The Gold Chain of the Lord Chief Justice

Sir Thomas More


Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein.  He is wearing the Collar of Ss.

“Whence comest thou, Gehazi,

So reverend to behold,

In scarlet and in ermine

And chain of England’s gold?”[1]

When the Lord Chief Justice appears in a full-bottomed wig on ceremonial occasions, he wears scarlet robes with a fur hood and mantle, and also a gold chain of office in the form of a collar of esses (or Ss).

I have seen successive Chief Justices (most recently Lane, Taylor, Woolf, Phillips, Judge and Thomas) wearing the gold chain, and have lazily wondered why. Now I can explain it all, thanks once again, to my indefatigable Canadian source, retired judge John de P Wright.

Although different stories have been told about the origin of the chain and the meaning of the “Ss”, with one source tracing the chain back to St Simplicius, one of two brothers martyred in the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, and Sir Edward Coke saying that the letters stand for “Sapience and Science”, established opinion today traces the collar of SS back to the days of the Wars of the Roses, when it was the badge of the Lancastrians, in contrast to the collar of Roses and Suns favoured by the Yorkists.

S is either the initial letter of “Souvenez” (or perhaps the phrase “Souvenez de moi”). After 1485 the Tudor kings adopted it and added their own devices of portcullises, knots and a double rose.

Although it was originally in fairly common use, an ordinance of King Henry IV forbade knights and squires to wear the collar, except in the presence of the king, and during the reign of Henry VIII an Acte for Reformacyon of Excesse in Apparayle[2] deprived simple esquires of the right to wear the collar at all, prescribing as it did,

“That no man oneless he be a knight … weare any color of Gold, named a color of S.”

Gradually even knights and non-official persons gave up wearing the collar, and eventually Edward Foss recorded in the seventh volume of The Judges of England that

“in our own day the right to bear it is restricted to the two chief Justices, the Chief baron, the sergeant-trumpetor, and all the officers of the Heralds’ College, pursuivants excepted.”[3]

When the Judicature Acts of 1873-76 merged five earlier courts[4] into a single High Court of Justice, the new court retained five divisions until 1880, the year when both the former lord chief justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench [5] and the former chief baron of the Court of Exchequer[6] died in office[7] and the former chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas, Lord Coleridge, became Lord Chief Justice of England,[8] an office he held until his death in 1894.[9]

He retained for himself the Collar of Ss which he had worn as Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, and this passed down within his family until 2006, when the fifth Lord Coleridge, after obtaining a valuation from Sotheby’s, sold it by private treaty for £35,000 to the purchasers of his family home in Dorset. Two years later the purchasers resold it through Christie’s for £260,000, and this untoward turn of events led Lord Coleridge to sue Sotheby’s for negligence.

In March 2012 HH Judge Pelling QC dismissed his claim.[10] The judgment is worth a blog of its own. Suffice it to say that while it was common ground that the Tudor Rose in the centre, manufactured from 22-carat gold, was made in the late 17th century, battle raged on the question whether the Sotheby’s valuer had been negligent in ascribing the same date to the manufacture of the 20-carat gold chain, as opposed to a date 100 years earlier.[11]

Was the chain made before 20 April 1576 when it became illegal to manufacture items of gold of less than 22 carats of fineness? How widespread was the habit of jewellers to ignore the post-1576 regime for making gold chains? Would a chain made in post-Restoration England have been made by the open mould casting method? Is the post-1660 Gilbert Collar, shown in a portrait of a Chief Baron of the Exchequer of that time a reliable piece of assistance? What help is obtainable from contemporary literature? Or contemporary portraiture? – Lord Coleridge’s chain and collar first appear in a portrait of a Chief Justice, Common Pleas, in 1714, and thereafter continuously until he himself received it on his appointment to that office in 1873.

