The Winscombe Project

On January 18th, Theresa Hall gave a very detailed and interesting illustrated talk about the Winscombe Project which was started by Mick Aston.

She began by explaining the differences between this project and the one previously done by them at Shapwick.  In contrast to Shapwick, which was a nucleate settlement ie one village, Winsombe was an area of dispersed settlements. The medieval records show there to have been between 18 and 22 difference hamlets and a landscape which was more pastoral than arable. Although Shipham is listed separately in the Domesday book, it is thought that it was originally part of Winscombe since Shipham church paid money to Winscombe church every year in lieu of burial rights.

Theresa went on to explain the topography and geology of the area. Half of Winscombe is nestled within the Mendips and is a mix of different topography namely marsh , highlands, and some arable farm land.  In terms of the Geology there are two ridges of limestone hills, Mercian mudstone and ridges of Dolomitic conglomerate which run east to west through the valley and there is marshland in the north. There are several routes through the Mendips and it is probable that Winscombe was one of the main ones and therefore of importance.

 Pre-history and history: Looking at what they found.
A Paleolithic axe was found at Sidcot Playing Fields, which was about 250,000 years old. When, what they thought was a Neolithic hand axe was found in a garden in Sidcot about a foot below the surface, they were quite excited but, on examination by the Stone Axe group , this was found to be an adze and there were no adzes in Neolithic times. Even more intriguingly, it turned out that this one came from Polynesia. A second one was then found near Sidcot school with some medieval pottery nearby, but this was another Polynesian tool. They can only surmise that perhaps the school had a sort of cabinet of curiosities which was then broken up and dispersed.

They have found some Neolithic bits and pieces, but nothing really exciting.Nothing was found from the Bronze Age and little from the Iron Age, although they did find a possible iron age shard in Barton. Since the Banwell Hill Fort dominates the area they had expected to have found more than this and although it is thought that there may have been hut circles in the area they have, so far, got no evidence for this.

Wint Hill is near the parish on the north side of the valley and the major Roman find there is the Wint Hill Bowl dating back to the 4th century, originating from Cologne, which was found in the 1950’s. There are photos of the excavation in KJHL. The photographs show some skeletal remains, which were rumoured to have been put down a well by a suspicious farmer. Some of these bones are conserved in the museum and carbon dating suggests that some were from 430-610 and some from 660-810. They had presumed the bones were Roman but they are later than that and extend over a considerable time. It is suggested that they may be part of a Dark Age cemetery and that there might have been a monastic site in the vicinity of Banwell before the Saxon Minster was there, so there may have been a cemetery of an earlier British site on the hill . When the Church was built in Banwell the cemetery would then have ceased to function.

Roman remains associated with that settlement continued down the hill into the valley and were discovered when a pipeline was put in. There were several Roman buildings going down the hill alongside the pipeline and there are also bits of Roman pottery found at Barton and on the site of Star Villa, which is now in Shipham parish. On the Sandford side of the hill not much has been found but some fields have the name Blacklands which is a name associated with Roman times. They conclude that the Roman were in the area, but can not be more specific than that.

Winscombe is first mentioned when King Edgar (959-975) granted 15 hides at Winscombe to Aelfswith. She was the wife of Aeltheah who owned much of the land in Wessex, and was a kinswoman of the previous King Eadwig, In other words they were an important and wealthy couple. Although they might never have gone to Winscombe they could have had an estate there which they could have used if the King was travelling around his kingdom and was, for example, visiting Cheddar or Banwell.   Aeltheah had a brother who was a monk at Glastonbury Abbey and the couple gave lands to the Abbey which included Winscombe, so that from this time Winscombe belonged to Glastonbury Abbey. The Domesday map shows the Banwell estate which belonged to the Bishop of Wells and it is thought that Winscombe was perhaps carved out of this estate. Theresa said that there is evidence that this estate changed ownership several times.

There are no parish boundaries for Winscombe and no charter boundaries although there are two nearby. Compton Bishop has one granted from the 10th century and Banwell from 1068. This latter included Sandford, yet Sandford was part of the Church lands belonging to Winscombe and therefore belonged to Glastonbury. They think that this might perhaps be because Harold had seized Banwell (which belonged to Wells) and he might have arbitarily decided to take Sandford as well, but it does go back into the hands of Glastonbury later.

At Domesday, much of Winscombe belonged to Glastonbury but there were also people holding knights fees. There is an area around Woodborough of 2 1/2 hides belonging to Roger de Courseulles who also held Shipham. In the north of the parish in an area around Shipham and an area around Nye there is 1 hide and 1 virgate of land held by Ralph Tortemain or Crooked Hands, who held other lands as well. Another half a hide for land at Barton was held by a man called Pipe and, as this is the only land that he owns at Domesday, it is thought he was maybe living there. Both Roger de Courseulles and Ralph Tortemain had their main residences elsewhere.

