The Great Plague: scenes in the streets of London, 1665-1666

‘May 29th 1666.  Spent on the City Marshall at ye shutting up of a visited house . . Is.0d.’

Plague had always stalked England throughout the centuries with regular outbreaks such as the one known as the Black Death in the 14th century which brought death on such a scale that whole villages were so absolutely decimated hundreds of them were abandoned –  the few survivors, if any,  moving away perhaps reduced to beggarhood.    But probably the outbreak that springs to mind for most of us is that of 1665 which became known as The Great Plague The plague had been hovering about for the previous 30 years with some serious outbreaks such as the one in 1647 when 3,597 souls succumbed to it.  Prior to that in 1603 there had been 33,347 deaths which led to the weekly publication of the  Bills of Mortality.  It probably never entirely left –  trapped in the rancid, fetid alleys formed by the overhanging roofs of the timber framed houses that seem so picturesque to us nowadays.  The light and fresh air could not permeate those dark, dank  places that were often ankle deep in mud – and a lot worse besides –  nothing more than open sewers dotted here and there with equally malodorous laystalls where dung, rotting animal carcasses and general refuse were deposited.   Lord Macauley noted ‘The drainage was so bad that in rainy weather the gutters soon became torrents. Several facetious poets have commemorated the fury with which these black rivulets roared down Snow Hill and Ludgate Hill, bearing to Fleet Ditch a vast tribute of animal and vegetable filth from the stalls of butchers and greengrocers. This flood was profusely thrown to right and left by coaches and carts. To keep as far from the carriage road as possible was therefore the wish of every pedestrian. The mild and timid gave the wall. The bold and athletic took it.  If two roisterers met, they cocked their hats in each other’s faces, and pushed each other about till the weaker was shoved towards the kennel. If he was a mere bully he sneaked off, muttering that he should find a time,  If he was pugnacious the encounter probably ended in a duel behind Montague House'(1). 

However the heavy frosts of the unusually severe winter of 1664 and the beginning of 1665 perhaps held the pestilence at bay for a while until the frost finally broke in March when the first deaths appeared in St-Giles-in-the-Fields which lay just outside the city wall as well as Westminster where several members from the same family are recorded as all dying suddenly from it.   Plague had arrived (2).

People had already been nervous – a great comet had been seen in the sky in late 1664 and in a superstitious time this did not bode well as many thought.  Soon the rich and whoever could manage it begun to exodus London –  first in a trickle and then in a deluge.  It should be noted however not all those that could leave did.  An example is William,  Earl of Craven (1608-1697).  He was a member of the commission appointed to consider the best means of preventing the spread of the epidemic.  He recommended the use of pest houses where the sick could be taken as opposed to cruely shutting up both the sick and well together in their homes until they all succumbed and died or in some cases went insane.    William stayed put throughout the duration of the epidemic to perform his duties and was still present in London in 1666 when the Great Fire struck.  A delightful little anecdote described how his horse become so accustomed to his master attending fires that he would automatically head towards where the fire bell sounded without any bidding.  There was also some courageous doctors and apothecaries who stayed behind to perform their duties and who paid heavily for their bravery.  Included amongst these brave medical practitioners was Samuel Pepys doctor.   Pepys made the most of the opportunity and together with a friend ‘drank a cup of good drink’.   He would go on to explain  “I am fain to allow myself alcohol during this plague time… my physician being dead ….’  However broadly speaking it was London’s poor who would suffer the brunt of the horror.   Walter George Bell – author of possibly the most knowledgable book ever written about the contagion – The Great Plague of London  –  noted for example that not one single magistrate would succumb to it.


A contemporary drawing of the time depicting people attempting to flee London.   Unknown artist.

The deaths begun to increase rapidly and it’s highly likely many cases were disguised as death by other causes in the Mortality Bills – people,  naturally –  didn’t want to be boarded up in their houses with a red cross painted on the door and left until they and all their family finally and inevitably perished.  A contemporary writer of the time described how those poor souls  ‘were compelled,  though well,   to watch upon the death-bed of their dear relation, to see the corpse dragged away before their eyes.  Affrighted children stand howling by their side. Thus they are fitted by fainting affliction to receive the impressions of a thousand fearful thoughts in that long night they have to reckon with before release,  as the family so dismally  exposed,  sink one after another in the den of this dismal likeness of Hell’ (3). 


‘An Incident in the Great Plague’.  Artists impression of a street scene somewhere in London 1665.  The man has returned home to find the door with a red cross and boarded up.  He is unable to gain entry to help his family.  Tragic scenes like this must have played out on a regular basis.  Painted c.1840.  Artist Alexander Christie. 

It is estimated 100,000 were to lose their lives that horrendous year to the pestilence creating a terrible and hideous problem.   And it is here the infamous plague pit came into play.  It’s now known that not all plague victims were deposited unceremoniously into the pits with many remains of victims being found buried, although uncoffined,  in what was an orderly although probably hurried burial.  The Crossrail excavations have come across several of these mass burials such as the one on the Liverpool Street site where the remains of 45 people were found that appear to have been buried at the same time.  A stone was also found with 1665 carved upon it.  I’ll return to the plague pits later.  crossrail-black-plague.jpg

The grave of the 45 victims of the Plague found at Liverpool Street Station. Photo Crossrail Project MOLA.


The dogs and cats of London, those great foes and exterminators of the Black Rat –  host to the true culprit of the catastrophe – the flea that carried the Yersinia pestis bacteria and main carrier of the plague –  were themselves exterminated before they could perform their duties.  Thousands of them were unnecessarily  slaughtered, powder and shot being supplied for the job,  their bodies being carried away in wheelbarrows by the ‘rakers’.  One killer of some of the hapless animals was paid 4s for burying 353 dogs alone.  The black rat, Rattus rattus,  was not for nothing known as the House Rat, preferring to make their homes as close to humans as possible and to live off their food rather than go to the trouble of having to forage outside.  Not only that –  the medieval timber framed houses of the time, with lathe and plaster walls,  made perfect rat runs and the  boarded floors with cellars with earthen floors beneath,  all proved perfect living conditions for the little blighters.   Smaller than the larger brown rat we have today –  known as Rattus Norvegicus –  Rattus Rattus’ dark shiny coat could take on an almost bluish hue, his  large hairless ears giving the impression he was always on alert for the slightest sound.   It transpired, tragically,  that the very fleas that the rat was playing host to,  were the undetected source of horrendous and fatal disease and when it had succeeded in killing the host rat it would leap off onto its next victim –  which if there were no available rats in the vicinity would be the nearest man, woman or child.  Dr Anne Roberts in an excellent History Today article tells us that   ‘Like most fleas, the rat flea prefers to feed off a single species of animal, and will only bite humans when an outbreak of rat plague has left insufficient rats to feed off‘.  For all you ever want to know about the rats and their fleas click here (4).   Sometimes the fleas would linger  – until a suitable host happened along – in cracks and crevices or even clothes and blankets something which led to the tragic outbreak in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire.  This undetected and horrendous danger led to the seemingly never ending outbreaks of pestilence which caused literally millions of deaths until the 17th century when the Brown Rat, Rattus Norvegicus, larger and more powerful,  finally arrived in England when in the fullness of  time it would overrun its smaller cousin.  It’s possibly the arrival of the Brown Rat or the sewer rat as it is also known, was the main reason for the elimination of the plagues which had troubled England so greatly over the centuries rather than, as is sometimes assumed, the Great Fire of London which destroyed the major part of  old London with its closely packed timber framed houses.  It should be remembered that the plague also disappeared from the unburnt parts of London including Stepney which had suffered some of the highest death rates than any other parish.    St Giles-in-the Fields,  St Margaret’s Westminster,  St Martin’s and Cripplegate as well as the rest of England were never again to suffer from the catastrophic consequences of a major outbreak of plague – another pointer in the favour of the demise of Rattus Rattus being a major reason for the disappearance of the pestilence.   Finally in 1894  thanks to the Indian Plague Research Commission the source of plague was discovered:   ‘The communicating agents are the fleas of infected rats – the germ B.pestis – the cause of all the trouble –  being conveyed by the infected flea direct from rat to man by innoculation by flea bites through the skin’.    It was not until later in the early 20th century that the bacillus of Plague was discovered during an epidemic in Hong Kong by a Japanese Doctor Kitasato (5)  How tragic that this was never picked up upon meaningfully enough to bring about a major cull of Rattus Rattus and his fleas earlier and thus save millions of lives over the centuries.  


An image of a street scene… From a facimile of a broadsheet.  The Great Plague of London by Walter George Bell.

The above scene has a lot going on  – a dead dog lies in the road with another dog about to get clubbed to death.   Other dead animals appear to be being taken away in a wheelbarrow.  Note the two ‘searchers of the dead‘ – women, often elderly,  carrying white staves as a warning to the public to  keep a distance from them.   Here also is shown one of the many fires  – one before every sixth house –  which were lit from the night of 5th September and kept burning for three days and three nights in the belief it would decontaminate ‘the infected air‘ (6).  It was certainly not a new idea – in the plague of 1563 every household was ordered to lay out wood three days a week to enable the fires to continue to burn.  This proved about as much use as the tying of a dried toad to your chest and probably made matters worse. However I suppose anything was worth a try when you have nothing to lose.   


When someone died in a London Parish a ‘Searcher of the Dead‘ would be sent to ascertain the cause of death.  These Searchers were inevitably elderly, poverty stricken women, often in the most horrible dire straights themselves, forced to carry out this awful duty as a last resort to keeping alive themselves.  During times of plague these Searchers had to live as outcasts from the rest of society.  Walter Bell describes how they were required to lodge at a place appointed, not going abroad more than was necessary and then only in execution of their duty. They were to absent themselves from their families and to avoid mixing with other people.   They should keep as far distant from others as might be, carrying in their hand a white wand by which pedestrians should know and avoid them.  All this they were caused to swear upon an oath to do.   Worryingly the task of ascertaining the cause of death would also fall on these ancient matrons‘.   They then reported to the Clerk of the Parish, who each week returned a list of deaths to the Company  of Parish Clerks at their hall in Brode Lane, Vintry.  The company in turn gave the information to the Lord Mayor who in times of Plague would  pass it on to the Minister of State.    The Bill of Mortality containing all this information was then made up and printed.  Occasionally the Searchers would be advised of a doctors opinion as to the cause of death if a doctor had actually attended but usually they were either given the cause of death by relatives, or despite their lack of any medical training made a diagnosis themselves based their own observations of the corpse which led to a plethora of weird and wonderful causes of death.    Clearly they were never at a loss in making a diognosis and anything they did not know they made up as they went along.  This led to an abuse of a totally inadequate system.   To paraphrase a contemporary writer ‘The old women Searchers after the mist of a cup of ale and the bribe of a two groat fee instead of one given to them cannot discern a bonce from a bottom’ (7).  This makes Bills very interesting reading and it’s not difficult to cotton on to the fact that some plague deaths were described as deaths by other causes to avoid the house being shut up with the resultant deaths of the whole family.  The examples below are from the Bill dated 15th to the 22nd August 1665

Chrisomes 9,   Frighted 2,   Gowt 1,   Head-mould-shoot 1,   Jaundies 7,   Imposthume 8, Kingsevil 4,    Lethargy 1,   Meagrome 1,   Purples 2,   Rising of the Lights 18,   Stopping of the stomach 17,   Strangury 3,   Suddenly 2,   Tiffick 9,   Winde 4,   Wormes 10 and  Gripping-in-the-Guts (sounds like a small town in Gloucestershire!)  Total deaths from Plague were 4237.


This Bill covers the 12th to the 19th September…


It is said in times of human troubles ‘this too will pass’.  And indeed towards the end of 1665 the number of plague victims begun to subside – perhaps as a result of the fleas either dying themselves for lack of new hosts or going into hibernation.   Slowly Londoners returned to their homes.  We can only imagine the shudder of  horror of that must surely have run through them when they viewed the churchyards with their now much higher raised levels evidencing multi burials.   Pepys has left us with his vivid memory of this particular harrowing sight:  ‘It frighted me more than I thought it could have done, to see so many graves lie so high upon the churchyards where people have been buried of the Plague  (8).  Even more horrifying were the sights of the many newly dug pits.  Some of the whereabouts of the pits are known, but the greater majority are lost to us as in time they were built over and forgotten.   Sometimes in recent times when a building project is going,  on a pit will be uncovered,  which is what happened during  the excavations of the Crossrail Link.  Daniel Defoe, born in 1660,  when writing his fictional work Journal of the Plague Year would have been able to talk to survivors of the Plague who were able to inform him of the whereabout of some of  the pits especially the larger ones the awful remembrance of which would have been left ingrained upon their memory.  The known ones include:

Shoreditch, Holywell Mount.  In the main now built over but a small open area still survives  between Holywell Lane,  Scrutton Street and Curtain Road. 



Mount Mill near Goswell Street,  north of Seward Street, Finsbury.  Mentioned by Defoe who described this pit being mostly for victims who had lived in Aldersgate and Clerkenwell.  Later made into a Physick (Herb) Garden but now covered by a car park.  Some of the pit may also lay beneath an open area to the south now a playground in Seward Street.



Bishopsgate Street. Upper end of Hand Alley – now known as New Street.  Defoe wrote ‘The upper end of Hand Alley in Bishopsgate Street was then a green field, and was taken in particulary for Bishopgate parish, though many of the carts out of the City also brought their dead thither also…’   When an attempt was made to build upon the pit quite soon after it is said some of  the bodies were found to be still well preserved enough to be able to distinguish the women by their long hair.   This caused a bit of a problem with concern that this disturbance of the remains would cause the pestilence to rear its head once again.    What to do?   Consequently 2000 bodies were buried nearby in a new pit which was cordoned off with strict instructions it was not to be built upon.  This area would eventually evolve over  time into Rose Alley.   


Hand Alley, now New Street.  The original pit was in a field which lay at the end of the lane to the east and the new pit was built in Rose Alley both of which are encircled – Rose Alley being marked by the green dot.  Ogilvy and Morgan map 1676-79.


