Thursday 17 March 2022

The trouble with Lichen: life and death in an English churchyard

It feels a little like the Spring is coming early in north Norfolk. The lazy Norfolk wind still has a sharp edge to it, but that can be true of even the brightest Summer's day up on the coast, where the next stop looking north is the Arctic. But the blankets of snowdrops are now faded, to be superseded by the bright yellows of early daffodils and pale hues of the bank primroses, and there are hints of blossom on one or two of the more enthusiastic of trees. Even the sun made an appearance as I drove along the coast road this week, passing by the empty dark eye-sockets of crumbling pill-boxes, and jagged-teeth of broken tank traps from another tragic conflict. Now all but lost amongst the ranks of golden daffodils, set beneath a ridiculously blue sky. A blitz sky we called it in 1940. On such a day, and never more in need of peace, I found myself indulging in a quick stop at a couple of Norfolk's more interesting medieval coastal churches. Twelve hundred miles away to the east, people are being bombed. People are being shelled. People are dying.

My first stop was the church at village of 'Upper Sheringham', a cluster of brick and flint houses and cottages now lying over a mile from the sea. Not, the locals will tell you, to be confused with plain old 'Sheringham' - the Victorian seaside resort that sprang up on the coast itself, growing out of a modest collection of huts and lean-tos where the fishermen of the village stored their boats and nets. Upper Sheringham today stands aloof from its larger seaside neighbour - set aside from the nineteenth century gothic revival villas and sprawling twentieth century bungalows, and protected by a barrier of inflated house prices and layer upon layer of the subtle shades of a Farrow and Ball paint chart. Twelve hundred miles away to the east, people are being bombed. People are being shelled. People are dying.

The church itself is a quiet joy to behold. For a medievalist it contains a number of unique survivals, that have defied time and the destructive hands of man. The font with its elaborate traceried designs decorating the bowl. The rood screen, now largely devoid of pigment, but surmounted by a complete (albeit restored) rood loft. One of the only ones to survive anywhere in the east of England. The early Tudor brasses in the south aisle, created with an elegant and understated simplicity. The late medieval carved bench-ends, that include the tragic, the comic, and the downright odd. There is even a small and discrete selection of ship graffiti etched into a single pier in the south arcade. Any one of these would make the church worth a visit.

Beyond these sterile survivals of a bygone past it is abundantly clear that this church is loved. Loved and looked after by the community it serves. It is always open, and it's clear that it still acts as a hub for village activities. People still meet here, as they have done for over five centuries. Seeking peace within these ancient walls.

And yet a church is always an on-going project. There is always work that requires doing, and maintenance that needs to be undertaken. A roof that has remained watertight for five centuries does not do so without being well looked after, and gutters and drains do not clean themselves. They all require care, and people that care enough to undertake even the seemingly mundane tasks. And it has ever been so. Anyone who has ever sat down and read medieval and Tudor churchwarden's accounts will be all too familiar with the records of windows being mended, locks being changed, floor tiles being re-set, and roofs being repaired. Whilst each church may be a monument to medieval faith and devotion, they are as much a monument to the dogged persistence of the centuries of churchwardens, builders, and handymen.

I leave the quiet solitude of the church and wander out in to the churchyard. An undulating sea of canted stones, rakishly set amongst the rough turf beneath the new budding trees. A mixture of colours and textures, and each a little tableau of a life, and death. Each one telling a fragment of a story, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. A shinning memorial to a bomber crew that never quite made it home during another hellish war. The young mother who died in childbirth, leaving behind two older children from a former marriage. A young Norfolk 'boatman' who drowned trying to claw a meagre living from the fickle dark ocean. Deaths that took place centuries ago, but each leaving their tragic tale in a Norfolk churchyard. I wander from stone to stone, trying to do them some justice by reading the words that were left behind them. Trying to make a little sense of the senselessness.

And whilst I wander in this quiet churchyard, amidst the gold of the daffodils set under a ridiculously improbable blue sky, I ponder upon the level of work before me. The thousands of hours of work put into making these stones, and creating this tranquil space. The hours that people spend maintaining this home of past memories. For what is true of the church is also true of the churchyard. God's Acre takes some maintenance. Walls, gates, and pathways all need to be maintained and looked after. They certainly don't look after themselves, and at my own local church it takes a small army of willing and enthusiastic volunteers to keep it all in good order.

Recent years have seen some changes though. Changes that some people may not wholly approve of, but changes that have been made to help local wildlife and biodiversity. Indeed, it is strange today to find a churchyard that doesn't have at least one section where the mowers rarely go. A section of the churchyard left for wildlife, where the grasses and wildflowers can follow their natural lifecycle rather than succumb to the uniformity of Mr Flymo. And it works. Anyone who has wandered slowly through such a churchyard in Spring or Summer can't but help notice the bees, the butterflies, and the wildflowers - all just 'doing their thing'.

In fact churchyards are now recognised as being important havens for wildlife across the UK. Especially in areas where much of the countryside or urban landscape is intensively managed, these small enclosed areas where nature is largely left unmolested represent an important natural habitat. For plants, insects, and all forms of wildlife - and long may it continue to be so.

However, not everything is coming up roses in England's little gardens of Eden. In recent years I have begun to notice a new and rather worrying trend - that of cleaning gravestones. I'm not in general talking about the modern polished marble slab, but a growing tendency to scrub clean the older stone grave-markers from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. In most cases it is clear that it is done with the best intentions, to try and make legible the inscriptions, and I do suspect (but have no proof) that some of it is done by those trying to trace the resting places of their ancestors. But it really should stop.

The most usual cause for people to want to clean these gravestones is that they have become over run by nature. That the inscriptions are now hidden beneath layers of spreading lichen and mosses. And it is never more obvious than whilst wandering around a churchyard like that at Upper Sheringham. The stones have been weathered by nature and time, and slowly grey and rust coloured lichens have crept across their surfaces. And it these little regarded lichens in particular that suffer at the hands of a scrubbing brush, warm water, and good intentions.

