King Charles I Pearl Earring on Display at Harley Museum

King Charles 1 Pearl Earring

King Charles 1 Pearl Earring

CHARLES I, THE 17TH-CENTURY MONARCH most famous for dismissing the English Parliament and ushering in the reign of Oliver Cromwell, was a fashionable man. He sported elaborate, French-style clothing: breeches, slashed doublets, lace collars, long boots. He could often be found with a “sky-blue ribbon” around his waist and a gold-enameled pendant bearing 42 diamonds. But Charles’ most enduring fashion legacy is the giant pearl earring he donned from early life until death.

The earring in question is now held in the Portland Collection at Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, earrings were somewhat in vogue among select wealthy English men, a trend borrowed from France. Goldsmith Louis Roupert wore an earring in one ear—as did Earl of Somerset Robert Carr and Duke of Buckingham George Villiers, who was also a friend of Charles I. Sir Walter Raleigh, meanwhile, had pearl earrings in both ears. In 1577, the British history compendium Holinshed’s Chronicles described “some lusty courtiers also and gentlemen of courage… who wear either rings of gold, stones, or pearls, in their ears, whereby they imagine the workmanship of God to be no little amended.”

But those few men who wore earrings certainly did not represent the majority. The prominence of earrings in England—a style that was revived in the 16th century after a nearly 600-year hiatus—was predominantly driven by women. In fact, some report that King James I, the predecessor of Charles I, abhorred the sight of men in earrings.

Still, Charles’ earring was nothing to sneeze at: in an era during which pearls were extremely valuable, his was an astonishing five-eights of an inch long and a rare pear shape. On it rested a gold crown, plus an orb and a cross.

Charles, debuted his earring at the age of 15. In the decades following, it appeared in nearly every portrait of him—always just the one earring, and always worn in his left ear.


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