Mudlarking: Bellarmine Jugs and Witch Bottles

By Jason Sandy

bellarmine witch bottle jug

16th-century Bellarmine face, Jason Sandy

While mudlarking along the exposed riverbed of the River Thames in London, Jim Ward made an incredible discovery. He spotted the base of a German stoneware jug sticking out of the mud. This is a common sight on the foreshore, but normally, it’s only a broken fragment.

bellarmine jug london

16th-century Bellarmine jug found by Jim Ward. Photo: Sharon Sullivan

When Jim tried to pick up the piece, it was firmly stuck in the mud. With his trowel, he slowly excavated around the circular base. As he dug deeper, Jim exposed more and more of the stoneware jug. This was Jim’s lucky day! The jug was completely intact except for the handle and a small piece missing at the top (above). It is truly a miracle that this 16th century German stoneware jug survived intact for 500 years in the River Thames.

Manufactured in various towns along the Rhine River from the 16th–18th centuries, these vessels are commonly called “Bartmann” (bearded man) or “Greybeard” jugs. The bearded face on the neck of the jugs is thought to represent a “wild man” found in popular European myths of the period. The stoneware vessels are also known as “Bellarmine” jugs because of their association with the Catholic cardinal, Roberto Bellarmino (1542–1621 AD), a strong opponent of Protestantism who wanted to ban alcohol. To mock the unpopular Catholic cardinal who was greatly disliked, Protestant Germans drank ale and wine from stoneware jugs which they nicknamed “Bellarmines” because the bearded faces on the jugs had an uncanny resemblance to Roberto Bellarmino who had a flowing beard.

witch bottles thames

16th-century Bellarmine face, 17th-century Bellarmine face, 17th-century Bellarmine face. Photos: Jason Sandy.

Each Bellarmine face is unique, and I have found many types of bearded faces in the River Thames (above). In the 16th century, the exquisite faces were created with great skill and detail. As the production and exportation of the jugs increased, the faces became more grotesque and crude in the 17th century. Bellarmine jugs were made with a dense, grey clay and fired to create an iron-rich, brown surface and salt-glazed appearance. The belly of the bulbous jugs was decorated with medallions which often contained figures, geometric patterns, symbols, heraldic devices, crests, or coats-of-arms of affluent patrons, European cities, 
royal houses, and ecclesiastical organizations (below).

medallion from bellarmino jug london

Bellarmines were made in various sizes as drinking jugs and for decanting wine in taverns (right). They were also used for a multitude of other purposes including the storage of ale, cider, and wine and for transporting goods such as acids, oils, vinegar, and mercury. Because of its variety of uses, the non-porous stoneware was a key export from Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries and was shipped around Europe, the British Isles, and colonies in North America, South America, Africa, India, and Australia. Bellarmine jugs were used in most households in England in that time period.

For this article, I had the privilege of interviewing Alex Wright, the founder and owner of the Bellarmine Museum in Swaffham, England. When Alex found his first Bellarmine jug in Kings Lynn, England in 1976, his life-long passion and fascination with the German stoneware jugs began. “I found my first Bellarmine embedded in the side of a large pit on a building site. I carefully pulled it out only to discover that a large piece of the back was missing. This did not dampen my enthusiasm. It had a face mask and a medallion, and I was the first to see it for over 300 years. Most importantly, it was mine,” describes Alex.

collection of bellarmine jugs

Collection of Bellarmine jugs. Photo: Alex Wright

After collecting a vast array of Bellarmine jugs and other German stoneware over the past 40 years, he founded the Bellarmine Museum in Swaffham. “I created the Bellarmine Museum to give interested enthusiasts an opportunity to view all the items in my three books (The Bellarmine and other German Stoneware I, II & III). The collection has continued to grow, and the museum has now been open for three years,” explains Alex. “Most of the Bellarmines in the museum come from old collections or recent finds I have purchased. None were donations. In my collection, there are over 150 Bellarmines and hundreds of fragments including face masks and medallions. There are also over 200 other German stoneware pots (c. 1200–1770 AD),” describes Alex.