I won't go in to too much detail here about the lichens themselves - as I am no expert - beyond stating what an incredible collection of organisms they are. In most cases lichens are not usually one organism, but two. A fusion, collaboration, and in some cases parasitic relationship, between a fungus and an algae. They come in a wide variety of shapes and colour, and some can grow incredibly quickly, whilst others can take many centuries to even establish themselves. To quote world-renowned botanist Professor Stefan Buczacki (yes, him off the radio...) 'of the 1700 or so British lichen species, over 300 have been found growing on churchyard stone in lowland England and many churchyards contain well over one hundred species. Almost half of the churchyard species are rare, having been found in fewer than ten sites, while some seldom occur in any other habitat'.

In places like East Anglia, where there is no naturally occurring stone beyond brittle flint and the soft gingerbread of carrstone, churches and churchyards represent a unique environment for certain of these lichens to grow. Small islands where existence becomes a possibility.  Havens, beyond the walls of which they simply cannot survive. And each gravestone that is scrubbed clean, even by the most well meaning of individuals, represents the destruction of a small ecosystem. Given the rarity of some churchyard lichens, perhaps even a small extinction. Another pointless death.

So as I wander back towards the car, beside the golden daffodils and beneath that ridiculously improbable blue sky, I ponder what we to do with a churchyard full of moss and lichen covered gravestones? In such times, when Europe drops once again in to chaos and bloodshed, is it even right to be worrying about such small losses? To concern ourselves with the loss of a single lichen species in an English churchyard, when there is so much other suffering taking place?

My own view is that now is perhaps a time to reflect upon all forms of life in this world, and how precious they are. And perhaps even celebrate the fact that these monuments to the long dead have become home to so much life. Where tragic stories are slowly being covered over, as memories fade, with whole legions of sprawling life. Each gravestone a new colony. So perhaps it is best that we just leave them be. After all, the dead won't mind.

And twelve hundred miles away to the east, people are being bombed. People are being shelled. People are dying.

If you want to know more about the wildlife and ecology of the average English churchyard I can suggest no better introduction than Stefan Buczacki's 'Earth to Earth: A Natural History of Churchyards' (Unicorn Publishing, 2018).

You can also donate to the Red Cross crisis appeal to help those suffering in Ukraine here -

Saturday 12 December 2020

Siena Part 2: A name, a place, a face, and a fleeting memory of glory.

There are those magical moments in archaeology, whatever part of the discipline you work in. The moment when you realise the true significance of what you are looking at. Be it a newly discovered artefact emerging from the earth, a moment of pure clarity as you come to fully understand how a building evolved, or that simple moment of realisation that what you are looking at relates to a real flesh and blood person, with the same sort of dreams and aspirations as yourself, but separated by centuries. We certainly don't do it for the money.

(Note: archaeologists are not allowed to keep any treasure they find. It's the rules. Nor are we allowed to blow up ancient temples, steal aeroplanes, fracture time and space, or mess about with occult forces. We are, however, allowed to punch Nazis. It's all swings and roundabouts really)

When it comes to the study of graffiti these moments are, as often as not, about understanding. Not so much just being able to identify an individual or mark, but rather comprehending exactly why that mark was made. Why they chose to create that particular graffiti, at that time, and in that place. We are, of course, always working blind to some extent. The person who actually made those marks has been nothing but dust and old bones for centuries. Their voice has been stilled. So we are left with nothing but the evidence in front of us. The place that they literally 'made their mark'. A lot of the time these markings don't even include a name, so whilst me may be able to understand some small part of the motivations behind their creation, we may never know who that individual was. We may hear the echoes of their voice, but it is an anonymous one. However, very, very occasionally even a simple marking on a wall can tell a quite remarkable story - and that is what happened in Siena.

The graffiti in the crypt, and in the main body of the Duomo, is fascinating, and will be the subject of further study for many years to come. However, the real surprise of the whole trip was actually located on the outside walls of the main cathedral facade. Just to one side of the main doorway was a small and neatly cut inscription in gothic blackletter text. This alone would have been enough to catch my attention, as almost all the text on the walls and wall paintings of the Duomo had been created in the more local Lombardic style. Any gothic text was therefore likely created by a visitor from the north or west of Europe. It is that distinctive. The content of the inscription was even more intriguing, as it appeared to refer to an Englishman. And not just any old Englishman, but a rather well known one - John Wethamstede, Abbot of St Albans (d.1465)

The inscription actually reads 'Johns (Johannes or simple 'John') l' (a contraction  in this case for 'legate') de (from/of) Albona (in this case St Albans in England)

So what exactly was the abbot of an English monastery doing in Siena? Well the simple answer is that he was there on official business, attending the Council of Siena in 1423/4. The Council was a gathering together of church leaders to discuss church policies, and was presided over by Pope Martin V. The council had originally been convened at Pavia in 1423, but a sudden outbreak of plague had forced its relocation to Siena later that same year. In historical terms the council made no great contributions to church history, and today it isn't even listed amongst the official list of ecumenical councils of the church. However, it was significant for Wethamstede and England in that it passed decrees against the followers of John Wycliffe - known as the Lollards - formally decreeing them to be heretics.

The general attendance at the Council was sparse, and Wethamstede was one of the few senior churchmen from outside Italy to attend. As an official representative of the English church he was accorded the honorary status of 'legate' for the duration of the Council - marked in the graffiti itself - and in many respects it was his moment to shine in the wider world of the European church.

Perhaps this is what inspired Wethamstede to carve his name into the fabric of the Duomo? This was his big event. His moment of glory. For a relatively young man in his early twenties he was there representing England, and spending time in the company of the high aristocracy of the Church. He was already a power within his own great monastery at St Albans, and clearly someone of great ability, but this was his moment to be so much more than that. A moment where he talked with Cardinals, walked with Bishops, and had the ear of the Pope himself. A crowning moment of his life to date - and something that needed some form of commemoration. Something that physically tied him to this place, and this fleeting moment in time. Appropriating it for his own memory.