Is the absence of any enamel embellishment to the Tudor Rose a pointer to the earlier date? What weight can be placed on the fact that there is a portrait of a Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, appointed in 1640, whose collar has a pearled and jeweled Tudor Rose?

These were all part of the conundrum the judge had to resolve. In the end he concluded that the Sotheby’s valuer had not fallen below the standard of care to be reasonably expected of her when she attributed the later date to the chain. And, if the media could be believed – which is not always the case in these matters – the unsuccessful foray into litigation cost the fifth Lord Coleridge a million pounds.

Incidentally, one blot on the Coleridge family escutcheon was authoritatively removed. In a volume of the Law Quarterly Review[12] Lord Justice Mackinnon had accused the first Lord Coleridge of “pinching” the collar of SS which belonged to the office of the Chief Justice of Common Pleas.  It was common ground at the trial, backed by the unchallenged evidence of Sir John Baker, the pre-eminent legal historian of our day, that by the last quarter of the 16th century this collar was seen as the personal property of the office-bearer, as opposed to what was quaintly described as an “office-loom”.

Happily the Collar of Ss which Lord Chief Justice Burnett will be wearing at the Opening of the New Legal year on 2nd October has not been enmired in any such controversy.



[1] The opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s bitter poem Gehazi, written to mark the appointment of Rufus Isaacs as Lord Chief Justice in 1913 almost immediately after he had been cleared of wrongdoing in the Marconi scandal by a Committee of the House of Commons.

[2] 24 Henry viii. C. 13.

[3] “unless”, he added, “the Lord Mayor of London is to be included, whose collar is somewhat similar and is composed of twenty-eight SS, fourteen roses, thirteen knots; and measures sixty-four inches.” See John Cordy Jefferson, A Book about Lawyers (1807) (1876 ed., James Cockcroft & Co., New York) p. 303.

[4] Queen’s Bench, Common Pleas, Exchequer, Chancery, and Probate Divorce & Admiralty.

[5] Sir Alexander Cockburn.

[6] Sir Fitzroy Kelly.

[7] It was regarded as constitutionally unacceptable to require either of them to stand down in 1875, when the new High Court first sat.

[8] Lord Bingham of Cornhill unilaterally enlarged the title of his office to “Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales” in recognition of the development of devolved government in Wales.

[9] He is perhaps best known today for his judgment in R v Dudley and Stephens (1884) 14 QBD 273, the case in which starving sailors had killed and eaten the cabin-boy to save their own lives.

[10]Coleridge v Sotheby’s [2012] EWHC 370 (Ch)

[11] During the course of the proceedings Lord Coleridge abandoned his case that the chain had been made between 1546 and 1551 – the period of “the Great Debasement”, which had followed a decision by King Henry VIII to debase the value of the currency by debasing the gold content of coin from 22 to 20 carats.

[12] 61 LQR at p. 30.

6 thoughts on “The Gold Chain of the Lord Chief Justice

  1. Pingback: The Gold Chain of the Lord Chief Justice – seftonblog

  2. Thank you. Can you please give a bit more of the history of it. It appears that this tradition was started in 1566, and was connected with Black Rod’s position as an officer of the Order of the Garter: hence the different design. Is this right?

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Frank Cranmer

    This is the relevant extract from “Serjeant for the Commons”:

    ‘The collar worn by the Serjeant [at Arms] also has a long history. The actual collar is known as a livery collar, and was worn in medieval times. The Collar of Esses dates back to the 14th century and the origins are suspected to lie with the house of Lancaster and Henry IV. His family motto was “Sovereign” so it is thought that the esses – intertwined letter Ss – denote the word “sovereign”. When Henry VII became king of England, he merged the two important houses of York and Lancaster. The Lord Mayor of London also wears a Collar of Esses intermingled with a Tudor rose. Since Tudor times, people of high importance or those who work on behalf of the Sovereign have worn a collar of esses.’


  5. Pingback: The Bach Report (8) Housing Law – Henry Brooke

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