Buckle up!

This is the thirtieth mudlarking blog since I first started these a few years ago – BOOM! – and it seems like quite a significant milestone. During this time I’ve written about a wide range of Thames Foreshore finds from pottery to pins to pipes, tokens and much more, covering millennia of Thames history without which London wouldn’t exist.

I’m grateful to be able to get out to the river whenever I get the chance and as of today the Government have lifted all remaining Covid restrictions in England. But I’ll be honest with you all, this is a worry, especially as the data shows infection rates rising dramatically again. The rest of the world is no doubt watching this experiment with a mixture of interest and probably horror…. And even though I’m double vaccinated now, I’ll continue to be masked on public transport and in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. One thing that can be said about mudlarking during this difficult time is at least it’s an activity that takes place outdoors and that is a very a good thing.

I’m enormously grateful to all those who subscribe to and read my regular burblings from the Thames, and I will continue to write these for as long as people enjoy reading them and I feel I have something interesting to say. Thank you to everyone who has stuck with me over the last few years and to all who have responded to my posts with questions and comments. These are much appreciated.

June and July have been busy months for me and for a while I didn’t think I’d have any significant or interesting new finds to write about until one particular mudlarking session a few weeks ago.

I’d been out and about on a very early mudlark at a particularly popular part of the Thames Foreshore in the centre of London and, apart from catching up with a few other early bird mudlarks, hadn’t found anything of particular interest, much to my frustration. Then, just as I was about to leave, I went back over an area of mud and gravel I’d already checked, just to see if there was anything I’d missed. And, as luck would have it, it turned out I had.

There, among a pile of rusting metal and scrap, was something I’d been hoping to spot for a long time and on my ‘wish list’ of finds for ages. The item in question? A complete annular shoe buckle from the 14th century. You can check it out in all its splendour in the two photos below, perhaps not the most beautiful looking of objects from the Thames, but nonetheless a peach of a find.

These annular (ring-shaped) buckles were made mostly from iron or very occasionally during this period, copper alloy. The one I found below is definitely iron, as you can see from the unsurprising accumulation of a layer of rust after hundreds of years immersion in the Thames. In fact, many iron annular buckles can be so heavily corroded that they disintegrate when touched. My medieval shoe buckle was intact which, considering these are often found with the central pin missing or broken, was also a bit of a miracle.

A complete annular shoe buckle from the 14th century found by me on the Thames Foreshore. Reverse image showing pin attachment
Front image of my 14th century annular shoe buckle find.

I’m indebted as ever to Geoff Egan and Frances Pritchard for their book ‘Dress Accessories 1150-1450’ (MOLA publications) for a complete range of illustrations and descriptions of buckle finds from this period, including a comparison with annular brooches. These were similar in style to the buckle but differed in having a fixed constriction for the pin ensuring it didn’t move about the outer rim. In a shoe buckle, the pin is not constricted and is therefore free to move around the metal perimeter.

Buckles from this period were symbols of status and prestige. Archaeological excavations at Baynard’s Castle in London (situated just east of what is now Blackfriars Station, the original Norman castle built at the point where the old Roman walls and the River Fleet meet the Thames) revealed a surprising number of different type of medieval footwear, both below-the ankle-leather ones and also full boots up to the knee. The plain design of shoes excavated here show a clear need at that time for practical, simple shoes that wouldn’t interfere with work. These ‘working’ shoes would not have been buckled but would have resembled a basic type of slip-on.

Shoes of a buckled variety, such as the one I found on the Thames Foreshore, would have seen the buckle positioned much as they are today; at one side of the shoe, a piece of leather from the other side of the foot threaded through it and kept in place by the pin. Buckles would have been treated like jewellery, with care and recycled, re-attached to a new pair of shoes when the old ones were no longer fit for purpose.

London’s shoemakers were known as the Cordwainers, who had their own Guild by 1272. Cordwainer Street was where they, the Curriers and other leather workers lived and worked. Here, they had easy access to leather bought from nearby tanners. The stench from the tanneries and local abattoirs would have been foul. The Ward of Cordwainers is at the very heart of the City of London and home to two of the City’s great churches – St Mary-le-Bow and St Mary Aldermary.

Our love affair with shoes spans the ages, influenced by practical need and the fashion of the time, often set by the rich and powerful, and not always practical. Much like today, the wealthy didn’t need to worry about practical clothing or footwear.

In the Medieval period shoe styles varied throughout Continental Europe and then introduced to England. The Black Death (a bubonic plague pandemic which later mutated into a pneumonic one) reached these shores in June 1348 having originated in Asia, spread across Europe via various trade routes, and arrived here from the English province of Gascony in South Western France.

The advent of the plague resulted in huge numbers of deaths – it’s estimated that as many as 25 million people died of this disease throughout Europe – and a devastating hit to the economy, much like we’re currently experiencing with the Covid pandemic. History teaches us that nothing is new. Highly skilled craftsmen from many trades died, including shoe makers, and for decades after life was bleak and grim with little room for light, colour or frivolity. But as the plague slowly receded and life began to return to some semblance of stability the latter part of the 14th century was marked by a new wave of design in shoes and clothing. Put simply, people wanted to wear beautiful things again and enjoy themselves.