For me it was a strange feeling. Imagining that great man of history, standing in that very same spot as I was almost exactly six centuries later, and carving his name into the hard stone of the cathedral. He too was there during the winter time, so instead of walking the sun bathed streets of a Tuscan summer, he would have seen the same mist shrouded landscape as I. Leaving his mark, only for it to lay unnoticed for almost six hundred years. That night, as I packed to return home, I reflected upon the fact that when John left Siena in the spring of 1424 he had no idea of the future that lay ahead of him. Of the further chaos that awaited England and Europe. As it turned out, neither did I.


Wethamstede returned from Siena to St Albans where he lived out the rest of his life. I'd love to say it was a peaceful and uneventful one. But that was not to be. Much of his time was used overseeing the many building works at the abbey, and in multiple protracted lawsuits defending the rights of the monastery. He was also a noted scholar. His later years were also marred by the outbreak of the dynastic civil war known today as the 'Wars of the Roses' - the first actual battle of which took place in the streets of St Albans itself. When Whethamstede finally died, in January 1465, he was laid to rest within a fine tomb within the abbey, where he intended to rest in peace forevermore. It was not to be.

In December 2017 archaeologists from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust were carrying out excavations in advance of the building of a new visitor centre at St Albans cathedral (the former abbey), when they came across an unexpected human burial. The skeleton, which was missing much of the lower section, turned out to be the remains of Abbot John himself - whose exact burial location had been previously unknown. The remains of the skull were so well preserved that a facial reconstruction was possible, carried out by experts at Liverpool John Moores University. It turned out he looked like an elderly Wayne Rooney. Who knew?

There is no doubt that the skeleton uncovered by the archaeologists was Whethamstede. His remains were positively identified by the presence of three Papal Bulls included with the burial. These lead seals, that had once been attached to documents, were found to be the Papal Bulls presented to Whethemsteade over four decades before his death. The documents had been given to him by Pope Martin V, during his visit to Italy for the Council of Siena, shortly before or after he carved his name into the stones of the Duomo. Did he request that these objects be placed in his grave? Were they his own way of ensuring eternal salvation? His passport through the pearly gates? Or were they simply an old man's sentimental souvenirs of the excitement of foreign travel, and memories of a grand meeting? We will never know. That secret John Whethamstede took to his grave.

Thursday 10 December 2020

Siena - part 1. The lost voices of the crypt.

I landed at Pisa airport, Italy, in the late morning, in the very last days of January 2020. Miles to the north of me a few hundred people had begun to cough their guts out, and a few medics had begun to become concerned at a strange new disease that appeared to be spreading quite rapidly - and killing people. I didn't know any of this at the time. None of us did. And it would be weeks before I understood that I had just walked in to a biological war-zone. I was happy just to be in northern Italy, despite it being the depths of winter, and with the prospect of some seriously interesting archaeology in front of me.

A few hours and a slow train ride later I had left the coast and headed inland, up through the Tuscan hills to the medieval city of Siena. If this were a travel blog it's at this point I'd start getting all overly descriptive; telling you about the picturesque medieval buildings, the wonderful plazas, fine restaurants, and beautiful accommodation. I'd wax lyrical about the famous 'Palio' - a twice annual horserace that verges upon the insane - the stunning museums and galleries, and undoubtedly mention that the entire city centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site. I would tell tales of late night wanderings through narrow medieval streets, overhung by balconies. Balconies from which, only two months later, the locked-down residents would nightly serenade their own beloved and Covid besieged city. I'd also undoubtedly include an implausible and amusing anecdote concerning a local, or a lavish description of a meal in some hidden-away gem of an eatery. However, this isn't a travel blog, so I won't.

So we will skip all of that. You can go and look for yourself someday I hope. I was heading instead for one of the most intriguing medieval buildings in a city. A place packed full of medieval wonders. The cathedral, or Duomo - a masterpiece of Italian Romanesque/Gothic architecture that dominates its own quarter within the city.

The guidebooks will all tell you that the sumptuous façade of the Duomo was completed about the year 1380. However, as with all these things, that is a bit of a simplification. Like just about every cathedral or great church ever built the Duomo was a constantly evolving building. Changes in fashion and the requirements and aspirations of the population mean that these structures were never the static artefacts that would, if it were true, make an architectural historians life just a little too easy. Instead they grow, they shift, they alter, and they evolve. And as they evolve little pieces of space, small fragments of a specific moment, become fossilised in the architecture.

There are few religious buildings that demonstrate this more clearly than the Duomo. In the late fourteenth century there were plans to expand this already impressively large structure, with the creation of a massive eastern transept. If completed it would have made the Duomo the largest basilica of its time. However, as is so common with big building projects, the ambitions of the locals were larger than their pockets were deep, and the lack of funds in the wake of the Black Death and local conflict brought a halt to the construction. Only the outer two arcades were built, leaving a massive area of the plaza enclosed by the outline of a building that never was. A phantom structure whose soaring empty arches scream thwarted ambition, and now a useful place to park your car.

Despite the many and varied wonders of the Duomo - and I could ramble on for many hours about those (buy a guidebook if you are interested) - I was there to look at the graffiti. I know. Boringly predictable. The Duomo is covered in ancient graffiti, both inside and out. Deeply cut inscriptions and coats of arms sit alongside sketched lines of music, and vibrant little caricatures of knights on horseback. On the outside can be found carved a rare ROTAS square, and pelta designs just litter the stonework. Indeed, there are probably more pelta designs on that one building than have so far been recorded in the whole of the UK. And the graffiti covers all periods, from the ancient to the very recent, from visitors of all ages to the site - some of whom were far more welcome than others.

