Object in Focus

An Armada Earring


Gold, enamelled and gem-set pendant; Spanish and English; sixteenth century. National Museums Northern Ireland, A1.1990 (Ulster Museum). Image copyright of author








Prepared by: Natasha Awais-Dean, Queen Mary, University of London

Read the full paper here.

In the early 1990s the Ulster Museum in Belfast acquired a gold, enamelled, and gem-set pendant jewel with an image of the Madonna and Child surrounded by a sunburst (Figure 1). This iconographical depiction is inserted within a later border that bears a double-line inscription in italics with strong traces of black enamelling. The lettering reads:

‘When Spanneshe fleet fled home for feeare [ANNO] This golden picktur then was founde * Fast fexsed vnto Spanniards eare [1588] Whoo drowned laye on Irish groūd x.’

This unusual record tells us that what had once been a Spanish sailor’s earring with a Catholic devotional image was, soon after its discovery, converted into this pendant. The new owner created a gem-set gold border with enamelled scrollwork decoration at the apex and a fleur-de-lys at the base to which is attached a pearl hanging pendant. The collet in which the large amethyst of octagonal form is set has then been inscribed at the sides with a further inscription: ‘The first gift to Mary’. While this might be a reference to the Virgin Mary, it seems likely that as the jewel passed into its new context it took on new meanings.

In 1972, and prior to the purchase of the pendant by the Ulster Museum, this jewel had been sold at Christie’s London by Sir John Simon Every, Bt. (1914-1988). A note in the sale catalogue states that the vendor, Sir John, was a direct descendent of the Mary referred to in the inscription.[1] Thus if the inscription is to be believed, it came from the ear of a dead Spaniard whose body was presumably washed up in Ireland following the English success in the Armada. It was then transformed from a trophy of war into a token of family love and affection and eventually into an important family heirloom. That an object with dimensions of only 30.34 x 59.72 mm can have such multiple resonances demonstrates the value of jewelled possessions both for their original owners and for cultural historians today.

[1] Icons, Mediaeval and Later Works of Art, Christie’s London sale catalogue, 22 February 1972, lot 30.




Related material

Visual sources

Fig.2. Gold, enamelled and gem-set pendant; Spanish and English; sixteenth century. National Museums Northern Ireland, A1.1990 (Ulster Museum). Image copyright of author

Fig.3. The Armada Plates; Plate 12 – a map of Great Britain and Ireland showing the routes of the Spanish and English fleets in 1588; print made by Augustine Ryther after a design by Robert Adams; 1590. British Museum 1888, 1221.8.12. Image copyright British Museum

Fig.4. Gold button from the Girona; Spanish; sixteenth century. National Museums Northern Ireland, BGR 32 (Ulster Museum). Image copyright of author

Fig.5. Pearl, gold and enamel earring of King Charles I; before 1649. Portland Collection inventory number 005669. Image copyright of the Portland Collection

Fig.6. Manuscript note written by Mary II; late-seventeenth century. Portland Collection inventory number 005669e. Image copyright of the Portland Collection




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