A rare medieval devotional panel is now on display at the Museum of London. Depicting the capture, trial and execution of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, political rebel turned martyr, the object was discovered by archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), whilst excavating by the River Thames in London.
A fascinating piece of political propaganda and religious art, the panel is one of the largest and the finest examples of its kind. Cast in metal, the scenes are a cautionary tale for ambitious politicians, yet the production of the object reveals another story; that, in death, Lancaster was elevated to an almost saintly status.
Sold at pilgrimage sites
These types of panels are decorative religious object sold at pilgrimage sites in the medieval period to commemorate and venerate saints and martyrs. This particular example is cast in lead alloy and would have been mass produced. It may have formed part of a small devotional shrine in a household.
Lancaster was a cousin of King Edward II and one of a group of barons who tried to curb the king’s power. Having caused huge political unrest, in 1322 Lancaster was defeated by Edward and publicly executed for treason near Pontefract Castle. Within six weeks of his death, miracles were being recorded in connection with his tomb. Whilst in life Lancaster had not been a saintly man, a cult soon built up around him, largely owing to the king’s unpopularity.
For the first time, this find reveals the maker’s intended message. The Virgin Mary and Christ look down from heaven, ready to receive Lancaster’s soul. In slightly garbled French, the panel is read clockwise from the top left:
- ‘here I am taken prisoner’
- ‘I am judged’
- ‘I am under threat’
- ‘la mort’ (death)
A small number of parallels exist but these are fragmentary or in a poorer style. The panel was found in a medieval landfill dump on the Thames waterfront. Throughout the Roman and medieval periods Londoners built into the river to extend their properties and to create quaysides for boats to unload their cargoes. This panel was found in a land reclamation dump behind a medieval river wall.
Sophie Jackson, MOLA archaeologist, said: “It’s thanks to the wet ground of the Thames waterfront that this beautiful metal object survived in such remarkable condition. It has an intriguing story and reveals a great deal about the political climate of the day.”
Detailed research into the panel and the archaeological excavations that took place ahead of construction by Pace Investments, has just been published in Roman and medieval revetments on the Thames waterfront: excavations at Riverbank House, available to buy from MOLA mola.org.uk/publications.
The panel will be displayed in the Museum of London’s Medieval Galleries from 28 March to the 28 September 2015.