church and state. James VI and I was one of these central figures in this union and his importance and the role he played within Britain and the Church of England is one that will resonate with many people today.

A medal is a unique and insightful piece of history and whether they were made to celebrate important occasions or for propaganda purposes, they reveal a lot about a country or a monarch. They can provide a new and different dimension to history showing national pride, achievements, fears, legislation, political campaigns and exhibitions[7] and for this reason they should be more widely dispersed and not just confined to a single exhibition.

An idea to showcase this medallion could be to incorporate it into a religious exhibition or series. In 2011, the Church of England celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James bible, first published in 1611. New copies were printed and distributed around the world in commemoration of the King and all that he did as the first Protestant monarch of Scotland and in the way of the Reformation and the Protestant faith. In seeking to distribute the medal we could put it into the displays and exhibitions that have been done throughout museums and churches both in Britain and in Christian communities throughout the world. Below we have an anniversary edition of the bible and I have inserted on the cover and on the back of the book the Golden medal as an idea of how it could be included. This gives the public a physical representation of James whilst also incorporating a genuine treasure from his time on the edition. It shows both sides of the medal and could perhaps include a brief history of it on the inside cover. The King James bible is the most popular bible translation, thus if the medallion was printed and included in these copies it could be circulated very widely and increase public knowledge and awareness about items of the past and their relevance in present day society. James VI and I contributed greatly to this biblical translation and is held in high esteem by many Christian communities for introducing this early vernacular text. It therefore seems fitting that he be honoured on his own commissioned piece of work for people to see and appreciate.

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[1] Edward Hawkins Medallic illustrations of the history of Great Britain and Ireland (Sanford J Durst; Reprint edition. 1978)

[2] “University Of Glasgow – The Hunterian – Collections – Collection Summaries – Coins And Medals”. 2016. Gla.Ac.Uk. http://www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian/collections/collectionsummaries/coinsandmedals/.

[3] Neil D.L. Clark. Scottish Gold: fruit of the nation (Neil Wilson publishing, 2014)

[4] Michael Lynch. Scotland: a new history (Pimlico; 1992) p.239

[5] George Cyril Brooke et al. A Guide to the Exhibition of Historical Medals in the British Museum. (1924) p.27

[6] IBID

[7] J.R.S Whiting. Commemorative medals: a medallic history of Britain from Tudor times to the present day. (David&Charles publishers Ltd, 1972)

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