Purses are pouch-like containers, generally made of leather or fabric, used to store and carry coins.  Metal elements from medieval and early post-medieval purses include the arched hanger onto which the strings of medieval purses were tied, and the purses with metal sub-structures of the late medieval and early post-medieval period.  Metal mounts were often applied to leather purses (Willemsen and Ernst 2012, 84-85) but are hard to distinguish from dress accessories.  The focus here is on copper-alloy elements, although purse components are known in iron (for which see Goodall 2011, 342-343, 316; fig. 12.11).

PAS object type(s) to be used


PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used

Use ‘hanger’, ‘bar’, ‘frame’, ‘bar with integral frame’, and ‘loop’ in the classification field; where several components survive together, separate the terms with ‘and’, e.g. ‘bar and loop’

For late medieval and early post-medieval bars and frames use the Williams class in the sub-classification field, e.g. Williams class G.


Purses will be rarely encountered outside the medieval to post-medieval periods; framed and related purses straddle these broad periods.  Roman ARM PURSEs are very rare (see YORYM-5EFF04  for an example); modern purses tend not to be recorded.

Medieval purse hangers

Fabric purses were suspended from hangers which may have had other purposes; these were often cast in an arched form, with certain examples made rather more crudely from drawn wire (Egan and Pritchard (2002, 223; no. 1194).  A large range of the arched pendent mounts was collected at Meols, where antiquarians confused them for handles (Griffiths et al 2007, 125-7, pl. 21).

Terms to use in the description

Arched pendent mounts were suspended at each end from bar mounts with integral loops; mounts are often recessed towards each end for this purpose.  Types present at Meols include those with two or three arches, often with cusps between them (Egan 2007, 126; pl. 21).  At London slightly more elaborate examples have been found: one depicting a winged beast (Egan and Pritchard 2002, 223; no. 1196), and a three-arched example with a central inverted keyhole-shaped opening (Egan and Pritchard 2002, 223; no. 1197; see also HAMP-5728D8, below).


Examples found in London are from late 13th-century to early 15th-century contexts (Egan and Pritchard 2002, 219-224), with arched examples present on early 13th-century French sculpture.


Medieval purse hanger (SOM-074D72)
Medieval purse hanger (SOM-074D72) Copyright: Somerset County Council; CC-BY licence)
Medieval purse hanger (HAMP-5728D8)
Medieval purse hanger (HAMP-5728D8) Copyright: Winchester Museums Service ; CC-BY licence)









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Medieval to post-medieval purses

Late medieval to early post-medieval purses consist of bars from which (generally) separate curved frames were attached, from which in turn purse bags were suspended.  The bars were attached via separate, swivelling loops directly to belts or via belt fittings. Some purse-like objects have the frame and bar as an integral whole, and may not have simply served as purses (Williams 2018, 2). John Ward Perkins (1940) produced a classification for framed purses which has been superseded by David Williams (2018), whose classes can be applied to the sub-classification field.

Terms to use in the description

The bar is the entire horizontal part, and has a number of elements. The bar has two arms, each with terminals, emerging from a central block. The loop is most often oval, circular or inverted drop-shaped (see Williams 2018, 10 for an extended discussion), and it is cast in one with a shank which passes through a central block and ends in an integral or separate rove. The bar may have integral or separate attachment plates with holes for suspension of the purse.

The frame is the curved part, and apart from at the ends is usually L-shaped or U-shaped in cross-section. It has holes or loops at each end to attach it to the bar, and it has holes along its length through which it was sewn to the fabric purse. Some frames may end in projections rather than loops, and these would have slotted into two of the holes in a conventional frame in the manner shown in Archaeological Journal IV (1847, 361).

David Williams’s classification builds on, and at the same time, supersedes John Ward Perkins’s; Williams provides useful cross-references between the two where applicable.

Williams class A

The commonly found bars of Williams class A are long, with integral flat attachment plates projecting downwards. These have two or three round sewing holes on each arm, used to stitch the fabric on. On Williams class A1 the arms are cylindrical in cross-section, and there can be animal heads at the junctions between the arms and the central block (see also class L). Williams class A2 bars have rectangular-section arms and the animal heads are absent. The separate frames are L-shaped in cross-section.  Class A purse bars and arms are frequently decorated with inlaid niello, which can mineralise over time to a silvery colour. Common motifs are double-strand lattice patterns (Williams class A1), and religious inscriptions (Williams class A2). Parts of the Hail Mary are common (AVE MARIA GRACIA PLENA; DOMINVS TECVM); Williams 2018, 4 provides a list of known examples). Inscriptions sometimes extend to the frames and the central block.

