The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Dunstable Swan Jewel

The Dunstable Swan Jewel

The Dunstable Swan Jewel, British Museum

Some time ago I wrote a post about goldsmiths and used this item as an illustration of their work. What I didn’t realise at the time was how tiny it is. It’s about an inch and a quarter high and I walked past it before I realised it was there. I included the information cards in the shot so that you can see how small it is.

The swan was created around the beginning of the fifteenth century. It’s gold with a white enamel known as émail en ronde bosse. This was a technique that fused molten glass onto the gold. The surface of the gold was roughened before it was covered with the glass. This method was only perfected at the end of the fourteenth century.  It’s not known whether the jewel was made in France where the technique was developed, or in England.

Swans were considered an expression of nobility.  When that and the value of the jewel are taken into consideration, it must have belonged to someone of an elevated status, possibly from the de Bohun family or House of Lancaster, both of which used the swan as their symbol. You probably can’t see it from my photograph (this one is better), but there’s a crown around its neck which is, apparently, a very strong indication that it belongs to the house of Lancaster. One of the reasons for the confusion, though, is that Henry of Lancaster (later Henry IV) married Mary de Bohun in 1380 and adopted her family’s badge.

The jewel was a livery badge, which enabled others to identify the wearer’s family and political allegiance. Other members of the household would have worn a much cheaper version of the badge.

It was discovered in Dunstable at the location of a Dominican friary. Since many tournaments were held at Dunstable, it’s possible that the jewel was lost there by a knight or his lady. More prosaically, it might have been left with the friars for safe-keeping during the rather turbulent fifteenth century and its owner either forgot about it or was a victim of the turbulence.  I know which version I prefer.


Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

Medieval Goldsmiths – John Cherry



Filed under Fourteenth Century

June Pottage

Having tried last year to make pottage that would resemble what ordinary people in the fourteenth century ate, I thought that this year I’d have a go at a pottage each month using only things that grow in my garden (or things that I could grow in my garden if I’d ever had any success with carrots, onions or garlic) and would have been available in the fourteenth century.

The basis of many of the pottages will be marrowfat peas and pearl barley. Marrowfat peas are peas which have been left in the pod to dry out. You have to soak them to use them. I’m fairly good at peas.

Peas and beetroot

Peas and beetroot

I use barley straw to keep my strawberries off the ground and one year the packers had obviously been careless, because there were seeds amongst the straw and they germinated.  So I know I could grow barley. Pearl barley is just barley that’s had its hull and bran removed. Supermarkets sell it as a thickener for soups and stews. The type I buy doesn’t need to be soaked overnight.


Strawberries on barley straw

In my garden in June I mostly have courgettes (zucchinis) and runner beans. Sadly, these came originally from the Americas, so I can’t use them. I also have peas, but a fourteenth-century housewife would leave those in their pods to dry out for stoarge. The chives are more or less at their peak and I’ll be using them to flavour my pottage.



Garlic is in season, so I can use that as well.  I have sorrel in the garden, but it’s gone to seed.



I’ve used this list of vegetables in season from the Vegetarian Society to help me where I don’t grow a particular vegetable and Medieval Gardens to confirm that the vegetable was available in the fourteenth century.

Depending on the weather, June could be a bad time of the year in the Middle Ages. Last year’s grain might be gone and this year’s wouldn’t yet be ready. For this pottage I’m going to assume that there are no peas and what grain is left is used for ale.

Given that there isn’t much available in the garden I thought I would make a leafy, runny pottage, more like a soup than a stew. I used spring greens (which are leafy like medieval cabbages), watercress, chives, garlic and sorrel.

I confess that I didn’t like the sound of this combination of vegetables, but I stuck them in a pot with some water and boiled them for half an hour. While it was cooking it smelled wonderful. I had forgotten, though, that sorrel goes grey when cooked. It looked fairly unappealing.

June Pottage

June Pottage

The taste wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. The leaves themselves had a lot of flavour, but the liquid tasted as if I’d done the washing up in it. I ate a bowl. I won’t say that I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t dreadful. In retrospect, I should probably have left the liquid in the pot as the basis of the next pottage.

Since it was such a thin pottage, I wondered what would sustain a medieval person during this time of the year. Ale would provide many of the necessary calories. When I went to the chicken coop to collect the eggs one morning, I had another part of the answer. Rural households would have had chickens and the eggs could be eaten, sold or exchanged for other food.

Even though the pottage was not very interesting, I was, unlike my fourteenth-century counterpart, able to comfort myself afterwards with strawberries and cream.




Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Food

Castle by Marc Morris – A Review

I’ve just posted a review of Marc Morris’ Castle on my book blog.