New Street and Rose Alley today.  The layouts of  London streets and lanes seldom change over the centuries. 


Stepney Fields – south west of St Dunstan’s and All Saints Church.  Large.  Burial pit for 2,978 victims of the Plague of 1625 as well as  6,583 in 1665 (9). Stepney then was semi rural.  Plague arrived here towards the end of July when 33 died but by September the figures had leaped to 716.   The parish which included areas which backed onto the Thames had a number of ship owners resident there.  They pertinently ‘shut themselves up in their berthed ships, all sails furled under the relentless sun, to see the disaster out’ (10).

St Paul’s Shadwell.  One of five large pits in Stepney.

Moorfields:  Discovered during the building of the Elizabeth Line.  Defoe described plague burials in a ‘piece of ground at Moorfields, by the going into the street which is now called Old Bethlem‘. Gillian Tindell in her book The Tunnel Through Time says this would be the garden of Bethelem Hospital –  which covered over an acre.

Gower’s Walk Whitechapel – excavated in 1893.   Now rebuilt over.

Marylebone – churchyard of St John the Evangelist.

Oxford Street.  During the rebuilding of a bookshop in the 1920 vast numbers of bones were found all heaped together indiscriminately which would suggest this was a plague pit burial (11).

Southwark.  Southwark’s many victims of the plague were buried in fields along Deadman’s Place now known as Park Street –  a name chosen because it run across what had once been the Bishop of Winchester’s Park who had a palace in the area.    The area covering the pit  would later be  absorbed into Messrs. Barclay and Perkins’  Brewery.  Now  redeveloped but the area of the pit can still be seen today.


Deadman’s Place burial ground/plague pit circled in red.  From Horwood’s Plan 1792-99.  Map now held in The British Library.  


The site of Deadman’s Place today.  Now surrounded by houses but still recognisable.   


Fulham, Lille Road.  Large numbers of human remains are said to have been uncovered here in the area of an orchard belonging to Normand House.  Later covered by Lintaine Grove (12).

Rear of 41 Beak Street and Golden Square, Soho. When the houses in Beak Street – of which 41 and 43 are  still standing today – were erected in the late 18th century, cartloads of bones were discovered, which makes it highly likely a plague pit had been uncovered.  This may have been a secondary plague pit or even part of the main one which lay beneath a nearby field that later became known as Golden Square.    Lord Macaulay writing in 1685 tells us  ‘On the east was a field not to be passed without a shudder by any Londoner of that age.There, as in a place far from the haunts of men, had been dug, twenty years before, when the great plague was raging, a pit into which the dead carts had nightly shot corpses by scores. It was popularly believed that the earth was deeply tainted with infection, and could not be disturbed without imminent risk to human life. No foundations were laid there till two generations had passed without any return of the pestilence, and till the ghastly spot had long been surrounded by buildings (13).  

Kensington, Tattersall’s Gate.

Tothill Fields, Westminster.   Part of the pit now lies beneath the  playing fields at Vincent Square (which is owned by Westminster School) and some beneath Government buildings.   Piles of bones were uncovered during excavations as well as broken clay pipes which were smoked by the men who collected and threw the bodies into the pits in the hope that the smoke would ward of the disease.

Green Park.  Discovered in the 1960 during construction of the Victoria Line.

St Giles-in-the-Fields. It is said over 1000 people were buried in pits in the churchyard.

Bakerloo Line, London Depot.  At the south end of the depot lie two tunnels; one leads to Elephant and Castle whilst the other is a dead end and acts as a runaway lane for trains that are unable to stop. Behind the walls of  this tunnel lies a plague pit.

Crossbones Graveyard. Leased to the churchwardens of St Saviour’s parish in 1665 during the height of the Great Plague.  Used later as a burial place for prostitutes.

Upper Street, Angel.  A small triangular piece of land now known as Islington Green covers the area of the plague pit.

St John’s church, Scrandrett Street, Wapping.

Hoxton, Pitfield Street, Hackney.  Now covered by a council estate.  A sign has been erected by Hackney Council  asking residents to ‘Please Keep off the Grass. This is one of many burial grounds pertaining to the Black Plague 1665-1666′.

Whitechapel.  Now covered by Sainsbury’s Supermarket.

Aldgate Station.   This pit was the overspill from the large pit in the nearby churchyard of St Botolph without Aldgate.  This pit about 40 foot long, 15 or 16 foot broad, and 20 foot deep, and between the 6th and the 20th of September, 1,114 bodies were thrown into it (14).  Discovered in the 1860s when the station was being constructed.    Daniel Defoe who must have heard it described by survivors of the plague wrote  ‘A terrible pit it was, and I could not resist my curiosity to go and see it.  As near as I may judge, it was about forty feet in length, and about fifteen or sixteen feet broad, and at the time I first looked at it, about nine feet deep; but it was said they dug it near twenty feet deep afterwards in one part of it, till they could go no deeper for the water; for they had, it seems, dug several large pits before this. For though the plague was long a-coming to our parish, yet, when it did come, there was no parish in or about London where it raged with such violence as in the two parishes of Aldgate and Whitechappel.’

LIVERPOOL STREET STATION.  Stands on the site of the burial ground of old Bethlem/Bedlam hospital.   Mentioned by Defoe.  The skeletons of 45 Plague victims were discovered in one grave during the building of the Elizabeth line.  Archaeologist believe there were originally more than 100 victims buried in layers one on top of the other.  This pit lay not far from the Hand Alley pit mentioned above.

WALTHAMSTOW, VINEGAR ALLEY.  According to local tradition there was a plague pit north of the ancient St Mary’s Church.  The lane running alongside was named after the vinegar that it was believed might ward of the pestilence. 

For more sites of plague pits visit The Reputed Plague Pits of London which has an interactive map.

  1. History of England.  London in 1685.  Lord Macaulay.
  2. The Great Plague of London p.p 13.14. 1924. Walter Bell George Bell.
  3. The Great Plague of London.p.107.  Quoting from A Looking Glass for London 1665.
  4. The Plague in England.  History Today  Vol 30. Issue 4. April 1980. Anne Roberts.
  5. The Great Plague of London p.247. Walter George Bell.
  6. Certain Necessary Directions 1665
  7.  Observations p.46.  John Graunt
  8. Diary, January 30 1666.
  9. Tower Hamlets Independent and East London Advertiser on the 19th October 1901 cited by
  10. The Tunnel Through Time p. 133.  Gillian Tindell. 
  11. The Great Plague of London p.282. Walter Bell
  12. London’s Burial Grounds. Mrs Basil Humes.
  13. History of England.  London in 1685.  Lord Macaulay
  14. The London Burial Grounds, Notes on Their History from the Earliest Times to the Present Day.   Isabella M. Holmes.

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The de Berkeley Heart Burials St Giles Church , Coberley


14th century monument to Sir Thomas de Berkeley of Coberley (1289-d.1365) and his wife Joan Lady de Berkeley nee Archer d. 1369.  The small monument besides the Berkeley monument is that commemorating a heart burial belonging to an unknown female.   St Giles’ Church, Coberley, Gloucestershire.  Photo C B Newham Church  Monuments Society

The large monument in Coberley Church shown above commemorates Sir Thomas de Berkeley (1289-d.1365) and his wife Joan Lady de Berkeley (d.1369).  Joan remarried after Thomas’ death and would therefore have died elsewhere, possibly at Pauntley, the family home of her second husband  William Whittington,  so possibly the tomb and effigies may have been commissioned  prior to Sir Thomas’ death.  Alternatively it’s also possible Joan may have requested burial next to her first husband and the monument was then commissioned by their son, another Thomas (1351-1405).  However moving on –  Sir Thomas  – depicted in armour and who fought at the Battle of Crecy on the 26 August 1346 –  was the son of Sir Giles de Berkeley (1240-1294) who fought in the Crusades.   Joan was the daughter and heir of Geoffrey Archer of Stoke Orchard also known as Stoke Archer.   You could be forgiven for thinking that the photo shows the monuments to a family – the parents on a joint tomb and a separate monument commemorating their small, unnamed daughter and indeed you would not be alone as its erroneously stated in numerous accounts that this is the case.  This would be understandable bearing in mind that there are examples of childrens effigies from that period showing them wearing adult dress as is the figure in the effigy.   See for example the children of  Edward III and his queen Philippa of Hainault who were interred in the Chapel of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey.  Their effigies display them in the adult fashions of the time despite the fact that William of Windsor who was born in 1348 did not make it to his first birthday and his  sister Blanche of the Tower, born in 1342 also lived for only a short while.


William of Windsor and Blanche of the Tower.  Children of Edward III and Philippa of Hainalt.  St Edward the Confessor’s chapel, Westminster Abbey. Photo Westminster

However the small effigy in St Giles’ Church is that of an adult female commemorating the burial of her heart.  The clue, as well as the size of the effigy,  is that her right hand is pulling aside her bodice and pointing to her heart while the left holds what appears to be  a glove, rather than the usual hands clasped together in prayer.


The effigy of the unknown lady.  14th century heart burial.   Could this heart have once belonged to the wife of Sir Giles de Berkeley whose heart was interred in St Giles church, Coberley. Photo C B Newham Church  Monuments Society

Unknown as she is – although the Church Monuments society have suggested she was a member of the Berkeley family –  we will never know why this lady had requested that her heart be buried in a separate place to her body. However – having had a lightbulb moment –  I do wonder if the heart buried was that of Sir Giles’ wife who perhaps had opted for her heart to be interred in the same place as that of her husband’s while both their bodies would be interred at St Giles Priory,  Little Malvern? I will return to Sir Gile’s heart burial later.   Certainly her costume is that of an earlier era to the period of the costumes of Sir Thomas and Joan which again is another reason for debunking the chances that this was their daughter.  Still as per usual let not facts get in the way of a heart rendering story that brings tears to the eyes of the unwary onlooker.

As mentioned above after Thomas’ death in 1365 Joan would marry William Whittington of Pauntley  the elder brother of  the famous Richard Whittington who went on to be Lord Mayor of London (be careful not to get our Joan muddled up with her mother-in-law, Joan Maunsel, something I have seen repeatedly while researching this post OR even our Joan being the mother of her brothers-in-law – sigh).   This second marriage was of short duration though with Joan dying in 1369 (1)


Stone effigy of Joan Lady Berkeley. After Thomas’ death in 1365 Joan would marry William Whittington of Pauntley  the elder brother of  the famous Richard Whittington who went on to become Lord Mayor of London as well as a fabulously rich man and a great benefactor to Londoners.   

In an aside to this story in 2012 an attempt was made to steal the small female effigy.   I will let Sally Strachey of  Historic Conservation take up the story : ‘Thieves had quite boldly wandered into the open church with tools for the job and attempted to lift the monument. In doing so, the effigy had been uprooted and the stone edges have been damaged where a crowbar had been used on it. Luckily, I think they probably gave up when they attempted to handle the deceptively heavy girl and looked back down the hundred meter walk back to the car park!’ (2).  The monument has since been made, hopefully,  thief/idiot proof.

The small effigy is not the only monument commemorating a heart burial in St Giles’ church.  A second one in the form of a wall memorial, commemorating Sir Thomas’ father, Sir Giles de Berkeley (1240-1294) can be found opposite the monument to his son.  Sir Giles is portrayed holding a large heart over his shield.  He fought in the Crusades and while he  was buried in St Giles Priory,  Little Malvern  his heart was returned to the family home at Coberley in Gloucestershire.  His favourite charger, Lombard, is said to be buried in the churchyard , a story which is confirmed on a  plaque beneath the wall monument (3).     Another known horse burial in a churchyard occurred over a century later – this time the owner of the horse, Ranulph Lord Dacre, was buried with his horse and not in the church after the Battle of Towton on the 29th March 1461  This might imply that the owners of horses that perhaps had accompanied them into battle and were well loved had their steeds buried in churchyards more than we think.   


13th century wall monument commemorating Sir Giles de Berkeley.  Photos RexHarris @ Flikr.


Plaque below Sir Giles de Berkeley’s monument noting the burial in the churchyard of Lombard – his favourite charger.   Unknown photographer.

Sometimes hearts were buried separately due to the owner dying very far from home.  However in the case of Robert the Bruce it would be the reverse with Robert being buried in Dunfermline Abbey but requesting  that his heart be buried in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  This did not go according to plan.   It’s a great story and has been told elsewhere but as this post is about heart burials it’s too good not to give it a mention here.  Briefly the faithful James Douglas set out for the Holy Land in fulfilment of his oath to the dying King, taking the Bruce’s heart with him in a silver casket. However during a ferocious  battle that was going badly for him Douglas threw the heart of the Bruce deep into the melee, biding it “Go first as thou hast always done.”  Douglas himself was killed in the ensuing fighting.  The casket containing the heart of the Bruce and Douglas’ body were both retrieved and  carried back to Scotland by Sir William Keith of Galston and  the heart finally interred at the Abbey of Melrose.

Another famous heart burial was that of Eleanor of Castile (1241-1290) wife to Edward lst. Her body was interred in a fabulous tomb in Edward the Confessor’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, her heart was buried at the Dominican priory at Blackfriars next to her son Alphonso who had died at II years old and her viscera interred at Lincoln Cathedral.

While researching this post I have discovered that heart burials were not as rare as I first thought.  I’ve found several others besides the more famous ones of Eleanor and the Bruce in Frederick Crossley’s wonderful book English Church Monuments.  Printed in 1921 this book is an absolute wealth of information on church monuments.


Monument commemorating the heart burial of Bishop Aymer de Valence c.1261. Winchester Cathedral.  Shown in Crossley’s English Church Memorials p.48.  Photo with thanks to 


Monument to a heart burial said to be dedicated to either Robert de Roos, 1st Baron de Ros, 1285  or according, to the Crossley book – English Church Monuments p.179 –   to William de Albini/d’Aubigné c.1280.  St Mary’s Bottesford, Leicestershire.  Photo with thanks to jmc4 Church Explorer.