Medieval to post-medieval purse bar of Williams Class A1 (DEV-BF5F8F)
Medieval to post-medieval purse bar of Williams Class A1 (DEV-BF5F8F)
Medieval to post-medieval purse of Williams Class A2 (BERK-C3DBF9
Medieval to post-medieval purse of Williams Class A2 (BERK-C3DBF9) Copyright: Oxfordshire County Council; CC-BY licence)







Williams class B

Class B bars are shorter than class A, and have integral perforated attachment plates like those on class A. Most are what Williams calls ‘yoke-shaped’, i.e. with a concave curve to the tops of both arms. A small number (e.g. IOW-E02212 and BH-4954E5) have straight bars with no block, and a quatrefoil loop, so have clear links to class F (below). They all have separate frames hinged on the bar.

Williams classes C-E

Classes C, D and E have very short bars without attachment plates and separate frames hinged on the bar. The blocks are large, and can be rectangular or shield-shaped (class C1), rounded (class C2), heart-shaped (class D) or elaborate, with rounded indentations (classes E1-E3).

The frames on all of these purses are made separately, and hinge on the bar. Frames on class C purses have a distinctive circular cross-section, with perforations or projecting rounded loops for attaching the fabric (see examples at HAMP695, NARC-182644 and SUR-7C8248). Class D purses had a pair of frames, as shown by an example excavated in Reading (Allen in Ford et al. 2013, 240; fig. 5.34, no. 20), and the fragmentary remains of SF-B4F8A4.

Pics needed. C1 – WMID-ED6AE9, C2 – BERK-885F32, D – DOR-0AF3B7, E1 – LANCUM-A7FD95, E2 – WAW-0BD046, E3 – NMS-06F124

Medieval to post-medieval purse of Williams Class C1 (SUR-7C8248)
Medieval to post-medieval purse of Williams Class C1 (SUR-7C8248) Copyright: Surrey County Council; CC-BY licence)

Williams class F

These have straight, simple bars without attachment plates and with no central block. So far, examples are known with quatrefoil loops (SF-6A2948 and WMID-0A10FE), rectangular loops (SF6547) or oval loops (SUR-7CF525). The frames are made separately and hinge on the bar. An excavated example comes from Shapwick in Somerset (Viner in Gerrard with Aston 2007, 746; fig. 16.13, no. A86).

Williams class G

Class G is currently known from just one example on the PAS database (WMID-D25D17).

Williams classes H and J

These are also have relatively short bars, but they lack the frames present on other purses.  Williams Class H bars have expanded terminals and broadly rectangular blocks, with variety in its sub-classes, defined by their loops.  An example of Class H1 with a circular loop was found at Raunds Furnells (Oakley in Chapman 2010, 209-210; fig. 7.12, no. 21).  Williams Class J bars are similar but have distinctive spherical terminals, which either have twisting grooves or are moulded to imitate bells.

Post-medieval purse of Williams Class J (DEV-E87497)
Post-medieval purse of Williams Class J (DEV-E87497) Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme; CC-BY licence)

Williams Classes K-L

These have their bar and frame integral with each other.  Williams Class K bars have flat frames decorated in scrolled relief moulding.  Williams Class L bars have zoomorphic heads flanking the central block, from which projections angle upwards.  The frame on a complete example found in Dover has an L-shaped cross-section (Parfitt et al. 2006, 305-306).

Post-medieval 'purse' of Williams Class K (BUC-82D836)
Post-medieval ‘purse’ of Williams Class K (BUC-82D836) (Copyright: Buckinghamshire County Museum; CC-BY licence)


Traditionally such framed purses have been dated to the 15th and 16th centuries (c. 1450-1550), based on depictions on monumental brasses and other sources (Ward Perkins 1940).  Recent work by David Williams (2018, 11) has stretched the overall dating back to the 1440s, and forwards to the very early 17th century.  The Mary Rose which sunk in 1545 has yielded three bars specifically of Williams Class J (Gardiner and Allen (eds) 2005, 112-113; fig. 3.7).  Williams argues for an early date for Class A2; this would make sense in respect of its often explicitly Marian inscriptions ceasing with the Reformation.  Stylistically, he suggests a late date for Class K, perhaps even early 17th century.


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Key references

Williams 2018

Egan and Pritchard 2002

Ward Perkins 1940