Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The King with the Pearl Earring

Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Susan reports:

Today pearls are among the most common of precious "jewels." But before the development of cultured pearls and farming in the early 20th c., all pearls were natural pearls. These rare treasures could be discovered only by accident and at considerable peril. Natural pearls had great mystique and luminous beauty as well as value, which made them favorites of queens – and kings.

One of the most famous pearls of the 17th c. belonged to King Charles I of England (1600-1649). While the origins of this single pearl earring are unknown, Charles is first shown wearing it in a miniature, left, as the fifteen-year-old Prince of Wales. The pearl soon became what fashion-folk today call a "statement piece", and one that he was seldom without.


Charles's large teardrop-shaped pearl – an especially rare and desired shape –was made into a single dangling earring with a tiny gold crown as the cap, topped with an orb and cross that was most fitting for a future king. Since Queen Elizabeth's reign, fashionable English gentlemen had worn single earrings as a sign of courtly swagger and bravado, qualities that the young prince was woefully lacking: Charles was slight and short (only 5'3"), he limped from childhood rickets, he stammered, and he suffered from acute shyness. Perhaps the sizable jewel gave him the confidence that nature had not.

Whatever the reason, Charles wore the pearl for the rest of his life, and it appears in nearly every portrait of him, including one of him dressed casually for hunting, right. He developed into a style-conscious king who patronized the arts, and the single earring suited him in that capacity, too, as the romantic, cavalier king.

Unfortunately, while Charles was a very good patron to artists, architects, and composers, he proved to be a wretched king to his people, stubbornly unable to reconcile his subjects' desires and expectations with his own. After barely surviving two civil wars, he was captured by the Parliamentary forces led by General Oliver Cromwell and found guilty of high treason. He was executed on 30 January 1649, beheaded with a single stroke of the ax on a scaffold before Whitehall Palace. He was still wearing the pearl earring as he placed his neck on the executioner's block.

Later historians seem to have been determined to give the execution a lurid, gory hysteria that no contemporary witness reported, and describe a (fictitious) howling mob surging forward to tear the precious jewel from the bloody, severed royal head.

Well, no. Even with regicide, this was still Puritan England, not Jacobin France.

Instead Charles's earring was respectfully removed when his head was sewn back to his body in preparation for burial. The earring was then sent as a final memento to his oldest daughter, Mary, Princess Royal (1631-1660), as Charles had requested. After Mary's death, the earring eventually found its way to one of the late king's most loyal supporters, William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1592-1672), who had also been entrusted with the education of Charles's son, the future King Charles II. Today the earring, bottom left, remains in the collection of the duke's home, Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, now owned by the Dukes of Portland.

Top left: Charles, Prince of Wales (later Charles I) by Issac Oliver; the Berger Collection,

Denver Art Museum.

Top right: detail, Charles I, King of England, at the Hunt by Anthony van Dyck; the Louvre

Lower left: detail, Charles I, King of England, from Three Angles, by Anthony van Dyck; Windsor Castle, Royal Collection

Bottom right: Earring of Charles I, Harley Gallery, Welbeck, Worksop, Nottinghamshire



Update: Many thanks to my fellow nerdy art history friend Connie G. for suggesting yet another portrait of Charles I. The detail at left shows the earring more clearly than any other portrait of the king as an adult.



15 comments:

Carmen said...

Wonderful, wonderful post. I got chills seeing the actual pearl. What stories it could tell!

nightsmusic said...

Beautiful pearl. Great post. I learn so much here. :)

Lady Burgley said...

Fantastic post, and a fantastic pearl. Queen Henriette also had a pair of fabulous pearl earrings that she inherited from her Medici ancestors. I can't find a link to them right now, but they are gorgeous, and of the same droplet shape.

Heather Carroll said...

How very interesting! But who can blame Charles for his attachment, it is quite the earring!

4everQueen said...

Amazing information! Although I have read much of Charles I, I don't recall ever reading about this pearl earring... hummm? Beautiful blog!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thank you for the kind comments. Though Charles I was a pretty awful king, I've always had a soft spot for him, because he wasn't a bad man. Good to his wife and kids, just not the right man for the job. I've always wondered about that gorgeous earring, too. Can't think of another head of state who wore a single dangle earring, can you? *g*

Lady Burgley, I've seen those Medici earrings, too, but I can't remember where I saw them, either. I'm guessing that it was in a book rather than the internet, but I'll try to track them down. They'd make an interesting post, too.

4everQueen, I don't know why this earring is mentioned so seldom in relation to Charles. It seems like such an important detail about him, and yet there's very little information about it out there. I'd love to know how and where he got it -- quite a bauble for a teenager!

Lyn S said...

Interesting that the house with the earring is now the home to the Duke of Portland. Wasn't Portland one of the titles granted to a Charles II mistress' kid?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Lyn S, I know it often seems as if ALL the noble families are descended from Charles II -- but the Dukes of Portland are one of the few that aren't. The first of the Portlands was William Bentick, a sensible Dutch/English nobleman who was a close friend of William II (the male half of William and Mary.) He was made Earl of Portland in 1689, soon after the Glorious Revolution put William on the English throne. William's son Henry was elevated in the peerage to Duke of Portland in 1716.

Robert said...

Anyone else notice that all these portraits of Charles I are the same 3/4 angle? Was he showing off the earring that way, or did he have the left ear pierced because it was his good side?

Miss Kirsten said...

I think the king looks sad in these pictures, like he already knows his fate. I always learn something new from you two, thank you!

ConnieG said...

LOL, you did use my painting! Not the best portrait of old Charles, but it does show the earring. From the studio of Sir Anthony van Dyck, the original has the pearl more in shadow of his hair.

ILoveVersailles said...

Such a great blog! I love reading about royal jewels. Amazing that this earring wasn't broken apart and reset into something else with such an impressive pearl.

Daniel Thomas said...

Fascinating. I must have seen that one portrait with the horse and groom scores of times, and never noticed the earring before. Now I won't see anything else.

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

Curious...

You can find a very good image of the Charles earring at:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/archive/e/ed/20090217173159!Official_portrait_of_Charles_I_van_Dyck(350x446).jpg

It appears so teardrop in shape, as to be almost triangular, as opposed to the piece in the possession of the Duke of Portland, which is rather of an oval.

It also appears to be suspended by two interlocking gold rings...

Side-by-side comparison of the two, in my opinion, certainly raises a question, to my mind...

 
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