A Medieval Heraldic Harness Fitting from Yorkshire

This colourful find, a medieval heraldic harness fitting dating from c. 1250-1400, caught our attention in the South and West Yorkshire office. The finder, Ian Cushnie, kindly provided his own research in identifying the family whose arms it depicted. Building on that research, this post by Graham Rawson (PAS volunteer, SWYOR) seeks to give some historical background to the fitting (below), which was found near the North Yorkshire village of Youlton. It then relates it to other thirteenth and fourteenth century finds from the locality, also recorded on the PAS database.

A resized image of Medieval Harness Hook
Medieval heraldic harness fitting (SWYOR-1E049D).
Copyright: West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service.
CC BY 4.0 attribution licence

The fitting depicts the device of three water bougets. A bouget is a pair of leather bags filled with drinking water suspended on a yoke. Arms, ‘gules, three water bougets argent’ (red background with three bougets in silver) are associated with the de Ros (or de Roos) family who held the manor at Youlton, in the parish of Alne, from the thirteenth century (VCH, York North Riding Vol. 2, 1923, Alne, pp. 85-91). The family also had lands in Lincolnshire, where a harness pendant bearing the same arms has also been found, whilst the village of Roos in East Yorkshire is named for them (see NLM-0F5C97). A strap slide, bearing similar arms, found near Ingmanthorpe (ten miles south of Youlton) can also be seen on the PAS database, SWYOR-A9BF45.

Detail from the Trinity Apocalypse showing heraldic harness pendants. Trinity MS R. 16. 2 f.23.r, , c. 1250. Attribution Trinity College, Cambridge. CC BY-NC 4.0 attribution licence

One illustrious family member, who lived at the time the artefact was in use, was William de Ros, First Lord of Helmsley. William, eldest son of Robert de Ros and Isabel, was born at Helmsley, (or ‘Hamelake’) around 1255, and died aged about 60, possibly at Youlton, in 1316. He was buried at Kirkham Priory. William and his wife Matilda had three children: his heir William (d. 1363), Anne (dates not recorded), and John (d. 1338) who became steward of the royal households of Edward II and Edward III. (Colin McNamee 2005, ODNB online). The younger William had the manor of Youlton settled on him in the early fourteenth century (VCH 1923).

William de Ros’s birthplace, the manor at Youlton, and his burial place are within fifteen miles of one another. Yet William, an influential nobleman, travelled extensively in his service to the Crown. He served Edward I in the Welsh campaigns of 1277 and 1282, and in Gascony in 1297. However, his greatest connection was with Scotland. Indeed, William had a claim to the Scottish throne through his great grandfather Robert de Ros who had married Isabella, an illegitimate (perhaps later legitimised) daughter of William the Lion. Although he relinquished his claim he was present at the Battle of Falkirk and the defeat of William Wallace in 1298, and in Edward’s Scottish campaign of 1300. He became joint Lieutenant and Warden of Scotland in 1308, having already procured the office of joint Warden of Northumberland. William was twice summoned to councils of Yorkshire barons regarding the defence of the county from Scottish raids in 1314 and 1315 (McNamee 2005).

Detail of a contemporary battle scene from the Queen Mary
Psalter, c. 1310-1320.
British Library digitised manuscripts. BL Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 186r.
Copyright: anonymous (Queen Mary Master) [Public domain]

The period saw a great increase in documentation (Stamper in Hunter and Ralston, eds., 1999, p. 247). Extant records reveal that William, like many of his baronial peers during the reigns of the first three Edwards, was particularly active in petitioning the crown. Petitions, ‘formal statement[s] of grievance or request’ (many held at The National Archives – hereafter TNA), can provide rich evidence regarding the economics of elite medieval life (TNA, SC 8). William de Ros’s regard re-payments of debts, the correlation and reclamation of lands held by the the Templars after their suppression, the heredity settlement of his estates, and grants of land. Towards the end of his life, when William was perhaps increasingly concerned for the salvation of his soul, and sought indulgences from the Church, he granted land to religious institutions, including to the prior and convent of Belvoir, from his estates in the Midlands, and to the abbots and convents of Thorton-on-Humber, and Warter in Yorkshire (TNA, SC 8; and see C 143, Chancery Inquisitions, 1216-1485, enquiries into requests to alienate land, often to religious houses, TNA, C 143). His burial at Kirkham Abbey might additionally show his spiritual considerations.

