Devotional panel of beheaded rebel 14th century martyr surfaces on shore of River Thames

By Ben Miller | 30 March 2015

Panel devoted to beheaded rebel reveals tumultuous political climate nearly 700 years ago

A photo of a female curator holding a tiny silver gate-designed relic with white gloves
The Thomas, Earl of Lancaster medieval panel was found on the banks of the Thames© Museum of London
A devotional panel issued to mourners who circled the grave of an earl executed as a martyr in 1322, found by excavators from Museum of London Archaeology on the north bank of the River Thames, has gone on show to the public in a reflection of a period of huge political unrest which almost dethroned King Edward II.

A cousin of the monarch, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster was one of a group of barons intent on seizing power from the king. He met an untimely demise in his subsequent public execution for treason in the shadow of Pontefact Castle, but within six weeks of his death miracles were being linked with a tomb which had to be shielded by armed guards.

A photo of a large ancient dark brown knife-like object from an archaeological dig
The wet mud of the river preserved the 14th century metal panel in remarkable condition, also preserving organic material such as this medieval leather knife sheath© MOLA / Andy Chopping
For the first time, this find reveals the maker’s intended message. 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’ and, lastly, ‘la mort’ (death). The Virgin Mary and Christ look down from heaven, ready to receive Lancaster’s soul.

Although a rare find today, the panel would have been mass produced at the time. A small number of parallels exist but these are fragmentary or in a poorer style.

“It’s thanks to the wet ground of the Thames waterfront that this beautiful metal object survived in such remarkable condition,” says Sophie Jackson, an archaeologist involved in the discovery.

“It has an intriguing story and reveals a great deal about the political climate of the day.”

Jackie Keily, a curator at the museum, suspects the artefact could offer a warning.

“In the run-up to the election this is a timely reminder of the dangers of political ambition,” she says.

“Thomas sought to control the king’s power but paid the ultimate price with his execution.”

What is a devotional panel?

A photo of a small dark silver religious panel depicting the beheading of a medieval man
The beheading of the Earl is portrayed within the panel© MOLA / Andy Chopping
A decorative religious object sold at pilgrimage sites in the medieval period to commemorate and venerate saints and martyrs. This 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.

How was it made and to what specification?

The panel was cast out of a lead-alloy in an openwork design. It measures 129.6mm in height and 88.5mm in width.

Why is this object significant?

The panel is a very rare find. It is the finest example of a panel devoted to Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and it reveals a great deal about the political climate of the period.

A remarkably accomplished and complete discovery, it is one of the largest known pilgrim souvenirs from the medieval period. There are parallels - most are small fragments - and the British Museum holds a near-complete six-panelled version that is of a poorer style.

Additionally, this new find has commentary in slightly garbled French, which for the first time reveals the maker’s intended message.

Why was this object produced and when?

A photo of two men in high visibility clothing carrying out an archaeological dig in a trench
Archaeologists from MOLA excavating the deep Thames waterfront site at Riverbank House, where the devotional panel was discovered© MOLA
The panel dates to the mid to late 14th century and was produced to venerate Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. Following his execution in 1322, miracles were reported in connection with his tomb and a cult built up around him. As a political opponent of King Edward II, it was also meant as a piece of political propaganda for Lancaster’s supporters.

Where would it have been used?

Following the death of Lancaster, several shrines appeared, primarily at his burial place in Pontefract Priory. This panel, however, is likely to have been associated with a shrine at St Paul’s Cathedral where an effigy of Lancaster had become a place of veneration. The shrine is likely to have been located near to a plaque that Lancaster had installed in 1311 to commemorate the Ordinances.

What do the scenes on the panel depict?

The panels are read clockwise from the top left: Scene 1: Thomas held by two men (‘Here I am taken prisoner’); Scene 2: Thomas, held by an official, is set before a judge (‘I am judged’); Scene 3: Thomas, condemned and set on a mount proceeds before a hostile crowd to his place of execution - other versions follow tradition in showing the horse lacking a bridle to humiliate the prisoner, but here it appears to be present (‘I am under threat’); Scene 4: Thomas is executed with a sword, which fails initially to sever his neck (‘la mort’).

Above, Christ and the Virgin Mary look down from heaven, ready to receive Lancaster’s soul (the gilded sun and moon - also new features - emphasise the universality of their eternal power).

Who was Thomas, Earl of Lancaster?

A photo of a man in high visibility clothing carrying out an archaeological dig in a trench
© MOLA
He was a cousin of King Edward II and one of a group of barons who tried to curb Edward’s power and that of his favourites, Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser. He was the main force behind the capture and execution of Gaveston in 1312 and in forcing Edward to banish Despenser and his son in 1321.

But in the power vacuum that followed the Despensers’ banishment, Lancaster found himself politically isolated and, in 1322, he was defeated by Edward at the battle of Boroughbridge. He was taken to Pontefract Castle, tried and, on March 22 1322, publically executed by beheading.

The execution was apparently not well done and a number of attempts had to be made to remove his head; a feature of the Thomas of Lancaster story that is frequently depicted on pilgrim souvenirs.

Why was he venerated?

While in life Lancaster had not seemed in any way particularly saintly, it did not take long, following his death, for a cult to build up around him, due in large measure to the king’s continuing unpopularity and also to Lancaster’s popularity in certain circles, such as with the Church. A politico-religious cult emerged helping to unite opposition to the king.

It can also be seen as part of a broader trend of medieval English political propaganda that promulgated the religious veneration of political ‘martyrs’, such as Thomas Becket, William Fitz Osbert, Simon de Montfort, Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln, Archbishop Richard Scrope and many others.

In the case of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, the cult did not take long to develop. Within six weeks of his death miracles were recorded associated with his tomb at Pontefract Priory. The popularity of the shrine became such that Edward was forced to place an armed guard around the priory.

The pilgrims then transferred their attentions to the place of his execution, where a chantry chapel was built with funds collected from across England. Following Edward’s murder in 1327, his son, Edward III, petitioned the pope to have Lancaster canonised, although this never happened.

Where was the object found and why?

The object was found during archaeological excavations carried out by Museum of London Archaeology ahead of a commercial construction on the north bank of the River Thames in London.

How did the object survive in such good condition?

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.  Located by a river, the wet ground preserved certain items exceptionally well, including metal objects.

  • You can see the panel in the Medieval Galleries at the Museum of London until September 28 2015. Detailed research into the panel and the archaeological excavations has just been published in the book Roman and medieval revetments on the Thames waterfront: excavations at Riverbank House, available to buy from mola.org.uk/publications.

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