Exhibit of the Week: Silver cuff links

Silver cuff links in the Scarborough Collections.
Silver cuff links in the Scarborough Collections.

In 1662, Charles II married the Portugese noblewoman Catherine of Braganza.

To celebrate their wedding, and to mark the restoration of the monarchy just two years earlier, someone produced an image which was to become an enduring symbol of love and marriage until the end of the 17th century. Generally it was a pair of hearts, with a flame atop them. But there were variations on the theme – sometimes a pair of clasped hands above the hearts, sometimes a crown as well as or instead of the hands, sometimes a few drops of blood below.

The image appeared on many buttons and cufflinks of the time. A quick look at the website of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (www.finds.org.uk) shows that they’re turned up fairly regularly by metal detectorists and other treasure hunters – there are many pairs pictured on the site after being found at locations all around the country.

But the design on our cuff-
links is rather less common, featuring a single, flaming heart pierced by a pair of arrows. And it’s intriguing to speculate on the events that led to them being lost or abandoned on the North York Moors just above Scarborough – were they dropped by a 17th century gentleman out for a ride, or perhaps ended up there through some later misadventure, having been handed down?

However they came to be there, they were found by metal detectorists in the autumn of 2014, some 350 years after they were made, six feet apart, and quite correctly reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme – they contain at least 10% silver, so qualify as treasure under the Treasure Act 1996.

Cufflinks were a relatively recent innovation in the 1700s. Men had been wearing shirts for centuries – partly to protect their outer clothing so that it didn’t need to be washed as much, partly to protect their skin from the heavier, rougher fabrics of outerwear.

It wasn’t until after the Middle Ages that these practical items started to become decorative, with the collars and cuffs – the most visible areas of the shirt, in other words – the focus. The cuffs were at first held together by ribbons, as was the collar, a practice that was to develop into the formal necktie we know today.

Decorative cufflinks began to appear in the 1600s, but didn’t really become common until the Victorian era, when they were popularised by one of the leading dandies of the day, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII.

It would be nice for the purposes of this column to report that Edward was one of the direct results of the marriage commemorated in the silver cufflinks which are today’s exhibit from the Scarborough Collections, but untrue. The Merry Monarch, as Charles II was known, is believed to have fathered at least a dozen children by several different mothers, but not one of them was his wife, who was sadly unable to have children – she’s known to have had three miscarriages.

The British monarchy continued through Charles’ brother James; however, Diana, Princess of Wales, was directly descended from Charles through two of his illegitimate sons – Henry Fitzroy, the first Duke of Grafton, and son of Barbara Palmer, the Countess of Castlemaine; and Charles Lennox, the first Duke of Richmond, and son of Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth.

Which means that Diana’s son, Prince William, will be the first descendant of Charles II to ascend to the throne of Britain.

And if it seems that Charles had a rather elevated taste in mistresses, let’s not forget that not all of them were countesses – other dalliances that resulted in illegitimate children included Moll Davis, a well-known actress and courtesan and, of course, the ‘pretty, witty’ actress and orange-girl, Nell Gwynn.

Poor Catherine – those romantically aflame pierced hearts must have seemed a mockery.

The silver cufflinks are part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.