In terms of medieval graffiti the real value of Siena isn't inside the main building itself, but rather beneath it, in an area described today as a crypt, but originally a series of chapels. The crypt is actually a relatively new discovery, only being found by archaeologists in 1999, and not opened to the public until 2003. It is believed that it was first built in the second half of the thirteenth century, but was subject to extensive changes and alterations associated with the enlargement of the cathedral in about 1317, before finally falling completely out of use at around 1355. The main body of the crypt was then filled with sand and sealed - as it remained until 1999.

When excavated the walls of the crypt were found to be covered in wall paintings, which have been tentatively dated to the 1280s. And what stunning wall paintings they are! Having been in use for only a few decades before being filled with sand, the crypt paintings are in an incredible state of preservation. The colours really are almost as bright as the day they were painted. There really is nothing like it in the UK. And from my perspective what is really special about the crypt is the fact that those same wall paintings are absolutely covered in graffiti. Hundreds of examples of graffiti. And that makes the crypt very, very special indeed.

The graffiti in the crypt represents one of the handful of examples of graffiti having been created in a sealed and securely dated context. Any graffiti cut through those paintings HAS to have been created between the 1280s - when the paintings were made - and the 1350s - when the crypt was sealed and filled with sand. It is unquestionably medieval graffiti. It cannot be anything else. So, whilst it may not be from the UK, it does give an indication of the subject, scale, and quantity of graffiti that was being created within a highly regulated religious environment during a very short and precisely defined period in the later Middle Ages.

The most obvious feature of the graffiti in the undercroft is just how visible it is. Cut through the medieval pigments to reveal the pale plaster beneath, it stands out white against the bright colours of the religious scenes on the walls. It is obvious to anyone who walks into the room. The biblical scenes and their borders, lovely though they may be, are covered in graffiti. There really is no getting away from the implications of this.

The most obvious thing is that the graffiti is still there. Still very visible. It hasn't been painted over, and no attempt has been made to cover it in any way. Coupled with the fact that a vast amount of the graffiti there is religious or devotional in nature, it all rather confirms the concept that these inscriptions were not only tolerated, but were accepted and acceptable. A physical manifestation of the piety displayed by those who visited these spaces. It also gives a clear indication of how the walls of our own English parish churches would have once looked. No naughty choirboys creating graffiti in dark corners - but masses of highly visible inscriptions literally leaping out at you as you entered the church.

There were other insights too. The way in which many of the numerous heraldic inscriptions utilised the coloured borders of the paintings, adding pigment and a colour scheme to heraldry that we normally only encounter in the UK as bare and empty outlines. Carefully placed on boundaries between pigments, the little shields allow the walls to take on the form of a crude Roll of Arms. Can this too then be translated to English church walls, where the medieval pigment has long since been lost? Can we in fact use the graffiti to outline and identify these areas of lost pigment? A reversal of the usual trend.

Perhaps most importantly the graffiti in the crypt is a sealed little moment in time. A fragment of the past - a few brief decades of peoples hopes, dreams, and fears - that have been fossilised in the graffiti. They didn't leave their names, so we will never know who they were. We will never know if they were knight or priest, cleric or commoner. We will never know if they went on to have long and happy lives, or died weeping and alone in the agony of a plague year. But what they have left us is what they deemed important enough to leave behind them. What they cared about most - whether it be a prayer, an echoing fragment of music, or just the briefest of outlines that tell us the most important message of all - 'once upon a time I was real - I lived, I loved, I made this mark - and I was here...'

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Three women of Ryburgh: a memory of lives in a Norfolk landscape

It begins with a story of families. All local Norfolk families, intermarried enough times to make them, in reality, just one family with a series of different names. Cousin marries cousin, marries cousin, marries cousin, and in a few generations everyone is a cousin, an uncle, or an aunt - and possibly has more digits than is totally normal, even for Norfolk. Marriage within the family keeps the bonds and ties of land strong. Joins up small manors to make greater manors, greater manors to make great estates, and over the generations dynasties are born, and prosper. Unless of course things go wrong. Unless fate looks unkindly upon your house. Unless the hard work of generations is all undone, and instead of being blessed with strong and healthy sons, you have nothing but daughters...

So the traditional narrative goes. A medieval noble family without a male heir was one to be pitied. Daughters divide up manors and lands, lead to the death of family names, and the undoing of generation upon generation of careful dynastic construction. Daughters were, through no fault of their own, simply the second best option.

The Walkfayre family had played their part in the county life of Norfolk for generations. They weren't the richest, or the best known, but they were a well off and respectable county family who could draw upon the resources of half a dozen manors in north-west Norfolk. By the middle of the fourteenth century they could consider that they had done well for themselves in recent generations. They had expanded their holdings, and in the years after the Black Death had capitalised upon a fluid land market, putting themselves in a position that could be described as comfortable. In another few generations, and with favourable marriages, they looked set to become a formidable local dynasty. And then disaster struck, and all was seemingly bought crashing down in a single generation. The family produced no male heir, and not one, but two, daughters - joint heiresses to the whole family.

In the normal course of medieval events that would have really been the last that was heard of the heirs of the Walkfayre family. The daughters would have been married off, undoubtedly advantageous matches due to their likely inheritance, and they and their husbands would have continued the task of dynasty building, albeit in his name rather than hers. However, the Walkfayre women were made of sterner stuff. They had an iron in their personality that wasn't so easily bent to another's will.

The river Wensum at Great Ryburgh

Joan Walkfayre did indeed marry well. Her new husband was already well known to her, being distantly related, and living only a few miles from her own manor of Wood Hall in Ryburgh Parva (Little Ryburgh) in north Norfolk. Sir Thomas de Felton of Litcham was in fact a very fine match. He and Joan were almost of an age, and he was already building a reputation for himself as a talented soldier and military commander. In the Anglo-French chaos of the late fourteenth century, that saw the peak of the Hundred Years War, such a gentleman could do very well for himself. A capable and ambitious man - and Sir Thomas appears to have been both - could do much to improve his own position and that of his family.