In 1197 following the death of the Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop Savaric takes over Glastonbury Abbey as well as being Bishop of Wells. Although this had been allowed by the King the monks were, apparently, not happy. In 1215 they went to the Pope and petitioned for the lands to be given back to them and the Pope agreed. Despite this the Bishop decided to keep four estates at Blackford, Winscombe and 2 others. Later, Bishop Jocelin re-arranged the cathedral Chapter and he gave Winscombe to the Dean and Chapter of Wells and it stayed with the Dean and Chapter until the 18th century when parts began to be sold off. Had it stayed in the hands of Glastonbury then it would have gone into private hands at Dissolution.

Following the retention of land by Bishop Savaric the monks of Glastonbury continued to take court action against the Bishop over the lands he had retained.  This is evidenced in an account of a duel recorded by John Seldon who wrote a book in 1610 about dueling in which he quotes a deed which refers to the battle between the Abbot and the Bishop over the land. The Abbot appointed a fighter to act on his behalf who was given 10 marks of silver with a further 5 more promised if he won the battle. The account states that on the day of the duel the opponents were barelegged, bareheaded and bared to the elbow and held a red staff of an ells length. We don’t know who represented the Bishop nor do we know who won but it was presumably the Bishop’s man as Winscombe remained with the Dean and Chapter.

There was one tenant of Roger de Courseulles in the 13th century, Henry Lovestheft, who belonged to the Bishop’s Court and he apparently gave some land away to Woodspring Priory, some to Minchin Buckland and some for the building of St Augustine’s Abbey in Bristol. Although he was only the tenant of the land one can only assume that he did this with permission.

A lot of work was done by Maria Forbes and Mick Aston.
Various surveys were translated including surveys of the Parish dated 1572 and 1650 of the Dean and Chapter lands.   A survey of the Manor of Sandford which was done in 1540 for the Seymours was translated with the help of Frances Neale. Martin Ecclestone also translated the Court rolls and Compotos rolls

Within the Compotos Rolls and court rolls from 1360-1540 there are all the inhabitants on Dean and Chapter land listed by their status. These followed a pattern, so every year you can follow the inhabitants through time ie 1290-1640. The place they lived in is appended to the names of the people so that many of the people listed can be traced through time. As Theresa pointed out, this is easier where there are separate hamlets rather than a village. They hope that test pits on these houses might reveal status changes through looking at the pottery that comes out of the pits

She then went on to describe some of the articles that have been written about the project, which include one that Mick Aston wrote about farming within the Parish and one about the woodland. There is an interesting reference in the woodland records which states that in 1342, 5s 6d was paid for the bark of 16 oak trees which went to St Cuthberts Church in Wells and there are references to this being carted there. This wood can now be found in the chancel roof of the church.

They also looked at various maps of the Parish although there are not a huge number of them. There is a 1792 map of Winscombe made by William White for the Dean and Chapter of Wells. Interestingly this has lots of blanks on it which refer to the parts that the Dean and Chapter didn’t own. These are the areas which equate to those held by the Knights at Domesday so, for example, an area of Sandford which is blank is thought to be the lands held by Ralph Tortemain.

Theresa showed a map of Sandford, done by Mick Aston which shows the land not owned by the Dean and Chapter. This was land owned by individuals who clearly had strips of land intermingled with strips belonging to the Church.   Theresa pointed out that this might be important in understanding the development of the parish.

Edward Seymour the brother of Jane Seymour, owned Sandford Manor which was part of the Cheddar Estate. He had to go to law to get it, however. It had been previously been owned by the Lisle family and, at this time, held by Arthur Plantagenet the illegitimate son of Edward IV. Apparently Edward thought the land was rented by Arthur who thought differently and the matter went to Cromwell to adjudicate. It took 8 years to settle with Cromwell deciding in favour of Edward once Jane became queen.

Theresa showed a slide of Nye Farm which is on one of the islands in the marsh which belonged to Edward Seymour.   There was a moated site at the end of the island which was the main residence of whoever was renting Sandford manor. They have found some earthworks at this site which they will investigate in due course.

A map found in a house in Wells shows Woodborough Common with winding gears drawn on it and it is thought that this was drawn up for the Dean and Chapter when they gave the right to mine to someone who lived in Shipham. They have found some lead weights there of the sort associated with mining.

Theresa showed more maps drawn by Mick Aston. One of the green shows a tiny remnant of land which has been cut off by railway line and appeared not to be owned by anyone. This has now been claimed by the Parish Council and now forms a little orchard garden.

