Medieval Livery Collars

By Richard Knowles, FSA

It may be that you are familiar with the depiction of the decorative collars, known as livery collars, that can be seen on the monumental effigies dating from the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, found throughout England. This paper will by the nature of our audience tend to focus on the fifteenth century examples, but we will also attempt to trace some of the documentary evidence for these collars and consider their overall significance.

The collars that we will be considering are not insignia of honor or indeed collars of a particular Order, such as the Garter Collar, of the Order of the Garter, or the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, but are those denoting the allegiance or personal livery of the wearer.

Collars relating privately to the wearer’s family are also to be found, one such is on the monumental brass of Thomas, Baron Berkeley, d.1392, in Wooton-under-Edge church, showing mermaids, a badge of the Berkeley family.  A further such collar will be discussed in greater detail later, this is the one depicted on the fine monument to Sir Thomas Markenfield in Ripon Minster, North Yorkshire.

The livery collar, which will be most frequently encountered, however, is the type known as the SS collar. It would appear to have definite links with the House of Lancaster. The earliest recorded documentary description appears in the Wardrobe Account of Henry, Earl of Derby, (15 Rich II) who was, of course, later to become Henry IV. This reference is dated 1491/2: Pro I Coler auri facti pro domino Henrico Lancastrie, Comite Derb. Cum XVIj literis de S ad modum plumarum cum rotulis et scripturis in eisdam cum Signo in torecto ejusdem.

Also in an entry of particular Yorkshire interest in 17 Rich II, a further collar appears; Pro pondere arjenti unius Coleri facti cum Esses rollati et dati Roberto de Waterton eo quod dominus dederat colerium ipsius Roberti alio armiger.

Prior to these dates, we have what claims to be the earliest sculptured example of an SS collar, shown worn on the effigy ascribed to Sir John Swinford, d.1371.   A known follower of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, father of the future Henry IV. The presence of the collar would appear to link the origins of this type of collar to Gaunt and thus indicate that the Lancastrian origins pre- dated the royal dynasty. Following this date the SS collar can be frequently found on effigial monuments in England, through to the end of the Lancastrian period in 1461.

As to the physical appearance of this collar, in some instances the letters appear to be metal and this is the case with a surviving example found on the Thames foreshore and now at the Museum of London, although on the sculptured depictions the letters often appear fastened upon a ribbon and we occasionally find the S alternating with a personal device such as a knot.  A particular such, SS collar can be seen on the monument of the afore mentioned Robert Waterton and his wife, Cicely who are both shown wearing SS collars in Methley Church, West Yorkshire, Robert’s collar is the more elaborate alternating with a crown, it might be recalled that, despite never being knighted, he was a trusted servant of Henry IV. Other examples can be observed on many and varied monuments, right through the first 60 years of the fifteenth century. The collar often has a delicate ring, known as a toret ring, for bearing a pendant, this is frequently a badge sometimes personal occasionally dynastic and we will discuss this aspect in more detail later.

As to the significance of the meaning behind the SS letters, this has been the subject of much enquiry by antiquaries over the years. These can briefly be summarised as follows;

• Described as the initials of St Simplicus, an order had been formed in Germany dedicated to this saint, but in truth little can be found connecting this with England,

• As implying the Latin word signum, which denotes badge. These does seem a little vague a reference,

• An ingenious suggestion which may bear an element of truth suggests that a flower used by Henry IV as a badge was the Forget-me-knot, known by its 14th century French name souvent vous de moy. This may perhaps appear a little too romantic even for the “age of chivalry” although allusive references are often found in heraldry.

All of the above have little real support in contemporary evidence and the following may be more pertinent;

• The S represented the word Soverayne. This interpretation gained the support of Sir Samuel Rush Meyricke in his work Antient Armour originally published in 1824 and again in 1846 and was taken up later by John Hewitt in the text for the enlarged edition of Charles Alfred Stothard’s Monumental Effigies of Great Britain. The main theory being that John of Gaunt adapted this when claiming the throne of Castile and Leon in 1372/89 and his son retained it when he claimed the throne of England. Substantive corroborative evidence is provided by the fact that the word appears powdered on the tester over the tomb of Henry IV in Canterbury Cathedral. Purey Cust in his useful volume, The Collar of SS, published in 1910 extends this theory, surmising that the SS may have stood for Seigneur-Soverrayne, indicating that during Gaunt’s lifetime his followers supported not only him but also the King, and then upon Gaunt’s son seizing the throne he became the embodiment of both Seigneur and Sovereign and the collar was retained,

• Albert Hartshorne in Archaeological Journal Vol. XXXIX, theorises upon the S representing Sanctus, supporting this theory by the fact that church vestments of the period in question are often powdered with S’s for this reason.

So the full interpretation remains a matter of some conjecture, although the Canterbury tomb evidence certainly lends credence to the Soverayne explanation.

Whatever the significance it is a matter of fact that its use and appearance was widespread throughout England between the 1370s and 1461, as the sculptured representations testify and has definite connections to the house of Lancaster.

When the Yorkist dynasty came to the throne, following the battle of Towton in 1461 it is hardly surprising that they too adopted their own livery collar. As far as can be ascertained there is no example of the Yorkist collar represented prior to 1461, although it appears on monuments within a few years. Perhaps of some significance in the transitional period between the use of the SS collar and the adoption of a Yorkist version is the appearance of the neutral chain collar that can be found on the alabaster monument to Lionel, Lord Welles at Methley church, West Yorkshire. Welles, it will be recalled fell fighting for the doomed Lancastrians at Towton in 1461, although it may have been thought inpolitic to be shown in a Lancastrian collar.