And improve his position he did. In a quite spectacular fashion. His list of achievements and honours reads like a classic history of a fictional knight. A companion of the Black Prince, esteemed military commander, diplomat, seneschal of Gascony and Aquitaine, constable of castles, Knight of the Garter - the list is extensive. He piled up honours and wealth, using the profits of warfare to acquire lands and titles, and all the while Joan was at his side. The exact role Joan played in the rise of Sir Thomas' fortunes is far from clear, but it was most certainly far from usual. She clearly more than ably controlled his Norfolk lands whilst Sir Thomas was absent, but her involvement in his business affairs appear to have been far deeper than simply acting as a housekeeper to his acquisitions. Quite unusually her name appears alongside that of her husband in many of the land and financial transactions that they undertook. She appears to have been an equal partner in their dealings, at least as far as the law of the time would allow, and had full jurisdiction over all his business affairs. It was, as far as any marriage of the period can be considered so, a partnership of equals. A strong and determined woman working alongside a successful man.

And as well as her financial and business dealing Joan also excelled herself with the more traditional role of dynastic wife, and children soon blessed their union. A boy, named Thomas after his father, was soon joined by sisters enough to fill a nursery - Sybil, Mary and Eleanor. A male child to carry on the family line, and build upon the foundations laid by his father, and three girls, to be brought up by their independent and very capable mother, and married off to their father's influential friends to further the ties of blood. The makings of a powerful and far reaching dynasty.

Although Sir Thomas did well for himself and his family, his life wasn't without its setbacks. In the lead up to the battle of Najera in 1367, whilst leading a scouting unit of some two hundred knights, Sir Thomas and his men unexpectedly came across an enemy force of some six thousand men. Although catastrophically outnumbered Sir Thomas and his followers attempted to fight off the enemy, until simply overwhelmed by force of numbers, they were forced to surrender and the survivors were taken prisoner. Although released shortly afterwards, the ransom demanded by his captors was hefty. Sir Thomas' reputation had made him a valuable captive, and his wife was forced to raise a considerable sum to secure his release.

And personal tragedies also befell Thomas and Joan. With high child mortality rates in the fourteenth century, compounded by many heartbreaking return visits of the plague, it would have been a miracle had all their children survived into adulthood. Sadly miracles were few and far between. Their only son, little Thomas, died before reaching even his teens.

Sunken road leading from Little Ryburgh church towards the manor of Wood Hall

And misfortune piled rapidly upon misfortune. Having risen to the highest rank in England Sir Thomas had so very far to fall. In the last blood splattered moments of confused melee with the enemy, Sir Thomas, the darling of the English court and military elite, found himself in French hands once more. Held for ransom. Again. And this time the French were not quite so eager to let him go. He was, after all, one of the most successful English commanders in the field, a friend of the Black Prince, and a senior member of the court. As a result his ransom was set exceedingly high; the highest amount asked for any Englishman outside the immediate royal family. A ransom fit for a prince.

Having already been reduced by the previous ransom demand, Dame Joan appears to have been at something of a loss. The Walkfayre/De Felton lands alone couldn't possibly act as guarantor for such a huge sum, so instead she had to appeal to the king for financial aid. However, the promise of a loan from the Crown was forthcoming, the king being keen to have such an able warrior back amongst his army, and Sir Thomas was released on the understanding that the money would eventually be paid. Money that Sir Thomas himself was undoubtedly sure could soon be made good, and better, by taking a few French hostages of his own.

Sadly it was not to be. Sir Thomas himself died a short while after his return to England, with his family finances in a ruinous state, and monies outstanding. He left behind him a wife and three daughters, to make their own way in the world. His formidable widow spent the rest of her life enmeshed in a series of financial and land transactions, determined to use her resources to establish a chantry chapel for her dead husband and son at the nearby shrine of Walsingham. It was a struggle she eventually won, largely by outliving all those who stood in her way, and in a little twist of her own making, the chapel was dedicated to St Anne - the matriarch of the Holy family.

But what then of the three daughters of Sir Thomas and Dame Joan?

Eleanor was convention itself, in what little time allowed - and it was very, very little. So much so that she barely leaves a mark on the documentary record. She married well, had a male child who survived, and died a good death. Her husband, Sir Thomas Hoo, served his king at Agincourt, but poor Eleanor had already been dead some fifteen years. She died aged twenty-two, leaving her infant son to become a baron of the realm.

By the standards of the day her sister, Sybil de Felton, was a woman who surpassed even her own mother in terms of personal achievement. As a dutiful daughter she married well, allying her own family with that of the powerful Morley clan, but it was not to last. Within a handful of years her husband was in his grave. As a widow, having fulfilled her family obligations and with relative financial independence, she chose to enter the church; a place where she could apply her own intelligence and determination, and on her own terms. The exact details of her early career are unknown, but what is clear is that she rapidly rose to become one of the most senior, and certainly the most influential, female religious of her day. Placing herself at the centre of female piety in England, she became prioress of Barking Abbey in Essex - arguably the most influential and powerful female religious institution in the country. Not content with simply holding office Sybil began to amass a library at Barking; a library of religious texts that were of specific interest to women - and designed to be read by members of her own convent. The very first library of its type, and one that was to have a profound effect on many generations of women who followed in her footsteps. Sybil, the daughter of a failing house from Norfolk, rose as far within the church as her sex and rank allowed. I cannot do justice to her achievements. She was without parallel.

And then there was Mary. Poor, troublesome, Mary de Felton. Contrary Mary, for whom I cannot deny having a certain sneaking admiration.

Married off when very young to one of her father's military companions, a man many years older than herself, she was a cliché just waiting to happen. Her elderly husband returned to fight in France, leaving her in the care of a handsome young steward. An ambitious young steward. A lustful young steward. Need I say more? A bit of rough and tumble, the beast with two backs, might even have been overlooked in the circumstance. However, the young steward was as ambitious as he was lustful, and convinced Mary to try and seek an end to her marriage. It may even have been love?