There was also a map of the Lynch from the air. They have found evidence of burials at the western end and at the centre of the Lynch there was a windmill dating back to the 13th century.  Various other aerial maps have been done.

Another map drawn by Mick Aston is a reconstruction, which shows how meadowland could have been reclaimed from the marsh.

Building surveys were done by The Somerset vernacular group, which has looked at more recent houses.   As well as vernacular building there are a lot of Victorian villas, probably because Winscombe was thought to be a healthy place to live. Of particular interest is West End Farm in Barton which has a cruck beam that dates back to 1278. This is the date of the first the compotos rolls and it is thought that this is the earliest vernacular building in Somerset still lived in.

Geophysics has been done and James Bond has done earthwork surveys.
They have done little field walking because of the amount of material it creates although they did look at a field at Max Mills and found some Roman bits.

Test pitting was the main technique they used..

At Tower House they found a lot of roof tiles. In the historical record this area is called Ford and there was free tenant called William Ford recorded, who farmed there.

They have done a total of 189 test pits of which 29 were in Sidcot. They have found some medieval bits from the central area and some smithing remains outside the meeting house. There were 2 smiths in the parish, one in Winscombe and one, who was a free tenant, in Sidcot.

29 have been done in Barton, the main arable area, but these have not revealed very much and not as much as in farms in the hamlets. An orchard site in Barton has revealed some jars and some Saintonge ware which is an import from France and usually only found in cities or on manorial sites, not in rural areas

Other test pits were done at the Lynch around the site of an old windmill.

At Woodborough Mill they have found some medieval material. The Mill was owned at this time by Henry Lovestheft who gave some land to the Church and was allowed in return to get the right to take the water from a spring which, when diverted, added to the water going to his mill. This water would have gone naturally to Max Mill. There was a 17th century court case because the owner of the Mill had a tenant at the time who had allowed a wall to fall into disrepair and this meant that the water then went to Max Mill. Although the people at Max Mill were quite happy about this there were clearly several arguments and threats of violence over the water, which culminated in the court case. Although we don’t know the result of the court case we can assume that Woodborough Mill won as they had the documentary evidence to support their case

Theresa went on to talk about the settlement of Wyke, the site of which is unknown. Mick thought he’d identified it in one of the fields in the Parish and they have done 3 test pits there. Although they have found no pottery, one pit showed evidence of something industrial and was, perhaps, an iron working furnace.

The Court area. In the test pits they have found fine ware from the 13th and 14th century, and coarse ware at the farm end. Outside the court they found no pottery. In the compotos rolls the people who have tenements are nearly all cottars so were presumably servants of the Court rather than farming for themselves.

To finish, Theresa described a Christmas card sent by James Bond to Mick Aston which imagined them in the future doing some penetrating analysis from their armchairs based on the whole landscape being digitised thus saving them all from going out into the cold and wet. An interesting thought!!

There are a lot of articles written about the Winscombe project written by Mick Aston and ones published by SANHS.

This is a link  to Mick Aston’s site

There are also several articles published by SANHS – just go to the SANHS site  and put winscombe project in the search box

Liz Friend



Have I Got (Old) News For You

Written by Madeleine Roberts:
On Wednesday February 15th, John Page gave us a fascinating insight into the history of local newspapers. He based his talk largely on original copies stored in the Old Court Room in Axbridge and he covered the period from 1725 to the 1970s. The papers he had researched included the Weston-super-Mare Gazette, the Axbridge and Cheddar Gazette, the Bath Chronicle, the Cheddar Valley Gazette, the Isle of Wedmore and Mendip Journal, the Weston Mercury, the Somerset Mercury, the Central Somerset Herald, the Westonian and the Mendip Gazette. The Mendip Gazette was the only one of these to be published in Axbridge. In 1946 it was based at the Old Angel on the Square.

John explained that the size of the papers was determined by production costs and that following the imposition of a newspaper tax in 1712 which placed a charge of 1 penny on every sheet whatever the size, it was cheaper to produce a small number of large sheets than a large number of small sheets. As a result newspapers began life on a grand scale and gradually reduced in size as time went on.

Tax was also a contributory factor in determining the size and number of advertisements in the papers as each advertisement was subject to taxation.

Pictures had their own restrictions as, before daguerreotype was invented in 1839, illustrations could only be produced from engraved line drawings. None-the-less, whatever the difficulties and whatever the tax, advertisers were at the forefront of pictorial innovation. Significant among these were Bryant & May whose match boxes were decorated with quite superb line drawing portraits of famous people. Engraved drawings continued for some considerable time and in 1855 the technique was used successfully to portray the assembled delegates at the Vienna Conference.

