Medieval London

Collar (Chain)

collar of esses.jpg

Figure I: Collar of Esses

This livery collar or chain signaled a high-status connection. Made primarily with precious metals, such collars were viewed as prestigious jewelry that advertised one’s status in London’s hierarchical society, and more importantly the relationship the wearer possessed with the royal family. Livery collars were also prevalent among members of the nobility, social elites, and high-ranking individuals within London. Through both the materials used and reputation attached, livery collars could be the pinnacle of prestigious jewelry within medieval London.

Displayed by the Museum of London, the collar is 700 mm in length, 280 mm in height, and 210 mm in width. This specific livery collar is composed of forty-one ‘S’ shaped links on a long chain, making for a sophisticated design.[1] This specific collar was made up of silver links in a design associated with John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster (1340-99), a son of Edward III and uncle of Richard II. Because most livery collars were made primarily of silver, they were silver in color although those employing gold in the manufacturing process had a yellow-golden color. There were a multitude of distinct livery collars within London, but the two most significant were the Lancastrian and Yorkist styles. The Lancastrian collar possessed the more recognizable ‘S’ shaped links, while the Yorkist collar possessed a detailed link that resembled a rose and sun.[2] It is widely believed that the SS [Lancastrian] collar was the first livery collar used in Europe, with some believing that the ‘S’ potentially stood for “souvereigne.’[3]

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Figure 2. Funeral brass of Lord Thomas de Camoys (with his wife) wearing a livery collar (St George's Church, Trotton, Sussex, England, 1419).

The livery collars were introduced in the late fourteenth century and were popular throughout the fifteenth century. The Collar of Esses was one kind of livery collar worn exclusively by individuals with some relationship to the Lancastrian branch of English royalty, which included John of Gaunt as well as Kings Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI: Gaunt's the son, grandson and great-grandson. It was granted to retainers loyal to the Lancastrians or who held a high royal office, such as ambassador. By the end of the reign of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, however, mainly judges and other notable officials wore this type of collar, which could be sold or bequeathed to their successors.

Information as to the manufacturing origins of the collar of esses is limited, but they were likely made by a skilled artisan accustomed to working with silver, such as goldsmiths or jewelers, of which there were many active in medieval London. The silver content, high level of craftsmanship, and the attachment to the Lancastrians, who were in power from the late fourteenth to early fifteenth century, would have all influenced the economic and emotional value of the collars. When the Lancastrians lost power to the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses, however, the esses collars would not have held the same authority and value as they did when the Lancastrians were in charge.

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Figure 3: Effigy of Sir David Matthew (died 1484), showing his collar of esses (In the north aisle of Llandaff Cathedral, Wales).

Livery collars reflected the high societal status of the wearer. In instances of royal collars, they were regarded as magnificent symbols of power, representing the wearer's ties to royalty.[4] Members of the royal family wore collars that previously belonged to older family members, to illustrate their close relationships.[5] Livery ollars could also be bequeathed to royal servants, local administrators, and to those who displayed their loyalty to the crown on the battlefield.[6] In London, these collars could signal royal service and emphasized a collective political identity among those higher up in London’s hierarchical society

Livery collars could also be associated with private individuals who wanted to display their heraldic devices or with guild corporations such as the prestigious companies of medieval London who had their own coats of arms. The most powerful members of these merchant companies were called the 'livery' of the guild because they had the right to wear the colors or uniform of the guild during important civic and guild occasios.[7] Included within London’s ‘livery system,’ the collar was far more desirable than either livery clothing or badges.

The origins of the collar are quite vague, though they were characterized as jewelry, and notably royal livery collars were handled by the King’s personal jewelers. Due to the valuable nature of the collars, they were safely stowed away in the King’s secret “jewel house” within the London Tower.[8] In the fifteenth century, the livery collar adopted the moniker of the “king’s collar,” emphasizing its royal significance.[9] The Museum of London speculates that this collar of Esses belonged to an individual ‘lower than the rank of knight,’ though someone associated with the Lancastrians. 

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Figure 4: Painting of a young man featuring a livery collar (Hans Memling, "Trittico Donne" c. 1478, in the National Gallery)

Livery collars in London were worn primarily during the late medieval period to illustrate position and elite connections. This particular collar of esses communicated political authority in its strong connection to the Lancastrian dukes, who rose to be  kings of England in the early fifteenth century, while its silver content and function as a piece of eye-catching jewellry also gave it a signficiant economic value. Those who wore this type of collar in public, especially during ceremonial occasions, or when sitting for a portrait, were consciously choosing to communicate messages about their loyalty, allegiance, status, position, and wealth to medieval society.

--Jacob Itzkowitz


[1]Collar of Esses." Museum of London, 2012.

[2] Ward, The Livery Collar, p. 53. 

[3] Hinton, Gold & Gilt, Pots & Pins,p. 352

[4] Ward, The Livery Collar, p. 110

[5] Ward, The Livery Collar, p. 59

[6] Cocks.  "Livery and Loyalty in Medieval England," Paragraph 2

[7] Mount, Everyday Life in Medieval London, p. 224

[8] Ward, The Livery Collar, p. 37

[9] Cocks. "Livery and Loyalty in Medieval England," paragraph 2.

Works Cited: Images

Works Cited: Endnotes

  • Ward, Matthew. The Livery Collar: Politics and Identity in Fifteenth-Century England. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013.

  • Hinton, David. Gold & Gilt, Pots & Pins: Possessions and People in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

  • Mount, Toni. Everyday Life in Medieval London. Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2014.
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