Buckles from the 13th century onwards have become reasonably common finds on areas of habitation. Although a general increase in metalwork of all kinds is apparent at this time, indicating the increasing wealth and prosperity of the country, it does also seem to coincide with a change in the method of fastening the girdle or waist-belt. Such evidence as we have for the Medieval period prior to the 13th century is mostly derived from manuscript illustrations. For the 11th century belts seem to be optional for men but a woman's gown is always shown with the girdle in the form of a plain band or cord. For women in the 12th century the girdle was very long and decorative, made of a thick cord of silk, wool or linen, or of thongs plaited together in a broad belt ending in silk cords. All of these types were tied or knotted rather than buckled. The evidence for men in the 12th century suggests that the girdle became more ornamental about 1150AD, was tied like a sash with hanging ends at the front from 1170-1190AD and in the last quarter of the 12th century it is depicted with ornamental buckles. Buckles were also used at the waist in the Medieval period for fastening the various straps and belts connected with the wearing of swords and daggers. Some shoes were buckled in the Medieval period and as early as the 13th century according to Cunnington.1 Certainly they were used for fastening some shoes with ankle straps from the 14th century onwards for we have in Langland's Piers Plowman - speaking of Friars in 1362:-
Buckles of Medieval Type IVB (in figure 5) with rotating closures instead of spiked tongues are an enigma. Some of these have small projections on the front of the closure possibly to grip or catch on some material and a possible use might therefore be to secure the woollen hose commonly in use at this time. If so they are an early form of suspender, although it must be said that plain annular 'ring-brooches' were also used for this purpose (Cunnington, figure 19a). Some very large examples are also known for which this explanation would not be practicable. The fastenings for hose would all be suspended by (?)leather straps from the breke-belt or brygyrdle as it was known. Whatever their exact purpose these buckles were designed to be easily removed and thus an early kind of quick-release mechanism. Recently a new type of tongue-less buckle has been brought to my attention (fig.12 no's 28-29) and for obvious reasons they have been named 'kingshead' buckles. Buckles for horse-harness and iron buckles (other than for spurs) have for the most part been omitted from this survey and must await separate classification. I have also only briefly touched on the materials from which belts were made, but it would be a serious mistake to assume that all belts or girdles were made of leather. Archaeological evidence has proved more than once that the residues of material that are occasionally found between the buckle-plates are of a woven braid. Various other materials are also mentioned in documentary sources including silk.
Reverend Hume2 states that the buckle-maker followed a separate and distinct trade to that of the girdler or belt-maker in the Medieval period and this is mentioned in several of the Medieval treatises. In Mayer's Vocabularies we have noted Hic Capellarius, a bokyl-maker. Makers of buckles are also mentioned in the 13th century by John de Garlande who uses the Latin term Pluscularii, interpreted as 'bogelers' in Old English. There is some evidence for the manufacture of metalwork on an industrial scale on the Continent in the later Medieval period but the manufacture of buckles in the early period must have been little more than a domestic or cottage industry. Nevertheless, throughout Western Europe buckles of this period exhibit a common style and the possibility of some imports of goods as well as raw materials should not be overlooked. England had no recognisable brass-founding industry of its own before the late-Tudor period and so a great deal of unused items and scrap would probably have been collected and recycled for further use.
The majority of buckles, with or without integral plates, were made by casting the molten metal in stone moulds. They were usually cast singly but sometimes in pairs or multiple moulds as the demand became greater in the late-Medieval to Tudor period. Although moulds have been found for brooches and other small artefacts only one mould that I am aware of has been found for buckles. Other buckles from the later-14th century onwards are of composite construction with separate loop and spindle. Some of these buckles were formed from sheet metal rather than castings and a few of the Type IVB tongue-less buckles were produced in this way. Buckle-loops of Type IN are also commonly found constructed from sheet metal that has been twisted for added strength and then joined to a separate spindle. Double-loop buckle frames with separate spindles were commonly used in the post-1660 period but the form of construction was obviously known and used for the more popular single-loop types of the later-Medieval period.
