28 April 2012

A gold clock for the sultan

De Lannoy, via WikiCommons
Perhaps the most indefatigable traveller of all ... medieval ambassadors was Ghillebert de Lannoy and his activities suggest the wide-ranging expertise expected from such a man [...] Lannoy's Voyages et Ambassades is a straight-forward account of his various military expeditions, diplomatic missions, official appointments and frequent pilgrimages from his first raid of the Isle of Wight at the age of thirteen to his final trip to Rome for the holy year of 1450 when he was almost sixty-five. The core of this work is his detailed report on a two year journey of diplomacy and reconnaissance undertaken for Henry V of England and Duke Philip of Burgundy in 1421. Both rulers had a real desire to lead another crusade and sent Lannoy, a trusted familiar of the duke with experience of the east, to explore the political climate and report on the military aspects of the terrain which might affect a possible crusade. This was an unusual mission in its mix of activities and the reconnaissance in the Holy Land was kept secret from much of the party, being effected under the cover of a devout pilgrimage in which Lannoy was only accompanied by a herald, the acknowledged medieval military expert. On his return home Ghillebert filed a separate account of the detailed military information he had acquired on such matters as the nature of harbours and their anchorage, the availability of good water and possible provision for horses with Duke Philip and the English council, since Henry V had died during the voyage. Lannoy's true diplomatic activities had involved formal visits to the rulers who controlled the land route by which soldiers could march overland to Syria and Palestine. The support, or at least acquiescence of these powers, would be essential for the passage of an army.

It was an adventurous journey. Lannoy left his castle at Ecluse (Sluis) in May 1421 with a party of eight but he sent his people, the luggage and the jewels on by ship while he himself took the overland route through Brabant, Westphalia, Bremen, Hamburg, Lubeck, Stettin to Danzig (Gdansk). There he rejoined his party and presented his letters of credence and the assigned gifts to the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights [Michael K├╝chmeister von Sternberg]. Lannoy reported with considerable satisfaction that the Master had done him great honour, giving several dinners for him and presenting him with two horses while Artois king-at-arms, the accompanying herald, received two sables. The choice of the proper diplomatic presents was always a thorny one though precious jewels, fine cloth from the ambassador's own country or some notable piece of craftsmanship were always acceptable. Included in Lannoy's baggage was one of the most unusual diplomatic presents of the century, a gold clock destined for the sultan of Turkey. A gold clock small enough to be carried on such an expedition so early in the fifteenth century is in itself a surprise but, because the sultan of Turkey for whom it was destined [Mehmed I] had died before Lannoy arrived and civil war was raging in Turkey, the clock could not be delivered. The conscientious ambassador carried it with him on his two year journey and on his return gave it back to the council of Henry VI. From that point the gold clock retreats obstinately into the mists of history and our questions remain unanswered - what kind of clock was it? Did it still run after all its vicissitudes? And who finally got it?

- Margaret Wade Labarge, Medieval Travellers: The Rich and the Restless, London, 1982, p.131-3. 

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