Sometime during the 15th century a weary pilgrim returned from his visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham to his home in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. In one of his fields he carefully took the lead ampulla containing holy water and suspended on a cord around his neck, pierced a hole in the side, and allowed the liquid to flow onto the soil.
I assume for the purposes of this account, that the pilgrim was a man, but could equally have been a woman. He was tired because the journey, now easily accomplished in a few hours by car, had taken three days on foot, but he’d had the company of others providing both companionship and protection.
How do I know all this, and just how much is just conjecture and imaginative writing? Seasoned detectorists know the story because many have found discarded ampullae in fields (and from shrines other than Walsingham). The holy water sprinkled on the soil was to bless the crops and ensure a good harvest.
On a recent rally in Abingdon, detectorist Des Milkins of the Weston Historical Research and Detecting Association (WHRADA) found his first pilgrim’s ampulla. And what a beauty it was! The ampulla has its side loops missing, and depicts a scallop shell; the other side a crown over the letter W. The W signifies the Priory of Our Lady at Walsingham. It’s interesting to note that the scallop shell was a popular design on ampullae as the scallops wandering over the seabed could be likened to pilgrims wandering from shrine to shrine.
He told me: “I was pleased with the fact that the ampulla was in quite good condition for its age. When I had a good look … I noticed that the scallop side had a hole in it and I could see what looked like the pellets on the back of a hammered coin.”
This is most unusual and the first time that I have heard of an ampulla containing coins. One of the three coins appears to be a Henry VI penny of the mid 15th century, and helps with an approximate timescale of deposit. I can only guess that the pilgrim/farmer wanted to be doubly sure of the efficiency of the Our Lady’s holy water and added to its potency by adding the silver coins. Perhaps not! Alan Warner (QM) has a different theory, which he has commented on in the ‘responses’ at the end.
Thank you for the story, Des. Your fascinating find was ample compensation for spending most of the time unearthing all those foil milk bottle tops!
Saint’s and Pilgrimage
People often made journeys to a saint’s shrine – usually where the saint was buried, to pray for their help. Some shrines were famous for miraculous healing. Making a journey specifically to visit a shrine was called a pilgrimage, and is common practice in many religions, although not often part of modern Christianity.
When a pilgrim had visited a shrine, and made their prayers to the saint, they would often buy a souvenir known as a pilgrim badge. These could be made in lead, bronze or even silver, depending on what the visitor could afford. Some shrines also sold holy water which was thought to have healing qualities. A pilgrim could take this back home to someone who was too sick to make the pilgrimage themselves, or to sprinkle on fields in hope of a good harvest. For a deeper insight into ‘pilgrimage’, click HERE.
… and another from the UKDFD
A lead pilgrim’s ampulla cast in the form of a relief-moulded caricature of a human face. The face is depicted with swollen cheeks, a down-turned mouth and a drooping moustache. The handles of the ampulla provide the ears of the face, and the open end is moulded in the form of a hat. The hat is shaped such that the centre is slightly lower than the two sides. The moulding of the hat continues on the back of the ampulla, which is otherwise plain, but slightly convex to represent the back of the head.