Originally this small monument – only 16′ tall-  was at Croxton Abbey – where King John’s heart was buried –  from whence it was brought to St Mary’s at the Dissolution.  The figure clad in chainmail appears to be holding a heart.  The plaque below, which is thought to have once lain over Robert’s heart, was also brought back with the monument but it’s impossible to say if the heart accompanied them.    Hopefully it did.   Robert was married to William de Albini’s daughter and heir Isabella which is where the confusion may have arisen. 


“Here lies the heart of Lord Robert de Roos
Whose body is buried at Kirkham
Who died the 13th of the Kalends of June AD 1285
Isabella Lady de Roos Wife of the said
Robert de Roos lies at a new place near Stamford who died AD 1301

(Photo with thanks to J.Hannan-Briggs)

So keep that in mind dear reader in your wanderings… it may well be that you come across a small effigy in a church somewhere and your eyes moisten at the thought of a dear lost child.  It may not be what it appears to be…

  1. BERKELEY, Thomas (1351-1405) of Coberley and Stoke Orchard, Glos., Chilcote, Derbys and Elsersfield, Worcs. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993. Author L S Woodger.
  2. The attempted theft of the unknown girSt Giles Church, Coberley.
  3. Church leaflet John Williams also The King’s England – Gloucestershire Arthur Mee.

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Sir Edward Dalyngrigge – Soldier, Politican, Courtier and Builder of Bodiam Castle


Bodiam Castle, Sussex. Built by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge between 1385-1388.  Photo History of Bodiam Castle. 

Bodiam Castle.  What a beauty and is it possible to find an even finer epitome of a medieval English Castle?  The builder was Sir Edward  Dalyngrigge –  also spelt Dallingridge  –  (c.1346-1393),  the son and heir  of Roger Dallingridge (c.1311-1380) of Dallingridge and Alice Radingden, daughter and heiress of  Sir John Radingden of Radynden, Sussex.  In the early 14th century the Dallingridge family had originally been minor gentry who rose through the ranks after making several lucrative marriages.  Edward’s grandfather John (d.1335) through his marriage to Joan, daughter of Sir Walter de la Lynde, a wealthy Lincolnshire man,  acquired the manor of Bolebrook in Sussex as well as a moiety of that of Laceby in Lincolnshire.  RogerEdward’s father,  would continue the trend when he married Alice Radingden.  When Sir John Radingden died in 1359, Alice’s inheritance included five manors including  Sheffield (the one in Sussex and not the one up north!) and Fletching, 25 miles east of Bodiam.  Fletching being the principal seat of his parents was probably  where Sir Edward spent his childhood.  In Fletching church there is a fine brass to a knight and lady from the Dalyngrigge family and although its been identified as Walter, Sir Edward’s younger brother, it is more than likely their parents, Roger and Alice.  Note the lady’s headdress fashionable c.1375-1380 and that Roger’s death occurred in 1380.


Dalyngrigge brass in Fletching Church.  Possibly that of Roger and Alice, Sir Edward parents.

On Roger’s death all these inherited lands would pass to Edward, who had already made his fortune from his  time spent in France.  His wealth had already been further bolstered  when he too adhered to family tradition and made an ‘opportune marriage’  – arranged by his father –  when in about November 1364 he married Elizabeth Wardieu/Wardedieu (b.c.1347-d.1383) daughter of John Wardieu of Sywell, Northants and importantly Bodiam.   When Elizabeth’s father died in 1377 she  inherited the manors at Bodiam and Hollington as well as 750 acres of land elsewhere in Sussex, a number of properties in Kent, and the manors of Sywell, Hannington and Arthingworth in Northamptonshire although her entitlement to certain estates in Leicestershire and Rutland was disputed.  However, quelle surprise,  the  Dalyngrigges triumphed.  Added to this Sir Edward, now one of the wealthiest landowners of his county would add to his ever growing lands and properties by  further purchases such as the manor of Iden.  However he would make Bodiam his principal residence. (1).

There is a beautiful  but damaged brass in Bodiam church of a man in 14th armour identifiable by its heraldry as being  that of a member of the Wardieu family.  It has been suggested it is Sir John Wardieu, Elizabeth’s father,  but it appears to be of an earlier date and possibly of her grandfather. 


Effigy of a member of the Wardieu family in 14th century armour in Bodiam church – possibly Elizabeth’s father or grandfather. 


Sir Edward has been described as a ‘successful career soldier, politician and courtier’.  He seems to have been successful at every stage of his career although of course in those frequent tricky times things did not always go according to plan and one could easily find oneself getting into scrapes.  And indeed our Sir Edward, who had close links to the Earl of Arundel,  finding himself on the wrong side of John of Gaunt ended up in prison not once but twice when in June 1384 in a culmination of the long running feud between him and Gaunt,  he was summoned to appear in court during a special commission of oyer and terminer at the suit of Gaunt. (2).  The tribunal was ‘strongly biased in Gaunt’s favour’ and Sir Edward ‘treating the case as a matter of honour’ appears to have gone full tonto, throwing his gauntlet down according to some accounts, and answering the charges ‘with a wager of battle ‘ as you do.  Obviously this did not pan out well for him and he was committed to custody for contempt of court (3). His patron the earl of  Arundel managed to sweet talk the king, Richard II,  into releasing him on the 26 July  while the king was a guest at Arundel castle and Gaunt otherwise preoccupied – well he was abroad at the time basically.  On Gaunt’s return in October he rectified the matter,  well to his liking,  and had Sir Edward rearrested and this time he stayed that way until the following January when he was released, his skills being urgently required to supervise the fortification of Rye and Winchelsea in the face of threats of a French invasion.  I do wonder if this stuck in Gaunt’s craw? (4). 

This was not Sir Edward’s first experience at finding himself on the wrong side of the law for in the autumn of 1370 he had been ‘ …arrested and brought before Edward III’s council for having failed to embark for France in the major expeditionary army commanded by Sir Robert Knolles after receiving an advance payment of his wages’ (5). However as far as I can tell he appears to have emerged from that unscathed and on the best of terms with Sir Robert – indeed Sir Robert’s arms were carved above one of Bodiam’s gates.  

Here is just a very brief curriculum vitae of some of the posts Sir Edward held:

Steward to the widowed Countess Warenne in the 1350s.  After her death in 1361  transferred his services to her heir Richard, Earl of Arundel.

Over a 30 year period covering 1359-89 he served in many of the major expeditions against France.

Master forester at Ashdown Chase 13 Aug. 1381-6 Sept. 1383.

Represented Sussex in Parliament on 4 occasions between 1360-1377 (6).

Served in the retinue of the Earl of Arundel during Gaunt’s expedition to France 1369

Served in the retinue of Edward, Lord Despenser 1373 and 1375

Served as a commissioner of array in 1377, 1385, 1386 and 1392

Member of Richard II’s council 4 May 1389

Ambassador to France 12 Apr – 15 July 1390

Keeper and escheator of the City of London 25 June-22 July 1392

For those who would like to delve further into Sir Edward’s career the best and fullest account I have come across is that to be found on the online The History of Parliament.  I found another useful account in Dan Spencer’s  Edward Dallingridge: Builder of Bodiam Castle.


We have seen from above how Bodiam came into the possession of Sir Edward who abandoned the Wardieus’ original manor house – which stood at the northern end of the village –  to build his new castle lower down by the River Rother.   He was granted a licence to crenellate on the 20 October 1385:

 ‘The King to all men to whom etc greeting.  Know that of our special grace we have granted and given licence on behalf of ourselves and our heirs, in so far as in us lies, to our beloved and faithful Edward Dallingridge Knight, that he may strengthen with a wall of stone and lime, and crenellate and may construct and make into a castle his manor house of Bodyham,  near  the sea,  for the defence of the adjacent country and resistance to our enemies, and may hold his aforesaid house so strengthened and crenellated and made into a castle for himself and his heirs for ever,  without let or hindrance of ourselves or our heirs, or any of our agents whatsoever.  In witness of which etc.  The King at Westminster 20 October’ (7). 

Nevertheless since the 19th century it has been hotly debated by both architectural and military historians whether Bodiam was ‘essentially a fortress with residential provision built to defend the country from French attack or whether it was primarily a residence built in a fortified style’ (8). Architectural historian Anthony Emery has suggested that the castle was Sir Edward’s ‘belligerent response to his wounded ego’ having been ‘bested in his quarrel with John of Gaunt’s agents in Sussex during the early 1380s’ (9).    So a kind of defiant ‘up yours’ maybe?  And we do know how very fragile the egos of these members of the medieval aristocracy could be.    Bodiam has also been described as having serious military vunerability’ such as an easy to drain moat and badly situated gun ports.  Its also been suggested it may have been ‘an old soldier’s dream house –  although I would argue with that comparison – Sir Edward was neither old and although dying at home in his own bed, this veteran of the Hundred Years War was surely the absolute epitome of a medieval warrior as far as I’m concerned and remained so until the day he drew his last breath (10).   Anthony Emery has also opined that Bodiam was ‘a house of swagger with the architectural trappings of defence set in a deliberately conceived landscape, yet it is also markedly impressive irrespective of its owners intent for mindset’ (11).  But therein lays the exquisite, unique beauty of Bodiam Castle which lacks the foreboding appearance of many castles such as Conwy, Caernarfon or Goodrich for example although to be fair they were earlier.  Bodiam looks sublime, almost welcoming,  in a glorious setting and on a misty day or in a certain light has the appearance of floating above the water of the moat, a romantic and atmospheric ruin.  


Evocative image of Bodiam Castle at dusk.  Photo thanks to Peter Blake at flikr.

Sir Edward was dead by August 1393, a comparatively short life, but he had been able to enjoy the newly built Bodiam castle for a time albeit short.  He would be buried next to Elizabeth in the Cistercian abbey at nearby Robertsbridge.  He would be succeeded by his son Sir John who would also go on to be a politician, courtier and royal ambassador.  Sir John would marry Alice Boteler/Butler in 1406 dying two years later childless.


As we see above Sir John married Alice Boteler/Butler nee Beauchamp, widow of Thomas Boteler/Butler of Sudeley who had died in 1398.  Going off on a total tangent here – but much too interesting to leave out –  is that Alice and Thomas were the parents of Ralph Boteler/Butler, Lord Sudeley, whose son, another Thomas,  was the first husband of Eleanor Talbot (c. 1436 – June 1468) daughter of the famous John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.   The widowed Eleanor would later marry Edward IV in a secret ceremony.   It was this secret marriage, known as a ‘precontract’, that made his later second – yet another secret  ‘marriage’  – to Elizabeth Woodville/Wydville bigamous.  Thus the children of this second clandestine ‘marriage’ were declared illegitimate in 1483 when Edward IV suddenly and unexpectedly died and the secret got out after Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells,  let the cat out of the bag.  This would, with all its tragic repercussions,  prove to be the catalyst for the destruction of the royal House of York culminating in the death of Richard III at Bosworth in 1485.  The two sons from this Woodville marriage were of course Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury – the missing princes.   But that, of course dear reader, is another story….

  1. The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe 1993.
  2. Edward Dallingridge: Builder of Bodiam Castle.   Dan Spencer.University of Southampton

  3. Ibid.
  4. DALLINGRIDGE Sir Edward (c.1346-1393) of Bodiam Castle, Sussex.  ed J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993.
  5. Lyte, Morris, Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1367-1370, p. 475.  See also DALLINGRIDGE, Sir Edward (c.1346-1393), of Bodiam castle, Suss History of Parliament online.
  6. The House of Commons 1386-1421 Vol 2. p.739.  Roskell.
  7. Calendar of the Patent Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office: Richard II. A.D. 1385- 1389.
  8. Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales Vol.3 p.p 317-318.  Anthony Emery. 
  9. Lancaster – v – Dallingridge: a franchisal dispute in fourteenth century Sussex.  Sussex Archive Collection 121 (1983) p.p.87-94. S. Walker    
  10. D. J. Turner, ‘Bodiam Sussex: True Castle or Old Soldier’s Dream House? England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxtion Symposium, ed. by W. M. Ormrod (Woodbridge: The Boydell, 1986), pp. 267-277.
  11. Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales Vol.3 p.p 317-318.  Anthony Emery.

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Ralph Boteler, Lord Sudeley, father-in-law to Lady Eleanor Talbot.


A Portrait of Edward V and Perhaps Even a Resting Place?- St Matthew’s Church Coldridge

JOHN ROUS – Author of The Rous Roll, Warwickshire Antiquarian, Chantry Chaplain and Turncoat Extraordinaire?


John Rous ‘drawne by himselfe’.   From the Latin ‘Lancastrian’ version of the rolls.  College of Arms.

John Rous or Rows as he called himself (b.c1420 d. 14 January 1492) was the son of  Geoffrey Rous of Warwick, who was a younger son of Thomas Rous of Brinklow, and Margaret, the daughter of Richard Fyncham.  An interesting man, although not without flaws,  and who left us a wealth of information regarding the Earls of Warwick and their families as well as his version of events regarding the reign and fall  of Richard III.  He was chaplain of the Chantry Chapel at Guy’s Cliff and resided there for the most part of his adult life in the house that was provided nearby for the priests of that chapel.  The chapel was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene and had been founded in 1423 by Richard Beauchamp earl of Warwick (b.1382 d.1439). 


Chantry Chapel at Guy’s Cliff.  Early 19th century engraving.  Artist unknown.

 He was  the creator of the Rous Roll, an illustrated chronicle on rolls of vellum detailing the history of the Earls of Warwick of which he made two versions – one in English known as the Yorkist Roll,  the other in Latin known as the Lancastrian Roll both of which were accompanied by beautiful line drawings in pen and wash.   This work was produced between 1477 and 1485 and thus ended with the death of Richard III at Bosworth in August 1485 and Henry Tudor taking the throne.  This would prove to be a bit tricky for Rous who had written in positive and gushing manner about the dead Richard.  What to do?  Doubtlessly after causing him a few sleepless nights he managed to doctor the Latin roll but was unable to get hold of the English version. Yikes!


