Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Relics from Pilgrimages found from Medieval Leicestershire

During the Middle Ages Leicestershire people made difficult journeys to distant religious shrines but this important spiritual activity never reached the history books. Now, work by metal detectorists around the fields of Leicestershire is recovering this history in the form of the lead relics brought back from their journeys. Over the last 30 years Leicestershire Museums and, more recently Portable Antiquities Scheme staff have been recording these discoveries.

Relics of lead ore have been discovered from journeys to shrines such as Canterbury, Walsingham, St Andrews in Scotland, and Windsor – where the tomb of Henry VI is housed.

Peter Liddle, community archeologist for Leicestershire County Council, said: "When I started with the county museums service over 20 years ago our collection included just a handful of religious relics.

"But thanks to the work of metal detectorists and the portable antiquities scheme, particularly since 2003, we are building a picture of the journeys undertaken by Leicestershire's pilgrims. We now have about 75 relics, many of which have been donated to us.

"The finds include small flasks which held holy water from the shrines and medallions. The flasks were used as 'medieval first aid kits' which were used to heal wounds or cure illnesses."

"Interestingly, the inscriptions tell us about pilgrimages to lesser known shrines such as Burton Abbey and the shrine of St Modwen and the Black Madonna of Doncaster, which was a statue of the Virgin Mary."

Relics date from the early 13th century through to the 16th century and Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries.

Mr Liddle said: "Many were likely to have simply been discarded in fields when churches were cleared out. The relics are like a kind of code which helps us to piece together the history of people's lives not recorded in many history books. They are absolutely invaluable in bringing this history to life.

"Many are slightly worn on one side, which indicates they were often rubbed by their owners. The fact people made pilgrimages of such distances tells us just how important spirituality was in the lives of Leicestershire people."

Wendy Scott, county co-ordinator for the portable antiquities scheme, said: "We are now building up a database cataloging all of the finds. It is the work of all the metal detector people which has made this possible and shows just how valuable their ongoing contribution is."

On 24 February Peter Liddle will be telling the story of medieval pilgrimage and how we know that local people travelled to shrines throughout medieval England and Scotland. The talk is at Donington's Heath Manor House at 7.30pm on Wednesday 24 February. Admission is free but booking is essential on (01530) 831259 or at the Manor House.