Notes on an Ancient Gothic Crown

By Robert Chambers 

with footnotes, links, and additions by Amos-Cola Staff

Editors’ Note: This is an excerpt from Chambers’ work The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, Volume 2. (1864 and 1869). This book and its excerpt are in the public domain. We have added annotations, links, additional information, and images and performed some editing for modernization and style. You can read the original article here.

Votive crown of the Visigoth king Recceswinth. Gold, sapphires, pearls, precious stone. Dated to second half of the 7th century CE. (Image: Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons)

Towards the close of 1858, or early in 1859, in the course of excavations at La Fuente de Guarraz, near Toledo, on the property of some private individual, a hoard of treasure [1] of great value and interest was brought to light. No particulars of the discovery are recorded. [2] It seems, however, that there were not found any remains of a case or casket in which the relics had been enclosed; [2a] in several parts the ornamentation had been filled with the soil in which they were found; it has, therefore, been supposed that those relics of royalty had been buried in some time of confusion without any enclosure. The spot where the crowns were found was uncultivated land, which the peasants were breaking up when the discovery was made. The treasure consisted of eight crowns: four are of gold richly jewelled; from the front of the crowns jewelled crosses are suspended by “old chains; there are also chains of the same metal for the purpose of hanging the crowns in some convenient situation. [3]

These ancient and precious objects were brought to Paris in the month of January 1859, by the proprietor of the land where they were found, and the crowns were immediately purchased by the Minister of Public Instruction, for the national collection at the Hotel de Cluny, a museum which is already possessed of many valuable examples of medieval art, besides specimens of more ancient date. [4] The largest of the crowns bears the following inscription, in letters jewelled and appended by little chains to its lower margin, ‘RECCESVINTHVS REX OFFERET;’ [5] the letters are about two inches in length each—they are separately hung, and to each is attached a pendant pearl and sapphire. The gold letters are beautifully incrusted with precious stones, and engraved in the same manner as some of the gold work of the Anglo-Saxon period. By means of the inscription, we are able to arrive at a knowledge of the date of this crown, for King Reccesvinthus governed Spain from 653 to 675 [6]; the inscription also shows that it has been an offering (probably to some religious shrine) by this ruler; and the seven other crowns, of smaller dimensions and value, may have been those of the queen and the princes and princesses of the family; some of them, judging by their size, are intended for children of early age—the whole being a solemn offering on some important occasion. [7]

In ancient times it was customary to enrich the saintly shrines with choice and valuable gifts; amongst these, however, there were often imitation crowns and other objects given as votive-offerings, to be placed over the altars, or in some other conspicuous position. There are, however, instances of the crowns which were actually worn by kings and queens having been devoted to this purpose—amongst these may be mentioned the Iron Crown of Lombardy. It is to be observed that the gold chains by which those relics were suspended, have been added to the simple circlets which were no doubt actually worn by royal personages about twelve hundred years ago, since they are formed with hinges and fastenings to facilitate the fastening of them to the heads of the wearers. [7a]

The crown of the king measures about nine inches in diameter, and twenty-seven in circumference; it is a hoop about four inches in breadth, and upwards of half an inch in thickness; it is, however, not solid, but formed of massive gold plates soldered together. The margins of this hoop consist of two bands of cloisonné work, with incrustations of carnelian; and it is still further enriched with thirty oriental sapphires of large size, set in collets, giving to the gems a very prominent relief. Thirty very large pearls are arranged alternately with the sapphires. [8] The intervening spaces are pierced in open work and engraved, so as to represent foliage and flowers, and to the lower margin is appended the fringe of letters already mentioned. The golden chains are united above with foliated ornaments, which are enriched with numerous pendant pearls and sapphires, and surmounted by a capital, in the form of a knot of crystal, elaborately carved and polished, and terminating in a globe of the same material. The Latin shaped cross, suspended from the crown by a slender chain, is set with six fine sapphires and eight pearls of remarkable dimensions, mounted in very high relief; jewelled pendants are also attached to the limbs and foot of the cross. This [may have] been worn as a fibula or brooch, the acus by which it has been fastened to the royal robes being still visible. The entire length of this combination of ornament, from the gold hook to which it is fastened to the lowest pendant sapphire attached to the cross, is about three feet. The crown is composed of the purest gold, the colour of which, with the violet sapphires alternating with the pearls presents a most gorgeous appearance.

