Medieval London


Brooch Image.jpg

Figure 1: Brooch found at the Baynard's Castle Dock excavation site.

In the middle ages, the brooch could bestow a certain degree of prestige and magnificence on its wearer. This brooch (Fig. 1) is armorial in displaying a heraldic device of a noble family. For both men and women, brooches were visible pieces of jewelry commonly placed on the chest or shoulder to fasten two pieces of clothing together (Fig. 2&3). Women’s brooches, however, tended to be much more elaborate than their male counterparts. [1] Indeed, some brooches were of pure aesthetic value with no actual utility other than to impress viewers.

There were two general types of brooches. The first type is characterized by its open frame and the presence of a swiveling pin while the second type does not contain a frame but rather consists of a more rigid pin that remains in place to fasten pieces of cloth together.[2] Unsurprisingly, different shapes of brooches exist. Disc, penannular, and ring brooches are amongst the most commonly used.[3] Brooches were made in a variety of materials, including gold, silver, iron, and copper-alloy. A goldsmith was capable of producing expensive gold and silver brooches.[4] The more common and inexpensive metal materials such as iron or copper-alloy were usually produced by metalworkers such as blacksmiths or coppersmiths. When used for jewelry accessories such as brooches, metals such as iron or copper alloy were also given various finishes in order to appear in a desired color and of a higher quality.[5]


Figure 2: Detail of the Virgin Mary Wearing an ornate brooch to clasp her cloak. This image depicts the Virgin Mary before her son, Jesus Christ, at the scene of the Crucifixion. From BL, Additional Ms 50001, f. 22.

Aesthetic value, however, was largely determined by wealth and social status. The average individual found the brooch of practical use, yet lacked the financial or social capability to wear the high value brooches made of more expensive material that were available to the wealthy and noble classes. Enamelwork, which became more sophisticated in the high medieval period, allowed for much more ornate possessions.[6].Wills and inventories suggest that citizens of medieval London enjoyed adorning themselves with jewelry and dressing in expensive clothing. [7] Therefore, it would make sense that the brooch, as a very front-facing piece of jewelry, played a role in bestowing grandeur to the wearer.


Figure 3: Detail of King Solomon reading a book and wearing a brooch. Compared to the Virgin Mary in Figure 1, King Solomon's brooch is much less ornate, which was consistent with the idea that men wore less ornate and elaborate brooches then women. From BL, Additional MS 11639, f. 116.


Figure 4: Map of Southwest London indicating the site at which the brooch was excavated. This image depicts the southwest corner of the city of London in the year 1270. The dock of Baynard's Castle, where the brooch was found, is situated on the River Thames.


Figure 5: Drawing of the Coat of Arms of the Earl of Lancaster.

Unearthed in 1972, this particular brooch (Fig. 1) was found in layers of dump which composed the foundation of the dock built at Baynard’s Castle (Fig. 4). With an approximate height of 100mm and width of 62mm, the brooch itself is made of iron. The brooch is either in an “M” or “B” shape depending on the orientation of the shield, which can turn. The shield, made of copper-alloy, bears the arms of the Earls of Lancaster. The fact that the dock was built between the early thirteenth century and late fourteenth century indicates that the coat of arms likely belonged to either Edmund Crouchback or Thomas who lived during this period.[8]. The shield may have once had the Lancastrian colors of red, blue, and gold, which have now faded away. The three lions of the English monarchy are visible (Fig. 5) on the shield as Edmund, 1st Earl of Lancaster, was the second son of King Henry III and the brother to King Edward I.[9] The presence of the fleur-de-lis, a symbol of France, is noteworthy. The brooch itself contains two fleur-de-lis per point yet the official coat of arms of the Earls of Lancaster contains three per point. However, this does not present any concern as it was common for manufacturers of jewelry to alter a coat of arms so that it could fit the space available.[10]

Though the brooch itself was found within the city of London, it is difficult to know whether the item was produced in London. It could have been produced within the city walls by an individual experienced in metalworking. Its materials could have been imported by ironmongers or other merchants. Because the brooch was produced using iron and copper-alloy, it may have been a livery badge belonging to a retainer of the Earls, or someone in their pay. Liveries were uniforms or badges of particular colors or designs that were handed out to a lord's allies, retainers, and servants to demonstrate allegiance.[11] The brooch may also have been given as a gift. The Earls of Lancaster did own property in London near the Savoy and Holborn,[12] which they would have visited with their servants and retainers, one of whom could have lost or discarded this brooch. Other high-quality finds at the Baynard’s Castle dock excavation suggest that the source of the dump came from a clear-out of a royal residence or wardrobe.[13]

The brooch has a “biography” to the extent that it came into existence as a lump of metal made into a dress accessory whose decoration held great social significance. The brooch held both a practical and symbolic purpose. In terms of practicality, it was used to fasten clothing together. It is unknown whether a man or woman wore the brooch given that it was made of inexpensive materials. If the brooch were to belong to a wealthier person, the gender of the individual would have been clearer. In terms of a symbolic purpose, the presence of a heraldic device aimed to demonstrate that the wearer of the brooch-maintained allegiance to his lord. The wearer must have a trusted and reliable servant or retainer. The presence of the three lions of England as well as the French fleur-de-lis communicated a powerful message about political allegiance since most Londoners would have instantly recognized England’s lions and made a connection to the nobility and royal house. with which the Earls of Lancaster were associated. Those who gazed upon the shield knew that the owner of the brooch served individuals at the highest echelons of society. Therefore, the brooch itself held power in its own right.

--Miguel A. Carbajal


[1] Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London, 149.

[2] Egan, Dress Accessories, 247.

[3] Egan, Dress Accessories, 247-250.

[4] Reddaway, “The London Goldsmiths,” 55.

[5] Hinton, Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins, 261.

[6] Hinton, Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins, 261.

[7] Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London, 148.

[8] “Brooch”, Museum of London Collections Online.

[9] Floyd, “Edmund, First Earl of Lancaster.”

[10] Wilmott, “A Medieval Armorial Brooch,” 301.

[11] Hinton, Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins, 201.

[12] Wilmott, “A Medieval Armorial Brooch,” 301.

[13] Schofield, London’s Waterfront, 21.

Works Cited

“Additional 11639, f.116. King Solomon.” Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. British Library, n.d.

“Additional 50001, f 22. Crucifixion.” Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. British Library, n.d.

“Brooch.” Museum of London | Free museum in London. Museum of London. Accessed October 17, 2020.

Egan, Geoff, and Frances Pritchard. Dress Accessories, c. 1150 - c. 1450. New edition. Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 3. Boydell Press, 2002.

Floyd, Simon. “Edmund [Called Edmund Crouchback], First Earl of Lancaster and First Earl of Leicester.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2020.

Hinton, David Alban. Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins: Possessions and People in Medieval Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Lobel, Mary Doreen. Historic Towns: Maps and Plans of Towns and Cities in the British Isles, with Historical Commentaries, from Earliest Times to 1800. Oxford: Oxford University. Press, 1989.

Reddaway, T. F. “The London Goldsmiths Circa 1500.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (1962): 49–62.

Schofield, John, Lyn Blackmore, Jacqui Pearce, and Tony Dyson. London’s Waterfront 1100–1666: Excavations in Thames Street, London, 1974–84. Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology, 2018.

Thrupp, Sylvia Lettice. The Merchant Class of Medieval London, (1300-1500). Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1948.

Wilmott, Tony. "A Medieval Armorial Brooch or Pendant from Baynards Castle." Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society 33 (1982): 299-302.

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