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THE MYSTERY OF THE STERLING LION
Arguably the best known and most widely respected mark of
quality ever created was what is now called the ‘sterling’ lion.
There is, however, a mystery surrounding its use since it has
never been established what it was originally designed to
represent. It may have been intended to indicate that Goldsmiths'
Hall was now (1544) under the control of the king since the
Goldsmiths' Company had been obliged to surrender its charter in
that year, the year of its introduction, but there is no
reference to it in the Company's records
(see note 1).
Legislation dealing with the marking of plate wrought in
England, has always had to do with those marks which must be
applied to a piece of plate which has been assayed as of the
required standard. No law has ever been passed dictating that
any mark must not be applied to such plate. It is a fact that
any one of us is quite at liberty to punch whatever marks we
choose on our plate so long as that plate, if of a legal
standard, also carries the marks dictated by legislation.
The Goldsmiths' Company took advantage of this fact for the
first time in 1478 when they introduced a mark in an
alphabetical sequence which was designed to identify the
responsible wardens in a given year of their election. They took
advantage of it again in 1544 when they introduced the lion
passant guardant which, notwithstanding the above reference to
the surrender of the Company's charter to the crown, is widely
believed to have been intended to show that wrought plate was
not being debased, as the coinage of the time was, and was thus
a standard mark.
In 1542 king Henry VIII began minting coin at less than sterling
standard and by 1544 had debased it to such an extent that it
contained only a fraction over 50% silver and the copper, with
which the silver was alloyed, was beginning to show; he became
known as 'old copper nose'! At this stage the Goldsmiths'
Company must have felt that some way must be found to show that
they had not similarly debased their plate as, according to
statute, they were entitled to do and, although no reference is
made in their records to this dilemma or to its solution, it is
widely believed now that the method they chose was to introduce
a new, lion passant guardant, mark to be struck on all plate
assayed by them.
As the statute of 1300 required that the fineness of plate
should be as good as that of coin, the Goldsmiths' Company could,
in 1544, have allowed plate of the same debased standard as coin.
Indeed they were obliged to strike the mark of the Leopard’s
head on their plate and this actually indicated that such plate
was of at least coin standard.
They chose, instead, to maintain the genuine sterling standard.
A mark to indicate this genuine standard, and to, as it were,
override the Leopard's head is altogether reasonable!
Whatever the intention of the Goldsmiths' Company at the time,
it has always been regarded as a standard mark and as the
leopard's head, introduced by statute was the official standard
mark ("......and that no manner of vessel of silver depart out
of the hands of the workers until it be essayed by the Gardiens
( Wardens) of the craft, and further that it be marked with the
Leopard's Head,........") (see
note 2), it could be argued that this new mark was
ambiguous since it had no statutory standing. However, as the
Goldsmiths' Company continued to mark plate with the leopard's
head they were at liberty to apply this extra mark unchallenged.
Indeed it quickly gained acceptance as is shown in an indictment
of 1597 brought against John Moore and Robert Thomas, for
working and selling bad plate and for counterfeiting the marks
applied to it, in which the Attorney General refers to it as "Her
Majesty's Lion" (see note 3).
The statute of 1300 was originally written in old Norman French,
in which language the following directive is given: "E qe nul
manere de vessele de argent ne parte hors des meins as overers
tant qe ele soit assaie par les gardiens du mester e qu ele soit
signee de une teste de Leopart".
Octavius Morgan translated 'teste' as head and 'leo-part' as
lion passant guardant (see
note 4), the head of which would be outward facing and
it is unlikely that this was a mistranslation since, in heraldry,
the term leo implies a lion and it is also true that the early
marks applied to English plate following this statute appear to
depict the full face of a male lion.
In 1614 Seldon stated that "In blazonry leopards and lions were
synonymous and used indifferently"
(see note 5) and
Stephen Friar is even more specific in his book 'HERALDRY'. He
states that "In early armory what is now a lion passant was
described as a leopard and indeed any lion that was not rampant
was blazoned leopardé" (see
note 6). On page 84 of his book 'The Illustrated Book of
Heraldry' Stephen Slater informs us that "In 1235 the German
emperor Frederick II presented Henry III of England with three
leopards as a living shield of arms" and goes on to pose the
question "Was this a reflection of the English arms of the time?"
From which the conclusion may be drawn that the three lions
appearing on the English Royal coat of arms are English
depictions of leopards since in French heraldry a creature that
is passant guardant is always a leopard. Thus in England lions
and leopards were synonymous!
It could be argued therefore that the lion passant guardant,
introduced in 1544, was just another form of the beast dictated
by statute and did not deviate from this statute until, in
1821/2, the guardant was dropped. It is thus altogether possible
that the Goldsmiths' Company believed that they were complying
with the law when they introduced their new mark and did not
consider it ambiguous in any way.
