A pilgrim badge (with noble ties?)

In 2011 a pilgrim badge was discovered and recorded in Essex (ESS-940232). It depicts Saint Hubert or Saint Eustace, as both saw a vision of a cross between a stags’ antlers whilst hunting. This prompted St Eustace to convert to Christianity, while St Hubert, who was already a Christian, saw this as a sign to repent his sins. St Eustace is an earlier saint, with the iconography of St Hubert being taken from St Eustace’s story (Spencer, 1990 p.54). Given the date of the badge, it is most likely that the Saint being depicted is the later St Hubert.

ESS-940232 Pilgrim badge of St Hubert.
ESS-940232 Pilgrim badge of St Hubert. Copyright: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service: License: CC-BY

St Hubert was mainly venerated in the Ardennes and Picardy, but iconography of St Hubert is common on English shores, as depicted on seal matrices and pilgrim badges. The images on those objects are usually a stag or hunting horn, the sign of St Hubert as the patron saint of hunters, but the badge in this article is much more elaborate. It depicts a whole scene; the stag, St Hubert and his horse, all in great detail. What is more extraordinary is that the back plate survives. It has a chequered design of dark blue enamel with alternating gilded squares and a border in the style of rope-work. It is also made out of a copper alloy, not the lead that pilgrim badges were normally made of. This is no ordinary pilgrim badge and although there are similar shaped badges on the database with images of other saints ( BH-589BA2, GLO-BECDA3). A more corroded badge depicting the same scene as the one discovered in Essex was found in Warwickshire, although no back plate survives (WMID-8EB286). The combination of imagery, design and where it was found, was worth a more thorough investigation.

WMID-8EB286 Warwick pilgrim badge
WMID-8EB286 Warwick pilgrim badge. Copyright: Birmingham Museum’s Trust. License: CC-BY

Perhaps the location of the badge in Essex was a clue to its unusual grandeur. Not far from where the object was found is Hedingham Castle, the former seat of the de Vere family for over 600 years. The castle was built under Aubrey de Vere I, a French nobleman who was tenant-in-chief in England under William the Conqueror in 1086. Aubery became the first Earl of Oxford, with his land including most of Essex.  The badge dates to the Pre-Reformation period, in which the castle was owned by John de Vere, 14th Earl of Oxford. The de Vere family were part of the royal court and John attended King Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold and was part of Henry VIII’s entourage when he met Emperor Charles V.  During this period, Hedingham Castle had three large parks, where hunting took place. As St Hubert was the patron saint of hunters his association with John de Vere, who himself was a prolific hunter, makes reasonable sense.

The link to the de Vere’s land suggests one way the badge may have been lost, but gives no clue as to why the badge depicts such a detailed and unusual scene. John de Vere died in 1526 and passed Hedingham Castle to his second cousin, also called John de Vere, who became the 15th Earl of Oxford. He was Lord Great Chamberlain, a Knight of the Garter and part of the Privy Council. He was also in attendance when Henry VIII met Anne of Cleaves in AD1540. Further research showed that Anne of Cleaves came from the same family as Gerhad V, Duke of Jülich and Count of Ravensberg. Between AD1445-1447 he founded the Order of St Hubert, supposedly to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Linnich on 3rd November, Saint Hubert’s day. In AD1521 the male lines of the Dukes of Jülich and Berg, who held the duchies and the county of Ravensberg died out.  The titles passed to John III Duke of Cleves and Count of Mark, through his wife. They had a son, Wilhelm, who inherited the duchies and became administrator of the Order, and three daughters, one of whom was Anne of Cleaves. On the Order’s badge, which would sit on the collar of the Grand Master, is the image of a kneeling St Hubert praying in front of a stag with a cross in between the antlers.

Cross of the Order of St hubert By Robert Prummel
Cross of the Order of St hubert By Robert Prummel. Copyright: GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), from Wikimedia Commons. License: CC-BY-SA-3.0

This image is remarkably similar to the one on the badge from Essex, making it possible that this St Hubert badge has ties with the Order in Germany. Although Anne of Cleaves would have been familiar with the Order, as her brother held a key position within it, there is no evidence to suggest that it was Anne who bought the Order or the iconography of St Hubert into the royal court, as she arrived in England around twenty years after the Reformation. Nonetheless, the links between the badges, Anne, Henry VIII, the de Vere family and hunting cannot be ignored.

The uniqueness of the scene on the Essex badge may suggest that the image is continental, with the Order of St Hubert having been established at roughly the same time as this badge was produced. However, badges of the Order of St Hubert were generally inscribed (Robson, 1830 p.131) and this badge from Essex is not. It is possible the badge is of English manufacture, copying the iconography of German counterparts.  The decoration of the badge, being made of gilt copper alloy and being found so close to Hedingham Castle suggests that the badge likely came from a high status household. What this research has shown is that this object could be a link to nobility that held Essex during the reigns of the most infamous English royal family, the Tudors.

Written by Katie Bishop (PAS volunteer in Essex)


Robson, T. 1830. The British Herald. Sunderland: Turner and Marwood.

Spencer, B. 1990. Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum Medieval Catalogue 2: Pilgrim Souvenirs and Secular Badges. Salisbury: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.