The Yorkist collar consists either of the alternating badges of a sun and rose, or of a rose en soleil, which is a rose within a sunburst, these being generally mounted on a ribbon, although there are instances where it appears linked. Thus using the badges of the Plantagent kings perhaps to emphasise the Yorkist pedigree. The Yorkist collar also has a toret ring and can on occasions be found with the pendant personal badge of the king, the lion of March during the reign of Edward IV (1461-1483) and on rare occasions can be found the boar of Richard III (1483-85).

We can see examples of Yorkist collars widely around England, and the lion of March, examples can be seen for instance at: Thornhill in West Yorkshire. 

The boar of Richard II is a much rarer beast, it is famously found depicted, depending from the collar of Ralph Fitzherbert at Norbury in Derbyshire, carved exquisitely in alabaster and was formerly shown on the oak effigy of Ralph Neville (1484) in Brancepeth, County Durham. This collar was of the rose en soleil and Charles Alfred Stothard in his fine drawing for his Monumental Effigies of Great Britain shows the collar and boar as it appeared in 1815. Since that date the boar was chipped off and photographs exist of the collar with the boar missing, tragically the whole of the monument has subsequently been destroyed by a fire in the church in the late 20th century.

When Henry VII took the throne following the battle of Bosworth in 1485 he united the houses of York and Lancaster by his marriage to Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV and it was only natural to portray this union in a livery collar combining the S of Lancaster and the rose of the Yorkists. The Tudor collar tends to be longer and depends further down the chest of the wearer and is often found with the pendant of either a Tudor rose or portcullis. This collar again can be widely found on monuments and is depicted well at Harewood, West Yorkshire on the tomb of Edward Redman, 1510. This type of collar survives to this day, with some modifications as insignia of the Heralds, the Lord Chief Justice and also the Lord Mayor of London.

Before we leave the subject of collars, I would like to briefly mention here the fascinating collar, which may be of a personal nature, depicted on the magnesian limestone effigy of Sir Thomas Markenfield in Ripon Minster.  This effigy is superbly carved and whilst badly defaced exhibits a most interesting example of a livery collar. This is a collar of park palings with a central couchant stag behind them. The park palings may be allusive to the Markenfield name, literally marking out a field. At first sight it is tempting, as has been done in the past, to speculate on it being a hart lodged and have an association with Richard II. It can be shown though that Richard II’s royal hart is “gorged”, collared with a gold crown and chain and this never appeared upon a collar. Further investigation has revealed a perhaps wider use of this particular collar.

In fact the stag enclosed in palings, can be shown, as does the SS collar, to have a link to the House of Lancaster. It was J.R. Planche, who first pointed out the design of a park-pale and stag couchant, as it appears on the seal of the bailey of Derby and can be seen on John Speeds map of Derbyshire of 1610. It may have been a badge of Henry, Earl of Lancaster, Hereford and Derby and afterwards of course, Henry IV. A further corraborative association of this badge to Henry is on a most interesting memorial of his visit to Venice. This is a carved stone discovered in Venice by the antiquary Rawdon Brown and reported to the Society of Antiquaries. The stone was brought back to reside at Corby Castle, Cumbria. This stone shows the heraldic achievement of Henry, including, significantly for us, a stag, gorged, enclosed in a fence.   There is the theory that the fenced stag or hart indicates the imprisoned Richard II and as a piece of symbolism is similar to that associated with the fetterlock and the House of York. It remains to establish a link between Sir Thomas Markenfield and the first Lancastrian king.

Certainly there is some record of service and reward. In 1408 there was a “Grant for life to Thomas de Merkynfeld of 40 marks yearly at the Exchequer for the good services to the king on divers journeys, and especially in resisting the malice of Henry Percy late Earl of Norhumberland, and other traitors”, which grant was confirmed in 1416, the third year of Henry V’s reign, “so that he not be retained with anyone else”.

Regarding this particular collar there is another intriguing piece of evidence. Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland was a figure of great prominence. He has a splendid alabaster monument at Staindrop, Co. Durham, where he is shown, between his two wives, wearing an SS collar, his second wife being Joan Beaufort.  There is however an extant Book of Hours containing portrayals of the Earl with his second wife and other members of the family. This book of hours was originally executed for someone other than the Nevilles, and the portrait paintings have been inserted at a time after Ralph Neville’s death, as the Countess is depicted as a widow, and after 1427, as their son Robert, shown in the illumination as a bishop, became Bishop of Salisbury in that year. It would appear that the Book of Hours came into the possession of the countess and she commissioned the family portraits. The great interest for us in these portrayals is that the ladies all wear short collars or necklaces of SS, as might be expected at this date and with their family allegiance to the house of Lancaster. However the Earl and his sons, excepting the Bishop, all wear collars of palings with a stag emerging through them.   The similarity of these collars to the one at Ripon argues a coincidence of allegiance – initially to the person of Henry of Lancaster as Earl of Derby then as Henry IV and to the Lancastrian royal house.

In the absence of evidence it is fruitless to theorise further about the significance of the difference between the different representations of the stag or hart – couched behind palings at Ripon and apparently leaping through them on the Neville Book of Hours. There was of course no such escape for Richard II, dying as he did in captivity at Pontefract Castle.

In this brief and wholly incomplete account of livery collars, there has been an endeavour to indicate at least their interest and significance and attach some dating points to them and encourage further investigation and exploration.

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