The Case of the Double Coronet

A coronet in the heraldic decoration on a piece of British silver is of great value in establishing the exact identity of the former aristocratic owner of the object.  However, as these two spoons demonstrate, too many coronets can initially complicate the search.

Fig 1

We have recently handled a pair of Fiddle pattern dessert spoons hallmarked for London 1813 and bearing the maker's mark for the partnership of William Eley, William Fearn and William Chawner (see figure 1).  The heraldic engraving comprises a British Earl's coronet above that of a Continental Duke and the script initials HN (see figure 2).  This is unusual as there is very little overlap between the peerages of England and those of Europe. 

Fig 2

Sometimes this came via family descent- as such the Dukes of Richmond  had a French dukedom, that of D'Aubigny, originally granted to Louise De Kerouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth and mother of the 1st Duke.  The Dukes of Portland were also Counts Bentinck by descent.  On other occasions foreign titles were granted for specific service- usually prowess on the field of battle. British aristocrats were then given Royal permission to accept and use them.  The Duke of Marlborough was also Prince of Mendelheim in the Holy Roman Empire following the wars of the Spanish Succession.  By the same token the Duke of Wellington was also Prince of Waterloo in the Netherlands, Duke of Cuidad Rodrigo in Spain and Duke of Vittoria, Marquess of Torres Vedras and Count of Vimeira in Portugal.

Rare as this permission was, there were in fact two Earls whose titles began with N around 1813 who had foreign titles- the Earls of Newburgh and Nelson.  In 1814 Vincent, 6th Prince Giustiniani gained the right to be 6th Earl of Newburgh by descent but he did not formally claim the title (his daughter was to do so in 1858 having been naturalised as a British Citizen).

This leaves the Earldom of Nelson.  When Admiral Nelson died on the deck of H.M.S. Victory at Trafalgar in 1805 he had, due to his international fame and prestige, been created Duke of Bronte in the Kingdom of Sicily.  In the British peerage, however, Nelson had only achieved the rank of Viscount Nelson due to the scandal of his relationship with Emma Lady Hamilton, wife of the British Ambassador to the King of Naples.  On his death both his English and Sicilian titles were inherited by his brother the Reverend William Nelson (1757-1835) who, despite not being a national hero or even a well known figure, was promoted to being Earl Nelson within a year of his brother's death.

Thus, the combination of coronets combined with the final initial N would seem to exclude all but the Nelson family from the ownership of these dessertspoons. 
Furthermore, close comparison with items belonging to the family now held in the National Maritime Museum in London reveal that the combination of coronets was definitely in use by the Nelson family.  A saucer from the ceramic Nelson service, c. 1800, has an English Viscount's coronet above a Sicilian Ducal coronet in the same alignment as on this spoon.  The same configuration of coronets, but with that of an Earl, as on this spoon, appear on a silver teapot known to have been owned by the 1st Earl Nelson.

The difference between the heraldic decoration on these pieces and that on the dessert spoons is one of scale.  The saucer has a full coat of arms and the teapot has both crests used by the family.  The limited space available on pieces of flatware makes the inclusion of a crest,  in addition to the two coronets and initials, impractical.

However it is difficult to account for the initials of Admiral Horatio Nelson appearing on the family silver after his death and with the coronet of the Earldom which he was never granted.

A possible explanation comes from some of Admiral Nelson's own flatware sold by Christie's (Christies Sale No. 6357, 3rd July 2012, Lot 5).  All of it was Fiddle pattern, like this spoon, and while some was made for Admiral Nelson in 1797-1800 a few pieces were made after his death. These were assayed from 1811/1812 (just prior to the manufacture of this dessert spoon).  Therefore a member of Admiral Nelson's family added to the flatware they had inherited from him.

The use of Admiral Nelson's initials could therefore be seen to serve two purposes- in commemorating 'The Immortal Memory' and in matching up with the existing flatware.

After 1805 different members of the family held a number of titles.  Admiral Nelson had been created 1st Viscount Nelson and 1st Duke of Bronte.  As his widow, Fanny Nelson became dowager Viscountess Nelson and Duchess of Bronte. As his closest male relative William Nelson, the Admiral's brother, inherited both his titles and on his elevation became 1st Earl Nelson and 2nd Duke of Bronte.

The Earl's coronet on these spoons therefore indicates that they were additional pieces added to cutlery inherited by William Earl Nelson, 2nd Duke of Bronte who was entitled to use both the coronets engraved on them.  It would also have served to differentiate any pieces so engraved from those added to silver retained by his sister-in-law Fanny, Dowager Viscountess Nelson and Duchess of Bronte. 

Luke Schrager


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