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Ambleside Hoard

By courtesy of Her Majesty the Queen.

The Ambleside Hoard, which dates from the late Bronze Age, is on loan to the Armitt from the Royal Collection and is on display in our Library. It was previously to be seen at the British Museum as part of an exhibition devoted to the birth of antiquarianism. 

In 1741 Peregrine Bertie, esq., a Cumbrian landowner, wrote to the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society - a club with wide antiquarian interests- to record the discovery at Ambleside of a group of five bronze objects, ‘found all together in a kind of bundle, two feet deep in a Peat Moss’. It is probable that the discovery was made during peat cutting and that the objects had been votive offerings cast into what would, 3000 years ago, have been a body of water. When found, they were in remarkably good condition: the edges of the swords were still sharp, though soon ‘blunted on every oak gable in the parish’.

The Ambleside Hoard

The Ambleside Hoard

For two and a half centuries these pieces were lost to the archaeological world, known only from the measured sketches which Bertie had made at the time. In 1977, however, staff at the British Museum were able to identify most of the hoard in the Royal Collection, where they had lain forgotten since shortly after their discovery. Detective work by the B.M. established that by 1805 the objects were kept at Carlton House, having been part of a collection of arms and armour owned by George III; in 1837 they were sent to Windsor Castle, where for many years they were displayed with the Prince Regent’s collection of weaponry before eventual relegation to a reserve collection. Since they were again identified, they have been on permanent loan to the British Museum. 

The Ambleside Hoard dates from about 1,000 B.C. (Reinecke D - Halstatt A2), immediately before the transition between the last traditions of the Middle Bronze Age (the Penard phase) and the Late Bronze Age, best represented in northern England by the styles known as the Wallington Tradition. It originally consisted of six objects, of which the last two are still lost:

 (1)            A metal-hilted ‘slashing’ sword of the Bardouville type, which is distributed over northern France and much of Britain. 

(2)            A second sword which originally had separate hilt-plates, though otherwise of broadly the same type.

(3)            A metal-hilted ‘rapier’.

(4)            A triangular, basal-looped spearhead.

(5)            A long bronze ferrule, which probably furnished the butt end of the spear.

(6)            A bronze axe, of the type known as a narrow-bladed looped palstave. There is a similar palstave in the Armitt collection, but it is probably not the same one.

The history of the hoard is long, complex and intriguing. The workmanship indicates that these objects were at the forefront of European technological development. That they were imbued with meaning and value beyond their substance is evident from their later votive context. For two and a half millennia concealed, as water became peat beds, they emerged with blades still sharp. Though lost again in the vast Royal collection their re-identification is a testament to the drawings and description made by the gentleman antiquarian Peregrine Bertie in 1741. The return of the hoard to Ambleside in a sense seems like another form of alchemy, the reunification of substance and context to represent the latest chapter of this complex history.




On discovering  the hoard Peregrine Bertie wrote to the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society of his find.  The Spalding Gentlemen's Society was established in 1710 as an informal group of gentlemen who got together to discuss local antiquities and to read and discuss a newly published periodical, The Tatler.  In 1712 the group was formally established as "a Society of Gentlemen, for the supporting of mutual benevolence, and their improvement in the liberal sciences and in polite learning".  The society, whose membership has included such notable figures as Sir Isaac Newton and Alfred Lord Tennyson, still exists today.

The study of antiquities; the study of history by reference to ancient objects of art or science, archaeological and historic sites, historic archives and manuscripts, was not new.  As far back as Roman times antiquarian books were published on subjects as diverse as religious rituals, political institutions; genealogy and landmarks.  However, it was in the Middle Ages when antiquarians started to make collections of inscriptions or records of monuments and to study archaeological remains as well as documents. 

William Camden was a renowned 16th Century antiquarian.  In 1577, he started what would become his lifetime’s work - “Britannia”, a county by county description of Great Britain and Ireland in which he attempted to demonstrate how the traces of the past could be discerned in the existing landscape.  Camden revised and expanded the work throughout his life - here at the Armitt we have a 1695 edition.

As the interest in antiquities grew a number of societies such as the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society were formed.  One of the earliest societies was founded in London in c.1586, with William Camden as one of its members.  This society was abolished in 1604 by King James I, who was suspicious of their political aims.  In 1707 informal meetings between a number of antiquaries were restarted which lead to the reformation of  The Society of Antiquarians in 1717.

More locally the Cumbria & Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (‘CWAAS’) was founded in 1866 to encourage interest in the history and archaeology of Cumberland and Westmorland.  The CWAAS organised outings to places of interest and encouraged members to submit papers on their researches. Since 1866 the Society has published its journal ‘Transactions’.  The Armitt collection includes volumes of Transactions from 1866 to the present day.

Another renowned antiquarian was Thomas Machell (1657 -1698) the rector of Kirkby Thore, and chaplain to King Charles II.  Machell was a conscientious Parish priest keeping excellent parish records, such as the registers of baptisms, marriages and funerals but he also collected notes on the Barony of Kendal for his own interest.  He toured the area on horseback, visiting towns and villages compiling note books on his travels with sketches and records of houses, churches, coats of arms, memorials and inscriptions.  Unfortunately Machell died before he was able to fully organise his notes.  He bequeathed them to the Archdeacon trusting that they would be ordered and printed but his handwritten notes proved almost unreadable.  Therefore, the notes were simply bound in their original state before being presented to the Dean and Chapter Library at Carlisle Cathedral.  In 1963 his notes were transcribed and edited by Jane M Ewbank and published by the CWAAS under the title “Antiquary on Horseback” a copy of which is available for reference at the Armitt.