By Jason Sandy
Detail from 18th-century painting of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (Thomas Gainsborough).
It was a cold, wintry morning, but I was determined to go mudlarking. After my alarm rang at 5 am, I reluctantly dragged myself out of my warm bed. Still exhausted from the night before, I slept during the hour-long journey on the London Underground to East London. When I arrived on the foreshore, it was ominously dark, raining, and unnervingly silent.
Georgian buckle stuck in the mud (Jason Sandy). Highly ornate, 18th-century brass buckle (Jason Sandy).
As I was mudlarking alone in the darkness, I caught a glimpse of something golden illuminated by my headlamp (above left), and my heart started racing with excitement. As I slowly lifted the object out of the black mud, I couldn’t believe my eyes! A complete, highly decorated 18th-century shoe buckle appeared. When I returned home, I carefully cleaned it. Made of solid brass, the ornate shoe buckle (above right) is decorated with six-pointed stars and abstract, curvilinear shapes around the perimeter. It definitely is an eye-catching design. The Georgians loved their bling, and this buckle is evidence of the ostentatious and exuberant styles of the 18th century.
For millennia, buckles have been worn for practical and functional reasons, but they were also highly valued fashion accessories which indicated one’s wealth and social status. Although buckles were used primarily by the military in Roman and early medieval times, they came into more widespread use among the civilian population in the 13th century. This reflected changes in fashion and a general increase in the wealth and prosperity of society at that time.
By the 1680s, shoe buckles were virtually in universal use among all social classes. In the 18th century, buckles became more and more extravagant and were worn to catch attention, especially of the opposite sex. Portraits and paintings of wealthy noblemen illustrate how shoe buckles were a prominent feature in men’s attire in the 18th century.
Medieval, kidney-shaped buckle (Portable Antiquities Scheme/PAS).
Mudlarks in London have recovered a wide range of buckles of all ages, shapes, and sizes from the river. These highly ornate, beautiful works of art tell the story of fashion and culture throughout the centuries. Several years ago Tom Main discovered an unusually shaped buckle (above). Dating to 1400–1450, the kidney-shaped frame and integral buckle plate are made of pewter. A series of undulating, parallel lines adorn the frame. The plate has been cast with a geometric pattern inside a circular, openwork feature beside a row of triangular shapes containing a three-pointed foliate design. The pivoting pin of the buckle is still attached.
Jason’s collection of buckles (Jason Sandy).
Mark Paros found an exquisite medieval buckle (below left) with a champlevé enamel buckle plate and intact pin. Dating to the 13th century, a lion is portrayed with its head up, chest out, and long tail extended upwards. Champlevé is a technique of etching the design into the surface of the metal and filling it with vitreous enamel.
Medieval buckle depicting a lion (Jason Sandy). Medieval bone buckle (PAS). Post-medieval buckle with scallop shells (PAS).
In 2010, Mark Jennings discovered an ultra-rare buckle (above center) made of bone. It has been designated by the Museum of London as an object of national importance on the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Dating to the 12th century, the buckle frame is D-shaped and carved from one piece from animal bone. Engraved with decorative V-shaped lines around the perimeter, the bone pin pivots on an iron dowel and rests in a notched slot on the buckle. A leather belt or strap would have been fastened to the buckle with rivets through the two holes in the integral bone plates. Over the centuries, buckles were primarily made of metal, so it is highly unusual to find a medieval buckle made of bone.
In the 17th century, buckle shapes became more creative and elaborate. Dating to 1620–1680, a superb example (above right) found in the Thames is made of silver in a double loop, openwork shape. The outer edge of the buckle is decorated with five scallop shells articulated with three radiating rows of incised lines. The shells are cast onto a semi-circular frame. The integral pin tapers to a point and rests against the curved frame. A circular terminal decorated with a stylized flower is fixed to the thin, flat plate where the leather belt or strap would have been attached.
Medieval leather belt (Jason Sandy).
Although mudlarks have recovered many buckles from the river, it is very rare to find a leather belt. Leather is an organic material that normally decomposes and disintegrates over time. Miraculously, Mark Paros unearthed part of a medieval leather belt (above) that has been beautifully preserved by the anaerobic Thames mud. The leatherwork from the 15th century has been stamped with the Gothic letters “IHS” in a repeating pattern. Representing Jesus Christ, the symbol IHS was a popular Christogram in the Middle Ages.
Medieval archer’s wrist guard (PAS). 17th-century spur with beast (PAS).
Buckles were not only used on belts and shoes. One of the most intriguing finds from the Thames is an archer’s wrist guard (above left), which is made of leather and fastened with a buckle. Astonishingly, the medieval leatherwork is in excellent condition, and the buckle is still securely fixed to the leather straps. The holes in the strap are decorated with pewter studs in the shape of flowers. An archer wore this thick leather guard to protect his wrist from injury caused by the powerful snap of the bow’s string when an arrow was fired.
