I suppose it was the searching of my mother-in-law’s garden with a metal detector that gave me the first inkling of how interesting the sites of old houses can be. Not that “mother’s” house was anything special; just a town house in a
suburb, built soon after the Great War. In one afternoon I found 52
coins and a ring. Everything was made of base metal with nothing earlier than
Victorian but it was the sheer quantity that intrigued me. “What if it had been
the garden of a Medieval house?” I thought. “Would I have recovered 52 hammered silver coins and
maybe a gold noble or two?” London
I thought no more about it and carried on searching the one very small farm that I had permission on at that time. This farm continued to be productive for some while nothing extra special but enough to keep my interest: one Roman, two hammered silver coins, a bucketful of Georgian and Victorian finds. Eventually finds started dwindling which precipitated a visit to the library with a view to finding a new and worthwhile site.
It is strange how it often seems that you are being lead to a place and this, my first serious attempt at site research was remarkably easy. Many counties had a gentleman historian or two who sauntered around the countryside a couple of hundred years ago compiling a dossier on places and events, often comprising several large tomes. The county where I live is no exception, and it was to this work that I turned to start my research. Looking a step ahead, I figured it would be easier to get search permission if I found a site close to where I was already welcome and began reading the chapter relating to that Parish. I hadn’t read more than a couple of pages when the words leapt at me:
“The manor houfe flood, for there hath not been any remains of one left time out of mind, in the midft of a wood of the fame name.” The author went on to tell me that the site was a Roman camp before the manor was built and gave the location by way of a farm name.
Consulting modern maps I learned that the farm still existed, but not the wood. I eagerly scanned several older maps looking for a more precise indication of the manor site but it wasn’t until I tracked down the tithe map that anything convincing emerged. The cartographer had obviously felt the fifteen acre wood important enough to name it on the map.
Having narrowed the site down to a workable area and ascertained that it hadn’t been built on — it was now an orchard — all I had to do was obtain search permission! My friendly neighbourhood farmer gave me the landowner’s name and address and suggested I write or phone. I decided that writing was the least painful and potentially the most effective since I could communicate my request clearly, without embarrassment and hopefully would not inconvenience the recipient too much.
It worked! Within twenty-four hours of posting the letter, the landowner phoned me: “I don’t know whether you’ll find anything” he said, “My father bulldozed the site some years ago; but you’re welcome to try.” (Incidentally I always write first when seeking search permission and I am usually successful either right away or after a follow-up visit if I don’t get a reply. The important thing is to have a good reason for wanting to detect on the land.)
The weekend took forever to arrive but at last I was off with my detector anticipating all the gold nobles I was going to find. After the first session all I had discovered was that someone around the farm had a penchant for chocolate bars and fancy cakes. The next search also produced nothing but silver paper. I couldn’t believe it! I re-checked all the references to make sure I was in the right place. By the end of the third search, having still not made one single non-junk find, I was starting to believe that my historian had been in collusion with the brothers Grimm. The fourth session just about confirmed it! Half way through the fifth search a silver coloured ring, just visible in a clod of earth, had me cussing the fancy cake fiend for starting on the fizzy lemonade, when I noticed the milled edge. It was a William III sixpence. After eighteen hours’ searching I had actually made a find!
Almost immediately I unearthed a crotal bell quickly followed by another and from then on it became a completely different site. Almost every visit over the next few months produced something of interest: a follis of Diocletian, a Medieval casket key, two Roman asses, two Medieval buckles, three Edward III pennies and a half groat. Some Georgian coppers gave themselves up, then two more crotal bells, a silver cane, umbrella or parasol ferrule, a livery button and a copper-alloy ring brooch. The next weekend after finding the brooch a particularly awkward extraction from tree roots had me staring at a silver pin in the bottom of the hole. I pulled it out; the pin seemed to have been part of a buckle or something. I passed the detector coil over the spoil which I had removed and was greeted with two signals which produced the source of the pin — two halves of a silver ring brooch frame. I chastised myself for breaking it, then noticed the tarnish which said “broken in antiquity”. Later, at home, with a smear of removable glue (the experts advised not to attempt soldering) the brooch was complete once again. Gentle cleaning had revealed that the brooch was completely plain except for a letter A on the reverse.
The apple trees had leafed, blossomed and now, full of developing fruit were becoming fragile to an accidental brush and very difficult to search around. I arrived at the site having decided this was going to be the last search for this season. The first hour or so produced nothing but silver paper (this is where I came in, I thought), then a sharp signal produced the only find of the day. This was a small enameled heraldic shield with a fairly long spike protruding from the reverse. I had seen horse harness pendants in this magazine but nothing like this.
Having abandoned the site to the farmer, at least for the time being, I now had a bit of time to try and have these last two finds identified. With much help from medieval expert Nick Griffiths, I learned that the brooch is fairly typical of thirteenth century style, the single letter A on the back, however, is unusual indeed. The consensus of opinions is that there are three possible solutions, none easy to parallel!
(i)“A” stands for the maker — unusual since jewelry is hardly ever marked by the maker at this period, and marks put on by makers usually give the full name — at least more than a single letter!
(ii) There is a well-known passage in Chaucer, the prologue to the Canterbury Tales — describing the nun, (The Prioress), he says she wore “a brooch of gold ful sheene on which ther was first writ a crowned A and after, Amor Vincit Omnia” However, in Chaucer, the A appears on the front where everyone could see it, not on the back.
(iii) It may stand for a Saint’s name — e.g. Anne, or possibly the beginning of Ave Maria, the prayer to the Virgin, which was used as a charm against all dangers. If a Saint’s name, it might be a patron saint; in both cases these would be put on the back of the brooch to be against the person so as to give maximum effect!
The shield (picture top left) portrayed six beasts but obviously reverse. (In heraldry, all sideways facing devices should face left, when viewed from the front of the shield.) The reversal is probably the result of an incompetent metal worker who cut the mould the wrong way round. The style of shield appears from the 1280s onwards. It is likely that the object was a mount for a wooden casket or travelling chest. Initial thoughts were that the beasts were lions rampant which would have been the arms of The Earl of Leyburn if the lions had been silver or Lord Salisbury if gold.
Apart from not being able to fit a full lion rampant into any of the cavities on the shield, and every time I looked closely I could see the head and shoulders of a smooth-haired “cat” — I was quite satisfied until I discovered that the first incumbent of the manor bore the arms: Azure six leopard heads, couped at the neck, 3,2,1 or. (Picture top right).
Considering the relative scarcity of these objects it seems highly unlikely that someone in obscurity who had a coat of arms so very similar to that of the owners of the Manor itself, should lose his mount there. Further, as the border of the mount had obviously been gold-gilt, logic (albeit twentieth century logic) dictates that the beasts would have been gold. While gold itself does not normally deteriorate in the ground, the loss of the gold beasts could be explained by corrosion of the bond between the gold and the base metal. The contrary argument is that the mount clearly portrays more of the beasts than just heads; however, if the cavities on the shield could be taken to represent full rampant lions then equally could they not represent leopard heads? If the maker had made one blunder might he not have made two?
I’ll never know for sure, of course, but I like to think that the mount came from the first lord of the manor. I wonder if he’s left anything else for me to find?