Highlights of medieval Britain

On her journey around the country, with the Gough Map as her guide, Alixe Bovey encountered some extraordinary treasures from the Middle Ages. Here she explains what they tell us about Britain at the time

Penshurst house

1

Penshurst’s great hall

Between 1341 and his death during the Black Death in 1349, Sir John Pulteney, a wealthy merchant and sometime Mayor of London, constructed a great hall for Penshurst, his manor house in Kent. Known as the Baron’s Hall, this vast space is the best preserved 14th-century great hall in England. Its soaring chestnut roof, spanning 12 metres (39 feet), is supported by ten corbels carved in the form of servants whose faces grimace under the weight of the beams above them.

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Undoubtedly, Pulteney intended this hall to serve as a place to conduct the estate’s business, for dining and for entertaining. It was lit by expansive windows with modish tracery based on London models, and heated by a single fire in the centre of the room, so in winter his guests would have had to dress in their warmest furs.


2

Wax votives of Exeter Cathedral

In 1943, Exeter Cathedral was struck by Hitler’s Luftwaffe. As the damage was cleared up, workmen made an extraordinary discovery. Hidden above the tomb of Edmund Lacy, Bishop of Exeter from 1420 to his death in 1455, they found a hoard of figures made of beeswax. There were body parts of humans and animals, and a complete female figure. Many of these fragile, hollow objects had strings attached to them, which must have been used to hang the figures from the tomb.

These objects, known as votives, were left as offerings by pilgrims who came to Lacy’s tomb to seek a cure, for themselves, someone else, or even an animal. Lacy was regarded, briefly and locally, as a saint, but he was never officially recognised as such. Lacy suffered from a disease of the shin bones, which might explain the large number of legs in the collection: pilgrims probably hoped that he would have particular sympathy with injured legs. These fragile votives are exceedingly rare, and offer us a glimpse of popular devotion in England before the Reformation.


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A ship at Newport

In 2002, the remains of a medieval sailing ship were discovered in the muddy banks of the River Usk at Newport. A fantastically rare find, the ship promises to tell historians a great deal about trade in the period before the Mary Rose. Built sometime after 1445, possibly in France, and repaired with British timber felled in the mid-1460s, the ship must have sailed into port from the Celtic Sea, through the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary. The depth of the river and its access to the sea made this an important shipping route in the Middle Ages, and it is clearly depicted on the Gough Map.

Well preserved by the mud of the Usk, this substantial ship, measuring 35 metres (nearly 115 feet), was excavated and moved to a warehouse, where its dismantled timbers are kept in large tanks. Made of oak with a beech keel, it is in remarkable condition, revealing much about shipbuilding in the 15th century. Artefacts found on board include cannon shot, a comb and a magnificent pointed shoe, while the discovery of Portuguese pottery and coins indicates trade links with Iberia.


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Edward II’s tomb, Gloucester Cathedral

Edward II’s tomb at Gloucester Cathedral magnificently commemorates one of England’s most unsuccessful medieval kings. Perhaps Edward was buried at Gloucester instead of Westminster Abbey (the burial site of most Plantagenet rulers) because he died nearby at Berkeley Castle, though more probably it was because, by the time he perished in 1327, he was notorious: deposed by his wife and her lover, in disgrace because of his misrule, and probably murdered. His tomb, which took a decade to construct, is the work of virtuoso craftsmanship. Edward’s effigy, the first major English figure to be carved in alabaster, is enclosed in a delicate cage of micro-architecture, complete with finely carved buttresses, pinnacles and crockets. The effigy itself is a fascinating combination of masterful naturalism and elegant symbolism. Edward’s face is idealised but astonishingly lifelike, with a gently furrowed brow, flared nostrils and parted lips, but this verisimilitude is in contrast to his smoothly coiffed hair and beard, each lock defined by parallel grooves. Details of the effigy were once picked out in gold leaf and paint, and his crown was studded with fake gemstones. Despite Edward’s divisive reign and miserable end, pilgrims flocked to Gloucester to pray at his tomb; indeed, some even campaigned to have him recognised as a saint.


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Canterbury’s monsters

Carved into stone capitals of the columns of Canterbury Cathedral’s atmospherically gloomy crypt are images of fiends, monsters and roaring lions. Some peer menacingly at passers-by, while others fight with one another, hand to hand or armed with weapons. On a column in the St Gabriel chapel, monstrous hybrids play a silent serenade on pipes and stringed instruments. On one capital face, a winged creature with canine paws and long rabbity ears plays a harp, accompanied by a wolf playing a pipe.

What are these bizarre images doing here, in the sacred space of one of Britain’s most impressive cathedrals? Some may relate to the Bible. For example, the female figure with two wolfish heads that rides on a twisting monster could be the Whore of Babylon described in the Book of Revelation. Others, like the animal musicians, could be a response to ancient writings that revelled in absurdity, or act as reminders of vice and temptation. Ultimately enigmatic, these capitals are a monument to the skill and imagination of artists working in Canterbury c1100.

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6

Leper skeletons from Chichester

One of the most feared and stigmatised diseases in the Middle Ages was leprosy, a bacterial infection that attacks the skin, mucous membranes and nerves. The disease was painful, disfiguring and eventually fatal and, to make matters worse for the sufferers, they were ostracised from society. Special homes, known as leprosaria, were founded to care for lepers, and one such, dedicated to St James and St Mary Magdalene, was founded in Chichester in 1118. Its cemetery was excavated in the 1980s and 1990s and the bones of Chichester’s lepers are now carefully stored at the University of Bradford’s Biological Anthropology Research Centre. They tell a harrowing tale of the ravages of this infection, which causes a shocking remodelling of bones, especially the limbs and head.