A golden pilgrim

In January 2019, a team of archaeologists from the then Suffolk Archaeology CIC (now CA’s Suffolk office), conducted a small-scale excavation to the east of Halesworth, north-east of the historic town core. During metal detector searches of the topsoil, a small and intriguing find was recovered: a well-preserved and complete silver-gilt anthropomorphic badge in the form of a standing male figure.

golden pilgrim badge

The figure is depicted wearing a broad-brimmed hat and robe. In his left hand he is holding a long staff, whilst his right hand clasps the strap of a bag. The reverse is rough and unfinished, and has an integral shank that would have enabled the badge to be worn on a strap or hat.

Pilgrim badges were souvenirs worn by those who had undertaken a religious pilgrimage (an activity written about in literature of the time, most famously in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales of 1387-1400), with the reason for pilgrimage being varied but primarily for curative or medicinal purposes. The production of these badges flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries, and frequently depicted the saints whose relics had been visited. However, it is more likely that the Halesworth badge depicts neither saint nor martyr, but rather a travelling pilgrim. The attire of robe, hat, satchel and staff, as detailed on this small badge, was commonly used in medieval illuminated manuscripts to portray a pilgrim during their religious journeys.

The little pilgrim is of particular interest as it appears to be only the second example recorded nationally. It compares well to a pilgrim badge found at Langham, near Colchester, in 2016, which was dated to c.1250 – 1500. Our badge is similar enough to the Colchester example to suggest that both are likely to have been produced at the same workshop, particularly as no further similar examples can be found, but precisely where these badges originated from is uncertain.

Halesworth is relatively close to Blythburgh, a focus of pilgrims until the 12th century following the burial of King Anna there after his death at the hands of King Penda in AD 654. By the 13th and 14th centuries, Blythburgh had developed into a successful Augustinian monastic complex, and whilst there is no evidence for the cult of Anna continuing after the 12th century, there is record of a local tradition venerating a spring known as either Lady Well or Queen Anne’s Well, which could be a corruption of King Anna’s well and is one of many possible sources for the gilded pilgrim badge. However, East Anglia had many pilgrimage sites, with the cult of St Edmund providing numerous focal points in Suffolk, not least within Bury St Edmunds itself; rivalled by the shrines at Walsingham in Norfolk and Ely in Cambridgeshire. The latter was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites by the 13th century, known for displaying sumptuous souvenirs at fairs. Our gilded silver badge from Halesworth would indicate a higher quality souvenir than the usual pewter badges more commonly purchased by pilgrims and recovered within the archaeological record.

It cannot be discounted that the badge may come from further afield.  Within the archaeological record there is evidence from badges and ampullae that confirms East Anglia’s strong ties to the continent, with clear indicators of continued pilgrim activity to and from Europe. Certainly, from Delft in the Netherlands and Bruges in Belgium there are examples of anthropomorphic badges in the form of pilgrims that are similar to ours, albeit with their figures facing sideways rather than forwards.

Ruth Beveridge (Finds Officer)

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