Decoration of the frames as in all periods is by ornamentation in the mould and then hand finishing by engraving with fine chisels or punching with stamps. Many medieval base-metal buckles were gilded with gold-leaf and plated or tinned with white metal in imitation of the more costly pieces used by the upper classes. Settings for stones, common for brooches but less so for buckles, were of paste as the use of precious gems on base-metal artefacts was forbidden by Sumptuary Law. Buckle-plates when not cast in one piece were cut from sheet metal and folded over the bar of the loop, the strap being sandwiched between the plates and secured by rivets. These rivets may vary in number from 1-5 and some have decorative stud-like heads. Decoration of the plates is by engraving - zigzag lines are common, as are floral, zoomorphic, and geometric designs. Another technique used was punching - lines of opposed triangles are often used as borders and may also have been applied by a roulette. Openwork cut-outs are also known with some having the appearance of 'gothic' windows. From the 15th century to the Tudor period the plates become even more decorative and include repousse decoration - the raising of the metal from behind using various punches to produce lines, pellets and cabling.
In the Medieval period evidence for buckles made of precious metal is contained in Wills and enough documented examples have survived to suggest their common use amongst the upper and knightly classes. Two examples are quoted here:-
Shoe buckles we are told were common in England during the early 1500's but were serviceable rather than handsome and stitched directly onto the shoe6. From c1570 the high shoe developed latchets or straps which were tied with multiple ribbons in ornamental bows over the tongued front. From c1610 large rosettes of roses often replaced these bows and these were to remain in use until 1680 when shoe buckles again became very popular. A particular type of shoe worn mostly by country people did continue to be fastened by buckles during this period. These were called 'startups' or 'bagging' shoes which were a high shoe of rough leather fitted above the ankles and laced or buckled on the outer side:-
From the beginning these buckles were made to be removable and they became in many cases items of jewellery to be transferred or exchanged as took the fancy of the owner. By the end of the 17th century a substantial buckle making industry had developed centred on Birmingham having been introduced there from Staffordshire in the 1680's. By the latter half of the 18th century Birmingham was employing 4,000 people in the manufacture of buckles and turning out 2,500,000 pairs annually at an average cost of 2/6d (25p) per pair. Much of this output was due to the stamping machine invented by John Pickering in 1769 and subsequently improved by Richard Ford of Birmingham. Now buckle frames could be produced in large quantities by machine pressing from prepared dies. In the last quarter of the 18th century shoe buckles reached enormous sizes, the largest of which were called 'Artois' buckles:-
I have chosen to finish this buckle survey at the end of the 18th century but of course this is not the end of the buckle story. Victorian and later examples must await further research and much still remains to be discovered in other areas too. As we have seen, buckles have been used in all periods and for many different applications and it is likely that this will continue, for even in this high-tech age they have their uses. Whenever you fasten a child's shoe, adjust your belt, or tighten the girth on a horse, you may reflect that except for minor differences in style, you are using a type of fastener that has remained fundamentally unchanged throughout the ages.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Handbook of English Medieval Costume - Cunnington CW and P. 1969
2. Ancient Meols, or Some Account of the Antiquities.. - Hume A. 1863
3. Information supplied by Mr A. de Reuk, London
4. Archaeologia - second series; vol.56; part 2; page 354. 1899
5. Earliest English Wills.. - Furnivall F.
6. The Every-day Book, 2 vols - Hone W. 1827
7. The English Brass and Copper Industries to 1800 - Hamilton H. 1967
I would like to thank Miss J. Swann of Northampton Museum for her very helpful comments on buckles of the 17th and 18th centuries. I would also like to thank Mr A. de Reuk of London for so generously responding to this series with so much valuable information. Most of the buckles in Figure 12 appear by his kindness.