Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday 11 April 2024

More on medieval spectacles

I recently posted Medieval spectacles about the development and availability of ocular aids to reading in the medieval and early modern periods and I have now chanced upon a blog post which adds to the evidence.

Once you get past the slightly jokey opening paragraphs there is a lot of interest in the article, including more about King Henry VIII’s myopia and an illustration of what may be the spectacles of King James II and VII. There is also the argument made that by the fifteenth century in Flanders at least there were shops in which one could purchase ready-made spectacles as some do in chemists today, or maybe one found the best set and then the optician adjusted the lenses with further grinding. That maybe was what was available at the shops referred to in the article linked to in my original article.

The online article can be seen at medieval glasses – The Pragmatic Costumer

A significant villa site in north Berkshire

Building work at Grove, just north of Wantage in what is historically north Berkshire, has revealed significant remains of a Roman villa. It appears to have been a prominent part of the landscape and the local economy, noticeably bigger than others in the vicinity. The discovery is outlined in an article on the BBC News website at 'Remarkable' Roman villa discovered at Grove housing site

The Mail Online website also reports on the excavations at 'Remarkable' Roman villa is discovered in Oxfordshire

A whole series of discoveries, ganging from individual finds to full scale excavations have done much in recent years to fill-in the map of Roman Britain and to raise many important new possibilities and options for understanding and interpreting that period.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

A facelift for Anne of Cleves

The cleaning by the Louvre of their very well known Holbein portrait of Anne of Cleves has attracted quite a bit of attention on the Internet. The cleaning has transformed it by revealing a rich blue background and the red tones of the dress, whilst Anne herself has regained a more youthful and attractive appearance and completion. Commentators have also drawn attention to Holbein’s mastery of portraiture. Although it has been studied this very well known portrait has apparently not been cleaned or restored since at least 1793, and quite possibly not since it’s completion in 1539.

Whether or not Holbein flattered Anne in his portrait remains unclear - all the other evidence we have suggests he was a supremely skilled and faithful portrait painter. The miniature which used to be identified as Catherine Howard is now suggested, on the basis of the age of the sitter and the jewels she is wearing,  to be actually of Anne of Cleves. I am inclined to accept that reassignment and in that she looks less attractive, if not slightly truculent. If that miniature was painted as her situation changed from being Queen Consort to the King’s adoptive sister, but as she calculated the not inconsiderable deal she had bargained for herself, then it too may reflect something of this clearly formidable north German Ducal highness.

The Smithsonian Magazine has an article about the restoration by the Louvre at See the Portrait That Made Henry VIII Fall in Love With Anne of Cleves, Newly Restored to Its Former Glory

The On the Tudor Trail website has an account which looks in more detail at the painting and the details of Anne’s costume and jewellery by her biographer Heather R. Darsie and which can be seen at Restoration of Anna of Cleves Holbein Portrait

Bosun’s whistles

The history of the bosun’s whistle and its distinctive shrill ear piercing sound is recounted in an article in the Daily Telegraph by Graeme Lawson, a researcher into the history and archaeology of sound and of music. In it he focuses in particular on the four examples of bosun’s whistles found on the Mary Rose when the ship was excavated and conserved. He also indicated how the whistles with distinctive notes could serve as a means of on-board communication in the days of sail amidst the noise of the sea, of hoisting sails and other routine maritime tasks, as well, presumably, of armed combat. From some of his quotations it could also have been a source of off-duty recreation.

Monday 8 April 2024

New evidence for the origins of Crowland Abbey

The website of Ancient Origins has a report of excavations at Anchor Church Field which lies to the east of the evocative remains of the medieval abbey at Crowland ( Croyland ) in south Lincolnshire. The abbey was the shrine of the Mercian warrior prince turned hermit St Guthlac who died in 714. An important early life written by one Felix in the period 730-40 survives of the Saint and it is an important source not just for the life of Guthlac but for the conditions in the Fens in that period. The already tonsured Guthlac was seeking a remote place of solitude:

There is in the midland regions of Britain a most terrible fen of immense size, which begins at the banks of the river Gronta [now the Cam] not far from the little fort which is called Gronte [Cambridge]; now in fens, now in flashes, sometimes in black oozes swirling with mist, but also with many islands and groves, and interrupted by the braiding of meandering streams … up to the sea … … When [Guthlac] was questioning the nearest inhabitants as to their experience of this solitude … a certain … Tatwine declared that he knew another island in the more remote and hidden parts of this desert (heremi); many had tried to live there but had rejected it because of the unknown monsters of the desert and the divers kinds of terrors. Guthlac, the man of blessed memory, heard this and besought his informant to show him the place. … It is called Crugland [‘Barrowland’, now Crowland], an island sited in the middle of the fen … no settler had been able to dwell there before … because of the fantastic demons living there. Here Guthlac, the man of God … began to dwell alone among the shady groves of the solitude … He loved the remoteness of the place which God had given him… . There was in the said island a barrow … which greedy visitors to the solitude had dug and excavated in order to find treasure there; in the side of this there appeared to be a kind of tank; in which Guthlac … began to live, building a shanty over it.”

From Felix’s Life of St Guthlac cited by Oliver Rackham in History of the Countryside.

Recent excavations have revealed in Anchor Church Field the foundations of what appears to have been a substantial medieval hermitage ( ‘anchor’ ) and place of pilgrimage but that underlying this are the remains of not only a Bronze Age barrow but also a large henge. The theory now being advanced is that the 26 year old St Guthlac and the two servants he brought with him reoccupied the area of the long abandoned henge, possibly also along with his sister St Pega - who is commemorated at nearby Peakirk.

This is a very interesting addition to our understanding of Crowland both in terms of the time of St Guthlac and also his subsequent commemoration. It is in some ways reminiscent of the relationship between the abbey at Glastonbury and St Michael’s chapel on the Tor and with the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill, or that of Lichfield Cathedral and St Chad’s church, inked by St Chad’s Pool.

The illustrated article from Ancient Origins with links, can be seen at Saint Guthlac’s Realm: Massive Stone Age Henge Discovered in Lincolnshire

There is another, in some ways more detailed, account from Newsweek which can be read at Archaeologists discover massive prehistoric henge in 'rare' find


I realise I ought to remedy a failing on my part and read the complete text of Felix’s Life of St Guthlac rather than just sharing in the better known citations from the work.

Thursday 4 April 2024

A purse full of coins from circa 1240

A interesting hoard of silver coins found at Watton in Norfolk is reported upon by the BBC News website. It has been declared to be treasure and it is hoped that a museum will acquire it. 

The sixty nine coins are all short cross pennies - in some cases literally divided into half pennies and quarter pennies - and no later in date than 1247 when the recoinage resulted in short cross pennies giving way to long cross pennies. Given that they include issues of the Angevin kings starting in 1180 as well as of King Henry III, and three of King William the Lion of Scots, they indicate the range of coins someone could expect to handle at the time.
My old Oxford acquaintance Adrian Marsden is the numismatic expert who has commented on the find in the article and suggests it may have been a purse belonging to a trader.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

The Hallaton Roman helmet

The reason I stumbled upon the story of the Hallaton bottle rolling custom was not that I was looking online for Easter traditions but for information about the Roman helmet which was discovered in fragments along with other precious objects at Hallaton in 2000. This is due to go back on display at the Market Harborough Museum along with a replica to indicate what it once liked like. 

The reason for that is because this helmet is both from the earliest years of the Roman presence in Britain and because it is a very rare survival of elaborate parade armour, decorated in silver and gold. It was found at what appears to have been a local shrine and may have been a votive offering. 

The initial report I saw about it was on Wikipedia at Hallaton Helmet and for the rest of the hoard of Iron Age coins at Hallaton Treasure

This past weekend the BBC News website also  had a detailed article which can be seen at Unlocking the secrets of the 'bling' Roman helmet found in a field and there is also an earlier article from them at Unique Roman helmet found in Leicestershire field on display again

Tuesday 2 April 2024

More about Easter customs

Having written yesterday about the Hallaton tradition of bottle rolling on Easter Monday I see that The Spectator has an article about this local event and it does include a photograph of the cutting of the hare pie at Hallaton in 1920. The article looks at a range of  traditional customs, some ancient, some relatively recent, by which Easter is celebrated across the country.

The article can be seen at England’s forgotten Easter traditions