Henry VIII's benevolent side emerges with a £1m chain

The merciless punishments Henry VIII meted out to his enemies have been well documented. Less is known about how, on the rarer occasions when the king was happy with the service of his courtiers or the country's most eminent noblemen, he liked to give them a golden livery collar or heavy chain as a token of his gratitude.

Henry VIII only awarded around 20 of the chains. They were all engraved with the characters SS, referring to the Latin religious creed, Spiritus Sanctus (Holy Spirit), though none were believed to have survived in their entirety.

Now, however, the first complete "collar of the Esses", as they were known, has been discovered in the family home of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The collar was presented to Edward Montagu, the then Lord Chief Justice, by King Henry in the 1540s.

It is understood that the extraordinary find is to be sold in December at Christie's auction house in London, where it is expected to fetch up to £1m.

The only other Esses collar known to be in existence, which is owned by the Lord Mayor of London, is believed to contain just 20 per cent of the original craftmanship, while the new discovery has much more of its original design intact.

A number of silver collars of the Esses, which were handed out to queens and courtiers, survive today, including one on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. But a gold version of the livery chain was far rarer to behold in Henry VIII's day.

The gold collar famously features in the portrait of Sir Thomas More painted by Hans Holbein, which was used as a background for credits in the television series, The Tudors.

Duncan Campbell, a silver consultant who began examining the provenance of the discovery two years ago, said that while the collars originated in medieval England and became popular in the 16th century, most were destroyed or used to make other jewellery.

"A lot of people were given them in the 16th century but there were none left as they were all melted down except for the one worn by the Lord Mayor of London, whose provenance goes back to 1520. But it's only 10 to 20 per cent original and the rest of it has been added or repaired.

"This one has had metallurgic tests and is 100 per cent original.

"Its provenance had been traced to the 1700s, but in tests it was found that it is gold alloy, which was only used between 1546 and 1552," he said.

Coleridge's descendants, who had long suspected that the Esses collar was an original, began consulting with Mr Campbell around two years ago at the poet's estate in Ottery St Mary, near Exeter, Devon.

Until recently, historians were unsure what the gold chains represented and why the double "S" was significant in livery chains. But following extensive research, Mr Campbell claimed to have discovered its original meaning.

"The idea of handing these chains down was thought to have been started by John of Gaunt during the reign of Richard II. I have traced it back to the wife of Edward III, who was the daughter of the king of France, who had a brooch with the letters on it, and she gave it to her son, John of Gaunt, who used it as livery," he said.

Mr Campbell said that Henry VII was partial to handing out the distinctive collars to his nobles, who wore them as a symbol of their allegiance to the monarch. It was a tradition that his son, Henry VIII, continued, by giving them to "special people who had done special deeds".