The Peak District in the Early Medieval period

A particular challenge Buxton Museum will face when redeveloping our popular Wonders of the Peak gallery is the Early Medieval period, or, to be more precise, 400 – 1100. It is a huge period, but it is also a time that, until recently, has lacked popular appeal. There have been a lot of new research over the last 30 years and we need to update the gallery to include this in the story of the Peak District. The High Peak was a less populated region than today. It was also a tumultuous time. For much of it England was divided into separate kingdoms, and from the 8th century onwards the country was subjected to Viking attacks, invasion and settlement.

The Peterborough Chronicle - Bodleian Library, Oxford

The Peterborough Chronicle – Bodleian Library, Oxford

Part of the reason this is a difficult period to document is that little written material survives from then, certainly in comparison to the Late Medieval period. One of the main written sources for this time is the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. The chronicles make for an interesting read. In 626 there was an attempted assassination of Eadwin, King of Northumbria, in the Derwent Valley. The assassination was ordered by Eamer, King of the West Saxons, but it failed. In 848 a witenagemot, a national council assembly, was held in Repton. Archaeologists also found the bloody evidence of Viking occupation of the town in 873, which was described in the chronicle.

One of the 9th century crosses in Bakewell Church

One of the 9th century crosses in Bakewell Church

Most evidence of the Early Medieval Peak District can be found in situ, although sadly very little remains today. The Normans caused a large amount of damage across the country after the conquest, both intellectually and physically, and especially in the north. The Peak District was a densely forested area, which was a hunting forest for Anglo-Saxon and Norman kings. Nevertheless, it still would have been inhabited by local people. Well preserved crosses from the 9th century can be found in Eyam, Hope and Taddington churches, although the crosses at Bakewell are perhaps most famous. The church used to have various coped tomb slabs built into its walls, however, these were removed by Thomas Bateman and are now in the collections of Museums Sheffield. One of the challenges we face is linking to these monuments. Digital offers us the potential to give these items a gallery presence, but we could just as easily opt for photography, or even have a digital trail.

The Bentley Grange Helmet - Museums Sheffield

The Bentley Grange Helmet, Museums Sheffield

Some of the other items that do survive are quite spectacular. As well as the coped tomb slabs, Museums Sheffield hold a helmet, c. 650, excavated from Bentley Grange, near Bakewell. It is one of only four horn-covered helmets found in England. There were also possible fragments of chain mail, a ‘circular enamelled ornament’, a cross and cup remains found at this site. Sheffield’s collection is home to other items collection from barrows in Derbyshire, such as a bronze circular box from a woman’s barrow near Hurdlow, and a double edged iron sword from a grave mound near Brushfield. The British Museum, meanwhile, hold the Beeston Tor Hoard, which includes two complete brooches with intricate knot work patterns. One of our hopes for the new Wonders of the Peak gallery is to return these objects to the region in which they were found, be that physically or digitally.

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Medieval Peak District

Medieval Peak District

I recently visited the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition in Durham (finishing 30th September). On display they had wonderful early-Medieval manuscripts mixed with other objects that reflected the skill of craftsmen during this period. The combination of these items was used to show the development of Lindisfarne and the North East of England as a religious, creative and intellectual hub. It made me think about our own medieval collection and what we know about the Peak district at this time.

The Medieval gallery in the Wonders of the Peak

The Medieval gallery in the Wonders of the Peak

Currently our medieval gallery is more of a corridor than an exhibition, bridging the necessary gap from Roman to Enlightenment, and features a lot of text heavy displays that we want to update. We have several coins and weights on show, as well as tiles from Croxden Abbey and Dieulacress Abbey (only Croxden Abbey has survived – in ruins). The text tells us about the Norman influence on the area, deforestation and late-medieval trade; all big topics to sum-up in such a small space.

 

The surviving keep was built by Henry II in 1176

Peveril Castle – the surviving keep was built by Henry II in 1176

What more could we add? Well, it wasn’t just people in the 17th Century, and later, that thought the Peak District was a wondrous place. Several prominent chroniclers and historians in the middle ages wrote about the ‘Wonders of England’; the ‘wind-filled caverns of the Peak District’ was one of these 3 or 4 wonders. Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon (1085-1155), wrote of the Devil’s Arse in Castleton that ‘a gale leaves the caverns in the mountain called Peak with such force that clothing cast in its path is blown aloft and jettisoned a good way off.’ Ranulph Higden (1280-1364), a monk from Chester who wrote one of the most popular medieval chronicles, the Polychronicon, also mentioned the Peak District in his ‘Wonders of England’. Over 100 manuscripts of his history survive but the ‘Wonders of England’ can be found in many more than that (although non at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery).

Pottery Fragments from Frank i'th'Rocks Cave

Pottery Fragments from Frank i’th’Rocks Cave

 The ‘windy’ caves of the Peak District are actually where some of our collections from this period were found. We have a pottery fragment that was found in Reynard’s cave, Dovedale, and another set from Frank i’th’Rocks Cave, Beresford Dale. A couple of the coins were also found at cave sites (Reynard’s cave and Poole’s Cavern). Whilst we don’t have a lot of objects from this period, our collections demonstrate the ways in which people have maximised the dramatic landscape of the Peaks. It is this story that unites all of the collections at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery and is the story we will be returning to the landscape.