Apart from describing the evolution of the papers, John selected a number of incidents that he hoped would interest us. The earliest of these was the story of Mary Norwood of Axbridge who had been seduced by James H—LL, a shoemaker also of Axbridge. Encouraged by him on the promise of marriage and assisted by two others, Samuel W—ks and Charity A—s, Mary had poisoned Joseph, her husband of 15 years, by putting poison in his milk. She was tried and found guilty and on May 9th 1765 she was executed. Large numbers gathered to watch as she was dragged through the town tied to a hurdle, after which gruesome event she was hanged and then tied to a metal post and burned. It was reported that many in the crowd found the incident too horrible to watch and looked away. What happened to her accomplices is not reported.

Bull running and bull-baiting had long been the customary way of celebrating November 5th in Axbridge and when in 1835 the Cruelty to Animals Act forbade bull-baiting, there were many in the town who resented it. The situation was not helped by the fact that the Mayor and assembled company continued to enjoy their own celebrations by holding a lavish dinner. So, in November 1838, Peter Fry compensated the masses for the lack of bull-baiting by providing a hog’s head of cider in the market place for everyone to share. It would be interesting to know how long this continued and when it died out.

In the 1840s, the railway reached the area and train timetables became a feature of the local press. The visitors who arrived on the trains were also a source of interest and lists of their names were commonly included in the local papers.

The middle of the nineteenth century was a time of great scientific enquiry and John had found an article that asserted that earthquakes could unquestionably be attributed to fluctuations in the air pressure pressing down on the crust of the earth. If only it were so simple!

Moving into the twentieth century, John had discovered that there had once been regular flights from Weston-super-Mare airfield across the Bristol Channel to Cardiff and back – much quicker than going by car.

In 1957, one forward looking council vowed to keep an open mind about the viability of a nuclear power station in Somerset. They were not so clear, however, about where the proposed location was to be. The article suggested that it might have been at Hinkley Point or possibly Inkley Point or even Hunckley Point.

Another local council was also forward looking. Cheddar Parish Council found no objection to a cable car being built in Cheddar Gorge. This suggestion was however later turned down by Axbridge Rural District Council only for the idea to surface again in our own times.

In 1968, the Rector of Axbridge, Kenneth Davis, unearthed the ancient Axbridge fire engine and this was subsequently restored at a local school. It is now proudly displayed in King John’s Hunting Lodge.

And finally it is worth commenting on the flowering of photography. By the middle of the twentieth century, photography had become an important reporting tool. On November 3rd 1972, a photograph of Anne Everton, a former secretary of the AALHS, appeared in the local press as she conducted an archaeological excavation at Oliver Cottage in Axbridge. Perhaps a copy of this should be kept for our own records as Anne was such a driving force in the Society for so long.

Group photographs were also used in 1974 to report the success of local youth activities. Kings of Wessex pupils who had gained their Duke of Edinburgh Awards were pictured as were Axbridge Brownies.

John’s talk highlighted the wealth of material in the Old Court Room that is available for research purposes and any member who is interested in gaining access should contact the Museum Trust.

Madeleine Roberts



The Lost Cave of Hutton

The Search for the Lost Cave of Hutton – written by Madeleine Roberts for Retrospect (with some additional references and illustrations by EF)

At the Society’s November meeting Alan Gray, chairman of the Axbridge Caving Group, captivated his audience with his enthusiasm for the underground world that is the Mendip cave system. Alan attempted to unravel some of the mystery and confusion that has grown up around one particular cave on the western edge of Mendip, namely Hutton Cave in Canada Coombe.

Discovered by ochre miners in the 1650s it was not until a hundred years later that the Rev. Alexander Catcott, vicar of the Temple Church in Bristol, showed an interest and discovered in the cave what he reported to be a veritable charnel house of bones. The discovery and the realisation that many of the bones were from animals that came from more tropical regions than Somerset led Catcott to speculate that the bones might have been deposited as a result of Noah’s flood. He held to the belief, current at the time, that the world was only 6000 years old and his discoveries led him in 1761 to publish his Treatise on the Deluge’.  

William Beard

Much later in the 1820s this treatise was to arouse the interest of the Rev. David Williams of Bleadon and, together with William Beard of Banwell Bone Cave fame, he explored the area. Bones were collected from a cave and reported to include elephant tusks and the bones of tigers, hyaenas, wolves, bears and horses. In 1824 when ochre mining ceased, the entrance was back-filled, although Rutter reported on its existence in his ‘Delineations of Somerset’ published in 1829.

Hutton Cavern published in Rutter

The site of the cave was therefore lost among the more than fifty ochre pits in Canada Coombe until 1970 when the Axbridge Caving Group took an interest. The 1970s saw the ACG opening up Bleadon Cavern and several new entrances to it and then, in 2007, a second cave, Upper Canada Cave, was discovered.