Richard as portrayed in the English version of Rous Roll.  The king holds a sword in one hand and Warwick Castle in the other.  This version of the roll is now held in the British Library.

‘Rex Richardus tercius – born in the Castel of Foderiyngay a myghti prince in his dayes special gode lord to the town & lordship of Warrewyk wher yn the castel he did gret cost off byldyng In the which his most noble lady & wyf was born and at gret instance of her he of his bounteous grace with owt fee or fyn graunt to the seyd borowh frely by charter as kyng William Conquerour his noble progenitor a fore tym gret previlagis’. 

Untitled 2

Second depiction of Richard III in the English version.  Crowned, holding a sword in his right  hand and an orb in his left hand.  His cognizance, the white boar at his feet.  English version of the Rous Roll. British Library.

The moost mighty prynce Rychard by the grace of god kynge of ynglond and of fraunce and lord of Irelond by verrey matrimony with owt dyscontynewans or any defylynge yn the lawe by eyre male lineally dyscendyng from kynge harre the second all avarice set a syde Rewled hys subjettys In hys Realme ful commendabylly poneschynge offenders of hys laws specyally Extorcioners and oppressors of hys comyns and chereschynge tho that were vertues by the whyche dyscrete guydynfe he gat gret thank of god and love of all hys subjettys Ryche and pore and gret lavd of the people of all othyr landys a bowt hym

However he seemed to have got away with it and with his head still intact was able to dedicate his other famous work, Historia regum Anglie/ Joannis Rossi Antiquarii Warwicensis Historia Regum Angliae, which he completed in 1487,  to the new king Henry VII, who according to Rous had ‘been sent by God’ (1) Moreover  Historia would go on to savagely blacken Richard III’s name.   It is this quite extraordinary, and to be honest,  rather craven,  volte-face on his original rapturous descriptions of Richard contained in the rolls, which have led to some, well many actually,  viewing him as nothing more than a dastardly turncoat.    Other than to blatantly curry favour with the new king is there anything that could perhaps excuse this strange and discombobulated turnaround?  It has been suggested by some historians, including Dr Alison Hanham,  that he may have actually believed the scurrilous and damaging rumours that Richard had poisoned his Queen, Anne Neville, daughter of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker, and Anne Beauchamp who was herself a daughter to the earlier Earl of Warwick, Richard Beauchamp who had founded the chapel at Guy’s Cliff and this could explain the viciousness of his attack on the late king (2).IMG_9384

Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick.  Founder of the chapel at Guy’s Cliff which may be the smaller building depicted.   Carries the infant Henry VI – who is shown crowned and sceptered –  upon his left arm and a mace for that monarch’s defence.  At his feet a muzzled bear. English version of Rous Roll.  British Library.

According to our Rous, Richard,  prior to murdering his wife,  had also kept her mother,  the widowed countess, a prisoner after ‘she had fled to him as her chief refuge and he locked her up for the duration of his life’.  What his wife had to say about the cruel incarceration of her mother is lost to us in the mist of time – quelle surprise.   The accusations fall fast and furious including the horrid murder of his nephews, Edward V  and his brother Richard of Shrewsbury,  although he doesn’t know the manner of their deaths – no-one does – only that they have been heinously ‘slaughtered’ and Richard has taken the young murdered king’s throne.   Rous’ Richard clearly took regicide in his stride because when he was the 17 year old Duke of Gloucester he had also ‘caused others‘  to  murder another king –  the ‘holy man‘ King Henry VI – and furthermore it was ‘thought by many’  that he had done this with his very own hand  – obvs.  With Richard in full tonto mode its almost a relief when Rous reaches the part where Richard is entering ‘the evening of his life’.   But it’s not quite over yet  –  Richard, who was ‘excessively cruel in his days‘  –  is compared to the Antichrist and ‘like Antichrist to come, he was confounded at his moment of greatest pride‘,  as you are, following which he was ‘unexpectedly destroyed in the midst of his army by an invading army small by comparison but furious in impetus, like a wretched creature‘. Blimey!  And it’s here at this very point, having made verbal mincemeat of the now dead king,  that bizarrely Rous does yet another quite bewildering about-face :  ‘For all that, let me say the truth to his credit’.. !  We will return to this important point below where it is discussed in the excerpt from David Johnson’s article John Rous: The man who said too much.*  

 If Rous had heard, and swallowed,  the rather unsavoury propaganda regarding the murder of his wife and imprisonment of his mother-in-law,  it may well have led to him, an avid admirer of both Anne and her mother,  being a very angry and bitter man.  However if we accept that he – being ensconced mostly at Guy’s Cliff and Warwick – he did of course  sometimes travel further afield including London, later recalling  ‘In the days of this king (Edward IV) an elephant was brought to England, which I saw at London, but it soon declined’ – and being rather out of the loop,  swallowed this nonsense it’s rather pushing the bounds of belief that he had also heard and also believed an even further nonsensical rumour that Richard had been ‘retained within his mother’s womb for two years and emerging with teeth and hair to his shoulders. … At his nativity Scorpio was in the ascendant, which is the sign of the house of Mars. And like a scorpion he combined a smooth front with a stinging tail’.   However Rous had got the date of Richard’s birthday muddled – rather than being born on the 21 October and under Scorpio he had in actual fact been born on the 2 October thus under Libra.  Nevertheless Rous apparently was not one to let fact stand in the way of a good and rather lurid story.  No! I fear our Rous was the instigator of at least some of this nonsense and he may have been merely nothing more than a basic out and out turncoat intent on worming his way into the good books of the new Tudor king. Oh dear..I am trying hard to find some redeemable qualities here…

Pressing on – Dr Hanham in her excellent book Richard III and his early historians 1483-1535 has helpfully added a modern translation of Joannis Rossi Antiquarii Warwicensis Historia Regum Angliae which has been most helpful to me in writing this post.   Unfortunately there is little in Dr Hanham’s comments about Rous to redeem his rather moth-eaten reputation: 

His tales of Richards monstrous birth and deformity deter a later time from taking him seriously and his extremely jumbled account of events makes it seem more likely that he concocted  his history from other sources than that it is in any sense an eyewitnesses testimony’.  He is described as an ‘old-fashioned antiquarian rather than a historian and busy minded man who loved gossip’ and his narrative of Richard’s reign ‘is a rag bag of gleanings’.   However to be fair, as Dr Hanham also points out,  Rous was not the instigator of the odious and ‘unprovable’ rumour that Richard had his Queen poisoned and ‘His animus against Richard may therefore derive in part from the belief that Richard had murdered his wife..’ which is something to give thanks for… I suppose. 

But is it all as it seems?  And has history’s judgement of Rous been too harsh?  He himself would say, rather mysteriously, that he had been ‘unjustly vexed with many tribulations’  (3).  An article in the Richard III Society Bulletin John Rous – The man who said too much  by David Johnson has taken a somewhat softer stance and does indeed make some interesting points.  For example after Henry taking the throne he took the astonishingly draconian step of predating his reign to the day before the battle of Bosworth which had taken place on the 22 August 1485 (4).This was such an unfair, atrocious act that even the Croyland Chronicler, who was not a fan of Richard III, denounced it and recording that because of it Henry’s parliament was on the receiving end of  ‘much argument, or to be, more truthful, rebuke’ (5).  The act would leave those men who had fought for their rightful king in the unenviable position of being traitors with all the calamities this could bring upon both them and their families.  This combined with the belief that it was dangerous to be in possession of the repealed Titulus Regius as well as a new ruling after the rebellion of 1486 that would deny sanctuary to anyone deemed guilty of treason  – ‘Henceforth sanctuary was not pleadable in treason‘  – may have made even the stoutest of hearts quake a little (6). .


Henry VII.  Oil on panel 1505.  Unknown Netherlandish artist.  NPG.  

Clearly it was not prudent to be identified as an admirer of the late king.  In his thought provoking article David Johnson suggests that ‘anyone like Rous who had enthusiastically supported Richard III would have felt threatened by such repressive measures’.   However ‘.. it also seems that the ferocity of Rous’ volte-face may have pricked his conscience. If we examine the Historia carefully we can see him wrestling rather uncomfortably with his drastically revised opinion of Richard. Following the tirade of abuse outlined at the beginning of this paper, the Historia revealingly changed tack and introduced a description of Richard’s bravery at Bosworth with the plea: ‘For all that, let me say the truth to his credit.’ *This is a remarkable statement to make in the circumstances, seeming to imply that what Rous had written in proceeding passages of the Historia was not altogether correct, and that he was now begging permission to tell the truth. Here we see the inner turmoil of a man driven to falsehood by fear and apprehension. Rous, it appears, acted to save himself in the frighteningly unpredictable world of the first Tudor king. He seems to have been convinced that his previously expressed admiration for Richard placed him in peril, and he did all in his power to replace it with the ‘ardour of love’ for Henry and as much revulsion for Richard as he could bear…’ (7). 

Is this, sadly,  how it went….?


Anne  Beauchamp and her husband, Richard Neville, ‘The Kingmaker,’ Earl of Warwick.  From the Latin version of the Rous Roll.  Donated to the College of Arms by Melvyn Jeremiah.

So having said all the above how should we view the bulk of his history of the Earls of Warwick as well as his others writings?  With caution definitely.   Charles Ross opines that Rous sufferered from ‘a narrowness of view.  Rous saw the mediaeval earls of Warwick through blinkers. The left eye was that of the local historian,  for whom events concerning  Warwick were the centre of attention,  the right eye was anxious to please the lords of Warwick of his own day’.  Clearly for Rous ‘there was was no such thing as a bad Earl of Warwick’ (8). 

However all is not lost and historian Nicholas Orme opines although he was often inaccurate about details and dates, mingling history with myth, nevertheless  he used a wide range of writers, often referred to his sources and compared  the population figures given in the hundred rolls of 1279 with those of places in his own day… He recognised the historical value of paintings and monuments, and though he did not altogether master the history of costume, he had an understanding of the evolution of body armour. His lists of university halls and deserted villages show an eye for institutions disregarded in his own day. With his contemporary and fellow Oxonian, William Worcester, he is deservedly recognised as one of the earliest major English antiquaries’ (9).  

Personally I like him best for his outspoken views on the  Enclosure Movement which saw thousands of hapless people turfed out of their villages and homes,  their livelihoods lost to them, by the unabated greed of their landlords.  He felt ‘stirred to rise against the devastation and destruction of villages by mouth and pen following the clamor and murmurings of the populace’.

The cruel injustice of the Enclosures was something that Rous felt deeply and passionately about  and he devoted three passages to it in Historia as well as  ‘listing the  seventy-eight (deserted villages) that were all within his home county of Warwickshire’ castigating the enclosing landlords as “murderers of the impoverished,” destroyers of humanity,” and “venomous snakes.” They had shown no mercy to “the children, tenants, and others whom they have forced from their homes by theft,” and so could expect “judgment without mercy” in the afterlife; certainly he would not be singing any masses for the souls of these “destroyers of towns’ (10).    And I hope heartily  that if any of these landlords chanced upon Rous’ opinions of them they had the grace to blush.  

So have we and history judged Rous too harshly?  Charles Ross has likened him to the character of the Vicar of Bray whose career may be niftily summed up in the chorus of a recently written folk song about him:

‘And this be law, that I’ll maintain until my dying day, sir
That whatsoever king may reign,  still I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir’.

However Ross slightly softens his stance when he recalls the beautiful tributes made by Rous to both Queen Anne Neville and her mother, Anne Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick. Of  Queen Anne Neville he wrote  ‘In person she was seemly, amiable and beauteous and according to the interpretation of her name Anne full gracious’.


Queen Anne Neville.  English version of the Rous Roll.  The queen, in royal robes, holding the sceptre and orb.  Hands appearing from clouds  on either side of her offer her the crowns of Lancaster and York alluding to her two marriages.  At her feet the muzzled bear of Warwick. 

And for Anne Beauchamp, whom he would have known personally, he wrote ‘Dam Anne Beauchamp a noble lady of the blode royal dowhter to Eorl Rychard and hole sustre and eyr to fir herre Beauchamp duke of Warrwik and aftre the deffese of his only begoten dowhtre Lady An.  by trew enheritans countas of Warrewick which goode lady had in her dayes grete tribulacon for her lordis fake Syre Rychard Neeuel fon and Eyre to fir Rychard Eorl of Salifbury and by her tityll Eorl of Warrwik a famus knyghe and excellent gretly fpoke of thorow thr mofte part of all chrifendam.  This gode lady was born in the manor of Cawerfham by redyng in the counte of oxenforde and was euer a full deuout lady in Goddis feruys fre of her fpeche to euery perfon familier accordyng to her and thore degre. Glad to be at and with women that traueld of chyld.  full comfortable and plenteus then of all thyng that shuld be helpyng to hem. and in hyr tribulacons fhe was euer to the gret pleafure of God full pacient. to the grete meryte of her own fowl and enfample of all odre that were vexid with eny aduerfyte.  Sho was alfo gladly euer companable and liberal and in her own perfone femly and bewteus and to all that drew to her ladifhup as the dede fhewid ful gode and gracious. her refon was and euer fhall. 

Charles Ross’ closing comment in his Historical Introduction to The Rous Roll reads  ‘For this generous tribute to an eclipsed Countess perhaps Rous should be forgiven a great deal’…. (11). 

So, sticking my head above the parapet here,  was Rous just a frightened elderly man,  nervous about his future as one of those who had once waxed lyrical about the defeated  King Richard III?   It’s said that history will judge men and so it does but has it got it wrong  in its appraisal of Rous?  I’ll leave you dear reader to make your own mind up about that one…

John Rous died on the 14th of January 1492 and was buried in the nave of the Collegiate Church of Saint Mary,  Warwick.  Leyland who saw the tomb 50 years later recorded what seems to have been its Latin inscription commemorating ‘John Rous chaplain of the Chantry of Gibclif who constructed the library above the south porch of this church and equipped it with books’.  However both his library and tomb were destroyed in the great fire that devastated Warwick and parts of the church on the 5 September 1694.

