On the morning of February 3, 1461, the Lancastrian and Yorkist armies gathered for the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross witnessed the spectacular sight of three suns blazing in the sky overhead. Eager to capitalize on this alternately ominous and inspiring sign—now understood to be the result of a meteorological phenomenon known as a parhelion—Edward Plantagenet, Duke of York, declared the scene a symbol of God’s grace, interpreting the trio of fiery stars as a manifestation of the Holy Trinity and a sure sign of Yorkist triumph. Encouraged by their commander’s passionate speech, the York men won a decisive victory. One month later, the duke, now crowned Edward IV, officially overthrew the reigning Lancastrian King Henry VI.
In tribute to his win at Mortimer’s Cross, Edward soon adopted the so-called “sun in splendor” as one of his personal badges. Now, more than 500 years later, this royal emblem is back in the spotlight: As Harry Shukman reports for the Times, a metal detectorist sweeping through a field near Horncastle, Lincolnshire, in 2013 uncovered an impressive gold hatpin that could have belonged to the Yorkist king or a member of his court. Valued at between £10,000 to £15,000 (roughly $13,000 to $19,500 USD), the find is set to be sold at auction later this month.
According to a Duke’s Auctioneers catalogue listing, the pin features an amethyst center encircled by a multi-ray sun. Three gold chain links once mounted with pearls dangle below the purple jewel, which was associated with royalty during the medieval period and believed to protect the wearer from harm.
Gold hatpins similar to the one found in Lincolnshire appear in several portraits of medieval royals: A 20th-century rendering of Edward IV currently on view at the Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia depicts the king wearing a hat adorned with a jeweled, circular hatpin topped off by three swinging pearls, while a painting of Henry VII, the Tudor king who ended the York dynasty’s rule over England by defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, finds the young ruler donning a red jewel encircled by gold and three dangling pearls.
Speaking with the Daily Mail’s Victoria Bell, Guy Schwinge of Duke’s notes that the portraits offer tantalizing hints of the recovered pin’s connection to Edward IV. Still, he says, “The fact is we shall never know [who owned it], but it clearly belonged to someone of high status in the upper echelons of medieval society.”
Lisa Grace, the 42-year-old metal detectorist who discovered the hatpin, tells Bell she found it just inches below the surface of a recently ploughed Lincolnshire field. Initially, she had no idea what she had chanced upon. The artifact’s provenance only became clear after Grace began speaking with friends and conducting extensive research on the jewel.
As Bell notes, it’s possible the king or courtier who commissioned the gold accessory lost it on the battlefield. The fact that the pin contains an amethyst adds weight to this theory, as soldiers who could afford the precious stone often wore it in combat situations in hopes of warding off death and defeat.
The battle that cemented Edward and the Yorkist regime’s connection with the sun was far from the last in a 30-year series of civil wars collectively known as the Wars of the Roses. Although the burst of energy inspired by the sight of three suns in the sky (Decoded Science’s Jennifer Young explains that the awe-inspiring presence of two extra suns stemmed from the refraction of sunlight through ice crystals in clouds) propelled the Yorks to initial victory, the brief period of peace that followed ended when Edward’s former ally and mentor, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick—known as the “Kingmaker” for his role in helping the young Yorkist ascend to the throne—turned against his protégé and allied with Margaret of Anjou, wife of the deposed Lancastrian Henry VI.
Thrown from power, Edward fled before regrouping and defeating the Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury on May 4, 1471. King once more, he ruled over a united England until his unexpected death in 1483. Edward’s young son, now Edward V, briefly succeeded his father but was soon deposed in favor of the dead king’s younger brother, the polarizing Richard III.
Interestingly, the York dynasty’s decline was preceded by a singular meteorological phenomenon on par with the one that heralded its rise. As Alex Taylor writes for the Tudor Society, Anne Neville, Richard’s queen and daughter of the Kingmaker, died in March 1485, just months before her husband’s defeat at Bosworth. According to popular accounts, a total eclipse occurred on the day of Anne’s death, blocking the sun and plunging the realm into darkness. Although it’s possible Richard’s subjects saw the dramatic event as a sign of the king’s fall from God’s favor, University of Leicester historian David Baldwin tells Metro’s Oliver McAteer this interpretation is likely “a case of someone being wise after the event when Richard had actually been killed.”
When Shakespeare later wrote Henry VI, Part 3, he couldn’t resist making a literary allusion to the phenomenon that foreshadowed the short-lived dynasty’s future. Linking the three sons of York—Edward IV, Richard III, and their brother George, Duke of Clarence—to the three suns, the Bard has Edward proclaim: “I think it cites us, brother, to the field/ That we, the sons of brave Plantagenet, / Each one already blazing by our meeds, / Should notwithstanding join our lights together / And over-shine the earth as this the world.”
(Smithsonian.com, April 16, 2019)