Painting (anonymous) from the early 15th century showing the new shoe fashion of Crakows or Poulaines.

Shoes became more pointed in a style known as ‘Crackows’, ‘Crackowes’ (named after the then Polish Capital of Kraków where they had originated) or alternatively called ‘Poulaines’, the French word for Poles.

The pointed shoe was not new, first becoming popular in the 12th century and inspired, it’s thought, by new Gothic architectural styles. Churches were being designed and built with windows, spires and turrets in long pointy shapes. And it wasn’t long before pointed shoes achieved new extremes in the 14th century, largely due to the influence of Richard III’s Polish wife, Anne of Bohemia (1366-1394), at whose ostentatious court fashions were as extravagant as they were wild and impractical.

Some of the shoes worn during this period were up to 24 inches long, the toes stuffed with wool, moss, hair or dried grass, or sometimes supported with whalebone to keep their shape. Toe length was decided according to the wearer’s social class which meant that not everyone was allowed the more exaggerated length. Recent work by osteologists on skeletons from this period have shown, not surprisingly, that foot problems were rife and bunions, deformities plus various inflammations of the heel and arch of the foot meant the wearers of these shoes paid a high price for this fashion fetish.

As impractical as they were visually dramatic, the Church predictably disapproved of the wearing of these pointed Crackows, objecting to the phallic shape and declaring them sinful and inappropriate. It was also felt that their dramatic pointed shape stopped worshippers from kneeling properly at prayer and therefore disrespectful in the eyes of God.

A more restrained example of a Crackow or Poulaine.

Eventually the sheer length of Crackows made the wearing of them impossible and the wearer often struggled to walk properly. It has even been recorded that the long toes had to be cut off before men could go into battle. By the end of the 15th century the shoe fashion had changed again with a more functional square toe becoming all the rage. It wasn’t until 1463 that legislation was formally introduced allowing only the aristocracy to wear the longest Crackows, although the fashion for these was already slowly diminishing by this time anyway.

Buckles on shoes also fell out of fashion, only returning in the mid-17th century when they were preferred to shoe laces which quickly became filthy on the muddy and mucky streets of London.

Part of an early 18th century shoe buckle found by me on the Thames Foreshore. Made of iron, showing two spikes attached to a chape, the central pin is intact but the tongue on the far right is incomplete. This would have been attached to an outer decorated frame which is missing.

There is an oft-quoted extract from the Diary of Samuel Pepys, an entry from 22 January 1660, where Pepys writes ‘This day I began to put buckles on my shoes.’ Less frequently quoted, but which will resonate with many of us, is the diary entry for 24 January 1660, literally two days later, where Pepys writes ‘and then called my wife and took her to Mr Pierce’s, she in the way being exceedingly troubled with a pair of new pattens…’

Pattens were overshoes that had their origins in the 14th/15th century but which continued into the 19th century. They were worn over the shoe to protect it from the filth prevalent on London’s grim, unsanitary and squalid streets. Anyone who has unwisely worn a new pair of shoes without breaking them in properly will sympathise with the discomfort Mrs Pepys was experiencing from her new pair of pattens.

By 1720 everyone except the very poorest in society was wearing buckled shoes, either on the shoe itself or knee buckles which were used to fasten knee-high boots.

During the Georgian period (1714-1837) buckles became increasingly elaborate and fancy. Made from a range of metals so there was something affordable for everyone, regardless of income – brass/copper alloy (see photo below), steel, silver gilt and silver. Many were ornately decorated and set with sparkling stones made from paste to imitate diamonds and other precious and semi-precious stones. The Georgians adored their bling.

A late 18th century shoe buckle from the later Georgian period found by me on the Thames Foreshore. Made of copper alloy, still with traces of the original gilt colour, this would have shone like gold when the item was new.

Portraits from this period are useful in shining a spotlight on the fashions worn and a particular favourite of mine is the work of German painter Johann Zoffany, a popular 18th century painter. Zoffany specialised in theatrical scenes (he was a friend of theatrical manager, actor and playwright David Garrick) and also conversation pieces. One of the most famous examples of these is of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, who posed for just such a portrait with her children.

Zoffany’s Portrait of the Academicians (of the Royal Academy, below) shows the male fashions of the late 18th century, both in dress and footwear. The men in this portrait, apart from the unclothed male models, are all wearing elaborately buckled shoes as befits their status.

Portrait Of The Academicians by Johann Zoffany, 1773.
(© National Portrait Gallery)

Buckles remained in vogue until abandoned, along with all chunky high heeled footwear, when fashions changed again after the trauma of the French Revolution (1789 – 1794), although were retained for ceremonial and court dress. It was felt inappropriate for shoe design to be so openly ostentatious -a sure symbol of the degenerate aristocracy – when people were starving. And so the wearing of more modest low-rise shoes became popular as the late 18th century morphed into the 19th.

Shoe designer Jimmy Choo once famously said ‘The right shoe can make everything different’, as true a statement now as it has been down the centuries. But I’m sure he’d agree that the perfect buckle helps too.

À bientôt!

2 thoughts on “Buckle up!

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