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