 1. Richard III and his earlier historians 1483-1535. Excursis. John Rous’ account of the reign of Richard III. p.p.118.124.  Alison Hanham.

2. Ibid.p.124

3. Historia regum Anglie/ Joannis Rossi Antiquarii Warwicensis Historia Regum Angliae  

4. Chrimes, Henry VII, pp 50. 63.

5. N Pronay & J Cox The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486, London 1986, p 195

6. Chrimes, Henry VII, p 71 7 n 4.

7. JOHN ROUS THE MAN WHO SAID TOO MUCH. David Johnson.  Ricardian Bulletin article December 2013. 

8. The Rous Roll p.xii.  Introduction. Charles Ross. 1980.

9.  Rous, John (c.1420-1492). Oxford Dictionary of National  Biography. September 2004.  Nicholas Orme.

10.  These Destroyers of Towns. Matthew Green.  Online article

11. The Rous Roll p.xviii Introduction. Charles Ross. 1980.

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A glimpse of  St Martin’s church from the millpond looking north.  This wonderful photo thanks to David Ireland. 

‘It may not be liefull for euery man to vse his owne as hym lysteth, but eueyre man must vse that he hath to the most benefyte of his countrie. Ther must be somethynge deuysed to quenche this insatiable thirst of greedynes of men.…’ John Hales 1549.

Since early medieval times Britain’s landscape has been prolifically dotted with deserted villages.  The abandonment of these villages was the result of, in the main, either pestilence,  which led  to the last few shell shocked survivors of these catastrophic events leaving their homes  or because the landowners wanted to have the land for the more lucrative returns made from sheep farming.  This view has been described as rather simplistic – Harriett Bradley argued in her interesting article that there were already changes afoot prior to the arrival of the  Black Death in the 14th century  – but agreed that the pestilence would have certainly accelerated matters (1).

Let’s look at the latter reason which brought about the forced abandonment of homes and villages by the people that had lived in them, some for generations.  This particular type of eviction became known as the Enclosure Movement which, with all its resultant cruelty,  led to an avalanche of evictions and was much denounced.  Many worthies of the time railed against these evictions including John Rous, the 15th century Warwickshire chantry priest and antiquarian who also listed the  54 places “which, within a circuit of thirteen miles about Warwick had been wholly or partially depopulated before about 1486″ (2).   Rous clearly did not believe in holding back and went full tonto with his  description of Richard III comparing the late king to both the  Antichrist and a scorpion, being born with a full  set of teeth and hair flowing to his shoulders and who was excessively cruel in his days (3).  He made verbal mincement of the unscrupulous landlords of the times and  Matthew Green succinctly describes in his book “Shadowlands” how Rous castigated the landlords, describing them as worshippers of Mammon”,  murderers of the impoverished“, “destroyers of humanity,” and “venomous snakes.”   They had shown no mercy to “the children, tenants, and others whom they have forced from their homes by theft,” and so could expect “judgment without mercy” in the afterlife;  furthermore he would certainly not be singing any masses for the souls of these “destroyers of towns‘ (4).  An interesting excerpt from Green’s book can be found here.

Thomas More in his Utopia written in 1516 stated:

‘…those miserable people… are all forced to change their seats, not knowing whither to go; and they must sell, almost for nothing, their household stuff.  When that little money is at an end,  for it will soon be spent, what is left for them to do but either to steal and so to be hanged or to go about and beg’. 

Decades later someone would write a short poem entitled ‘Stealing the Common from the Goose’ in the 18th century neatly encompassing the injustice of it all:

“The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose.”

During the excavations of 1964 the bones of a man who had laid down to die beside one of the houses was discovered.  His name and story are unknown to us and we can only speculate.  Was he, as Matthew Green suggests,  ‘a famished vagabond’  at the end of his journey in this life or was he a villager, ‘obstinate to the end’, who returned home to die?


Wharram Percy is one of the most well preserved examples of such a deserted village standing in an idyllic spot in the heart of the Yorkshire Wolds.  This village, with the remains of its church,  about 40 grassed over peasants houses plus two manor houses was indeed one of the victims of the Enclosure Movement although most probably already left vulnerable in the aftermath of the Black Death which had decimated the country in the 14th century leaving in its wake between a third and a half of the population dead.  By 1349  Wharram Percy’s population of 67 was reduced to about 45.  Basically this catastrophic pestilence would have a knock on effect bringing about radical change.  The massively high death rate left behind fewer people to work the land.  This, combined with some of the survivors having witnessed the agonising deaths of loved ones and friends  abandoning their decimated villages in an effort to find an easier way of making a living,  led to demands for higher wages from those who stayed.  This turn of events would leave some smaller villages in a precarious position which would eventually sound their death knell.  Wharram Percy would survive this calamity and a visitor in  1368 would have found  ‘… about 30 of its houses still  occupied,  one of the mills was working profitably and both millponds generating an income from fishing. Though there were fewer households in the late 14th century, they were doubtless better off,  as shown by the excavated large peasant longhouse overlooking the church.’ (5). Tragically the village would not survive Enclosure. The final eviction of four families and the demolition of their homes marked the end of village life in c.1500.


Now if you thought that you had drawn life’s short straw to be born into medieval peasant stock it could actually be even atrocious than first appears for there was several echelons of peasantry society.   Those unfortunates who occupied the  lowest rungs of  the ladder were known as cottars.  There was only one step lower you could go than a cottar and that was homeless beggar.  These cottars, or cottagers as they were also known,  could hold no land other than their toft which was a small yard or garden surrounding their home.  Owning livestock or even a plough was out of the question.  They would pay their rent to the lord of the manor via their labour.  Any spare time they had was spent working as hired hands, if and when work became available,  to augment their almost non existent wages.   It’s believed that an area in the East Row at Wharram Percy was allocated to cotters homes due to the smaller size plots (6).    Next step upwards on the ladder was the villeins also known as serfs. These villagers, as well as their toft,  could hold an adjoining strip of  land known as a  croft  which was larger than the toft and was used for keeping a few animals or growing crops as well as one or two oxgangs in the open fields (7). 


Ploughing with oxen.  Luttrell Psalter c.1335-1340.  The British Library.

The villeins would also pay rent to the lord but in produce and cash as well as labour.  The West and North Rows were probably where the homes and tofts of the villeins would have been situated.  Villeins would have been unable to give up their homes or marry without the lord’s permission and their children would have been born into the same class.  You had reached the upper echalons of the peasant class when you were a freeman.    Freemen, also known as Sokemen, were less tied down by the obligations of the villeins and cotters.  This freedom came at a price though because they would be less entitled to the lord’s protection if and when any problems arose –  which no doubt they did.    The larger longhouses situated on the West row were probably the homes of the  Freemen/Sokemen.      It’s sobering to think about the harsh lives, the sheer grinding poverty,  that some of these unfortunate souls experienced especially the cottars.  Let’s hope that the people in the big house fulfilled their noblesse oblige and gave a helping hand in hard times.  However when life had taken its toll  and you finally succumbed,  worn out to the very bones,  you did not have to go far for burial –  Wharram Percy had its own fine church…



Window from St Martin’s Church with two stone heads either side.  These may represent two members of the Percy family.  Photo thanks to Allan Harris @ Flikr.

St Martin’s begun life as a small and simple 10th century timber chapel the postholes of which were discovered during the excavations of the church in 1962-74.   The rebuilding of the church in stone shortly before the Conquest in 1066 may possibly have been the work of a group of  freemen/free peasants whose graves may be among those that lay in a distinct group and were covered by the ancient lids of Roman coffins. The names of some of these men have come down to us via the Doomsday Book of 1086 –  Lagmann, Carli and Ketilbjorn.

Over the centuries the church was both enlarged and reduced in size depending on the size  of the fluctuating population of the time.    Following the last villagers being driven out   c.1500 the church gradually fell into disrepair, with a series of complaints made about the condition of the chancel from 1555 onwards.  As St Martin’s was the mother church of a parish serving four villages services still took place there.  However by the 17th century three of these villages had also became deserted with just Thixendale surviving although  a new vicarage was built in the early 18th century.  Be that as it may, to save a five mile round trip Thixendale constructed its own church in 1870,  which led to most of the remaining parishioners deserting St Martin’s.    Services were still carried out though  including burials which ceased in 1906, the last marriage in 1928 and the last service held in 1949 after which the fittings were removed (8).   St Martin’s still stands, defiant albeit rather battered,  minus its roof and half its tower gone following its  collapse after a storm in December 1959.   


Medieval font from St Martin’s church photographed c.1950s .

IMG_9368 St Martin’s Church photographed c.1950 before the collapse of the tower and removal of roof.


During the excavations of the church the northern side of the graveyard was excavated during which a total of 687 burials were excavated.   These were estimated to be about 10% of the burials in the churchyard – 15% of which were of children who had died before their first birthday.    This figure was much lower than the higher rate of infants deaths to be found in towns.   It’s thought this may have been because Wharram Percy mothers breast fed their infants longer perhaps until they were about 18 months old.  It was the weaning of infants that would herald in some of the awful conditions associated with malnutrition such as rickets etc.,    Malnutrition was not the only enemy – the  remains of one small boy aged about 10 showed that he had suffered and died from leprosy.  On a more positive note 40% of the burials were of individuals who had died aged over 50 with males outnumbering females by 3-2.  Some of these adults had suffered from quite serious disabilities from birth but had made it to a reasonable age demonstrating that they must have been well  cared for in the community.  Poignantly one young woman, heavily pregnant, had succumbed to tuberculosis and an attempt had been made to save the unborn baby’s life by performing a caesarean.   Sadly this had failed and the baby was buried lying between its mother’s thighs but it does demonstrate that even amongst peasant society who had so very little,  life,  including that of the smallest of infants,  was highly valued.  Dr Simon Mays, skeletal biologist at English Heritage’s Centre for Archaeology has said:

We tend to think medieval people somehow got used to death because life could be so nasty, brutish and short. But this burial tends to rebut this and suggests life was every bit as precious, leading to drastic acts to preserve it‘ (9).


Aerial view from the north looking south.  St Martin’s is the last building at top right hand side  just below the millpond.     Photo © Historic England 


Reconstruction drawing of Wharram Percy of the same view showing the North Manor at the bottom with the peasant houses, tofts and crofts as they would have appeared in the late 12th century.  Note the dovecot.  The church can be seen in the distance at  top right hand corner of the image. By Peter Dunn © Historic England 


The manor was the largest and most important residential building in Wharram Percy and would have been home to several generations of the Percy family.  Standing in the centre of a walled compound the residents would  have enjoyed a higher rate of of privacy than elsewhere in the village.  Following the Conquest in 1066 William the Conqueror had set out to dominate the northern parts of the country in a campaign that became known as the Harrying of the North.  The effect this would have on Wharram Percy, or Warron as it was then known,  was that two main landowners in the village, Lagmann and Carli (who may have been responsible for rebuilding the church (see above) lost their holdings which were granted to the Norman Sheriff of York and those of a third,  Ketilbjorn,  were granted to a Norman baron by the name of William de Percy.  Thus the Percys had arrived in Warron which thereafter became known as Wharram Percy.  Some of this William de Percy’s descendants would fare extremely well and would go on to later become members of one of the greatest families in northern England, the Northumberland Percys,  building castles such as Alnwick and Warksworth.  Their stories can be found easily elsewhere and no need to go into them here.  The Wharram Percy branch of the Percys would leave the South Manor and move into the newly built North Manor which also benefitted from the addition of a small hunting park.  It was around this time c.1254-1315 that the village enjoyed its golden era and the North and East Rows were built increasing the number of properties to about 40.  However nothing lasts forever and around 1315 things took a bit of a nose dive when Peter, the heir of the  resident lord of the manor,  Robert Percy,  died aged 25 without an heir.  His wife was left bringing up two small daughters, Eustachia and Joan.   Robert himself died in 1321, aged 76 followed shortly after by his second son Henry.  This lack of a suitable heir was troubling enough for the villagers but then 1322 brought more bad news in the form of Scottish raids.  There then followed an economic downturn  with two-thirds of the village’s land uncultivated,  plots unoccupied and the village’s two water mills disused.  In an attempt to restore stability Eustachia was then married aged 14 to Walter Heslerton from a nearby village of that name.  Four years later, on 1331,  she gave birth to a son named Walter after his father.  Walter Snr died in 1349, a victim of the Black Death.  Walter Jnr was still a minor and therefore could not inherit the Wharram Percy estate.  It was claimed by royal officials that Eustachia was mentally deficient and should come under the protection of the king  allowing the crown to manipulate the management of her Wharram Percy estate for its own profit. In 1366 Eustachia died and her son Walter Jnr only outlived his mother by a year.  On his death in 1367 the estate reverted to a distant relative,  Henry,  one of the more illustrious Percys of Spofforth Castle.  Some time between 1394 and 1402 the Spofforth Percys would exchange Wharram Percy with Shilbottle, a manor owned by the Hilton family (10).  The Hiltons seem to have been on the whole absent landlords.   The ending for Wharram Percy was hoving into sight.  It was a member of the Hilton family, William,  Baron Hilton,  who instigated the removal of the last four families and the demolition of their homes between the years 1488-1500.  In the fullness of time the remains of the peasants homes would collapse in on themselves and both these and the streets, alleys and tracks they had known so well would become covered with a protective carpet of turf formed by the sheep pastures leaving behind the mounds and hollows that can be seen today,  a sad indictment of when avarice overcomes good lordship.  We shall leave the last sad word to Bishop Hugh Latimer who wrote on the 8 March 1549:

‘for where as have been a great many householders and inhabitants, there is now but a shepherd and his dog’

8723738044_9cd9fd2970_hStone head of lady in 14th century headdress in a window of the church.  May represent one of the Percy ladies. Photo Ally Shaw Flickr.

