Colin Torode is an expert in medieval pilgrim badges with a particular interest in researching and demonstrating the original manufacturing methods of these and other metal artefacts. In this blog he explores the fascinating story of a pilgrim badge from the collection at Bodiam Castle in East Sussex, which was found during excavations in the moat in 1970.
Miracles and pilgrims
The Bodiam badge is a particularly nice one and is in great condition considering its late 14th or 15th century date - having been found in 1970 when Bodiam Castle’s moat was drained during archaeological works.
I handled the badge some years ago, long before it went on display at the castle and have always had an interest in it. It’s not possible to say for certain where the badge originated from and it’s generally listed as ‘from an unknown shrine’, but I can certainly make an educated guess... I suspect that it came from one of London’s long forgotten places of pilgrimage - the unlikely sounding Holy Rood of Bermondsey.
A history of Bermondsey Abbey
Bermondsey may never be on the London tourist trail but, like most of the city, it has a tale to tell. The street names hold the clues - Abbey Street, Grange Walk, Cluny Lane, Neckinger. These names are just about all that points to the area’s medieval past, but here, at the point marked by the junction of Abbey Street and Tower Bridge Road, stood Bermondsey Abbey.
The monastery was founded in 1082 as the Cluniac Priory of Our Holy Saviour, or St Saviour's for short. It was an alien house, occupying the site of an older minster and sat just to the south of London on an ‘eye’ surrounded by marshland. The River Neckinger ran past the priory before emptying into the Thames at St Saviour’s Dock - itself run by the priory.
The abbey was important enough to host one parliament and two former queens would end their days here (Catherine of Valois in 1437 and Elizabeth Woodville in 1492). Despite having noble benefactors and an extensive estate, the priory was frequently burdened by heavy debt and was often placed under the care of the crown. In 1381 it was freed from its French allegiance and was placed under an English Prior for the first time; shortly afterward being elevated to an Abbey.
But it was the great miracle working Holy Rood of Bermondsey that brought the pilgrims to the abbey’s door and, at just a quarter of a mile from the Old Kent Road, it was ideally placed to entice pilgrims just starting off on the long journey to Canterbury. Roods (crosses bearing the crucified Christ) were commonplace - every church had one, but some were particularly special.
Often these highly venerated roods had legends of a miraculous discovery. The much-celebrated Rood of Grace at Boxley Abbey was said to have arrived on the back of a rider-less horse, while Bermondsey’s rood was, according to legend, found floating in the Thames after falling from heaven. The Holy Rood was set on the main gatehouse of the abbey, where it was described as being set into the wall.
The Bermondsey rood is thought likely to have been a copy of the famous and highly revered Volto Santo or ‘Holy Face’ of Lucca in Italy. This was perhaps the most famous of all roods and was celebrated throughout Europe. Its fame was spread by Lucchese merchants and by pilgrims to Rome, who would often make a pilgrimage to Lucca as part of their journey. As we might expect, the rood was reputed to have arrived at Lucca miraculously, this time in an unmanned ship.
What makes the Volto Santo distinctive is the way in which Christ is depicted; not as the usual semi-naked, collapsed and dying Christ, but as a ‘triumphant’ or living Christ - clothed in a floor length gown, staring forward, upright and alert. The Volto Santo survives to this day and only last year was subjected to scientific tests to determine its age, with the result that it dates from the late 8th century, which is quite something really!
Pilgrim badges of the Volto Santo of Lucca are easily recognised, especially as they often carry an inscription along the lines of ‘Sign of the Holy Face of Lucca’. So revered was the Volto Santo that it spawned a number of European copies - some of which gave rise to cults of their own and that may have produced souvenir badges. In England there was a notable copy of the Volto Santo at Bury St Edmunds Abbey and it has long been thought that the Holy Rood of Bermondsey was another celebrated copy.
The survival of a pilgrim badge that can be positively associated with Bermondsey certainly backs that theory up. This badge is a London find and clearly shows Christ in typical Volto Santo style, but is helpfully accompanied by scrolls on either side seemingly bearing the heavily abbreviated Latin inscription ‘behold ... Bermondsey’. A similar example of this badge (not pictured here) retains the distinctive scrolls but lacks the inscription.
Although it rather lets us down in having no inscription, the iconography of the Bodiam Castle badge fits Bermondsey’s rood perfectly as far as I'm concerned. Christ is, once again, shown in Volto Santo style, but, as on the known Bermondsey badge, he has a distinctive forked beard - a feature seen on the actual Volto Santo of Lucca but that is missing on the Lucca pilgrim badges, which is odd. What sets the Bodiam badge apart is the water at the foot of the crucifix; perhaps a nod towards the legend of the miraculous discovery of the rood in the Thames.
Finally, the badge is set in a battlemented gateway - a feature not seen on other Volto Santo type badges, but one that fits perfectly with the Holy Rood of Bermondsey’s position on the abbey's Great North Gate. It is admittedly very different to the other Bermondsey badge, but that's not entirely unusual with pilgrim badges and may simply be due to different makers or different interpretations over the life of the pilgrimage.
As is often the case, we cannot say for sure where this badge came from. It’s beyond much doubt that it relates to one copy or another of the Volto Santo, but I believe that the evidence does point strongly towards the Holy Rood of Bermondsey. Perhaps we can imagine that, sometime in the late 14th or early 15th century, a member of the Bodiam Castle household made the sixty mile pilgrimage to the south eastern edge of London and there purchased a cheap pewter ‘sign’ to mark their visit, only to drop or dispose of it as they walked the final yards home across the castle bridge.
As for the fate of Bermondsey Abbey and its holy rood... It went the way of them all. The abbey surrendered in 1538; the great rood was taken down ‘by the King’s command’ and the pilgrims stopped coming. The abbey buildings became, at first, a large private dwelling, but gradually became fragmented and dilapidated as Bermondsey sank into its later fate as one of London’s most notorious slums.
Many of the buildings, including the Great North Gateway, survived until at least 1822; finally to be swept away as the area was developed. The site has been well excavated, giving us a good idea of where the buildings stood, but virtually nothing can be seen above ground today; just a few bits of wall and, rather oddly, two surviving iron hinge posts from the abbey’s former outer gate.
Of its treasures, we have just a few books, plus one or two souvenir pilgrim badges...