In 2012, with the permission of the land owner, Bernard Cole, a mini digger was brought in to speed up the process and this led to the discovery of a further complex of passages. The question remains, however, whether the original cave has been rediscovered or not. Reports of the early visits are not always compatible with each other or with modern observations of the cave system and Alan is now wondering whether there were in fact not one but two caves. He tentatively suggested that Bleadon Cavern might be the cave visited by Catcott in the eighteenth century and Upper Canada Cave as the lost Cave of Hutton visited by Williams and Beard in the nineteenth century.

Alan Gray in Upper Canada Cave
Alan Gray in Upper Canada Cave

The puzzle is not helped by the fact that none of the original bones have been located. We know that Catcott’s bones were bequeathed to Bristol Library, from where they were later moved to Bristol Museum. Sadly these bones did not survive the German bombing raids of World War 11. The fate of the bones collected by Williams and Beard is unknown but they may have graced the cabinets of Victorian collectors and be still in existence somewhere but unprovenanced.

To add to the confusion, some two hundred bones have been collected in recent times but all have been identified as being horse bones of no great age. It seems unlikely that if the original bones were as numerous as described by Catcott that they would all have been removed. Certainly in the case of Banwell Bone Cave large numbers remain to delight us to this day. Further questions now arise from these more modern horse bones – how did they get there, when and why?

Alan’s enthusiasm for the subject has not yet run its course. He has further underground passages to explore and lines of enquiry to follow up before he commits his pen to paper and writes another book. It was presumably all the narrow passages left to explore that caused him to decline the offer of home-made cake later in the evening. What dedication!

After his talk Alan showed us a short film, a fly-over of Mendip and North Somerset, locating all the known caves and features of archaeological interest in the area. It was a fascinating film giving us a bird’s eye view of the beautiful landscape that we all know so well and in which we are privileged to live.

Additional Notes:
 The bones found by Williams and Beard are in fact in the SANHS Quaternary Mammals collection
Catcott’s description of the bones he found is in a footnote starting on p.360 in his Treatise on the Deluge:

Rutter’s book is available from local libraries.
Maps of the various caves can be seen at the Mendip Cave Registry
Various articles have been written about caves at Hutton and Bleadon some of which are listed below:
Darkness Below UK
Article on Banwell Bone Caves by David Bromwich published by SANHS –  linked here
 Bristol Exploration Club


Witch Marks

Witch Marks (Denny Robbins) –Magical & Ritual Marks from the Middle Ages & Tudor Times.

Denny Robbins gave a fascinating illustrated talk about ritual witch marks in vernacular buildings. The following is taken directly from her notes, which she kindly gave me with some additional links and illustrations.

From the late medieval period there was strong belief in the damage that witches, either in human form, or through animal familiars, could bring to households. Such beliefs were particularly strong in rural populations from the mid C16th through to the mid C18th and peaked in the C17th.

The first specific law against witchcraft was only introduced under Henry V111 in 1542. James 1 was pre-occupied with witchcraft and wrote a treatise about it.

According to Denny, the use of such ritual protection began to be studied in the 1980’s. It should be remembered that rural populations were largely illiterate and inscribing a mark or symbol somewhere in the house enabled them to engage in a protective act.

The marks are small and feint and are, therefore, very difficult see, which is why they are assumed to be for protection since they have no decorative or practical purpose. They are referred to as apotropaic or evil averting and are commonly found at points of entry in buildings such as doorways, windows and chimneys and have even been found underground.

Denny described the various marks with slides: Scratched letters known as Marian symbols relating to the Virgin Mary witch-marks-imagehave been found. These are either conjoined V’s representing Virgo Virginum (Virgin of Virgins) which appear as W’s and also as an inverted W ie an M.

A WP symbol was found at Long Hole in Cheddar. The P symbol could stand for Pace (Peace) and be a plea to bring peace to the house. P was also a symbol which had good luck associations in pre-Christian times. The other letter which is seen inscribed is I which, it is believed, represents the letter J and is often followed by H – the letters IH are the first two letters of the Greek form of Jesus. IHC and HIS are common Christograms (symbols for Jesus Christ)

St Andrews Cross and butterfly shapes. These have often been considered before as builders marks but now have been found underground which means they can’t be. In a magical context this shape cannot be inverted or turned back on itself thereby destroying its function or even possibly creating evil.

What is interesting is that the direct link with Mary must have ceased after the Reformation and it is notable that both the domestic and the ecclesiastical versions survived without being defaced. Why then did the original affiliation to the Virgin not pose a problem for the Puritans Denny asked.