Left. The engraving from Chambers Book of Days. Right, grid: some of the finds from the Treasure of Guarrazar. (Image: (Left) Chambers Book of Days. (Right) Wikipedia/WikimediaCommons)

The crown, of which we give an engraving, was probably worn by the queen of Reccesvinthus. [8a] The broad circlet is set with fifty-four rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and opals, whilst pendant sapphires fringe its lower margin. Above and below, near both edges of this circlet, there are little loops which [may have been] to have been used for fastening a lining or cap of some costly tissue within the golden hoop, to protect the forehead of the wearer. The pendant cross is not so much decorated as that above mentioned, being, however, richly set on both sides with sapphires. The same jewels are also suspended from the cross. The eight other crowns are of several fashions. Three are essentially different from the others, for instead of a broad band, the circlet consists of open frame-work of gold, formed of three horizontal hoops and numerous traverses, with gems set at the points of intersection; all the crowns are enriched with not less than fifty-four precious stones and pearls, and have also hanging fringes of sapphires.

On the pendant crosses of one of the crowns is engraved the following dedication: ‘IN DEI NOMINE OFFERET SONNICA SANCTAE MARIE IN SORBACES.’ After the word NOMINE, a leaf is introduced as a stop; M. Du Sommerards considers that Sonnica is a male appellation. [9] The three smallest crowns had no pendant crosses. As an example of ancient art-workmanship, this may be regarded as one of the most remarkable discoveries which have been made in recent times. The articles are in excellent preservation, and the French have reason to congratulate themselves that they have gained possession of such a prize. [10]


1 This find is now known as the Treasure of Guarrazar

2 The crowns and votive offerings were dug between 1858 and 1861 in an orchard called Guarrazar in Guadamur, near Toledo, Spain.

2a “There were also many fragments of sculptures and the remains of a building, perhaps a Roman sanctuary or place of purification. After its dedication to Christian worship as a church or oratory, it housed a number of graves. A skeleton lying on a bed of lime and sand was found in the best preserved grave. Its well-preserved stone slate has a Latin inscription that mentions a priest named Crispín, dating from 693 (year of the Sixteenth Council of Toledo). This slate is now in the National Archeological Museum of Spain in Madrid. The inscription on the Sónnica cross, a piece preserved in Paris, gives an indication about the name of this church.”

3 The find eventually included a total of 26 crowns and crosses.

4 The crown is currently found at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain. (Wikipedia) (Museum site)

5 “King Recceswinth offered it [this]”

6 Recceswinth. Died September 1, 672. Visigothic king of Hispania and Septimania.

7 Conjecture on Chambers’ part. He was not aware of the full scope of the find.

7a. It is believed that none of the jewelry found at Guarrazar was ever meant to be worn but, instead, intended to be hanged above the altar.

8 The sapphires are thought to have come from Sri Lanka.

8a Again, this crown was probably never meant to be worn at all and was most likely a votive offering to be hung above an altar.

9 The primary translation would be: “In the name of God is offered a sonnet (of/to) the Saint Mary.” Chambers believes “Sonnica” is a reference to the “he who offers”; but sonnet seems more likely. Sónnaca may also be a church place name (the name of the church that was once at this site). (There is a cross with this name in Paris). “Sorbaces “ is a tricky translation. It may refer to Mary of the Serbs (Sorbs).

10 It is worth noting that many of the crowns and crosses from this treasure find have been stolen or lost. The remnants can be found in Spain (National Archaeological Museum/formerly Royal Palace of Madrid) and France at Cluny.

Leave a Reply