 Bellarmine Museum England

Bellarmine Museum in Swaffham. Photo: Alex Wright

Alex has even acquired several Bellarmine jugs discovered by mudlarks in the River Thames in London. It is now the largest private collection of publicly displayed Bellarmine jugs in the world. The museum collection contains examples of the pottery which can also be found in the United States, in such places as Jamestown, Virginia, where many Bellarmine jugs were discovered during archaeological excavations of the former British colony established in 1607.

salem witch trials

Historical illustration of Salem witch trials.

In the 17th century, people were very superstitious, both in Europe and America. Witches and their curses were greatly feared, and they were often blamed for any illness or misfortune people suffered. There were several witch trials in Britain in the 17th century, but the Pendle Hill witch trials of 1612 are probably the most famous in British history. In Lancashire, twelve people were accused and charged with the deaths of ten people by the use of witchcraft. Following a series of trials, ten “witches” were found guilty and executed by hanging. During the deadliest witch hunt in the history of colonial America, two hundred people were accused of being “witches.” After a series of hearings and prosecutions of the people accused of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts, 19 “witches” (14 women and 5 men) were found guilty and executed by hanging following the infamous Salem Witch Trials between February 1692 and May 1693. The fear of witches led to many more executions, and people sought to protect themselves against the witches and their evil spells.

Because of their human-like shape and often frightening faces, Bellarmine jugs were sometimes used as “witch bottles” in the 17th century. As a defense against witchcraft, the bottles were filled with various objects that were supposed to protect their owners and harm the witches. Urine, menstrual blood, hair and nail clippings, rusty iron nails, needles, pins, cloth hearts, and other bizarre items were often placed in the witch bottles before they were sealed with a cork. It was commonly believed that a witch bottle could capture an evil spirit which would be impaled by the nails and pins and drowned by the urine. Another theory is that the bulbous shape of the Bellarmine jug represented the witch’s bladder. “The nails and the bent pins would supposedly aggravate the witch when she urinated and torment her so badly that she would take the spell back off you,” explains Alan Massey from the University of Loughborough.

The powerful witch bottle was believed to be effective against evil spirits as long as the bottle remained hidden and unbroken. To guard the entrances to the home, the witch bottles were strategically concealed beneath the fireplace hearth or buried under the doorsteps or threshold into the house to prevent witches and evil spirits from entering.

In 2004, a complete witch bottle was found during excavations in Greenwich. It provided a rare opportunity for archaeologists to analyze its contents from the 17th century. When they opened the bottle, they found bent nails and pins, a nail-pierced leather “heart,” fingernail clippings, navel fluff, and hair. The bottle and its contents are currently on display at the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre in southeast London.

X-ray of a Bellarmine jug witch bottle

17th-century Bellarmine jug used as a Witch Bottle, Photos: Alex Wright

The Bellarmine Museum also has a rare, sealed witch bottle from 1620–1675 AD that was found in Swardeston, England (above left). Alex Wright explains that “this Bellarmine was made in Germany, transported to England by Dutch traders (probably to a merchant in Norwich) and ended up in Swardeston.” The witch bottle was found under a doorstep in a public house (pub) during renovations several years ago. Alex has not opened the bottle, so it still retains its nearly 400-year-old contents. “From an X-ray of the bottle, you can see many brass pins, an iron pin, and a silver pin. The organic material does not show up in the X-rays,” describes Alex (above right). This sealed witch bottle is an amazing time capsule which is evidence of the superstitions and fear of witchcraft in the 17th century.

If you would like to find out more about German stoneware and witch bottles, I would highly recommend a visit to the Bellarmine Museum in Swaffham. The museum will be closing in Spring 2020, so plan your trip soon. For more information, check out the museum’s website: www.bellarminemuseum.co.uk.

Please note: In order to go mudlarking in London, a Thames Foreshore Permit must be obtained from the Port of London Authority. Check their website for full details. Digging, scraping, and metal detecting are restricted or prohibited in some areas. All objects that are 300+ years old must be reported to the Museum of London for recording on the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. An export license is required if you intend to leave the UK with any historical artifacts.

There are two non-profit organizations that offer guided foreshore tours with archaeologists. I have been on several tours with them, and they are very informative. Unlike when you mudlark on your own, you don’t need a mudlarking license if you are part of these official foreshore tours.

Thames Discovery Programme

Thames Explorer Trust

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2019 issue.


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