A Royal Gift Exchange
By Natalie Anderson
‘Tis the season to start worrying about what to get friends and family for the holidays. When novelty socks or a new toaster just won’t do, it might be helpful to take some inspiration from the gifts exchanged by medieval monarchs. For example, the gifts that Henry VIII received from Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I would put anyone’s new hand-knitted scarf to shame.
Maximilian and Henry were allies throughout their lifetimes. Together, in 1513, they won an impressive victory against their mutual enemy, the French, at the Battle of the Spurs. Their meeting before the battle was grandly commemorated in a contemporary painting (although the weather on the day was, in fact, reported to be terrible).
Maximilian was some thirty-two years Henry’s senior, and the two developed a kind of mentor/mentee relationship. This is evidenced in a letter from the English ambassador Robert Wingfield to his master, King Henry. Wingfield reported Maximilian as saying to him, ‘I desire you to make my most hearty and affectuous recommendations unto my most dear and well beloved brother, the King your master, which by word doth call me father; and I do call him son, which I do take right gladly upon me’.
The younger king, in many ways, idolised the emperor. This was particularly true when it came to Maximilian’s prowess in the tournament. The older monarch was passionate about jousting, and tournaments played a central role in his court life; they would do the same in Henry’s. Maximilian and Henry’s shared love of athletic competition and chivalric culture is reflected in the gifts that Maximilian presented to the English king.
One of these was what is now known as the Burgundian Bard – a magnificent horse armour commissioned by Maximilian for Henry to celebrate his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. The bard is lavishly decorated with pomegranates, a personal emblem of both Maximilian and Katherine. Indeed, there was a family connection between the two, as Maximilian’s son, Philip, was married to Katherine’s sister, Juana, so Maximilian probably looked very favourably on this marriage as a way to further strengthen his ties to Henry. Looking at those beautifully engraved pomegranates each time he used the bard would have reminded Henry not only of his beloved wife but also of the giver of the gift – a clever strategy.
The most famous item given by Maximilian to Henry, however, is undoubtedly the ‘Horned Helmet’, presented to Henry in 1514. This bizarre looking helmet would have been made to wear in parades or other ceremonial occasions. Although frankly frightening at first glance, closer inspection reveals this helmet to be of incredibly high craftsmanship. It was made by Konrad Seusenhofer, one of Maximilian’s favoured armourers, and certainly shows off the skill and intricate detail for which the German armour workshops were famous. The prominent, hooked nose may be a reference to Maximilian’s own, famously prominent, Habsburg-ian proboscis.
Based on these two fantastic examples, Maximilian seems to have been an excellent giver of gifts. So, while scouring the shops this December, perhaps take some inspiration from these sixteenth century exchanges: something personal, high quality, and perhaps just a bit over the top.
Follow Natalie on Twitter: @DrMcAnderson