Whatever the case, it ended on Staines bridge, when Mary's lawful husband encountered the wayward steward upon his return to England and violently struck him down. He didn't succumb immediately, but lingered on, to suffer and die of his wounds weeks later. In those last hours, as fortune, friends and breath finally deserted him, and slunk off into the night like a whipped dog, did he call her name or curse her? We'll never know, and she had misfortunes enough of her own to face.

As cliché piled upon cliché, her husband, in the face of so very a public humiliation, had Mary confined to a nunnery. Put away from the world, but leaving him very much married, and very much in control of both her destiny, and perhaps more importantly, her lands. Mary, however, didn't 'do' clichés. So she escaped. In my mind's eye I see her with a novice's habit tucked up at the waist, an arming sword in one hand and a dagger between her teeth, as she leapt the convent wall (it's my imagination - bugger off). The truth may be somewhat different, but the result was as spectacular. Her husband appealed to the king to have her arrested and returned to confinement. The king, sympathetic to one of his loyal soldiers, dispatched Sergeants-at-Law after the wayward Mary, ordered to hunt her down and return her to the convent. But Mary was having none of it. She instead defied her king and appealed to a higher authority - the Pope. A cry for justice in an unjust world. An appeal that fell upon open and listening ears.

Mary's appeal was supported by the papacy, to the annoyance of the king, and she was returned to both her freedom and her rights. Her appeal was reinforced by the timely death of her husband, from natural causes we must assume, and she became, once more, Mary de Felton. A woman who could choose and make her own destiny. And so she did. She did marry again some years later, but records suggest to a man much younger than herself and of middling status, and one may hope that he was as lustful as had been her young steward all those years before. She may even, eventually, have entered a nunnery of her own accord, and become the abbess of Campsey Ashe in Suffolk. The records are unclear. She passed into memory.

And what survives today of these quite remarkable people? What marks have they left upon this world? Thomas and Joan, who stood at the very centre of power and politics, who mixed with queens and princes, and who grasped the opportunities that life offered with both hands? Sybil and Mary, who took their mother's strength of will and moulded it to their own use? Challenging convention within and without the bonds of medieval society. In truth, very, very little.

The chantry chapel that Joan fought so long and hard to establish at Walsingham, to remember her dead husband and lost child in perpetuity, has been gone nearly five hundred years. It stood for less than a century and a half, until it was swept away by the reformation in the middle of the sixteenth century, along with almost every other sign of the once great shrine to Our Lady of Walsingham. Pulled down by fearsome and fearless religious reformers, and sold off for building materials to the highest bidder. A few fragments survived. A small number of broken and smashed parts of a statue of St Anne, built into a barn at East Barsham, a few miles from Walsingham. Rediscovered when the barn collapsed in the late twentieth century, the fragments were put on display in the local church, only to disappear once again into the hands of opportunist thieves.

Somewhat ironically, in the same church can be seen a stone slab. A sheet of weathered marble that once held an ornate funeral brass, and now shows only their bare outline. A knight in armour under an ornate canopy, surrounded by heraldic shields denoting his rank and his august lineage - with a small child in armour shown by his side. The brass itself has also long gone, and nobody knows exactly where or when it was lost, but the outline does remain. A blank testimony. Recent research has shown that this was originally the brass of Sir Thomas de Felton, placed in the chantry chapel of St Anne at Walsingham by his wife Joan, and with their son - little Thomas - shown beside his father. Exactly how it ended up in East Barsham church is a mystery, as it should have gone the way of all the other brasses in Walsingham at the reformation - but someone, at some point, obviously felt that it deserved to be saved.

The remains of Little Ryburgh church

A few broken fragments of remembrance. A few tokens of lives long gone. Blank slabs and broken statues. The church in Little Ryburgh, where Joan must at least have occasionally walked, is now a ruinous mass of ivy and tumbled flints. And the manor of Woodhall in Ryburgh? The place where it all began; that was home to Thomas and Joan, and where their two daughters grew up, before setting out to shake their world? Gone. Long, long gone. The manor was deserted centuries ago, and not one single thing survives above ground to suggest or even hint at the fact that it ever existed. There isn't even a single map outside the realms of dusty archives that carry its name. There are no memories of it in the landscape barring a crooked field boundary, and a farm track that sweeps to the north when logic dictates it should sweep south. Even as a ghost in the landscape its hold is tenuous. And yet, as I have walked across that shady corner of an irregular shaped field, and picked up the broken fragments of medieval pottery that litter the plough-soil, looking out across the shallow valley that they knew so well, I have touched their memory... and that at least will live on for a few years more.

(You can read more about Dame Joan de Felton, and her struggle to establish the chantry chapel at Walsingham, here -  )

Tuesday 13 October 2020

'Witch marks' are just SO last decade... now carpenters marks are cool.

It's already mid October, Halloween is just around the corner, plague doctor masks are outselling just about every other costume on the internet, and my inbox is filling up once again. No, that isn't a euphemism. Stop smirking.

At this time of year the subject line of most of the emails is pretty much guaranteed to read 'witch marks', or some variant upon it. The tabloid media wanting images or, more usually, emails from the public wanting to know if the strange markings they have found on their house are indeed 'witch marks'. Firstly, I have to state that all the emails are welcome - unless they are from the Daily Mail obviously. They can go and do one. I try to reply to all the messages - eventually - and give an indication of the meaning of the markings they've discovered. At the very least it may heighten their interest in, and understanding of, their own house. They may look at it in a different light, and think about the generations who have called it home for centuries before they were born.

However, the replies always begin the same way.

"Many thanks for the message and attached images ('and apologies for the delay in reply to you' - optional depending upon how busy a month it has been). We tend not to use the term 'witch mark' these days, as it is both misleading and factually incorrect. The term itself was invented by a journalist only a couple of decades ago, and is sadly one we don't seem to be able to shake off. An actual 'witch mark' is the marking found upon the body of a witch (third nipple etc), that was thought to be the physical manifestation of their pact with the devil.

