Shakespearean Angels

Sophie has already posted on this blog about the wonderful gold Angel coin found in the Derbyshire Dales in 2018, (record DENO-C5A99E ) but I think it is worth returning to the subject, as the Angel has more tales to tell.

Gold angel of Henry VII from near Ashbourne (DENO-C5A99E). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. Licence: CC BY

The Angel was an iconic  coin, by Tudor times it sufficiently embedded in the public consciousness for  Shakespeare to reference it several times in his plays, for example:

They have in England a coin which bears the figure of an Angel‘ Merchant of Venice, 2:7

 and again

See Thou shake the bags

Of hoarding Abbots,

Imprisoned Angels set at liberty.‘ King John 3:2

For me it is significant that the Bard could be confident that most of his audience (including, presumably, the infamous groundlings and stinkards!) would be familiar enough with the Angel to get such references, even if they were not wealthy enough to have an Angel in their purse.

A commonly asked question regarding such coins is ‘how much were they worth?’, and it is a difficult question to answer. The value of the Angel varied from the time of its introduction, but our Derbyshire Angel would have been worth about ten shillings. That is to say, this gold coin was worth ten contemporary silver shillings, which is not the same thing as saying it would have been worth fifty pence (the value of ten old shillings at the time of decimalisation.) It is not easy to give an accurate idea of the purchasing power of such an amount, because the prices of many commodities, and in particular of labour, were disproportionately different to today. However, we can say that the Angel would have represented about two and a half week’s wages for a skilled workman such as a carpenter.

Engraving depicting Charles the Second seated centre, with two men kneeling before him. Charles has both hands placed on the head of one of the kneeling men as he performs the Royal Touch ceremony to cure the man of scrofula.
Charles II performing the Royal Touch; engraving by Robert White, 1664 (public domain).

Another interesting fact about the Angel is that it is associated with the ceremony of touching for the King’s Evil. This was a ritual based on the belief that the anointed monarch had the God-given ability to cure scrofula (A form of non-pulmonary tuberculosis). This is connected to the concept of the divine right of Kings, and the public ceremony in which the King demonstrated this preternatural healing was first introduced by Edward the Confessor and revived by James I. Shakespeare also references this in Macbeth 4:3;

 ”The mere despair of  Surgery he cures

Hanging a Golden stamp around their necks.”

The Golden stamp was an Angel, pierced and hung on a chain or thread, touched and blessed by the monarch and then placed around the neck of his scrofulous subject. Note that this ceremony avoids the monarch actually having to directly touch the Scrofula sufferer (who at least got a valuable gold coin even if they weren’t cured!).

Simon Goes In Search Of Medieval Buckles

The idea for this project came from a speculative suggestion made by Dr Helen Geake during PAS training on common medieval finds. Discussing the difficulties of accurately dating buckles and other detectorists finds without a conventional archaeological context, Dr Geake raised the possibility of comparing finds with images on memorial effigies and brasses of known obituary date.

As I regularly go walking in the Derbyshire Peak, and was aware that many churches in the area had good quality medieval and post-medieval memorials (due to the availability of alabaster from the Chellaston mines and quarries), I decided to visit as many memorials as possible and photograph them with a view to comparing buckles and fittings with examples on the PAS database.

An initial consideration was the issue of whether fittings depicted on memorials were a) authentic and b) sufficiently detailed to enable recognition. Resources such as the Victorian and Albert Museum and the Church Monuments Society suggested this was indeed the case, and in fact there are precedents for this type of comparison project; for example, in compiling the London Museum Medieval Catalogue (1940) Ward-Perkins used Brasses and Memorials extensively to obtain dates.

The project is still in its early stages, but results so far are promising. The effigies of Sir Robert Frances, Earl of Formark, at St Wystan’s Church in Repton, and John de la Pole at Radbourne Parish Church, both 15th Century, have yielded quite detailed straps and fittings (allowing for the centuries of wear, damage and graffiti!). The effigies are life sized, allowing measurements to be taken with reasonable confidence. Although, in the case of buckles, the strap-bar and pin are mostly obscured by the strap, the frame is usually quite distinct.

Image showing a buckle on the armoured foot of a medieval knight depicted in a tomb effigy.
Buckles on the foot of a tomb effigy of John de la Pole at Radbourne Parish Church. Copyright: Simon Nicholson. License: CC-BY.

A Cannon SX160 IS camera was used to take 16mpx images in JPEG format. After some experimentation it was found that by adding a layer in Photoshop and applying a sketch filter, then reducing the opacity of the new layer, edges could be enhanced without significantly altering the overall image, this enabled the frame shape to be compared with catalogues and examples on the PAS database. For example, John de la Pole is wearing several distinctive double-loop trapezoidal buckles with pointed ends to the frames. Similar shaped frames are described in Whitehead (p.82), but with the additional feature of rounded knobs at either end of the strap-bar, which are absent on the de la Pole buckles (Whitehead ascribes a 17th Century date to this design). Examples can be found on the PAS database; e.g. PUBLIC-861B43, NLM-C50B52, SUSS-156CF6.

I hope to visit more churches over the coming months and compile a more substantial collection of images for comparison.

Image of a four buckles depicted on a medieval tomb effigy.
Close up of buckles on a medieval tomb effigy of John de la Pole at Radbourne Parish Church. Copyright: Simon Nicholson. License: CC-BY

Meet the Volunteers: Simon

Simon Nicholson. Copyright: Simon Nicholson. License: All Rights Reserved
Simon Nicholson. Copyright: Simon Nicholson. License: All Rights Reserved


Tell us about yourself.

I have been volunteering with the PAS in Derby since November 2015. My background is in adult education; my specialist area is Astronomy.

What does your role involve?

I assist the FLO identifying and recording items brought in by members of the public.

What area of history/archaeology are you most interested in?

I have long been interested in the Roman period, but since volunteering with the PAS I have become interested in a wider range of periods, especially Anglo-Saxon.

Why did you start volunteering for the PAS?

I am recovering from a stroke, and was looking for a positive use of my time. As I have always had an interest in history, working with the PAS sounded very attractive. I support the aims and goals of the PAS, I feel the recording of found objects is an important part of preserving our heritage, and I can appreciate the value of the database as a resource for future research.

What do you enjoy most about volunteering for the PAS?

I enjoy the chance to see and handle ancient objects, and the challenge of identifying artefacts. The variety of objects that come in is amazing.  I find the training provided excellent; I have learned so much.

What is the most exciting find from Derbyshire you have recorded so far?

DENO-648944 is a Polden-Hill type Roman brooch.

Roman Polden Hill Brooch
Roman Polden Hill Brooch.(DENO-648944) Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. License CC-BY

I find personal items like brooches very evocative.

What is your favorite find from Derbyshire that has been recorded on the PAS database and why?

DENO-D9B7E3 is an Iron Age coin of the Corieltavi tribe.

Iron Age Quarter Stater
Iron Age North Eastern Lindsey Scyphate Quarter Stater (DENO-D987E3)
Copyright Derby Museum Trust. License: CC-BY

Before working on the PAS I had an image of Iron Age Britons as rather primitive, huddled in their woad waiting for the Romans to civilize them! But objects like this, beautifully crafted, demonstrate a sophisticated culture.