NOTE: For those unable to visit Wharram Percy  for various reasons such as distance, lack of time or dodgy knees etc.,  I can thoroughly recommend the  English Heritage Wharram Percy  guide book.  English Heritage have a large range of guide books covering the wonderful places under their management and care which which have been  written by experts, are concise, affordable,  beautifully illustrated and contain a wealth of information.   Available from their online shop.

1. The Enclosures in England an Economic Reconstruction Harriet Bradley 1914.

2.  Historia regum Angliae (History of the Kings of England).  John Rous.  Published around 1459-86.

3. Ibid.

4. Shadowlands: A Journey Through Lost Britain p.p.143.144

5. Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village p.8. Alastair Oswald former Senior Archaeologist Investigator at English Heritage.

6. Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village Alastair Oswald former Senior Archaeologist Investigator at English Heritage.

7.An oxgang was the amount of land tillable by one ox in a ploughing season. This could vary from village to village, but was typically around 15 acre. 

8.  Heritagegate Historic England Research Records.  Available online.

9. BBC News Channel interview with Dr Simon Mays Thursday 25 August 2005.

10. Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village p.20. Alastair Oswald former Senior Archaeologist Investigator at English Heritage.

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Ranulph Lord Dacre of Gilsland – The Lord who was buried with his horse.


The monument in All Saints Church, Saxby over the grave of Ranulph Lord Dacre and his horse. Photo Mary Emma1@Flkir

Ranulph/Ranulf/Randolph/Ralph, Lord Dacre of Gilsland’s precise date of birth is lost to us – as is his exact Christian name it would seem -but has been suggested as c.1412 although his date of death is very well known.   For he would  fall at the battle of Towton, fighting for Lancaster, fought on the 29th March 1461, making his age at time of death therefore about 50. His parents were Thomas Dacre,  6th Lord Dacre (b.1387 – d.1458) and his mother was Lady Philippe Neville.  Lady Philippe (born sometime before 20 July 1399 and death before 1458) was the daughter of the formidable Ralph Neville, Ist Earl of Westmorland (b c.1364- d.1425) and his first wife Lady Margaret Stafford ( b. c. 1364, d. 9 June 1396).  It’s well known how Westmorland would go on to  largely disinherit  his sons from his first marriage to Margaret for those by his second wife Joan Beaufort.  The second set of offspring would include Cicely Neville, mother to two Yorkists kings, Edward IV and Richard III.   This grave miscalculation on the part of Westmorland would lead to years of  repercussions, turmoil, destruction and bloodshed.   As J L Laynesmith puts it in her biography of Cicely Neville the disinheriting of the children from the first marriage wouldinevitably set generations of Nevilles at odds with one another and contributed to the baronial infighting of the Wars of the Roses’.  W E Hampton wrote:‘Ironically,  the brilliant and unjustly favoured offspring of his second marriage were to bring about the destruction of the houses of Lancaster and Beaufort while the issue of the first marriage, although injured by their stepmother,  were to support Lancaster and Beaufort with results disastrous to themselves’ ( 1) Thus it’s highly likely Ranulph’s fierce Lancastrian loyalty would no doubt have been learned at his mother’s knee.   Ranulph married Eleanor FitzHugh, daughter of  Henry FitzHugh, 5th Lord FitzHugh with their marriage appearing to have been childless.

Ranulph who came from an old Cumbrian family and was an MP for Cumberland before inheriting his father’s peerage is rather a shadowy figure but we do know he was a seasoned soldier (2). W E Hampton tells us that he  possibly fought at Wakefield, while certainly fighting both at Mortimer’s Cross and at the second battle of St Albans.

George Goodwin, author of Fatal Colours tells us he was ‘a soldier experienced in the harsh clashes of raid and counter raid in the Scottish borders; he had organised the Lancastrian Commission of Array in Cumbria in 1459 and has probably done so again in 1460-61’ (3).

 He commanded the rear left wing at Towton,  his brother-in-law, Henry Lord Fitzhugh fighting alongside Ralph as one of his lieutenants as well as  Humphrey, Ranulph’s brother (4).  Both Henry and Humphrey managed to make their escape from the horrendous carnage that day but Ranulph was fatally wounded by an arrow after he had removed his helmet to drink to quench his thirst.

He would be taken for burial in the churchyard of the  nearby All Saints Church Saxton.    This would seem strange, a 15th century nobleman being buried in a churchyard,  when it was usual practice for people of high status to be interred inside the church and as close to the altar as possible.  However when you learn that Ranulph’s horse was buried with him it immediately makes perfect sense.  Prima facie the first reaction to the  story of his horse being buried with him may be to groan and ask if it is yet another one of those local myths – like willow stakes pinning bodies down at Stoke or dead kings being thrown into the River Soar at Leicester etc – that have evolved over the years, usually a creation of the Georgians.   But no – it is actually true.  W E Hampton writing in 1979 stated that Ranolph was ‘buried in an upright position with his horse under him. In March 1787,  John Rogers,  Vicar of Saxton, dug up the skull of Lord Dacre and in 1861 the sexton, while digging a grave close by, dug into the horse’s skull. It’s vertebrae extended into its master’s grave. In 1863 a bed of concrete was laid over the grave which was not again disturbed and on which the monument was reerected (5).

A W Boardman in an article in 2021 taken from his book Towton 1461: The Anatomy of a Battle goes into more detail.  Boardman, although understandably, is unable to offer any explanation as to why Ranulph’s horse was buried with him,  explains that the metal clamps securing the tombstone were broken in 1749 to bury a Mr Gascoigne – honestly those ruddy Georgians again – disturbing the illustrious medieval dead to bury their mediocre gentry!  The identical thing was done in 1709 when the remains of George Duke of Clarence and his wife Isobel Neville were turfed out of their vault in Tewkesbury Abbey to enable to burial of a ‘periwig-pated alderman’  – what an absolute disgrace!   Ooooops I’ve gone off on a tangent here, again, and back to Ranulph’s tomb.  Boardman continues that during the digging of the grave for Mr Gascoigne ‘a skeleton was actually found in a standing position. Later, when a further grave was being dug beside the tomb, a horse’s head was found with its vertebrae extending into Dacre’s grave. A letter dated 23 January 1882 confirms these two burials, although most of the excavations in Saxton churchyard, and later at Towton, were local, amateurish, and not recorded by archaeologists‘.  The letter – which is now in the Lotherton Archives, Leeds Museums and Galleries –  was written at Saxton Vicarage by a George M Webb to a Colonel Gascoigne is printed here in full

My Dear Sir,
When I was at Craignish we had some conversation on the battle of Towton, which was fought in this Parish on Palm Sunday (March 29th Old style) 1461.
I then said that I would try to get hold of a Pamphlet which I had seen on this subject, & let you have it to read. I have not forgotton my promise, but regret that I do not recall where to lay my hand upon this source of information. I have lately had some conversation with the son of the old Sexton who dug the grave close to Lord Dacre’s tomb, and who himself was assisting. He tells me that when they had got down about 6 feet, they came upon the skull of a horse, and from the position of it, and the vertebrae of the neck, it was made plain that the body of the horse extended actually into Lord Dacre’s grave.
This discovery is a wonderful verification of the tradition in the village that Lord Dacre’s horse was actually buried with him in the churchyard. I have in my possession a portion of this skull which I hope some day to have the pleasure of showing to you. The body of the horse undoubdtedly yet lies in Lord Dacre’s tomb, as I understand the Sexton did not make any excavations further than were necessary in digging the grave he had in hand
. The ‘portion’ of the horse’s skull retrieved from the grave is today held in the British Museum (6).

So there we have it.  We will frustratingly never know why Ranulph was buried with his horse and we can only speculate.  Was it a favourite, even well loved,  steed?  Such is the uniqueness of such a burial in the 15th century that it is clear that Ranulph himself must have left instructions that his horse should be interred with him in the event of their deaths on the battlefield. This request no doubt necessitated the burial to take place in the nearest suitable place to the battlefield rather than take Ranulph home for burial which would have been more of the norm for someone of high status. It also necessitated burial in the churchyard rather than inside the church. Clearly Ranulph preferred a burial with his horse outside open to the elements rather than a fine alabaster tomb inside that would endure for much longer. Now due to being outside the tomb which displays Ranulph’s heraldic achievements on four sides has become much weathered, the abbreviated Latin inscription harder and harder to read until now almost impossible. Fortunately it has been noted by the Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project and translated before one day it disappears forever:


Here lies Ranulph, Lord of Dacre and Gilsland, a true knight, valiant in battle in the service of King Henry VI, who died on Palm Sunday, 29 March 1461, on whose soul may God have mercy, Amen.


Close up of the weather worn lettering on the monument.  Taken from Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project video.


Harder to decipher with each passing year soon, sadly, the lettering will be no more. Taken from Towton Battlefield Archaeology Project video.


A drawing of Lord Dacre’s tomb and heraldic achievements.  Leodis and Elmete by R. Whittaker 1816.

Over 550 years later, fittingly,  the remains of 41 soldiers found in a mass grave at Towton Hall in 1996 were reinterred next to Randulph’s grave, a brave man and of steadfast loyalty,  who gave his life fighting for the cause he believed in.  

  1. Memorials of the Wars of the Roses p.52. W E Hampton 
  2. Henry Fitzhugh 5th Lord Fitzhugh. quoting.BP2003 volume 1, page 1013.
  3. Fatal Colours p.181.  George Goodwin.
  4.  Memorials of the Wars of the Roses p.228. W E Hampton.
  5. Ibid 
  6. History Mondays. Online article @  A W Boardman 2021.

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The Last Stand of Martin Schwartz and his German Mercenaries at the Battle of Stoke Field 16th June 1487.  Unknown artist Cassell’s Century Edition History of England c.1901.

The battle of Stoke Field fought on the  16th June 1487 has been discussed elsewhere extensively so there is no need for me to go into it here.  I would recommend for those who have not already done so, to read Lambert Simnel and the Battle of Stoke by Michael Bennett and Stoke Field The Last Battle of the Wars of the Roses by David Baldwin should they wish to delve more into the story.   I want instead to focus on the aftermath of that awful day with its tragic outcome  –  the final fall of the House of York and the destruction of its last leaders –  but mostly the lost burial place of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln (c.1460-1487) whose parents were John de La Pole,  Duke of Suffolk and Elizabeth Plantagenet, sister to two kings.   At the end of the battle, as per usual, the vast majority of the dead would have been buried in huge pits not far from where they fell.  It is believed because of the elevated levels of parts of the churchyard of St Oswald’s,  East Stoke,  that some of the more fortunate,  if that is the right word, may have been taken there for burial in consecrated ground where they lie today.  Let us hope so.


St Oswald’s East Stoke.  Because of the elevated areas in the churchyard it’s believed that some of the dead were brought from the battlefield for burial here.  Could Lincoln have been among these..? Photo Viona Fearn @flikr.

Quite often though, the families of the higher status dead would somehow be able to retrieve their dead, take them home and give them honourable burial.  I will return to this point later.   As an example the body of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, slain at  Bosworth in 1485,  was laid to rest at Thetford Priory while the bodies of Richard Neville,  Earl of Warwick aka The Kingmaker and his brother John Neville,  Marquess of Montague were both retrieved after Barnet in 1471 to be entombed with their ancestors at Bisham Abbey.  These names are the ones that spring to mind but there are many others including those returned to England after dying abroad such as Edward, Duke of York who fell at Agincourt and was brought home for burial in the family mausoleum at Fotheringhay.  However we do know, thanks to Virgil,  that the terminally suspicious Henry,  taken aback at the ferocity and resolution of the smaller rebel army, assumed  that there ‘must be yet further members of the conspiracy who at an opportune time and place would join with them’ gave instructions that Lincoln was to be taken alive to enable Henry to  get to the bottom of things.   No doubt he was peeved when his plan went awry,  Lincoln falling in the midst of the battle,  and did this, in turn, lead to him in a fit of pique,  to order the burial of Lincoln in a common burial pit?  In any event it is reported by some historians that the dead Yorkist leader was buried there and then on the battlefield (1) If so what the thoughts of his parents were on an already tragic situation made even worse by the totally unacceptable burial place of their eldest son are unrecorded.   The callousness of the treatment of Lincoln’s body is on a par with that of the dishonourable treatment we know was meted out to the slain Richard III with many wounds to his body dealt after he was dead and long past harm.   But finally Richard was handed over to the friars of Greyfriars in Leicester,  who were then able to give him a decent if hasty burial with the usual funeral rites of the time. With hindsight is it possible that the dead king narrowly missed being buried unceremoniously on Bosworth battlefield because it been necessary to have his remains displayed as proof that he was indeed dead? Because sadly Henry’s callous treatment of his  fallen enemy two years later, if true, leads me to conclude that he was indeed capable of making these quite shocking and at the very least spiteful decisions.  Let’s make no mistake about it by 15th standards the burial of a fallen leader of high status on unconsecrated ground at a time when it was fully expected for all Christian people to be buried on hallowed ground would have been considered heinous and it’s inconceivable that the burial of Lincoln would have taken place on the battlefield without the authority of Henry VII.    These were the days when to conform to the strong Christian beliefs of the times strenuous efforts were made, as much as humanly possible,  to return the dead to their homes for burial by their family and even the poorest of people would have hoped to be buried in their own communities where the prayers of their families and friends could assist them through purgatory (2).  Of course in a battlefield situation with many thousands of men dying in one day it would be difficult to conform to these ideals in the immediate aftermath of battle for the rank and file but certainly in cases of those of high status, being easily recognisable,  it would have been achievable to return them to their homes and families even if this entailed moving them great distances.     Should you want to read more on this subject I recommend Where are the dead of Medieval Battles? A preliminary survey written by Anne Curry and Glenn Foard where the matter is covered in detail.

