Desecrated alabaster effigy emerges from shadow

A 14th century alabaster funerary effigy of a cleric defaced and hidden during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries has been unveiled in the church of St. Wilfrid’s in Barrow-upon-Trent, Derbyshire. It has been tentatively identified as the effigy of parish priest John de Belton who died around 1350. If the identification is correct, this is the oldest existing alabaster effigy of a priest in Britain.

The priest’s face is chipped away, likely a deliberate act. His hands, which were originally joined in prayer over his chest, have been cut off, as have the heads of the angels that cradle each side of his head. A small dog lies at his feet. The quality of the sculpture — the depth of the carved drapery — is exceptionally high.

Alabaster was an expensive material that was highly prized for funerary effigies because it of how artfully details like garment folds and armor can be rendered in the soft freshly-quarried stone. Once it has been exposed to the air, it hardens and can be polished to a high gloss. The earliest ones in England date to around 1330, but the fashion for alabaster effigies really took off after around 1370. Only 34 effigies of 339 recorded in England and Wales are known to date to before 1370.

The translucent luster of polished alabaster provided a realistic skin-tone effect, but much of the rest of the effigies were painted, physical features like hair and eyes in natural tones, garments, armature and heraldry in bright colors. The most high-status monuments were also gilded. The polychromy and gilding rarely survive today, especially on effigies that are still in churches instead of in collections and museums. The St. Wilfrid effigy has more surviving paint and gold than any other known effigies from the early period.

“He would have been a very bright, blingy type of statue when he was first made – so far, the conservators have found dark red, bright blue, black and green paint as well as gold,” said Anne Heathcote, the church warden of St Wilfrid’s in Barrow-upon-Trent, who made the discovery. “He is wearing priest’s robes, which have been very finely sculpted by someone who was obviously a master sculptor.”

St Wilfrid’s is an Anglo-Saxon church built around 800 A.D. After the Norman Conquest, Barrow-upon-Trent, its parish church and much of Derbyshire were granted by the new king to Norman lord Henry de Ferrers. In 1165, Ferrer’s liegeman Robert de Bakepuiz donated the church to the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, aka the Knights Hospitaller. Donating properties to the Knights Hospitaller was increasingly fashionable among European nobility who wanted to be seen to be contributing to the support of the Crusades. By the 15th century, the Knights were the largest landowners in England.

While serving the parish in 1348, De Belton is thought to have lost his life to the Black Death. “We have two Black Death pits in the churchyard and because it’s a Knights Hospitaller church, we think that the Hospitallers looked after plague victims and buried them. That was part of their job.”

After the Reformation, the effigy was hidden behind box pews and then, in the 18th century, a pipe organ.

Its existence was documented in the 19th century, but even then it was not appreciated for its early age and sculptural quality. Anne Heathcote has known it was there since she was a child clambering around behind the organ under her father’s tenure as church warden. It was never in public view, however, and was largely forgotten until the Church Monuments Society contacted Heathcote to ask about the effigy four years ago. Even defaced and caked in dirt, the experts could tell it was a nationally significant piece because of its fine carving and the surviving polychrome paint.

The church has been renovated and converted into a community center. The effigy has now been cleaned and conserved and taken out from behind the organ. It is encased in protective glass and a mirror has been mounted over it so visitors can get a clear view of the intricate carving.

Galloway Hoard cross revealed in its original glory

An Anglo-Saxon silver cross from the Galloway Hoard has been revealed in all its intricate glory after being cleaned and conserved by experts at the National Museums Scotland (NMS). The Greek cross is decorated with black niello enamel and gold leaf typical of Late Anglo-Saxon design. Each arm bears the symbols of the four evangelists (Matthew’s divine man, Mark’s lion, Luke’s cow, John’s eagle) with floral swirls and knotwork surrounding them. It was made in Northumbria in the late 9th century and is extremely rare. Only one other Anglo-Saxon pectoral cross from this period is known, and it is nowhere near as elaborately decorated.