The markings in the images you sent are today more usually known as 'apotropaic' marks, or 'ritual protection marks', and in parts of northern Europe they are still called 'holy signs' - which is perhaps an altogether more descriptive name. The marks themselves have no direct links to witches, and were thought to ward off evil spirits and malign influences. Most of them have their origins in the imagery of the medieval church, and can best be thought of as 'anti-witch marks'." This is usually followed by a reading list.

Never let it be said that my replies don't give good value for money...

The thing is, nine times out of ten, the images I get sent aren't ritual protection marks at all. Anything but in fact. On a fairly regular basis I still receive images showing a large, deeply cut, 'broad arrow' design, which still appears to mystify a lot of people. These are usually the easiest to explain, as they are Ordnance Survey Benchmarks - the marks created by the good people of the Ordnance Survey to act as datum point when undertaking map-making surveys. They are usually to be found on permanent structures, such as churches or houses, and are nationwide, so it is easy to understand why people may be curious about them. You can read more about them here -

However, almost all the other images I get sent (those that are in focus enough to see anything at all) are most usually 'Carpenters Marks'. You can almost feel the disappointment as they read my reply, and I do feel a bit sorry for them sometimes. It's like kicking a puppy. Not ritual, or protective, in any way. However, these marking are - I try and tell them enthusiastically - incredibly useful to a buildings archaeologist! They can tell us just SO MUCH about a building's construction history! In many ways they are EVEN BETTER than ritual protection marks!

They rarely fall for it obviously...

So what exactly are Carpenter's Marks? Well, it is all pretty straightforward really (this is a convenient lie). These are the marks made during the construction process of a timber building. The carpenter's would build their timber frame, and cut all their joints, most usually on the ground in an area sometimes known as a 'framing yard' - just to make sure it all fitted together perfectly. They would then mark each timber and joint with an individual marking - one on each of the timbers that formed the joint - so you would end up with a pair of markings. In this way they could ensure that when it was all taken apart again, and reassembled in its final position, everything ended up where it should be. Joint A to Joint A, joint B to joint B - just like a giant model kit. 

On stone or brick buildings they tend to be confined to the roof structure, or floor frames, but they can also be found on partition walls or similar. On fully timber framed buildings they are likely to be everywhere. They can also take a wide variety of forms, some being scratched, others cut neatly with chisels, and there are no completely set patterns - just some things that are commoner than others. 

Most usually the early examples are loosely based upon Roman numerals - XII, VIII, IX, etc - as these are easily made using a chisel. However, there are a few examples known about where Arabic numerals were used - even quite early on. The markings also often follow a numerical sequence, so you can actually work out which end a house was built from by working from the lower numbers towards the higher ones across the structure.

Having said that, if you go hunting for these marks don't expect to find nice neat Roman numerals all over your roof timbers. When I said they were often 'loosely' based on Roman numerals I really did mean loosely. At a recent survey of a sixteenth century floor frame at Oxburgh hall in Norfolk I recorded a lovely set of carpenter's marks that were set as typical Roman numerals. That is until you came to number nine, which instead of marking as IX (which can be mistaken for XI when viewed upside-down), they had substituted it with a broad arrow marking. Very much a case of 'this way up'.

In a symmetrical building, where the same joints appear on opposite sides of the frame, you will sometimes find that one side displays carpenter's marks in the form of Roman numerals, whilst the opposite side will have the same numerals, but each with an extra little 'tag'. A way of differencing the left from the right of the frame, or the front from the back.

You also quite commonly get examples that are a mixture of lines and circles - the circles being created with a carpenter's raze knife - and these are the ones most likely to get mistaken for ritual protection marks, even by some supposed 'experts'. And then there are the really rare markings. Those marks that appear to be confined to a single building, and have yet to be discovered anywhere else. Returning to Oxburgh hall again, a small number of the surviving medieval rafters of the western range - dating to somewhere between 1437 and 1463 - are marked with a semi-circular punch or moulding chisel. One punch for rafter one, two for rafter two, and so on.

Okay. So not quite as straightforward as I may have suggested a few paragraphs ago, but hopefully you get the idea.

And I wasn't exaggerating when I said that these markings are incredibly useful to a buildings archaeologist. Ritual marks may be a bit of a giggle at Halloween, but carpenter's marks are where the real fun is at. As mentioned above, they can give you a chronology for how a house was actually built - what came first, and how the builders tackled the project. They can even tell you a bit about the carpenters themselves. Are they the same type of mark throughout, or are multiple carpenters working on the project? They can even tell you quite a lot about what has happened since the house was first built. Are the markings all still in situ, and in the right order, or has the structure been altered, re-ordered, or repaired. They are, as you can see, incredibly useful little marks.

So this Halloween, whilst everyone is going on about bloody 'witch marks', spare a thought for the humble carpenter's marks. The marks left by honest craftsmen as their construction blueprints, and their own modest legacy to history.

Wednesday 4 March 2020

Just how many archaeologists are there then?

Firstly, I should say, if anyone is expecting anything in this post about historic graffiti - you are going to be sadly disappointed. Best move on now. There's probably something good on the telly anyway.

So, the question has arisen - again - about how many people in the UK actually work in archaeology. This shouldn't be a difficult question to answer in many professions, but given the diversity of archaeology as a discipline, and the shocking way in which many commercial archaeologists are treated, it has traditionally caused a few issues. The result was a series of studies entitled 'Profiling the Profession'. In depth analysis of exactly how many people are employed by the sector, and how those patterns change over time. Even as it stands the study most usually doesn't make pleasant reading.

However, I recently made a somewhat rash statement on Twitter, replying to someone else's tweet, that caused a little bit of a stir ('Surely not?' I hear you cry...). A tiny bit of an upset in certain quarters. So - all I actually said was that most archaeologists do NOT work in commercial archaeology. A harmless enough statement you might think. However, it caused a few hackles to be raised. And why would that be? Well, because it flatly contradicts the figures published in the 'Profiling the Profession' report.

