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In Drake's Wake

Some of Drake's Possessions

Michael Turner

The Drake Jewel

Sir George Meryrick has loaned this rare Drake possession to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Last April when rain briefly prevented me from photographing medieval London, I went along for a curious look. To enhance the significance of this gem, Sir Francis is seen wearing this locket for his 1591 and 1594 oil on canvas portraits by Flemish painter Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. The 1591 portrait is housed at the national Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The Drake Jewel is also depicted on the portrait of Elizabeth Drake. She is wearing it attached to a girdle around her waist. Lady Beatrice Seaton also wore the jewel. She was a very distant and remote descendent of Thomas Drake and was the last Drake to live at Buckland Abbey. Both portraits are in Buckland Abbey. The queen gave Drake the jewel - which some exhibition catalogues speculate was for his service performed during the Armada battles of 1588. Individuals wore these jewels both to confirm their devotion to the queen and to proclaim their favourable standing in her eyes. The V&A Museum catalogue states Drake received the gift in 1586 after returning from his celebrated voyage to the Cape Verde Islands and the West Indies.

Enamelled scrolls and forget-me-knots interspersed with rubies and diamonds form the border of this oval gold locket and frame a type of quartz - being a sardonyx cameo of a black emperor and a white woman. The man is wearing a paludamentum, the mantle worn by Roman emperors and generals. The woman is crowned with a tiara. There is a cluster of pearls hanging beneath the cameo that resemble a bunch of grapes. The reverse, which is enamelled blue, opens to reveal a fine portrait miniature of Elizabeth I painted by Nicholas Hilliard* within a border of table-cut rubies.

The parchment lining of the cover is painted with a phoenix but is damaged and is inscribed - Ano Dm 1575 Regni 20. This implies the miniature was painted in 1575, the 20th year of Elizabeth's reign. Closer examination shows that the inscription was incorrectly restored and formerly gave a date of 1586. The miniature and the painting of the phoenix are personal to Elizabeth. The phoenix was a symbol that according to legend would die every 500 years and rise from its own ashes. It became a Christian symbol of re-birth and renewal, and a symbol of chastity. The significance of the two-layer sardonyx is more elusive. One suggestion is that Elizabeth chose this to express her personal ambitions, and that the man represents Saturn and the woman Astraea, the virgin goddess. Therefore Elizabeth would return her country to the legendary Golden Age, when Saturn ruled over a period of peace and prosperity and Astraea distributed blessings. The theme of the white princess and a black prince was adopted by the gem cutters of the Renaissance as a means of utilising the contrasting dark and light layers of the sardonyx. Height 11.7cm, width 7cm, depth 2.5cm.

*Nicholas Hilliard 1547-1619 was born in Exeter, Devon.

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