So we can see how abhorrent this act would have been considered even in those brutal days.  Now here’s a thing – oddly enough the unorthodox,  inappropriate burial place of Lincoln was not recorded in any of the contemporary accounts of the battle, such as the Heralds Account,  which is exactly where you would expect to find it.  For example the city of York’s account of the rebellion written in June 1487 does not single out Lincoln for mention other than he was present with Lovell and  that  ‘ther was a soore batell, in the which therl of Lincolne and many othre aswell Ynglisshmen as Irissh to the nombre of 5000 wer slain and murdered….’  The Heralds Report written 1488/89 recorded  ‘…and there was slain the Earl of Lincoln, John, and diverse other  gentleman….’  The French Chronicler Jean Molinet writing c.1490 wrote  ‘There died the Earl of Lincoln, most noble and renowned in arms,  Sir Martin Schwartz,  a most enterprising knight and of greatest courage. ‘ How about the judgemental Bernard André who penned the Life of Henry VII? He wrote ‘the Earl of Lincoln, moreover, came to an end worthy of his deeds, for he was slain in the field… ‘   You would have thought he, after writing so fulsomely about the Tudor king,  would have delighted in spreading the whereabouts of the ignoble burial place of the fallen Yorkist leader who had had the sheer gall to challenge Henry VII!.   Vergil writing in c.1503-13 merely tells us that Lincoln was slain amongst the other Yorkist leaders.    So no mention anywhere, you will note,  of Lincoln being interred on the battlefield.  Of course the crux of the matter/problem is that wherever it was that Lincoln was buried it was not noted at the time.  But whether this should lead us to conclude he was therefore buried on the battlefield and just left there –  something which has never happened to a high status person before as far as I know – I remain unconvinced.  


John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln’s parents: John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and Elizabeth Plantagenet.  This is their tomb and effigy in Wingfield Church, Suffolk.

However where there is a dearth of actual facts you can always rely on local folklore to fill you in with the missing minutiae.     And this is indeed what happened with Lincoln for a  local tradition evolved that not only was Lincoln buried on the battlefield but that a willow stake were driven into his body – why? did they fear he would rise vampirelike on the stroke of midnight to forever haunt the poor, hapless locals?   Another version metes out the same fate to Martin Schwartz.    Now call me sceptical if you like but I find this rather hard to swallow although it may have indeed happened for all I know.    However as shown above I can find no primary source for this but a book written in 1828 about Stoke Field  by R P Shilton has repeated this tale.  Shilton described how in an area known as Willow Rundle there were two ancient willow trees  which had grown from the willow stakes that were driven into the mens bodies.  It is unclear whether he himself saw the trees, willows have very long lifespans apparently, or whether he was merely informed that once they had grown there.  However it would hardly be surprising to find willow trees growing in an area known as Willow Rundle would it? (3).    You honestly couldn’t make it up –  oh!  but wait you actually could.  However moving on….  Also to be found at Willow Rundle, which was situated on the southern side of Elston Lane which leads to Elston Village, is an ancient spring (for clarity I would point out that so  garbled are these tales that I’m not sure if the area was known as Willow Rundle or the spring itself?)    Willow Rundle  for some reason,  seems to have been quite a breeding ground of lurid folklore including one about the spring suddenly gushing forth from nowhere after a Yorkist soldier by the name of –  wait for it  – Willie Rundle –  quelle surprise – who dying from his wounds prayed to his patron saint for a drink.  This old chestnut is easily put to bed because the spring had already been there centuries before when it was used to provide water for a nearby  leper house.  To be honest I think we can safely put both those tales out to pasture as well as a couple of others.   However  all is not lost for there is another tradition,  one which actually sounds quite plausible this time,  and that is near to the spot where it is said Lincoln fell stands an ancient chapel known as Elston Chapel and that it is to this place he was taken for burial.     Built in the 12th century it’s quite small and modest,  as chapels tend to be, comprising of only a nave and small chancel but is it possible that Lincoln was taken there for burial?


The simple and unassuming interior of Elson.  Could Henry VII have allowed the quiet burial of Lincoln to take place here? Photo

 Could Henry have ordered Lincoln’s burial in this small unassuming chapel thinking upon the lines that no doubt both the burial and grave would soon be forgotten about in such an unpretentious setting and without name or  monument?  Which,  if so,  is actually what transpired.  Interestingly in a place of such simplicity a painting uncovered on the north wall by restoration work depicts a coat of arms.  


Elston Chapel.  Small and unpretentious  – could Henry VII allowed the quiet burial of John de la Pole here? 

Of course the fly in the ointment in this version is that surely either Lincoln’s parents or his wife, Margaret,  would have had his body retrieved if they had known about his burial in the humble chapel? Unless of course they were never informed.  Margaret  was the daughter of Thomas Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel and Margaret Woodville, the sister of Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, thus both she and her deceased husband were cousins to Henry Tudor’s wife, Elizabeth of York.    Would these familial links have played a part in softening Henry’s hard stance enabling a more suitable burial place for Lincoln than one on the battlefield?   Perhaps the original story about his burial upon the battlefield of Stoke is true – but I would say minus the willow part.  If so it was a shabby, dishonourable and quite shocking act which  reflects badly on Henry Tudor who seemed to be capable of mean hearted acts at times of his greatest triumphs.  He famously predated the beginning of his reign to the day before Bosworth so that those who fought for their rightful king could be labelled as traitors.  Did he also have the body of a person of royal linage, John de la Pole Earl of Lincoln, cousin to his wife,  buried in an unmarked grave on the battlefield at Stoke?  I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here  – that he allowed Lincoln an honourable if simple burial in Elston Chapel.


Henry VII.  Artist known.  National Portrait Gallery.

  1. Pole, John de la, Earl of Lincoln. Oxford DNB. Rosemary Horrox.
  2.  Where are the dead of Medieval Battles? A Preliminary Survey.  Anne Curry and Glenn Foad.
  3.  ‘The Battle of Stoke or Burham Fight’ R P Shilton. 1828.

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St Andrew’s Church, Wingfield and the Tombs of the de la Poles




‘Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?’
‘Tis brief, my
’ *


This beauty is reputed to have been given by John of Gaunt (1340-1399) to his mistress and subsequent third wife, Katheryn Swinford (1350-1403).  The inscription reads ‘alas for fayte’ which was probably a nod to Gaunt and Katherine’s illicit love affair.  

Medieval Posy rings!  What a delight they are and how I have longed to own one but the bank balance say No and unless I dig one up in my garden that is likely to remain the case.   Posy, or poesy rings,  took their name from the old French word poésy which alluded to the short poetic  engraving – usually  inside the ring but sometimes on the outside –  and which worn next to the skin would only be known to the giver and recipient. Popular from medieval  to the 17th century I am focussing here on the earlier medieval ones.  How nice to think that in those times when, broadly speaking,  only the lower classes were  able to wed someone of their own choice –  betrothed couples, who were often marrying the partner of their parents choice or even older couples where the status of their spouse was paramount –  were often going into marriage with feelings of affection or that love grew later.  Anyway its all extremely romantic and whats not to like?    However to  return to the ring said to have belonged to Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster.


The engraving, worn next to the skin and therefore only known to the giver and recipient, reads ‘alas for fayte’



Katherine Swynford,  Duchess of Lancaster’s posy ring.  All photos thanks to Berganza Jewellers who sold the ring to a private buyer. 

Described as being set centrally with a cabonchon sapphire,  the sprays of flowers were originally enhanced with enamel.  C.1360-1400 with documentation relating to the provenance of the ring.  


A recently discovered posy ring found by a metal detectorist in Dorset:


Described as two intertwining gold bands symbolising two lives joined together.  Set with a diamond in the centre and the inscription in French ‘leo vos tien foi tenes le moy’ which translates as ‘I keep faith with you, keep it with me’. 

After its discovery, the ring was sent to the British Museum to be dated and authenticated.   Experts who researched the ring were able to identify the man who had owned the land where it was found – Sir Thomas Brook – and have gone on to speculate that he may have given this valuable ring to his wife,  Joan,  on the occasion of their wedding day in 1388.   The ring was found in an area covering the site of a medieval bowling alley and possibly Lady Joan may have lost the ring while playing an early form of croquet.  Who knows?  It’s a charming story though and has a ring of truth about it (did you see what I just did there!).   Anyway – it’s easy to image the lady’s horror, whoever she was, when she realised her beautiful ring was missing and mourning its loss long afterwards.

             ******IMG_9240Gold band.  Early 15th century. Engraved on the outside on the interior +hert.tought.lyfe.and.lust.   Victoria and Albert Museum.



Made c.1250-1300.   Set with a polished cabochon sapphire.  Engraved around the edges with the words AVE MARIA GRA[CIA],AMOR VINCI[T] O[M]NIA – Translates as Hail Mary.  Love Conquers all/Love overcomes all things.  Given to the Victoria and Albert Museum by Dame Joan Evans.



Mid 15th century.  Gold set with a spinel.  Inscribed on the outside ‘pour amor, say douc’, meaning ‘for love, so sweet’. This ring was found on the Thames foreshore at Bankside.  Now in the Museum of London.


This ring was discovered by a metal detectorist on the 19th April 2015 in a field nearby to the village of Green Hammerton in North Yorkshire. Double bezel mounted with a cabochon ruby and emerald.  Photo Warski. 

English 15th Century. Engraved in Norman French ‘ne meur bon’  followed by an image of a heart which translates as ‘a good heart never dies’. The ring was declared treasure under the terms of the Treasure Act (1996) and local museums were given the chance to buy it from the finder. However sadly none of the museums were able to raise the funds and it was sold privately.



Gold and inscribed on the outside with the words ‘tout pour vous’ which translates as ‘all for you’ and  sprays of flowers that were once enamelled.  Made in the 15th century and discovered near Thame, Oxfordshire


Not a posy ring but an early finger ring dating from c1400. Found by a metal detectorist in the area of Bolnhurst and Keysoe (Bedfordshire) in 2013.  Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Now I know, I know  –  this is not a true posy ring but I’m sneaking it in as its far, far too lovely not to.  Dating from around the time of  the reign of Richard II the ring would have been set off by the sumptuous fashions of the times. Two pearls of the original four pearls  are missing but the pomegranate-red garnet is still intact.


Now here is the little hidden detail that has given me cause to include it although of course its not an engraving as such  – the letters A and M are artfully included beneath the decorated shoulder of the ring….

The collet is supported by two gold, openwork letters – A and M – underneath the decorated shoulders of the ring – as the invocation of Ave Maria  (Hail Mary).   How sumptuous is that! Perhaps my favourite of all the rings I’ve come across in my search for posy rings…



Apologies for the quality of this photo.  I’ve included it because of the poignancy behind it.  Discovered  by archaeologists from MoLA during the excavations at St Mary Spital the outside of this ring is engraved with the words ‘[Je] ne weil aymer autre vous’ (I am not seeking to love anyone but you). 

St. Mary Spital Augustinian Priory and Hospital was founded in II97 and was the second largest infirmary in London covering the area known today as Spital Square.  It stood for over 400 years until it was demolished in 1540.  It had two infirmaries the smallest one of which was for higher status patiences.  It was in the rubble of one of these infirmaries that this ring was found after being lost  presumably by one of the patients whose story is lost to us now.



This gold ring is very small and  thought to have been made for a child.  Dated to the mid to late 15th Century.  Now in the London Museum.

This small ring measures just 17 mm across.   The size indicates it was a child’s ring and possibly for a betrothal.  Decorated with engraved leaves which originally  had alternating black and white enamelling.  Interior of the ring inscribed with the words ‘nul autre’ (none other). 

I hope you have enjoyed our little meander into medieval posy rings – and now  I shall return to digging my garden….

*Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2.  William Shakespeare.

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Revolting Remedies from the Middle Ages. Edited by Professor Daniel Wakelin.  Published by the Bodleian Library Oxford.

Under the Dreaming Spires of Oxford – well Oxford University to be precise – a group of students have compiled and transcribed this entertaining selection of remedies from  medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library  Here in their book – Revolting Remedies from the Middle Ages, edited by Professor Daniel Wakelin,  the remedies are reproduced with one page in the original Middle English and a translation on the facing page in  modern English (1).  Make no mistake about it, this little book is a delight, and if it doesn’t raise a chuckle even on the most glummest of days then nothing will.  It should be remembered the remedies in the book have been chosen for their sheer wackiness. This places them apart from the numerous other more sensible, mundane remedies that medieval people used,  perhaps if they could not afford a doctor,  but which in some cases, would have been a better and safer option, with many of the ingredients such as verbena and fennel still used in the herbal supplements used today.  However, returning to the book, not all of the remedies included therein were for nasty diseases or debilitating illnesses but cover a wide spectrum of conditions ranging from a Leaky Bottom/For goyng out of the foundement  to those who had an annoying abundance of zits –  or zitties to be precise  –  or even unwelcome freckles/frekenes –  to those who wished, understandably,  to stop dogs barking at them.  There was also solutions for those who were uncomfortable with people staring at them such as making yourself disappear.  Worryingly a remedy for returning oneself back to visibility was not included.  Perhaps the invisibility wore off gradually in its own good time? Great fun but not without its risks.

The students who took part in Professor Wakelin’s course, which teaches people to read manuscripts from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries ‘tested their research skills on these medical manuscripts: the handwriting and the medical terms are a challenge. But having sat in the library pained by this work, they came back cured by laughter at the rude or remarkable remedies they found. They hope, now that they’ve transcribed and translated them, that you will enjoy them too’(2). Well I for one thoroughly enjoyed them and heartily recommend this charming little book. Below is just a sample of the delights therein. For clarity it should be noted the illustrations are not included in the book.


A  scribe busy at his work.  BL.Royal I 8III, f.24 the British library

For goying out of the foundement/For a Leaky Bottom

Tak henne egges and seth tham in vynegre, and mell it with oyle of lorellmes and sett thin ars theron oft times, till it be hole.  Another: Tak poudre of herte horne and cast to thin ars.  Another: Tak frankencence and seth it in water, and wesche the sore therwith, and late the breth go vp in to the foundement.