“The cleaning has revealed that the cross, made in the 9th century, [has] a late Anglo-Saxon style of decoration.This looks like the type of thing that would be commissioned at the highest levels of society. First sons were usually kings and lords, second sons would become high-ranking clerics. It’s likely to come from one of these aristocratic families.”

The pectoral cross has survived with its intricate spiral chain, from which it would have been suspended from the neck, displayed across the chest. The chain shows that the cross was worn.

[Dr Martin Goldberg, NMS principal curator of early medieval and Viking collections,] said: “You could almost imagine someone taking it off their neck and wrapping the chain around it to bury it in the ground. It has that kind of personal touch.”

When the hoard was discovered in 2014, the cross was in the top layer. It was caked it dirt, as was the spiral chain wound around the junction of the bars. The thin silver wire of the chain is less than a millimeter in diameter and was coiled around an organic center. The core was preserved and analysis identified it as animal gut. Cleaning the tightly coiled spiral and the enameled grooves of the cross posed a challenge. Conservators used a porcupine quill and scalpel to remove the dirt as carefully as possible without damaging the metal.

Cross before conservation. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.
Anglo-Saxon cross during conservation. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.
Anglo-Saxon pectoral cross after cleaning and conservation. Photo courtesy National Museums Scotland.

The National Museums Scotland acquired the hoard in 2017 after a successful fund-raising campaign with donations from the public, non-profit heritage organizations and the government of Scotland. Museum conservators have been working ever since then to clean and conserve the objects in the hoard — more than 100 pieces from jewelry to ingots to a Carolingian pot — and preserve its extremely rare organic elements, like the cord in the spiral chain and textiles found inside the pot.

It has been dubbed a Viking treasure — the largest Viking hoard discovered in Scotland since 1891 — but the new exhibition that opens at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh on February 19th is pointedly entitled Galloway Hoard: Viking-age Treasure, emphasis on the age. The important Anglo-Saxon objects like the cross in the hoard underscore that while it was buried in the Viking era, its contents are multicultural.

Goldberg said: “At the start of the 10th century, new kingdoms were emerging in response to Viking invasions. Alfred the Great’s dynasty was laying the foundations of medieval England, and Alba, the kingdom that became medieval Scotland, is first mentioned in historical sources.

Galloway had been part of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, said Goldberg, and was called the Saxon coast in the Irish chronicles as late as the 10th century. But this area was to become the Lordship of Galloway, named from the Gall-Gaedil, people of Scandinavian descent who spoke Gaelic and dominated the Irish Sea zone during the Viking age.

“The mixed material of the Galloway Hoard exemplifies this dynamic political and cultural environment,” Goldberg added.

Weeding uproots Tudor gold coin hoard

A little lockdown weeding has unearthed a Tudor-era hoard of 63 gold coins and one silver coin in a backyard in New Forest, Hampshire. The family was turning up soil to clear weeds when the gold coins sprang from the ground. The coins range in date from the late 15th century to the early 16th and were issued during the reigns of Edward IV (r. 1461-1470), Henry VII and Henry VIII.

Most of the coins are of a type known as “angels” for the design on the obverse of the archangel Michael slaying a dragon (ie, satan) with a cross-shaped spear. First minted under Edward IV in 1465, angels were the standard gold coin in Britain for two centuries. The dates of the coins in the hoard suggest they were buried around 1540. The total value of the coins in 1540 was £24, which was much more than average annual wage in the Tudor era. On the auction market today, the coins would be worth around £220,000.

John Naylor, from the Ashmolean Museum, said the hoard was likely to have been hidden either by a wealthy merchant or clergy fearful of Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in which he took control of many of the religious community’s assets.

Mr Naylor said: “It is likely that there are two options of who may have buried a hoard like this. It could be a merchant’s hoard. There was a lot of wealth in that part of the world. The wool trade was still very important. The New Forest is also very close to the coast and very close to some major ports so it is entirely possible it could be someone involved in maritime trade.

“On the other hand though, you also have this period in the late 1530s and 1540s where you have the Dissolution of the Monasteries. We do know that some monasteries and some churches did try to hide their wealth hoping that they would be able to keep it in the long term.”

