Medieval England

Displaying who you are: the Collar of Esses

14th–15th century, England.

These collars first appeared in the 1370s, among the entourage of John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III, as though as a sign of allegiance.

‘Look at this,’ said Quintin. 'The 14th Earl of Arundel. He died in 1435.’

‘John FitzAlan, 14th Earl,’ said Miranda, reading the inscription. The walls of Arundel Castle shone in the morning sunlight outside.

‘And he is wearing a collar of esses.

John FitzAlan at Arundal Castle

‘Don’t they look like snakes?’

Miranda leaned over and peered closely at the effigy. 'These collars first appeared in the 1370s,' she said. 'Among the entourage of John of Gaunt, as though as a sign of allegiance, and he never divulged what they meant. He first used the S in a collar when collars weren’t fashionable at all, round about the time Chaucer wrote the Book of the Duchess, following the death of John’s first wife Blanche. He and his retainers took to wearing them. But his mother, Edward III’s wife Phillipa, had had the S shape embroidered in her clothing when he was a boy, so he didn’t dream it up. By the time of King Henry VI, collars of esses had become a symbol of rank and patronage but fifty years earlier, only John of Gaunt and his circle of friends wore them. He gave them to his associates to wear like a badge of affinity.’

Facts gleaned from: Fletcher, Doris, 1997. The Lancastrian Collar of Esses: Its Origins and Transformations Down the Centuries. In: Gillespie, James L., (Ed.), 1997. The Age of Richard II. Sutton Publishing Limited, Stroud. pp 191–204.

‘Or a statement of belief,’ said Quintin.

‘Not by 1435,’ replied Miranda. ‘They'd become very fashionable by then.’

‘Still had a ring suspended from them though, where you might expect a crucifix,’ said Quintin, looking closely at the effigy. ‘Like the pagan rings upon which Scandinavian oaths were sworn in 10th century Iceland.

For oaths sworn upon a pagan ring, see: Eyrbyggja Saga – Saga of the Ere-Dwellers. English translation by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson (Bernard Quaritch, London, 1892). IV. Thorolf Most-Beard comes out to Iceland, and Sets up House There.

'A badge of allegiance to the House of John of Gaunt?' mused Quintin. 'I wonder whether Geoffrey Chaucer ever wore one?’

See for yourself

Livery collar – Wikipedia

John of Gaunt – Wikipedia

Collar of Esses 1480-1530 – bronze replicas for sale

Livery collar – Absolute

Eyrbyggja Saga – Wikipedia

Eyrbyggja Saga – 1892 translation into English by William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson from the original Icelandic 'Eyrbyggja saga'.

Snakes and dragons

Jubilee Line

styalised snake's head from Iron Age Celtic metalwork design
statue of Asclepius

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