Take hens eggs and boil them in vinegar, and mix it with  oil of laurels, and sit your arse in it many times until it’s healed. Another. Take powder of a hart’s horn and put it up your arse.  Another take frankincense and boil it in water, and wash the sore with it and let the steam from it go up your bottom.

To save one from sword or gone ore any wepen/To protect yourself from a sword, gun or any other weapon

Write thes words and letters in virgin parchment and carri them aboute you : ff velle tofetis achætum + zadit   + tizadit + zadan abi atit + zadne et = æd b + abiat + + + b x in + d + + h + z + o + eliam + l + ff + m + P + v + j.  Yf you be in dought of thes, prove it apon a dogge which is all rede.

Write these words and letters on blank parchment and carry them around with you: ff velle tofetis achætum + zadit   + tizadit + zadan abi atit + zadne et = æd b + abiat + + + b x in + d + + h + z + o + eliam + l + ff + m + P + v + j. If you doubt this will work test on a dog which is completely red.


This poor gentleman obviously did not have the necessary paperwork with him on the very day he needed it the most….

However in the eventuality that the above did not have the desired effect and one found oneself badly bashed up – although still alive – help was still available:

For a man that is sore ybete/ For a man who’s been painfully beaten

Tak weyhore and boyle it in good feyn ale, and drynk it ferst a morwe and last an evene; and make hym a bed in hot horse dongge, and ley hym therinne.

Take cudweed and boil it in fine ale, and drink it first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and make the patient a bed in a pile of steaming horse dung, and lay him in it.

ce255a29316cdd5536_The booted man discovered on the Tideway site at Chambers Wharf in London (c) MOLA Headland Infrastructure

The remains of one unfortunate who did not survive the horse dung treatment being examined by 21st century archaeologists.  With apologies to the Museum of London (MOLA).

For swellynge of ballokys/For swollen bollocks

Take bene mele and vyngre, and tempere hem well togidere and make a plaster thereof, and ley therto, but lete it come a ny no feer,  for it mote be colde.  And if thu have gret benys, stampe hem and tempere hem with hony, and make a plaster, and ley to the sore al colde.  Also take rewe and wermode, stampe hem in a morter, and temper hem togidere with hony, and make a colde plaster, and ley therto.  

Take ground beans and vinegar, and blend them well together, and make a plaster from it, and lay it on the swelling,  but never let it get close to the fire because it must be cold. And if you have large beans, grind them and blend them with honey, and make a plaster and lay it on the sore all cold. Also, take rue and wormwood, grind them in a mortar and blend them well together and make a cold plaster and lay that on the swelling..


Medieval manuscript illustrations of gentlemen with swollen bits being a slight tad too explicit for this blog, here, instead, is a depiction of a man with earache.  Hopefully this will suffice……..


Treatment for earache.  Artwork from the late 13th-century French work ‘Li Livres dou Sante’.

For love/For love

Take thi swetyng yn a fayre bason and clene and afterwarde put hyt yn a wytrial of glas, and put therto the shavyng of the nedder party of thy fete and a lytyl of thy oune dong ydryet at the sune, and put therto a more of valurion.  And take to drynke, whane that ever ye will, and he schall love the apon the lyght of thyn yene.  And thys ys best experiment to gete love of what creature that thou wolt.  And Y, Gelberte, have ypreved that ofte tymys, for trewthe.

Catch your sweat in a nice clean basin and afterwards mix it with sulphuric salt, and add to it some shavings from the back of your feet and a little of your own dung dried in the sun, and add a root of the herb valerian. And take a swig whenever you want, and he will love you as soon as he catches your eye. This is the best proven method to win love from whomever you want.  And I, Gilbert, have proved this many times in truth


Gibert gets lucky yet again…  ‘Tender Embrace’ artist Master of Guillebert de Mets c.1425.  Flanders. Walters Art Museum.

Medicine for a man that is costyf/Medicine for a man who is constipated.

Tak and roste oynones, and ley to his navele, ymenged with may botre, and make hym wortes of hockes and stanmarche, percilie of violet; and gyf hym ete therwith sour bred, and drynke smal ale; and gyf hym a subposotorie of a talwe candele in hys fundement.  And so use it, for thou be hol. 

 Take and roast onions, and lay them on his navel, mixed with unsalted butter, and make him a vegetable stew made of mallow plants, horse parsley and parsley of violet, and give them to him to eat with sour bread, and give him light ale to drink, and give him as a suppository a tallow candle up his bottom. And do all this, so that you get better

To mak a man to pyse wele/To make a man piss well.

Take him and set hym in a vat nakyd, and close hym upe to the hede drafe, as it comyth fro the ale, the space of an owre.  Than wache hym in hoot water, and brynge hym to bede, tyl he have wel slepte.  

Take him, and put him naked in a vat, and cover him up to the head in new dregs that have come from brewing the ale, for an hour long. Then wash him in hot water, and put him to bed until he’s slept well.

Another maner medicyne to make heer to growe/ Another kind of medicine to make hair grow

Take ladanum, and disolve it in puryd hony; and take an herbe that hatte capillus verginis (that is to say mayden heer) and stampe hym in a morter of bras, and hony therwith.  And when it is smale inowghe, wryng it thurw a canevas, and put therto the ladanum, and set it on the fyre, and lete it boyle or velme but onys, and set it doun and let it kele.  This wil make heere grewe ovyr alle.

Take the resin of the citrus bush and dissolve it in purified honey, and take a herb called capillus virginis (that is Maidenhair fern) and grind it in a mortar made of brass, with honey in it.  And when it’s ground down finely enough strain it through canvas, and add the resin and set it on the fire, let it boil or bubble over only once, then take it off the fire and let it cool. This will make hair grow everywhere


Beehives. Tacuinum Sanitatis  (14th century)

For the emerawdys/For haemorrhoids

Take botyr and talwghe, bote claryfied, and white oyle and alum icalcit, of all ylyche moche.  Sette hem in a panne over a leuke fyre, til they been resolvyd.  Than sette it doun and stere it, til it be colde.  Anoynte hym that hath the emerawdys wyth this oynement, as far wythine the fundement as thou mayst, and then take a rostid oynoun and, as hoot as he may suffre, bynde it to his fundement.  Serve hym thus ofte and he schal be hole.

Take butter and animal fat, both purified, and white oil and a reduction of alum salt, the same amount of each. Set them in a pan over a lukewarm fire, until they’re liquefied. Then take it off the fire and stir it, until it’s cold. Anoint the man who has the haemorrhoids with this ointment, as deep inside his bottom as you can, and then take a roasted onion and, as hot as he can bear, bind it to his bottom. Treat him like this often and he’ll soon get better.

For bledyng at the nose/For a nosebleed.

Yif a man blede at the nose, take and ley his ballokkys in vinegre; and take a clowte and wete it wel in vynegre, and than wete wel the place bytwene his browys and al his forhed.  And if it be a woman, take and ley hir brestys in vinegre.  And it schall staunche anoone ryght.  

If a man is bleeding from his nose, grasp his bollocks and lay them in vinegar, and take a cloth and douse it well in vinegar, and then wet the spot between his eyebrows and all his forehead. And if it’s a woman, grasp her breasts and leave them in vinegar, and the nosebleed will stop right away


I hope you have enjoyed these delightful, if rather earthy, examples of our ancestors remedies for their, sometimes,  embarrassing medical problems.  As Professor Wakelin points out the remedies also leave us with an insight into the ‘ingenuity and bravery of the men and women of the Middle Ages’ who paved the way for today’s medications and herbal treatments that we sometimes take for granted.  Bravo and we salute you!


Two women exchange a remedy.  Le Régime de Corps c.1265.  British Library MS Sloane 2435

  1. Daniel Wakelin is the  Jeremy Griffiths Professor of Medieval English Palaeography in the Faculty of English, University of Oxford.
  2. Revolting Remedies from the Middle Ages. p.11. Ed.Prof. Daniel Wakelin. Bodleian Library.

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The peaceful garden…a tranquil spot to sit a while in the busy heart of the City of London.  Photo Haarkon 

St Dunstan-in-the-East was already ancient when John Stow wrote about it in his Survey of London Written in the Year 1598.  Not to be confused with St Dunstan-in-the West, Stow described the church as a fair and large church of an ancient building and within a large churchyard’.   First mentioned in records in 1271-2 although it would have, of course,  been older.  It had also been known at different times  as St Dunstan towards the Tower c.1271;   St Dunstan by the Tower c.1293  and St Danstan near Fanchurch in 1361 (1).     Time having finally caught up with this grand old lady and, by then being in a  perilous state,  the church was rebuilt c.1633.  I’ve been unable to discover how much, if any,  of the old medieval church was preserved and incorporated in this rebuilding but it is known that one window still retained its geometrical tracery from c.1260.  Also unknown is what become of the burials of the numerous medieval Londoners inside the church  but I fear the worse.


Wisteria overhangs a doorway… Photo Wikipedia.

Standing within a  parish that was home to many affluent Londoners the interior of  the church was rich with their tombs and monuments.  Thanks to Stow we know some of their names and the dates they were buried: 

John Kenington, parson,  1374; William Islip, parson 1382; John Kryoll and his brother Thomas 1400; Nicholas Bond, Thomas Barry both merchants, 1445; Robert Shelly 1442, Robert Pepper, grocer (obvs!); John Norwich Grocer, 1390; Alice Brome wife to John Coventry, sometime mayor of London 1433; William Isaack, draper and alderman 1508; John Ricroft sergeant of the larder to Henry VII and his son Henry VIII, 1532; Sir Bartholomew James, Draper, mayor, 1479, buried under a fair monument with his lady; Ralph Greenway, grocer,  Alderman, put under the stone of Robert Pepper, 1559;  Thomas Bledlow, one of the sheriffs 1472;  James Bacon, fishmonger, sheriff, 1573; Sir  Richard Champion, Draper, mayor, 1568;  Henry Hudson, Skinner, Alderman 1555;  Sir  James Garnado, knight; William Hariot, draper, mayor 1481, buried in a fair chapel by him built, 1517; John Tate, son to Sir John Tate, in the same chapel in the north wall;  Sir Christopher Draper, ironmonger, mayor 1566, buried 1580.  And many other worshipful personages besides whose monuments are all together defaced (2).

Only just 33 years after the rebuild of 1633 disaster struck.  In 1666, on the evening of the third day of the Great Fire of London,  Wednesday 5th September,  the terrible conflagration reached St Dunstan’s.  Stout efforts were made  – ‘a strenuous contest had waged for the preservation of St Dunstan-in-the-East’  – led by John Dolben, Bishop of Rochester and Dean of Westminster.   Dolben had been a soldier priest in the English Civil War and had fought for the Royalists at Oxford.  At Marston Moor while carrying the colours he had received a musket ball in the shoulder.  Whilst in York when it was besieged he was shot in the thigh breaking the bone.  This was not a man to stand by idly while London went up in flames!   ‘The peril of the fire revived the soldier spirit beneath the cassock.  Assembling the Westminster school boys in a strong company,  he marched at their head through the city to the eastern limits of the fire, and there kept them hard at work for many hours, fetching water from the back of Saint Dunstan’s.   They extinguished the flames in the houses crowded closely together and the church isolated by their efforts, conspicuous over the City by reason of its high leaden and steeple,  stood after the Fire of London was out,  grievously defaced, it is true, but perhaps not the mere ruin to which so many others were reduced’ (3). 

St Dunstan had survived albeit blooded with almost all of the side walls standing.   The repairs and rebuilding including the Spire and Tower designed by Sir Christopher Wren,  would amount to £1,071 and were completed more speedily than many other more badly damaged churches.  We know it was still in a ruinous state in 1668  thanks the helpful entry  Samuel Pepys made into his  Diary on Thursday 23 April of that year.   Mr Pepys who had spent the day at the Cocke Alehouse with some female friends eating lobster and being mightily merry,  as you do,  described in his diary what happened when after he had dropped the ladies off home,  he attempted to take a short cut home through the ruins of St Dunstan’s: ‘it being now ten at night; and so got a link; and, walking towards home,  just at my entrance into the ruines at St Dunstan’s I was met by two rogues with clubs, who come towards us. So I went back, and walked home quite round by the wall, and got well home, and to bed weary, but pleased at my day’s pleasure, but yet displeased at my expence, and time I lose’  (I could say serve him right but that would lead me to  digress….. ).  To return to Sir Christopher Wren who,  it was said,  was  particularly proud of St Dunstan’s.   Upon being told one morning that a hurricane had damaged many London spires, he remarked, “Not St. Dunstan’s, I am quite sure”. 



In 1810 St Dunstan had become again ruinous and a  further rebuild would take place in 1816,  with thankfully, Wren’s Tower and Steeple being incorporated.   However in the last quarter of the year 1940 St Dunstan was badly bombed during the Blitz although miraculously both Wren’s Tower and Steeple, as well as some walls survived intact.  A decision was made not to rebuild this time but instead to turn the remains into a peaceful and tranquil garden.    St Dunstan,  not for the first time almost nearly utterly destroyed,  arose yet again,  phoenix like,  from its ruinous state.   Although no longer in its former guise as a church but a beautiful and atmospheric ruin,  I’m sure if inclined,  it would still be an appropriate place to sit and offer up a prayer.

Today a serene haven, awash with wisteria and ivy,  in the middle of the hurly and burly of the City of London,  St Dunstan-in-the-East  provides a welcome refuge for the  office workers, tourists and Londoners who go there to seek a tranquil spot in which to sit and rest for awhile.



A traceried window at St Dunstan-in-theWest. Photos


An early postcard of the interior of St Dunstan-in-the-East.


19th etching of St Dunstan-in-the-East.  Unknown artist. 

  1.   A Dictionary of London 1912. Henry A Harben.
  2. A Survey of London Written in the Year 1598 p.p.129.130
  3. The Great Fire of London p. 55. W G Bell.

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