Welcome to my final mudlarking blog of 2022 and my most important find of the year, possibly ever. The perfect way to round off twelve months in which many other wonderful finds have been made, though this tops the lot. The river Thames has been very good to me so it’s fitting that I’ve saved the best for last.
In January, at the very start of the year, I returned to a part of the Thames where I hadn’t been for a while. I have many favourite areas of the foreshore, with secret spots that I’ve become familiar with over the years, and try to balance my mudlarking trips so that I visit all of them regularly, time constraints allowing.
It wasn’t the best of tides that day, the weather was dreich (bleak, nippy and dreary, as the Scots say), the stretch of foreshore busy. It was good to catch up with mudlarking friends I hadn’t seen for a while though no one seemed to have found much that morning. (NB Social media can make it seem as if we find exciting things all the time but the reality is very different and there are many occasions when we come away empty-handed.) Fingers and toes numb with cold, the tide was beginning to come in. I was about to call it a day when I decided to return to a spot I’d already searched and give myself a final ten minutes – in mudlarking parlance we call this ‘last knockings.’
I’m so glad I did.
A large wave from a passing Thames Clipper caught me unawares (I will never learn to step out of the way quickly enough) and managed to fill my wellies with water. As the wash began to recede, I looked down and spotted a small pewter item at my feet. It definitely hadn’t been there a few minutes before. My reflexes were clearly very slow that day and the soggy feet weren’t helping. I remember standing on that spot, as if in a trance, while the wash continued to rush in and out again, carrying off the small item with it.
But sometimes tiny Thames miracles happen.
Having been washed out, probably lost forever, the pewter ‘thing’ was dropped at my feet a second time. Seriously. This really happened. The River Gods were smiling down on me that day and I was determined not to lose it again. I lunged at it with frozen fingers (my gloves had long since soaked through that day), picked it up, popped it in my finds box and went home to examine it later. I didn’t even take a photo of the find ‘in situ’, which is an absolute mudlarking rule.
I need to add that, at the time, I had no idea what I’d found. Picking it up, it was initially upside down in a ‘W’ not in an ‘M’ form. So, what was it? Decoration from a belt? From a shoe? From something else entirely? Turning it over, I noticed the ghostly trace of what was once a pin on the back, which intriguingly suggested a badge… If it was a badge, I was sure it must have secular origins though it was a mystery what these might be.
A week after I’d found it, and still not a clue what it was, I took it to the Museum of London to show the FLO (Finds Liaison Officer) who immediately identified it as a Pilgrim Badge. At which point I nearly fell backwards out of my chair.
I’d found a small, but perfectly formed, medieval pilgrim badge, something I never thought would happen.
It’s now been recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database and I’m grateful to both Stuart Wyatt, and Brian Spencer for his book ‘Pilgrim Souvenirs And Secular Badges’ (MOLA publications) which contains a wealth of information, including many examples of pilgrim badge similar to mine.
My pilgrim badge is one of a type featuring the Lombardic ‘M’, the letter standing for Maria, Queen of Heaven, mother of Christ. Letters often formed the substance or framework of 14th/15th century pilgrim badges. Other letters that appear in these badges are the Lombardic ‘V’, for Virgo or The Virgin, and the Lombardic ‘T’ for Thomas (Becket.)
On the subject of Becket pilgrim badges, without a doubt the Holy Grail of pilgrim badge finds, my mudlarking friend Caroline Nunneley (@carolinenunneleymudlark on Instagram) has done spectacularly well. Please check out Caroline’s Instagram site to see photos of a fragment of pilgrim badge, discovered by her a few years ago, featuring Thomas Becket’s leg on a horse. Caroline then found a second piece from the very same badge when she later returned to that exact location where she’d spotted the first.
A relatively big badge (mine is tiny in comparison) the chance of finding two pieces of the same Becket pilgrim badge a few years apart, at the same spot, is nothing short of miraculous. The river works in mysterious ways etc etc.
Caroline’s Thomas Becket pilgrim badge dates to the 14th century and features exquisite detail including some medieval graffiti scratched onto the leg of the horse. The complete badge depicts Becket’s triumphant return from exile in France and his journey home from Sandwich to Canterbury on December 1st, 1170. The Cheapside born lad, and London’s very own saint, was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral a few weeks later on the 28th December by four knights who believed they were acting on behalf of Henry II.
According to Brian Spencer, the ‘M’ was one of the most popular badges of Our Lady. Pilgrims would often buy more than one badge; to keep as souvenirs once blessed but also, it’s thought, although there is no written evidence anywhere from this period to confirm this, to throw into the Thames as an act of thanksgiving once they’d returned safely home.
The downstrokes of my ‘M’ have curled slightly (I won’t be uncurling them) and the pin is missing from the back though its imprint is still visible if you look closely. The curved letter ‘M’ is crowned with pearl-like pellets above the central fleuron of the crown, pearls symbolising the purity of Mary.