During the medieval and post-medieval periods, horses were an important means of transportation. People traveled long distances on horseback and also rode horses for pleasure. Riders wore boots with spurs to prod a horse to move forward or run faster. By the 16th and 17th centuries, it was fashionable to wear spurs as part of your normal attire.
Over the past ten years, I have found several 16th– and 17th-century buckles that had once been attached to a spur. In 2007, a mudlark found a buckle still mounted in its original position on a spur (above right). Dating to 1600–1700, the U-shaped spur would have been attached to the heel of a horse rider’s boot with leather straps. The neck and rowel box are cast in the form of a beast’s head. Its neck has flowing, incised lines which look like a mane, and the head has been engraved with eyes, ears, and a mouth. Although it is missing now, the circular rowel had been fixed inside an open slot within the head, and an iron pin secured it in place and allowed the disc to spin freely. Originally, four buckles were mounted on the sides of the spur, but only one remains.
18th-century buckle with glass paste stones (Alex Rusche).
During the golden age of decadence and flamboyance in the 18th century, Georgian gentlemen were dressed to impress from head to toe. Some of the most extraordinary Georgian shoe buckles were inlaid with real gemstones or glass paste stones. Each buckle was highly ornate and designed to glisten and sparkle. Developments in glass paste stone production and cutting methods during the late 17th and early 18th centuries gradually increased the luminosity and brilliance of the glass stones. However, a major improvement came in the 1760s when a silver foil was placed behind the glass stones. The reflective foil acted as a mirror, making the glass paste stones appear larger than they actually were, greatly enhancing their faceted sparkle. The cut glass stones were arranged to complement the geometry of the buckle frame.
Georgian shoe with gem-encrusted buckles (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
Worn as a flashy display of their wealth and social status (above), buckles encrusted in paste stones would glisten, dazzle, and create an eye-catching appearance in the sunlight. Mudlark Alex Rushe found one of these buckles (above) in Amsterdam. Several elaborate 18th-century shoe buckles set with glass stones were found by Steve Brooker in the Thames.
Throughout history, leather straps have been used for a multitude of purposes. They have been utilized as belts to secure clothing and to suspend purses, bags, swords, and daggers. To protect the ends of the vulnerable leather and to prevent it from fraying, pieces of metal were fixed to the tips of the straps. In medieval and post-medieval times, strap ends became very decorative and ornate. Brass was the preferred material, and it was often engraved with various motifs.
Medieval brass strap end (Jason Sandy). Gothic letter “N” engraved on strap end (Jason Sandy).
When I first spotted a folded piece of brass (above left) on the foreshore, I didn’t know what it was, but I could see some engraving on the surface. Dating to 1300–1500, it is a medieval strap end (above right) made from a single sheet of brass which was folded in half. It had been riveted to the end of a leather strap, and the rivet holes are still visible. The Lombardic letter “N” is inscribed into the surface, surrounded by a hatch pattern comprised of diagonal, incised lines. I wonder if it is the first initial of the previous owner who lived 700 years ago?
Medieval strap end with acorn finial (Jason Sandy). Silver-gilt Tudor chape from Ralph Felmingham (Jason Sandy).
Strap ends were also produced with creative shapes and designs. For instance, Mark Paros found an elongated strap end (above left) with the two plates tapered to a rounded finial in the shape of an acorn. To decorate the brass plates, linear rows of dots have been gently hammered into the surface. Within the central band, a series of diamond shapes are depicted.
One of the most historically significant strap ends found by a mudlark (above right) is from the 16th century. According to Hazel Forsyth, Senior Curator at the Museum of London, it is an “inscribed silver-gilt chape from the Vintry belonging to Ralph Felmingham, who was Sergeant-at-Arms to Henry VIII; probably associated with the ceremonial sword worn as a badge of office. Felmingham officiated at the trials of Lord Dacre in 1534 and Anne Boleyn and Lord Rocheford in 1536.” According to the Museum of London, “This silver-gilt chape bears a cast-relief figure of St. Barbara and incised motifs of a rose and pomegranate, the royal badges of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. The chape has an inverse inscription, RAF+FEL+MIGAM, an abbreviation of the name Ralph Felmingham.” It is now on permanent display in the Medieval London gallery of the Museum of London.
Buckles and strap ends may seem like mundane, utilitarian objects, but the artifacts featured in this chapter demonstrate that they can also be beautiful works of art and craftsmanship. They give us intriguing insights into the popular fashions, styles, and material culture throughout the ages. Mudlarks have recovered thousands of buckles and strap ends from the river, which have helped historians research and understand more about past Londoners. Geoff Egan, former Small Finds Specialist at the British Museum, wrote a book called Dress Accessories, which features many buckles and strap ends, as well as mounts, brooches, buttons, lace chapes, hair accessories, pins, beads, chains, pendants, finger rings, combs, cosmetic sets, needle cases, and other artifacts primarily found on the Thames foreshore or waterlogged sites along the River Thames. If you want to read more about these interesting artifacts, I would highly recommend this book.
Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2023 issue.
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