Four of the gold coins are of particular note: they bear the initials of three of the wives of King Henry VIII. The first three of the six, to be precise — K for Catherine of Aragon, A for Anne Boleyn and I for Jane Seymour. The one with Jane’s initial is the earliest coin in the hoard dating to 1536 or 1537. Henry’s choice to give his wives cameos on his coins was unprecedented at the time and his motivation for it remains unknown. After Jane died giving birth to his obsessively-wanted heir, Henry stopped putting his temp spousal staff on the coinage.

This year has seen a rise in backyard finds reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme as the pandemic has kept people at home. More than 47,000 finds have been reported this year in the UK, 6,251 made during the first lockdown when metal detecting was prohibited and people turned to their own properties for fun and profit. Last year the number of archaeological find recorded by the PAS was 81,602, a leap of 10,000 from 2018. Obviously people’s backyards don’t provide quite so rich a terrain for archaeological prospecting as, you know, the whole country.

Spur points to tomb of 15th c. chancellor

The tomb of the Nicholas Rolin, chancellor of the powerful dukedom of Burgundy in the 15th century, may have been discovered at the site of the church of Notre-Dame-du-Châtel in Autun. The church itself was a casualty of the French Revolution, and Nicholas’ remains were assumed to be lost, if not destroyed. A preventive excavation of the site, now the Place Saint-Louis, in advance of expansion of the Rolin Museum into the old prison and courthouse that border the square unearthed the jumbled bones of at least eight individuals in what had been the crypt of the church. One key artifact was found in the mix: a spur like the one Rolin had specified as part of his burial outfit.

“Fairly consistent clues allow us to confirm that this is indeed Nicolas Rolin’s cellar,” says Yannick Labaune. The certainties of archaeologists are based in particular on the presence of a spur that belonged to the illustrious chancellor of the 15th century. The presence of this spur appears in the testimonies and descriptions of the burial of Nicolas Rolin. “We also know that he was buried with a sword and a dagger, but archaeologists have not found them,” said Vincent Chauvet, Mayor of Autun. And to formulate the hypothesis that these two pieces were stolen during a looting during the dismantling of Notre Dame du Chatel.

Studies will continue in the laboratory in order to carry out DNA analyzes as well as Carbon 14 dating, in particular on the eight skulls found in the tomb. This work will provide more details and above all confirm, even if there is little doubt, that the tomb is indeed that of Nicolas Rolin. The scene will be photographed from different points of view in order to use the technique of photogrammetry and to preserve 3D images.

Born of modest bourgeois parents in Autun in 1376, Nicholas Rolin became and lawyer and vaulted over the restrictive social hierarchies of the Burgundian court to become chancellor to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. He served 40 years in the role and amassed a huge amount of wealth, titles, properties and honors on the way. He dispensed as well as he amassed; spending heavily on luxuries, the showier the better, artworks and charitable endeavors. He was a major patron of the Church, erecting churches, endowing new religious orders.

Notre-Dame-du-Châtel was a small parish church, not the city’s glamorous cathedral, but it was personally important to Nicholas. He was baptized there and his maternal family had donated an altar in the church’s side chapel of St. Sebastian. The church was in poor condition by the 1420s and Rolin used his money and influence to shore it back up, starting with a reconstruction of the family chapel and in 1431, the reconstruction of the entire church. He then pulled strings with the Pope to have the church’s status promoted from parish to collegiate (administered by a college of canons).

Around 1435, Nicholas Rolin commissioned a portrait from no lesser a master than Jan van Eyck, court painter of Philip the Good, to adorn the family chapel. He is depicted praying in front of the Virgin Mary and the infant Christ as the latter blesses him. It connects Rolin’s wealth (the opulent clothing and surroundings, vineyards in the background) and political success (the Treaty of Arras ending the Hundred Years’ War had just been signed with terms very much to Burgundy’s advantage) to his religious devotion and the direct favor of God.