The Retired Reader


Published: April 2004

Pages: 288

I have a confession to make. Marc Morris is probably my favourite presenter of history on TV and we don’t, in my opinion, see him enough. This book goes with the TV series of the same name shown in 2004.

It covers the development of castles in Britain from the arrival of the Normans, through the Anarchy, Edward I’s annexation of Wales, and Scottish castles, to the slighting of English and Welsh castles under Oliver Cromwell.

For all that it’s full of useful facts and informative diagrams, it’s a very easy book to read. Dr Morris has a very informal writing style and knows how to write a non-fiction book as if he were telling a story. I can’t remember the last time a non-fiction book made me laugh aloud.

If you’ve ever asked yourself what a castle was for, you’ll find the answer in…

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Filed under Book Review, Castle

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Relief Tile from St Albans Abbey

Relief Tile from St Albans

Relief Tile from St Albans, British Museum

Yes, it’s another tile. This is an unusual tile in many ways. The most common type of tile in the fourteenth century was the encaustic tile. Whereas the design on an encaustic tile was level with its surroundings, the design on a relief tile stood proud of its background. That immediately makes this one stand apart. The second thing is that, like the Tring Tiles, it retains most of its glaze.

When Robert of Golam was abbot, in the mid-twelfth century, the chapter house at the Benedictine St Albans Abbey was paved with relief tiles. Relief tiles were more common in Eastern Europe (Germany, Denmark, Poland) than in England.

This particular tile must have been in a part of the floor that received little use, for the glaze is mostly intact and the raised parts of the tile have barely been worn down at all.

Relief tiles are among the earliest found in ecclesiastical buildings. The Anglo-Saxons used them in the late tenth and early eleventh century, but they were rare. This one dates from the mid-twelfth century (1151-1166) when they became more common in churches and abbeys.

There are two types of relief tiles: relief and counter-relief. Relief tiles have a raised design, while counter-relief tiles have a raised background. The St Albans tile is a relief tile. Its design was stamped into the clay with a wooden or metal stamp.



Medieval Tiles – Hans Van Lemmen


Filed under Church, Twelfth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – A Knight on Horseback Aquamanile


Knight on Horseback Aquamanile, British Museum

I’ve mentioned table etiquette in a couple of posts, here and here, and I thought it was time to talk about other things that were used at a fourteenth-century meal besides knives and hands.

The latter were generally a lot cleaner than I might have led you to believe. People washed their hands before a meal, at least in large houses. Most of the household would wash their hands before coming to the table, but the head of the household would wash his hands in front of everyone else. There was a certain amount of ceremony and ritual attached to this, especially at feasts, when a servant would bring the water and drying cloth to him.

The mounted knight in the photograph above is an aquamanile. The figurine is hollow and clean water was poured in through the hole in his helmet. The horse is not a unicorn who’s lost most of its horn. The hole in its head is a spout through which water could be poured onto the hands of the head of the, in this case rather grand, head of the household. The mounted knight was a popular shape for an aquamanile to take, but there were other forms, usually animals. These were often lions, horses and unicorns. For those of lower rank, an aquamanile could be made out of pottery. I suspect that most households simply used jugs or bowls of water.

Aquamaniles were also used by the celebrants at mass, who washed their hands before the people as part of a ritual cleansing. Like the head of a household, they were presiding at a meal. It would be interesting to know which ritual came first.

Most aquamaniles, at least of those that survive, were made of brass. The knight is made of bronze. Since I had to look it up, I can tell you what the difference is. Bronze is a copper alloy that usually has tin as the main additive, while brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. There are records of gold and silver aquamaniles, but none has survived.

The knight has lost his lance, shield and legs, but he’s still amazing. He was made, in England, for someone with a  bit of money to throw around. He’s just over a foot tall and was probably made in the last quarter of the thirteenth century.

The British Museum has photographed him from every possible angle. Some of the angles are less than dignified, but they’re all illuminating.



Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under Medieval Life, Thirteenth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Knives and Sheath

Hunting Knives

Knives and sheath, British Museum

I was very happy to see these knives in the British Museum, because I quite often write about knives and daggers in my novels and it was useful to do a bit of research into them.

These particular knives are French and date from the first decade of the fifteenth century. The longest knife is about 15 inches long.

All four of the knives in the picture fitted into the sheath. The larger knives were used for carving meat. Once carved, the slice of meat was presented on the flat of the blade.

It’s thought they were a wedding present, but that’s not a certainty. They’re certainly very expensive, though, as the handles are enamelled and the leather sheath is also decorated. Whilst not every knife handle was enamelled and not every sheath was made from leather, sheathes and scabbards would usually have been decorated. Decorations would not just have been carved, but painted and occasionally gilded. People of the fourteenth century liked bright colours.

