- Place of origin:
ca. 1597 (made)
- Materials and Techniques:
Gold, with black enamel
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
British Galleries, Room 58, case 2
According to family tradition, this locket contains part of the caul or caput galeatum (the membrane enclosing the foetus before birth) that John Monson was born with in 1597. This was considered to be lucky, especially as a protection against drowning. A silver box in the Danish royal collections holds the caul of King Frederik III who was born in 1609 - it was believed to offer strength and good fortune.
There was a strong belief in the medicinal or magical properties of various natural substances in Renaissance England. For instance, unicorn horn (actually part of the horn of the narwhal, an arctic whale) or bezoar stone, which was found in the stomach of a goat, were thought to be powerful antidotes against poison. They were often set in pieces of jewellery.
Ownership & Use
It was customary at this time for both men and women to wear jewellery. Henry VIII (ruled 1509-1547) had made various attempts in the form of sumptuary laws to restrict jewellery wearing to the upper classes. In 1585 the Puritan Philip Stubbes complained that it was impossible to tell 'who is noble, who is worshipful, who is a gentleman and who is not' because jewels were worn by anybody who could afford them, whatever their rank.
It is possible that this locket was made as a christening (baptism) gift. Almost all babies in Elizabethan England were baptised within a few days of their birth, although baptisms in higher status families might be delayed in order to make social arrangements. Gifts given at baptisms often included table salts or cups, silver spoons and other precious metal objects. It seems likely that this locket was given to John Monson as a keepsake after his birth.
Gold locket with engraved inscription. The catch at the bottom is broken, but the locket can be opened and is completely empty. There is no caul inside.
Place of Origin
ca. 1597 (made)
Materials and Techniques
Gold, with black enamel
Height: 5 cm including suspension ring, Width: 3 cm, Depth: 1.5 cm
Object history note
Made in England; engraved 'John Monson born.the.tenth of September at.12. of the clok. at night 1597'. John Monson was the eldest son of Admiral Sir William Monson. This talismanic locket descended in the Monson family. It was lent to Princely Magnificence, V&A exhibition, 1980-81 by the Hon Nicholas Monson who then sold it to the museum. Nicholas, as Lord Monson, wrote in January 2018
'John was the first son of Sir William, the sea admiral. And Sir William's second son was elevated to a barony and then became a Viscount. I reckon John must have died in his youth although I don't know the date. There was third son, Robert and a daughter Jane who married Sir Francis Hayward.' (e-mail to Tessa Murdoch 08.01.2018)
Sir William Monson(1569-1643) was a crypto-Catholic, but his faith was disguised by his conformist behaviour and his holding of high office during the reigns of Elizabeth I and during the early part of the reign of James I. He began his naval career as a privateer, served in the English fleet sent against the Armada, and sailed with the Earl of Essex on the expedition to Cadiz. In 1604 he was named Admiral of the Narrow Seas by James I. As a covert Roman Catholic, Monson received a secret annuity from Spain; when this came to light in 1616, he was briefly imprisoned in the Tower and dismissed from office. During the 1620s, Sir William wrote 'Certain observations that are not worthy of the title of history that hapned too England since the year 1558 and before, circa 1640' This manuscript is preserved in the Beinecke Library, Yale, Osborn fb253 (there is a digital on line version). The manuscript was in the library of Sir Robert Throckmorton of Coughton, Warwickshire as the Monsons and Throckmortons were related by marriage. It contains Sir William's historical observations and political analysis of developments in Anglo-Dutch relations from the reign of Queen Mary Tudor into the reign of Charles I. Written from a pro-Catholic and pro-Spanish point of view, the work laments the spread of Protestantism and religious discord in both countries
Historical context note
According to family tradition, John Monson was born 'within the caul' that is, with part of the membrance which encloses the foetus still over his head. This was, and is still considered to be lucky, and espeiclly to be a protection against drowning. The locket was made to contain this membrane and shows signs of heavy wear.
Gold locket with inscription recording the birth of Nicholas Monson, 10 September 1597
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Princely Magnificence: Court Jewels of the Renaissance, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1980-81, no. 58, p.66
Labels and date
This locket commemorates the birth of John Monson in 1597. John was born with a piece of the caul (the membrane that contains the foetus) covering his head. The caul would have been saved, dried and kept in the locket for good luck. [27/03/2003]
Metalwork; Jewellery; Birth; British Galleries