So did I make the statement just to cause a bit of trouble on Twitter? As you all know, that would be just SO unlike me... No, the reason I said it is because it's true - and based upon a very large, and really boring, piece of unrelated research I undertook about 18 months ago. It wasn't published at the time because it was suggested it might ruffle a few feathers. However, as feathers already appear to be ruffled... Sod them. I'll publish the outline anyway.

According to the latest 'Profiling the Profession' figures there are approximately 4792 individuals working in archaeology - you can read the full report here -

Of those 41% work in non-commercial archaeology - leaving the other 59% working in the commercial field (estimated at 2812 individuals). You can see the full breakdown in the chart below - which I handily swiped from the report itself.

So what the problem? Well it's a simple one. The report MASSIVELY and demonstrably underestimates those working as archaeologists in the academic sector. The report estimated that the actual number of archaeologists working in academia at 690. According to my own research the figure is somewhere between 1600 and 1900. And that is probably on the low side.

So, a few caveats to begin with. I used the same definitions for someone working in archaeology as the 'Profiling the Profession' analysis did. So it doesn't include volunteers, hobbyists, metal detectorists, etc - just those who receive financial remuneration for working within one of the many different facets of the discipline. With regards to academia - I also didn't include honorary positions, emeritus posts (unless they were specifically teaching), or 'associates'. Nor did I include the many postgrads who actually undertake paid teaching within the discipline. By the definitions of the 'Profiling the Profession' report I probably should have - even though they usually are only part-time etc. However, had I included those individuals the final figure would have been at least twice as high.

I would state that I also didn't get data from all the universities, hence the variable figure above, but publicly available staff and teaching lists are accessible for approximately three quarters of UK institutions. This data is also out of date now, by about 18 months. I also concentrated almost solely upon archaeology departments, so missed most of those archaeologist working in other departments - such as history or museum studies. I also probably missed a lot of those working in departments associated with the science of archaeology. Sorry! The data from the 'Profiling the Profession' report was from 2012/13, whilst mine was mainly from 2018. However, I'm pretty sure academic archaeology didn't see a nearly threefold increase in those working in the area in the intervening five years. Just the opposite in fact.

To begin with, there are currently approximately 130 universities in the UK. I say approximately, as that also includes some University Colleges - but 130 is the generally accepted figure. According to the 'Profiling the Profession' report these 130 universities employ only 690 archaeologists. That's an average of 5.3 archaeologists per university. Sound credible anyone? Really? So lets look at a few examples then.

Firstly, the university of Cambridge Archaeology Department. Current staff role (not counting admins, emeritus, honorary, or associate staff) is 216. At any one time there are also approximately 150 post-grads - but we aren't counting them.

A similar story at Oxford, although not quite as many, with 92 on the staff roll (the same exceptions apply).

Then what about UCL? Well, leaving aside those working in the commercial wing as Archaeology South-East, and including only the emeritus staff who also teach (but again excluding post-grads, associates, etc.), we get a total also of 92.

So, between those three universities alone we reach a total of 400 of the 690, without even having to look at the other 127 UK universities. But we are going to look at them anyway. In no particular order -

Liverpool - 52
Exeter - 29
Birmingham - 28
Winchester - 10
Newcastle - 63
Lancashire - 8
Leicester - 33
Kent - 20
Worcester - 20
Glasgow - 22
Southampton - 55
Durham - 34
Reading - 33
Bishop Grosseteste Uni - 3
York - 70
Sheffield - 28
Queens University Belfast - 27
Manchester - 36
Nottingham - 39
Bradford - 24
Cardiff - 21
Edinburgh - 16
Chester - 15
Bournemouth - 25
Canterbury Christchurch - 6
Swansea - 14
Lincoln - 16

So that takes us to a nice round figure of 30 UK universities. 30 out of the approximately 130, and we have already reached a grand total of 1147 archaeologists. Rather a lot higher that the current estimates of 690 for the whole of UK academia. And the list goes on. But I hear you say that not all UK universities teach archaeology, so not all the UK universities will employ archaeologists, so although the estimate may be wrong, perhaps it isn't that wrong?


Take a university I know really quite well. The University of East Anglia. The only archaeology really taught there these days is in the Sainsbury Centre, yet the university still employs well over a dozen archaeologists, who teach in areas from landscape archaeology and church archaeology, to African archaeology and anthropology. It's the same at most universities. Archaeologists tend to get about a bit.

So, my own research (which is admittedly a couple of years out of date, and wasn't able to access the staff lists for every UK university), indicated that archaeologists employed in academia to undertake archaeology in one of its many forms, numbered between 1600 and 1900, rather than the 690 estimated in the 'Profiling the Profession' report. Give or take.

So what does that adjustment do to the overall figures for the profession? What percentage of archaeologists actually work in the non-commercial sector? Well, if we take even the lowest figure indicated by my research for the numbers working in academia (1600), things look rather different. Suddenly there are 2888 archaeologists working in the non-commercial sector, as opposed to the 2812 in the commercial sector. Very roughly 50/50. Take the higher figure of 1900 working in academia and it's 3185/2812 (53%/47%). I am also absolutely sure that these figures err on the side of caution, as most universities don't publish details of archaeological technicians etc., so the actual figure is probably higher. As I said at the beginning, if I had also included the post-grads who are paid to teach in all the fields of archaeology (who would qualify as 'tutors' under the 'Profiling the Profession' definitions), the number would probably be more than double that.

So where does that leave the debate? Well, I think the main point here is a simple one. IT SHOULDN'T BE A BLOODY DEBATE. Get over yourselves. We are, after all, meant to be working together, in the same profession. Surely it benefits no one to distinguish between what is considered to be 'real archaeology' or assume that commercial archaeology is representative of everyone engaged in the field.