Denny showed a slide of symbols found in Wookey Hole Cave. The Witch’s Chimney contains the largest concentration of ritual protection marks discovered in any cave (40 plus).  For an account of these see “Ritual Protection Marks in Wookey Hole and Long Hole, Somerset, by C.J. Binding and L.J. Wilson (2010)  here

A slide was shown of the sarcophagus of Bishop John Harewell in Wells Cathedral which contained over 530 ritual marks
Tomb of John Harewell in Wells CathedralThere is an excellent account of these in “Summary of Graffiti and Ritual Protection marks on the Sarcophagus of Bishop John
Harewell in Wells Cathedral (2015)”  here

Another slide was of circular marks. She explained that the hexafoil-imagehexafoil or daisy wheel is also frequently seen and is considered to be a reference to the sun and perhaps to the Virgin Mary. It has been found as part of the decoration at Housestead Roman Fort at Hadrian’s Wall. As few rural vernacular buildings pre-date the C15th there is no way to establish its use until that time although, by the C11th it was a feature of church decoration associated with fonts and baptisms. The shape is usually incomplete and therefore imperfect which might, she suggested, be a gesture of respect for the deity who could, of course, create perfection. It is seen as a protection against evil and as a good luck symbol and is often found in food preparation areas.

Another slide showed a hand and a letter M found at the Church of Holy Rood in Ampney Crucis.

As well as ritual marks there are sometimes ritual deposits found in middens. These have been found in animal housing and under threshing floors and are also found in America and Australia and, as such, are thought to be part of the cultural baggage of convicts and settlers. She suggested that there are also C19th middens containing hand-written notes, letters, trade receipts etc. which may have marked a significant period in the life of the occupants of the house.

witch-bottlesBellarmines or witch bottles which stem from the C16th and C17th. have been found beneath hearths and beneath walls and floors, Those considered to be “true” Bellarmines are pot-bellied bottles of stone-ware with a mask depicted on them but later ones were also made of glass. The contents (hair, the magical metal iron in the form of iron pins or nails, urine and sometimes fabric ) all appear to constitute some form of a spell. One was found at Hymerford House in East Coker which dates from the C15th and was discovered at the threshold of the house. An article in the Times from 2005 recorded the finding of a glass witch bottle containing foul smelling contents at a National Trust site in Dorset buried in a stone wall.   It is believed to have been placed there in the C18th during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease and parish records confirm that there was an outbreak of “distemper” during the 1700’s.

shoeOver 1,200 shoes have also been found either within or near the hearth, 40% of which belong to children. These are often well worn and frequently repaired. Denny suggested that the value of such items derives not from the material or original function of these but rather in their prolonged use. As she pointed out, they are the only object that retains our shape and perhaps, therefore, our personality.—an-article-by-june-swann.html

cats-2Dead cats have also been found in roof spaces, under floors, between lath and plaster panels and in sealed cavities. Several of these had their legs bound, some were artificially posed in aggressive postures and some were accompanied by rats. According to Denny these were probably placed as foundation scarers or vermin scarers and by 2004, 100 such finds had been recorded in England and 50 in Germany. Horse skulls have also been found.

Candle marks: the majority of these are found in principal bedrooms or in servants quarters in attics and rarely in ground floor room and so are assumed to be sleep-related. As Denny pointed out, any noise in walls or ceilings above the bedrooms might have been interpreted as a witch’s familiar having entered the house. These finds are rare and confined to high status houses in the East of England.

Denny then showed slides of ethereal marks, which have been drawn with carbon from candle flames. These include symbols and letters and sometimes even names. She described a house near Bury St Edmunds, which has an almost completely marked ceiling over the kitchen chamber which contains the name Sarah Sugate. Records show that a Sugate family was living in the house during the second half of the C17th and the owners of the house, Robert and Mary Sugate, had a daughter Sarah. Sarah left the house on her marriage and so there is no knowing what had happened in the room to cause anxiety in the room. Denny postulated that perhaps she was given to sleep walking and would go through that room when she did so. In the C17th sleepwalkers were often thought to be possessed – could this be why there the marks are there she asked?

gridiron-jan-steenGridiron marks have also been found and Denny explained that the gridiron was occasionally used to make “music.” She showed a slide of a painting by the Dutch painter Jan Steen in which a form of rough, rhythmic music is being played on a variety of instruments including a gridiron. Such music was intended to drive away sprits and witches.  In the illustration (left) the man “playing” the gridiron is on the left with a funnel on his head.

Burn Marks. For a long time such marks were thought to have ben made accidentally, but it is now believed that they were made deliberately as some form of “inoculation” against fire and were placed on strategic timbers during construction. They appear to start in the late C16th and decline in the C18th and seem to be confined to northern Europe. Denny suggested that, as this is where and when, the Protestant Reformation took place, the burn marks may, in part, be a response to the loss of magic (both Christian and secular) which were suppressed by the Reformation.  Single marks are also seen and these are in low visibility locations especially on roof structures and may be the ones most likely to be apotropaic. Single marks in high visibility locations are thought to be discrete blessings and are often found on moveable objects such as beds.  The reason that these are regarded as having been made deliberately is that they are all between 3 and 6cm in depth and taper in shape and are usually seen at the shoulder height of a person when standing or kneeling.