(Naughty interlude: in 1431, the same year he funded the reconstruction of Notre-Dame-du-Châtel in Autun, Nicholas Rolin founded a Celestine convent in Avignon with his first son Jean, Bishop of Autun and future Cardinal, as co-founder. Jean, who shared his father’s thirst for all the luxuries the profane world had to offer, impregnated one of the nuns in that convent. Their son, also named Jean, would follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. A cleric, he served ambassador to the Holy See and to the court of King Charles VIII, the latter of whom legitimized his birth and made him his councilor. Jean’s last appointment was as Bishop of Autun, just like dear old dad.)

Nicholas Rolin died in 1462. He left detailed instructions for his funeral from the rites — three days of mourning “in public view of everyone” — down to the clothes he wanted to ear — white shirt, doublet, a velvet robe with a hood at the neck, a hat with a gold brooch pinned to the front, a sword on his side, a dagger on his other side, new shoes on his feet and gold spurs on his heels.

The church was demolished in 1793 and its building materials reused. The Van Eyck portrait was saved, thankfully, and eventually made its way to Louvre in 1805, despite numerous petitions from Autun citizens to Napoleon’s brother Lucien (who had gone to school in Autun) and Talleyrand (the former Bishop of Autun) asking for the masterpiece to be returned to the city. The oil-on-panel painting was intact, but it was missing its original frame which had borne Van Eyck’s signature and the date. The people buried inside the church, including Nicholas Rolin and his family, were given far less consideration. The burials were looted for any valuables and the bones discarded.

The bones that have been discovered at the church site will now be analyzed in the hope that Rolin’s remains might be identified. There’s no way of knowing right now whether his bones are even in the mix. Lots of people were buried in the church over the centuries, and the revolutionaries could just as easily have destroyed or tossed out Nicholas’ remains. The spur, which stylistically dates to the 15th century, is really the only link to him, and that’s tenuous because surely he was not the only man to be buried wearing spurs.

Unusual medieval knife found in Scotland

A metal detectorist has discovered an unusual medieval knife in the woods near Penicuik, Midlothian, Scotland. Craig Johnstone theorized that survivors of the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666 had escaped through Deanburn woods and was hoping to find archaeological evidence of it when he came across the much earlier and more precious object. The knife was caked in mud so it looked like a tapered piece of metal topped with a fleur-de-lis. Johnstone thought it might be the top of an iron railing that had broken off.

A friend on the Midlothian council showed it to the council archaeologist and she recognized it as a knife. She recommended (and this sounds a little crazy to me) that they heat it up in an oven at a low temperature with the door open. The heated blade pulled easily out of the sheath along with two pieces of leather that protected the knife from wear in the scabbard.

With a blade only three inches long, the knife is a Skean-Dhu, meaning black or hidden knife in Gaelic. They were concealed carry weapons for noblemen, basically, so small they could be easily hidden in sleeves and waistbands. It is a high-quality blade with a hollow grind (a very sharp beveled cutting edge like a straight razor). The fleur-de-lis handle is bronze which may have originally been gilded.

The first expert to examine the knife thought it dated to the 16th century. Johnstone reported it to local Treasure Trove authorities who at first dismissed it as “relatively modern.” Only after Johnstone had the object radiocarbon dated at his own expense did he get evidence that it was far older than anybody had yet realized. The leather dates to between 1191 and 1273. Armed with this new data, he informed Treasure Trove that his knife was, in fact, relatively medieval and it will now be assessed by the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel.

A Treasure Trove spokeswoman said: “This is a highly unusual object, comprising of a blade with a hilt and a metal scabbard with leather inside. While the leather and blade date from the medieval period, the hilt and scabbard are unusual for the period.

“Treasure Trove are still carrying out investigations into the object. It was due to be x-rayed as part of the investigation process, but this has unfortunately been delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions.”

I’m guessing the fleur-de-lis handle was a later modification. Scotland’s association with the fleur-de-lis goes back to its alliance with France against England in the Hundred Years’ War. When this blade was crafted at the end of the 12th or early 13th century, the French monarchy had only begun to use the fleur-de-lis as a symbol of divine right rule. It wasn’t even on the Arms of France until the 1220s, although it does make an appearance on the seal of the future king Louis VIII in 1211.