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Amateur Treasure Hunter Unearths Missing Centerpiece of Henry VIII’s Crown

The gold figurine, valued at roughly £2 million, depicts 15th-century English king Henry VI

The gold figurine stands just 2.5 inches tall. (Kevin Duckett via Facebook)
smithsonianmag.com

When classic car restorer and metal detecting enthusiast Kevin Duckett spotted a glint of gold peeking out beneath the soil of an English field in 2017, he initially thought he’d found a crumpled piece of foil. But as the Northamptonshire native continued digging, he soon realized he’d stumbled onto something far more valuable.

“The rush of adrenaline and the buzz of excitement started to flow through my body,” Duckett tells the Sun’s Paul Sims. “I was holding what appeared to be a heavy solid gold and enameled figurine.”

Standing just 2.5 inches tall, the statuette may have once formed the centerpiece of a dazzling Tudor crown. As historian Leanda de Lisle wrote on her website this past December, researchers had long thought that the diadem—worn by Henry VIII during processions marking the Feast of the Epiphany and by his five immediate successors during their respective coronations—was lost, its precious metals melted down to make coins and its jewels sold piecemeal following the fall of the British monarchy in 1649. But Duckett’s find is poised to upend this history, suggesting that the artifact, which depicts 15th-century king Henry VI, escaped the wrath of Oliver Cromwell’s anti-royalist Parliamentarians largely by chance.

Speaking with Tom Mack of local news outlet Leicestershire Live, Duckett points out that the field where he found the figurine is near the site of the Battle of Naseby, a June 1645 clash that ended in soon-to-be deposed king Charles I’s devastating defeat at the hands of Cromwell’s forces. The amateur treasure hunter theorizes that Charles, who was executed for treason four years later, in 1649, lost the statue while fleeing the battlefield.

A 2012 replica of Henry VIII's crown (© Historic Royal Palaces)
Historic Royal Palaces based its 2012 replica of the Tudor crown on this 1631 portrait of Charles I. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Duckett first learned of the potential connection between his find and the lost crown last year, when he watched a YouTube video spotlighting Historic Royal Palaces’ (HRP) creation of a replica headpiece, reports Richard Pendlebury for the Daily Mail. After traveling to Hampton Court Palace to view the copy—based largely on Daniel Myten’s 1631 portrait of Charles—in person, he found himself face-to-face with his “figurine’s identical twin,” as he tells the Sun. (An enormous estate on the outskirts of London, Hampton Court was one of Henry VIII’s favorite palaces, boasting a royal tennis court, lush gardens and a kitchen equipped to feed upward of 800 guests.)

Court inventories indicate that 344 rubies, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds and pearls adorned the crown, which sported miniature sculptures of the Virgin and Child and Saint George, as well as royal saints Edmund, Edward the Confessor and Henry VI, according to HRP. Though the crown originally featured three depictions of Christ in place of the three kings, Henry VIII had the figurines swapped out amid the iconoclasm of the English Reformation.

A paternal great-uncle of the Tudor king, Henry VI was, by all accounts, disastrously incompetent. Pious, peace-loving and weak-willed, he was more interested in prayer and scholarship than governance and warfare. The Wars of the Roses, a three-decade civil war between the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions of the Plantagenet dynasty, largely defined his reign.

Despite his failings as a monarch, Henry enjoyed a resurgence in reputation following his likely assassination in 1471. As Desmond Seward wrote for History Extra in 2014, the former ruler’s subjects expressed “widespread pity for a king who, after his deposition, was treated as a thief, then put to death [on the orders of his successor Edward IV] without having committed any crime.”

Henry VII, father of Henry VIII and half-nephew of Henry VI, further emphasized his uncle’s religiosity after winning the English throne at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. According to de Lisle, Henry VII had “no blood claim to the throne, since he was only of illegitimate Lancastrian descent … [but] he declared that his holy uncle had prophesied his rule as divinely ordained.” Though Henry VI was never officially canonized, English Christians in the late 15th and early to mid-16th centuries viewed him as an unofficial saint and martyr—a trend that accounts for Henry VIII’s eventual inclusion of him in the crown’s cast of characters.

By the time Charles ascended to the throne in 1625, however, Henry VI’s reputation had plummeted once again, in no small part due to the evident parallels between the brewing English Civil War and the Wars of the Roses. Charles’ predecessor and father, James I, even referred to Henry as a “silly, weak king.”

Given Henry VI’s decline in stature and the obvious perils associated with bringing a royal relic into battle, exactly how the newly rediscovered figurine ended up in Northamptonshire remains unclear. But de Lisle, author of White King: The Tragedy of Charles I, tells the Daily Mail that Charles may have drawn on it as a source of hope.

“Henry VI supposedly had once appeared in a miracle to save an innocent man from a hanging,” she says. “Did Charles hope for some kind of similar intervention?”

The petite gold statue is currently being held at the British Museum in London for safekeeping and assessment. If confirmed as a missing piece of the Tudor crown, Duckett and the owner of the land where the artifact was found may be eligible to receive a portion of the proceeds from its sale to a museum. Per the Sun, the figurine is worth an estimated £2 million, or $2.7 million.

“It’s great news that after centuries of subterranean slumber this little golden figure has been revealed once more,” Lucy Worsley, chief curator at HRP, tells the Sun. “It is tantalizing to imagine its true history.”

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