Petition in French from William de Ros to the king and his council, regarding land around Wetherby which the Templars held from him. TNA SC8/334/E1139.
Copyright: Open Government Licence v3.0

Projects like ‘Placing Medieval Markets in their Landscape Context through PAS data’ are using found artefacts to investigate the economics of medieval life (https://finds.org.uk/research and see https://medievalmarketsites.wordpress.com/). Further research based on the type and distribution of finds around William de Ros’s Yorkshire estate might illuminate the nature of the lives of those who lived and worked there in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Searching the PAS database for medieval finds within a five kilometre radius of the harness fitting’s findspot reveals the richness and variety of activity. At the time of writing ninety-four finds might be associated with the period 1250-1400, that of our harness fitting. Of these thirty-one are coins: six were issued before the period, but may still have been in circulation. The remainder consist of coins issued during the period: six pennies and five cut halfpennies of Henry III, six pennies and a farthing of Edward I, two pennies and a farthing of Edward II, a quarter noble and two pennies of Edward III, and a Scottish penny of Alexander III. Of the English coins whose mints have been ascertained only three were struck locally, at York, while a further two were struck at Lincoln. The remaining twenty-four were minted in the south of the country, ten of these in London and nine in Canterbury.

Pennies, halfpennies and farthings might conceivably have been the losses of all social classes, the distribution of medieval coin finds on the PAS database suggests ‘coin use was spread throughout society’ (Leahy and Lewis 2018, p. 260).However, the quarter noble of Edward III (NCL-49CFC2) like the harness fitting, would most likely have been the loss of an elite member of society. Even after the rise in wages due to the increased demand for labour following the Black Death during Edward III’s reign, a quarter noble, equal to 20d., represented over a week’s wages for a labourer, who might earn around 3d. per day (Penn and Dyer 1990, p. 356)

Details of contemporary illustrations of agricultural labourers from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1325-1340. British Library digitised manuscripts. BL Add MS 42130, f. 171v, and f. 172v. Copyright: British Library [CC0]

Many of the other finds are higher status possessions. One highlight is a silver gilt brooch evoking the magi (PAS-676FF6); a similar brooch, dated to 1360, can be seen in Spencer 1998 (No. 260, pp. 264-265). Four of the artefacts found within the area are seal matrices. Although seals were initially used to authenticate the documents of social elites, like clergymen, and barons like William de Ros, by the later thirteenth century, a period of increased prosperity and commercialism, they were increasingly used by tradesmen and even possibly the peasant classes, although it is probable the latter were the simpler generic lead matrices (Leahy and Lewis 2018, p. 137). Three of the locally-found seals might be identified as higher status. One bears the arms of Sir Edmund de Kendal; this has been recorded with a discussion by Irene Symanski who highlights (with particular relevance to the provenance of losing of the de Ros harness fitting) ‘whilst it may have belonged to the nobleman himself, it could equally have been in the use and possession of ‘one of his agents/retainers, for example his steward or other senior servant.’ (NCL-664756).

A manorial official supervising the harvest.
From the Queen Mary Psalter, c. 1310-1320.
British Library digitised manuscripts. BL Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 78v.
Copyright: anonymous (Queen Mary Master) [Public domain]

One seal however suggests a different social status of ownership. It has a simple design of a fleur de lis, and the inscription S’ IOH’ IS STURNEI, ‘the seal of John of Sturney’ (or John Sturney) (YORYM-A18201). This is probably the seal of a tradesman. Many other finds evoke the simpler life of those who created and sustained the de Ros’s wealth and lifestyles, the villeins and serfs who worked on his estates. Several spindle whorls attest to the prevalence of home-spun woollen cloth, while simply decorated shield-shaped lead weights, like the Sturney seal, speak of the developing commercialism of the middling-sorts during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century. These weights are found more commonly in the north (Leahy and Lewis 2018, p. 276), and the two examples here, like most, are decorated within a raised section; one with a simple cross (YORYM-602588), the other a fleur de lis (NCL-698D62). Parallels can be seen in Egan 1998 (pp. 320-322). Egan suggests the inclusion of devices used in the arms of the nobility may have given regulatory authority to the weights. If finds like these provide evidence of trade, a number, including the brooch (above), a seal, and perhaps from a less elevated social class, a leaden pilgrim’s ampulla (SWYOR-BF8201), highlight the importance of religion in medieval culture. As noted above belief and the salvation of the soul were of central importance to the lord of the manor, William de Ros.

In examining the context of a single find, placing that find amongst others from its locality, and their own archaeological and historical contexts, it is possible to begin to sketch a picture of the society, and the individuals within it, in a given landscape in a particular period. Significant caveats must be applied to the representativeness of those finds however. For example, whilst elite members of that society had more artefacts of material culture to lose, metal detectorists actively seek (and consequently record) those higher status finds. Ensuring the recording of all finds potentially dating from the medieval period would enhance our understanding of the material culture of a broader range of social classes, and their inter-connections. Nonetheless, even from this perfunctory investigation of the finds recorded from around Youlton, a picture emerges of a society with religion at its core, and an elite manorial economy, at the head of which are noble families who celebrate their status in depictions of their arms and mottoes. Finds also provide evidence for commercial expansion and prosperity, at least prior to the Black Death, and a raised status for the middling-sorts. It is perhaps fair to conclude that the area, William de Ros’s manor, in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, for those social classes at least, was a prosperous and flourishing one.