Burn marks have also been found associated with other symbols and marks – there are examples in Europe of burn marks and horse-shoes being positioned over house entrances and some have been found close to Marian symbols.

It was a very interesting talk and so inspiring that a few people went home and were later seen prowling about their houses with torches searching for marks! Fortunately no-one thought they were burglars and called the police!!  

Liz Friend


In addition to the links above there is a lot of other material – these are just some references I have come across
Timothy Easton, ‘Scribed and Painted Symbols’, in Paul Oliver (ed), Vernacular Architecture of the World, 1997/8 (four vols), CUP.
Timothy Easton, ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber’, Weald and Downland Open Air Museum Magazine, Spring 1999, pp22-30.
Brian Hoggard, ‘The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic’, in Owen Davies & Willem de Blecourt, Beyond the Witch-Trials, 2004, Manchester University Press, pp167-186.  – Brian Hoggard’s site
Brian Hoggard, ‘The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic’, in Owen Davies & Willem de Blecourt, Beyond the Witch-Trials, 2004, Manchester University Press, pp167-186.
Ralph Merrifield, ‘A Charm Against Witchcraft’, Country Life, June 23rd 1955, pp1612-3.
Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, 1987, Batsford, London.








Glastonbury Abbey

Francis Thyer, a former Deputy Custodian of the Abbey and Julie Hayes, the current Learning Manager, gave two perspectives on the story of the Abbey. They explained how the most recent archaeological discoveries have enhanced our understanding of the development of the site and described their  “living history” approach that illuminates the day-to-day life of the Foundation.

The Abbey was bought by the Church of England in 1907, having been out of Church hands since the Reformation and Francis gave an excellent description of what remains.
This is my summary of that talk – any errors and/or omissions are mine!

Illustration of what the paintings might have looked like courtesy of the Archaeology Data Service

Lady Chapel built in 1184:  The chapel was built immediately after the disastrous fire which consumed much of the abbey in 1184, and was completed by 1186 or 1187.  A lot of work has been done in the last few years.  Recent conservation work has revealed that around 800 years ago the carvings were painted and highly coloured. Whoever did them took a bit of artistic licence.  Jesus, for example, is shown in a 4 poster bed and the 4 wise men are riding on horses.  Marks were found in the stone work which supports the view that the west side would have looked like Wells Cathedral. Under the Chapel is a well which has also been revealed and might date back to Roman times. The well is now in the Crypt which was put in during the first part of the 16th Century to accommodate the number of visitors who followed the cult of St Joseph and visited the Chapel.  In the vault ribs of the crypt there are  numerous holes which probably held the votive offerings made by the pilgrims to the altar of St Joseph.

Myths and Legends:  The Abbey was renowned in the middle ages as the reputed burial place of the legendary King Arthur and bones found on the site were attributed to him.  The place where the grave is now marked is about 100 yards from the actual site.  Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea travelled to Glastonbury and he and his followers established the first monastery there and built the first wattle church; in one version of the story Christ himself travelled with Joseph from the Holy Land and helped in the building work. On his arrival at the site Joseph reputedly thrust his staff into the ground and rested. By morning his staff had taken root and the resulting Thorn Tree can be seen today, flowering as it does twice a year at Easter and Christmas.  In the Middle Ages, Joseph became an integral part of the Arthurian legends

The chapel of St Patrick which was built about 1524, was restored about 15 years ago during which time they found wall paintings under the plaster. It has now been decorated as it was when it was built with representations of various figures and a new stained glass window has been put in.

There is also a medieval pond which was enlarged in the 17th century when the canals came through.

The Abbots Kitchen was built in 1342 and has been completely restored. Food waste which was recovered on the site has been shown to be of high status food such as sea food which might have come from Uphill or Burnham on Sea.  The lanternabbots-kitchen in the centre of the roof was designed to ventilate the kitchen by drawing in fresh air and expelling smoke through air vents.  Peter Brears, a specialist in traditional English cookery, visited the kitchen and suggested how it might be better interpreted. He suggested an arcaded gallery once stretched across the kitchen from the evidence of two stone piers in the north and south walls. Here the head cook may have surveyed the work below and shouted orders to his kitchen staff.  At the time it was built all the people working in the kithen would have been men and the chef was probably French, again reflecting the huge wealth and high status of the Abbey.

Mason’s marks in the Kitchen have been identified as being of William Joy which dates its building to about 1330 – 1340. The same mason’s mark has also been found in Wells Cathedral.

