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Richard II's treasure

the riches of a medieval king

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A photo of a quadrant

'The Richard II' horary quadrant (London, British Museum)

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The 'quadrant made of gold' described among the chapel goods in the Richard II inventory seems to resemble a gilt brass quadrant in the British Museum. A quadrant is an instrument with a variety of scales and markings that enables the user to tell the time from the altitude of the sun. A plumb-bob or thread with a weight or pearl is attached to the tip. When held upright so that the rays of the sun pass through both sighting-vanes (the small pierced metal protrusions on the edge of the quadrant) the thread will slide along the scales and come to rest at a certain position. Here the time can be read. This type of instrument was known from the fourteenth century onwards and was thus still a relatively recent development at the time of Richard II. Instruments of this type are rare and would have been expensive and prized possessions.

Unfortunately the inventory is not very precise, so we know very little about the appearance of the quadrant that it mentions. We do, however, have its weight which matches very closely that of the instrument at the British Museum, although it is valued as made of pure gold, not simply gilded, as the British Museum piece. The latter is prominently engraved with the badge of Richard II: a hart lodged with a crown around the neck with a chain attached to the crown that loops under the hart's left foreleg and over its back. This quadrant still shows traces of gilding and must once have looked as if made of gold–which again matches the description in the inventory. It also has a small protrusion on both sides of the tip to which a thread would have been attached to act as an indicator. Added to this the imagery and the inscriptions on the quadrant contain many personal references to Richard.

Can we thus assume that the British Museum quadrant was once Richard's? How do we then explain the enamelling and decoration with pearls of which there are definitely no traces? But do these embellishments refer to the quadrant or rather to its leather case? If the British Museum quadrant once had a case it does not seem to have survived and we may thus never be able to answer the question of identity with absolute certainty. It is clear, however, that if the pearls had been attached to the quadrant itself that this would have made the instrument cumbersome or even impossible to use, thus rendering it mainly decorative.

R 984 Item, un quadrant d'or en un case de quire enaymellez de la salutacion de Nostre Dame et garniz ove xxxj perlez d'un sort et un petit perle sur la file, pois' v unc' et vaut outre xxs., la somme vj li. xvjs. viijd.

[Item, a gold quadrant in a leather case enamelled with the Annunciation and set with 31 matching pearls and a little pearl on the thread, weighing 5 oz., additional value 20s., total £6 16s. 8d.]

S. A.

The quadrant is listed on membrane 29 of the treasure roll.

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