It’s a poignant thought that whoever lost this pilgrim badge all those centuries ago, or threw it in the Thames, was returning from a long tiring journey to Walsingham, Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela or the long forgotten Syon Abbey.
Syon was a dual monastery of men and women from the Bridgettine Order, and one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Europe, located on the banks of the Thames in Isleworth, South West London. Henry V had laid the foundation stone in 1415 though the building itself was completed during the reign of Henry VI. Governed by an abbess, it was renowned for its library and dedication to reading, learning, meditation and contemplation. This of itself made it a threat to those pushing religious reform, such as Thomas Cromwell, a key driver of the English Reformation. Cromwell closed Syon Abbey down in 1539 on the orders of Henry VIII and it was eventually demolished in 1547. I am currently deeply immersed in learning more about Syon, the bulk of existing documentation that survived the Reformation now held in the University of Exeter archives. I hope to be blogging and writing in greater detail about Syon Abbey soon as it has a story that deserves to be better known.
St Bridget, or St Birgitta, the founder of the Swedish Bridgettine Order that settled at Syon, has her own pilgrim badge which features her sitting at a desk, reading a book. Beautifully appropriate, it would be very special to spot one of these on the Thames Foreshore.
If you’d like to immerse yourself more deeply in the world of the medieval pilgrim then I recommend Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I studied this at school for English A level and it’s stayed with me all this time, my fondness for the book mercifully unaffected by having to translate it from Middle to Modern English plus the many essays we were made to write about it as students. There are no references to pilgrim badges within its pages but undoubtedly these would have been bought as souvenirs.
The Canterbury Tales tells the story of a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the holy shrine of St Thomas Becket, who begin their journey at the Tabard Inn, a tavern in Southwark. Each of the pilgrims takes turns as the main storyteller and a banquet is promised to the best story. The book also provides a colourful picture of daily life and social class in medieval England. I still have my school copy of Neville Coghill’s translation of these tales, heavily marked in pencil, battered and dog-eared, the colourful characters leap from the pages.
Mudlarks are often asked what makes a particular find special and, for me, my pilgrim badge find has made me feel deeply connected with the individual who last held it in their hands all those centuries ago. The badge speaks of long tiring journeys made to far away places in order to ask for Our Lady’s intercession by ancient people who shared the same hopes, fears and dreams we all do today.
Finally, if you’re looking for a Christmas present for the mudlark in your life, or if you’re interested in learning more about mudlarking yourself, this beauty ‘Mudlarks: Treasures From The Thames’ by Jason Sandy has just been published.
A celebration of the mudlarking community, the book also includes many fascinating artefacts found in the Thames over the years, and also the stories of mudlarks themselves. It was a huge privilege and honour to be included in Jason’s book along with many larking legends and FLO Stuart Wyatt, who have taught me so much over the years and shared their mudlarking knowledge and tips with me.
I am forever grateful for the many friendships that have been made on the banks of the river Thames during my years wading through the mud searching for snippets from the past; these friendships have enriched my life enormously.
The book is also a visual treat and beautifully put together, a four year labour of love and tribute to the river and its mudlarks. It is over 300 pages long and contains more than 500 colour photos, illustrations and art work by people such as Coral Pierce (@coral.pearce54 on Insta) and Tom Harrison (@tom.harrison.photos)
Available to buy from Barnes and Noble, Blackwell’s, Book Depository, Kobo, Waterstones, Amazon and many other online bookstores.
Thank you also to all those who have subscribed to my Thames warblings over the years – I always enjoy reading your comments and am happy to answer any mudlarking queries and questions. WordPress have just informed me that this blog has now had over 50,000 all-time views and this has made me very happy.
On that pleasing note, wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a peaceful and healthy New Year, 2023.
6 thoughts on “Pilgrim Badge”
Thank you for this delightful warble!
My imagination took me along on your journey of possibilities! We really enjoy your videos, thank you for your efforts.
Jessie and Carl
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Thank you so much for your lovely comments, Jessie and Carl. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog.
What a fantastic find! Bravo! I must look out for the book too. Thanks for all your posts here and on Instagram and wishing you a Happy Christmas and a “find full” new year!
Thank you so much, Anne. And a Happy Christmas and New Year to you too x
Dear Liz, I am so happy for you! How wonderful to find such an interesting object. You have inspired me to dig out my copy of The Canterbury Tales and read them again. I enjoy your posts so much and sometimes it feels like I’m right there with you with the sights, sounds and smells of that ancient river. Best wishes to you and your Mudlarking friends for 2023. Please keep those posts coming! Thank you for sharing . . .
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Hi Gretchen. Thank you so much for your lovely comment and reading my blog. It was so thrilling to spot the little pilgrim badge, my most important Thames find ever. Hope you enjoy your re-read of the Canterbury Tales – it’s such a fascinating read, evoking the atmosphere of medieval pilgrimage so well.