The museum features many of the artefacts found on the site and include the 16th Century Orthery cope which is beautifully decorated and 600 feet long. The length is a measure of the power and status of the Abbey and the cope is second in length to the one in St Peters in Rome.  There are also things in Oxford University belonging to the Abbey – a book by Dunstan dating from the C10th, which would have been used as a sort of guide book, and a Gran Tabula of the C13th (6 pages of vellum on wood) in which visitors could read stories of the Abbey and the characters associated with it.

Although not much has been found on the site, what has been found has been of high quality reflecting the high status of the Abbey. The pottery, for example, is B2 ware ie high status medieval pottery such as that found at Tintagel and Camelot. Giving some credence to the whole Arthur myth – possibly!

Re-apprasial of the archaeology findings:  A lot of archaeological work has been done on the site since 1909 but it was never properly catalogued.  Due to work done by Reading University this has now all been re-evaluated and collated in a recent book and much of the content is also available online. It has produced some interesting facts.  For example there were 5 glass furnaces found under the crypt thought to date back to 680AD which makes them the earliest furnaces in the UK. These would have used to produce window glass as well as glass utensils. All the glass would have been done by skilled craftsmen from the continent – again reflecting the high status nature of the Abbey.
For more information about the Reading University project  click herepilgrim

The second half of the talk was given by the Learning Manager, Julie Hayes, who came dressed as a pilgrim. Dressed in green, blue and beige, the colours of the poor, she explained the significance of what she wore and carried. Nailed boots, a staff for protection, a useful girdle of rope, hair covered to show she was respectable, a scrip containing a wooden goblet, spoon and also a knife (used for eating). She also had a cloak to keep warm and to wrap around her at night as she would have been sleeping in the open.  Julie is part of the Living History team and all the volunteers who take part bring an added dimension to tours of the Abbey.  She gave an excellent account of their work which is particularly important in engaging schoolchildren.
She also outlined the current project to make digital representations of the Abbey through the ages.  Although somewhat controversial, the project is hoped to attract younger visitors in particular and to illustrate how the Abbey was developed over the centuries.  Their next project is to reinstate the medieval kitchen garden which should be well worth a visit when its done.


The Battle of Sedgemoor: AALHS members and guests follow the action


Members of the AALHS will recall the talk on the Battle of Sedgemoor given in April by Johnny Torrens-Spence. As a follow-up to that talk, Johnny led a large group on a tour of sites associated with the movement of the rebel and royalist forces.

The tour began at St. Mary’s Church in Bridgwater where Johnny summarised the events that had led the Duke of Monmouth and his army to retreat to the town and risk a night attack on the royalist forces assembled at Westonzoyland.

The group then moved on to Parchey Bridge near Chedzoy where Johnny outlined the deployment and movement of the various cavalry and infantry units. Standing on the bank of the King’s Sedgemoor Drain, we were invited to visualise the confusion as bodies of troops sought to find their way at night across unfamiliar and treacherous terrain. Confusion over navigation and problems with communication, in short the fog of war, contributed to the eventual defeat of Monmouth’s forces.

At Parchey Bridge, the AALHS group was augmented by a herd of cows, anxious to hear Johnny’s account of the battle and keen to push their way to the front. Here, John Page (and his hat) displayed previously unappreciated stock handling skills.

Moving on to the battlefield site at Westonzoyland, the group heard about the bloody climax of the battle and its aftermath. Monmouth was executed and the sentences passed on the surviving rebels by Judge Jeffreys were swift and harsh. Executions or transportations were the order of the day.

The visit concluded with a walk to the battlefield memorial, with its moving dedication to “those who died doing right as they saw it.”

As ever, Johnny’s account was delivered with impressive clarity, knowledge and authority. His military background provided members and guests with clear insight into the strategic and tactical thinking of the commanders on both sides.

At the time of the visit, Westonzoyland church where some of the rebels were held prisoner, was closed for repairs. When it re-opens, members may wish to visit the informative exhibition there on the Monmouth Rebellion and its local context.

Visit to Cadbury Congresbury Hillfort

Cadcong HillfortA number of AALHS members, including several new comers attending their first Society visit, congregated at the Star Inn to visit the hillfort. When the designated leader unexpectedly did not arrive Gill Davies, who knew the site well, stood up to the mark and led the walk around the site. She raised a lot of questions about how and why hillforts were built and encouraged people to investigate other hillforts in the area. It was a lovely walk. The site was full of wild flowers and abundant wild garlic and we had the added bonus that Gill was very knowledgeable about the wildlife. She also entertained Peter, the youngest member of the group at eight years old, by spotting a dormouse box and showing him how to make a spark by hitting flint on metal.