In 1675 The Goldsmiths' Company themselves issued an order
relating to the practice, which had then grown up, of 'untouched'
plate being offered for sale, in which they refer to such plate
as "not marked with the leopard's head crowned, as by law the
same ought to be" but in spite of this reference to the law the
same order states that all plate should be submitted to be "assayed
at Goldsmiths' Hall, and there approved for standard, by
striking thereon the Lyon (sic) and leopard's head crowned, or
one of them...." (see note 7)
so that, as, in this order, either would do, the Goldsmiths'
Company obviously considered their, non statutory, mark as good
as the statutory one at this date!
(N.B. as by this date coin was again sterling, then the leopard
and the lion both represented the same standard for silver
whereas between 1544 and 1561
(see note 8), during which period coin debased to
varying degrees remained in circulation, they had represented
When, in 1697, the 'new sterling standard,'
(see note 9) known
since circa 1720 as the Britannia standard, was introduced the
'date' letter was given legal status for the first time as it
was mentioned as a requirement for the marking of plate. The
lion too, although dispensed with, gained legal acceptance by
implication, since the figure of Britannia
(see note 10), which
replaced it, was also required to be stamped on plate of the new
standard. As the lion's head erased replaced the leopard's head
("......instead of the Leopard's Head and the Lion, shall for
this plate be the figure of a Lion's Head erased, and the figure
of a woman commonly called Britannia......")
(see note 11), it
became the new official standard mark and the Goldsmiths'
Company appears to have been happy to adopt this mark for the
purpose for which it was intended. Thus items of plate of this
period which carry only one mark applied at Goldsmiths Hall will
be seen to carry the lion's head erased stamp. I know of only
one exception to this and this is a knife haft which has been
marked with the Britannia stamp as a single mark. I feel that
this must have been a mistake and is thus very rare indeed if
When the sterling standard was reintroduced by the Act of 1719,
the lion passant guardant was mentioned for the first time as a
legal requirement for the marking of plate, although no
indication was given as to what it was to represent.
The Goldsmiths' Company had, apparently, always looked on this
mark as a standard mark, notwithstanding the legal status of the
leopard's head mark, and so, now that it had legal status, they
adopted it as their official mark. Items of plate made after
1720 (see note 12)
and of sterling standard which carry only one mark applied at
Goldsmiths Hall therefore are found to be stamped with the lion
passant guardant rather than the leopard's head.
The leopard's head had not lost its legal status as the official
standard mark so that plate of this standard (sterling), of the
early eighteenth century which is fully marked, wherever it was
assayed (see note 13),
should carry both the lion and the leopard marks. (Fig I).
Notwithstanding the Goldsmiths' Company's attitude towards the
lion passant guardant their appreciation of the importance of
the leopard's head is shown by the working practice adopted in
the assay office in the 18th century. The weighing, drawing (the
taking of the sample to be assayed) and assaying was carried on
in the morning and part of the duty of the Drawer was to strike
the marks of the lion and the date letter on the plate from
which he had taken the drawings. The Touch Warden, who was the
final guarantor of the fineness of assayed plate, attended in
the afternoon to strike the leopard's head mark on all the plate
which had been assayed that morning.
Thus the leopard's head mark was accepted as the final guarantee
The acts of 1700 and 1702 which conferred the right to assay
plate on other towns (see
note 13) specifically stated that as well as the maker's
mark and the statutory fineness marks, each town must also
strike its plate with a mark, comprising its city arms, to show
where such plate had been assayed. This requirement had never
been laid upon London so that it was in the anomalous position
of having no identification mark of its own at this time. Thus
plate assayed in London in the 18th and 19th centuries carries
one fewer marks than that assayed in provincial towns! (Fig II).
It has to be said, however, that Customs and Excise were
attributing the leopard's head to "Goldsmiths’ Hall" in 1841
but, strangely, separated this from London which they identified
with the lion and the duty mark notwithstanding that both these
marks were in use at all the other assay towns in England!
(see note 14)
Fig. I: Hallmarks on a spoon assayed at
Newcastle in 1854 showing the correct use at a
provincial assay office of the leopard's head, the
lion passant guardant and the city arms. Fully
marked items assayed at provincial offices thus
carry one more mark than those assayed at London but
see the reference to Birmingham and Sheffield.
A further unexplained mystery surrounding the leopard's head
mark is that, when the assay offices at Birmingham and Sheffield
were opened in 1773, it was still on the statute books as the
legal sterling standard mark but was never adopted by either
The act of 1719, which mentioned both the leopard and the lion,
was not directed at the London Goldsmiths' Company but at the
"mystery or craft of the goldsmiths" and thus applied to all the
assay offices. The act of 1773, on the other hand, referred
specifically to the offices of Birmingham and Sheffield and
mentioned the lion but not the leopard!
Fig II: Hallmarks on a
spoon assayed in London in 1854 showing the absence
of a town mark
This article is based on text first published under the title "The Enigma Of The Lion" in the November/December 2005 issue of 'The Finial'.
David McKinley devotes much of his time to researching the history of silversmithing in England with particular reference to hallmarking at the London office.He writes for The Silver Spoon Club of Great Britain, The Silver Society and ASCAS website.
David McKinley is the author of the book THE FIRST HUGUENOT SILVERSMITHS OF LONDON.
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