Many more ordinary blades were decorated. This was often little more than a maker’s mark, but the blades could also be inlaid with designs. The blades themselves were usually made with iron mixed with imported steel. The handless were made from bone, wood, horn and metal. Of these, wood was the most common.

Only knives and spoons were used at meals and people carried their own knives with them for use at mealtimes, even when they were guests.  Towards the end of the fourteenth century hosts began to provide knives for important guests. Sharing a knife with someone at a meal was a sign of trust

There were, of course, rules of etiquette concerning the use of knives during meals. Knives brought to the table were supposed to be clean and sharp. They should not be wiped on the tablecloth and neither should anyone lick their knife. Rules such as these were usually written down in an attempt to change people’s behaviour. You can assume, therefore, that, if there’s a rule against it, lots of people were doing it.  You were not supposed to use your knife to trim your nails at the table. Using the knife to carry food to the mouth was forbidden: that’s what your fingers were for. You could use the knife to put food on your trencher, but it was fingers only from that point. If you wanted to salt your food, you had to use the flat of the blade to lift salt from the salt dish, not your fingers. Above all you were not to pick your teeth with the point of the blade.

People carried knives about with them. Chaucer’s reeve had a Sheffield knife tucked in the top of his hose. I have no idea how secure this was, unless the scabbard was attached to the laces which tied his hose to his braies. The people to whom the knives in the British Museum belonged doubtless had very secure ways of transporting them.



Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

Knives and Scabbards – J. Cogwill, M. de Neergaard and N. Griffiths


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Life

Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner – A Review

I couldn’t make up my mind where to post my review of Edward II: An Unconventional King. In the end, I decided that it should go on my book blog, but I also wanted to make it available here.

The Retired Reader

Edward II

Published 13th October 2014

In other reading, I’ve read a couple of biographies this year. This is unusual for me, but I’m back on familiar territory with this one. I’m a student of the fourteenth century and my other blog, A Writer’s Perspective, is devoted to it.

Edward II is an unusual biography of a medieval monarch in that it sticks to the facts. Warner does not bother with impressing on the reader what the king ‘must have been feeling or thinking’, although there’s a bit of this towards the end. Instead she lays out his itinerary as he travelled across the country. Gifts that he made to friends and family are listed. His attendance and non-attendance at parliaments are recorded.

She is quite firm about the things we will never know and these are usually the things that interest most people about Edward II. Were he and Piers Gaveston…

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Filed under Book Review, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Kings

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Seal-Die of Boxgrove Priory

Seal of Boxgrove Priory

Seal of Boxgrove Priory, British Museum

This is the second in the occasional series about medieval objects in the British Museum.

There were a few seal-dies in the medieval gallery at the British Museum, but I chose these from Boxgrove Priory because I’ve been there a few times. The ruins of the priory are near Chichester in West Sussex. These dies date from the thirteenth century. The image of the priory is on the front of the seal and the Virgin is on the back.

Boxgrove Priory

Boxgrove Priory

Seals were attached to documents, usually legal ones, by means strips of parchment or silk laces which had been inserted into the bottom of the document. They were the medieval equivalent of a signature. At a time when few could read, or write, they were a useful way of guaranteeing that the people who were supposed to be agreeing to what was in a document had agreed to it. They were made by warming a piece of wax, pressing it around the lace or parchment and flattening it between the two halves of the seal-die, which were locked together until the wax cooled. Some seals were made of gold or silver, which was really a way of showing off the wealth of the owner.

Bronze was the metal usually used for seal-dies, because it was hard. This meant that dies could be engraved with more detail than was possible with other metals and that they would not wear away quickly with repeated use.

Seals were mostly used for transferring property from one person to another. Monasteries were often given property by kings or wealthy men who wanted the monks to pray for their souls after their death and the seals of both parties would be attached to transfer document.


Since they were the equivalent of a signature, they were valuable objects and were usually kept under lock and key. There are tales of monks using the seals to embezzle money from their monasteries.

The use of seals was not limited to monasteries, but they were limited to people who had wealth. Secular seals often depicted the person who owned them. If it was a man, he was probably in armour on horseback (as in the picture above) and, if it was a woman, she would be shown standing. An inscription around the edges of the seal identified its owner.

The seals of merchants and secular men were round. Noblewomen’s seals were usually the same shape as ecclesiastical seals as shown by the seal of Boxgrove Priory.

Secular seal-dies were either destroyed on the death of their owner or buried with them, so that they could not be used again. The heir to that person would have their own seal-die made.

The Boxgrove seal is a communal seal, in that it was used by the prior for the priory’s business, but the prior would also have had a personal seal.

King’s, of course, had seals, but that’s a whole subject in itself.



Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James M. Robinson

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh



Filed under Medieval Life, The Medieval Church

King Richard’s Palace – Portchester Castle

Richard II's Palace 2

Richard II’s Palace, Portchester Castle

Portchester Castle stands on the edge of the water of Portsmouth Harbour across from Portsmouth. For those of you not from these parts and worried by that conglomeration of consonants in the middle, the first ‘t’ is silent, as it is in ‘castle’.

The castle is rather wonderful. It was originally the site of a huge Roman fort, built to keep the Saxons out. Later it was used by the Saxons, so you can see how successful that plan was. When the Normans arrived in the eleventh century they built a keep and the Plantagenets used it as their base for invasions of France in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries.

I’ll come to the history of the castle in a future post, but today I want to concentrate on something a bit more domestic. Richard II agreed a peace treaty with France at the end of the fourteenth century and the castle no longer had a military purpose. In 1396 he had a palace built in the inner bailey. It’s true that he was restrained by the available space, but the palace is small.

Take the great hall, for instance. It’s not very great. The hall at Stokesay Castle is of a similar size and that was built by a merchant.

Richard II’s hall was on the first floor. For the king, his guests and household it was reached via stairs in the porch. The servants also had to climb stairs, but theirs were from the kitchen.  I’ve marked up the photograph below to show their entrances and exits.

Richard II's Hall diagram

King Richard’s Great Hall, Portchester Castle

Guests would climb up the stairs from the porch to a screened area. They couldn’t go directly into the hall.

Windows of the Great Hall

Windows of the Great Hall, Richard II’s Palace, Portchester Castle

The windows of the Great Hall were glazed and decorated with coats-of-arms and heraldic designs. There were windows only on the side of the hall facing the inner bailey.

Niche for langern 2

Niche for lantern, porch of Richard II’s palace, Portchester Castle

The porch was lit with lanterns.  The pillars on either side of the entrance each have a niche into which a lantern could be placed.

Windows - upper Richard II's Bedchamber

Richard II’s Palace, Portchester Castle

These might look like fireplaces, but they’re blocked windows. They’re designed to let in the maximum amount of light whilst offering a very small target to enemy arrows, since they’re on the side of the palace facing the outer bailey.

It’s believed that the upper of these two windows belonged to Richard II’s bedchamber. I don’t know about you, but I have always imagined that kings of any age would have huge and luxurious bedchambers. Not only was Richard II’s bedchamber only twice the size of mine, but his windows weren’t as large.

Richard II didn’t spend much time here, any more than he did in any of his other palaces. Like all medieval kings, he moved from place to place with his household, often staying only a few days.

Just for fun, here’s a short video I made showing the outside of the palace.


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:



Filed under Castle, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Kings

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Tring Tiles

20180427_123149 (3)

The Tring Tiles

Following a visit to the British Museum just over a week ago, I’m writing an occasional series of posts about some of the objects I saw there. Some of the posts will cover old ground, but I have new information to record.

The galleries in the British Museum are generally kept dark in order to protect the objects on display, so not all of the photographs are of good quality, but I’m hoping that my photographs will give you an idea of the size of the objects that you don’t get in ‘official’ photographs. I almost walked past an object I know well from photographs because it’s much tinier than I had been led to expect.

I was very excited when the first thing I saw in the gallery were some tiles. I love tiles and I was thrilled to see the Tring tiles in the flesh, as it were.

No one is quite sure where the Tring tiles originated. Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring, it’s not entirely certain that they came from Tring parish church which was renovated in the late nineteenth century. No one can quite work out why such an ordinary church would be decorated with such unusual tiles. They are decorations for walls rather than floor tiles.

The tiles are made using the ‘sgraffito’ method, which was mainly used in the early fourteenth century. The tile was covered in white slip. Slip is essentially watered-down clay, with a ratio of approximately 75% clay and 25% water. The design was cut into the slip and the unwanted slip was scraped away with a small tool. No other tiles made in this way have been found in England, although the technique was used in France.

These tiles date from about 1330 and tell apocryphal stories about the childhood of Christ, filling gaps in the Gospels with stories of him playing with friends and being chastised by his teacher.

The tiles are remnants of a larger group. They are associated with the cult of the Virgin Mary, which was at its height in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the stories told on the tiles it’s the Virgin, not her son, who restores order after a death or some other catastrophe. It’s not immediately obvious, but the children with their legs in the air are dead. Both are restored by the Virgin.

The picture taking up both halves of a tile is the Wedding Feast at Cana, the first miracle of Jesus’ public ministry and, presumably, the end of his childhood.

There are some very good photographs of the tiles here.



Masterpieces: Medieval Art by James Robinson

Medieval Tiles by Hans van Lemmen


Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Interiors