A scrap of twisted silver found a few weeks ago by a metal detector in Lancashire will take its place among masterpieces of medieval art at the British Museum, in an exhibition opening this week of the bejewelled shrines made to hold the relics of saints and martyrs.
The badge made of silver found by Paul King, a retired logistics expert, is a humble object to earn a place in an exhibition called Treasures of Heaven, but it is unique. It will sit among gold and silver reliquaries studded with gems the size of thumbnails – or the sockets from which they were wrenched by thieves – once owned by emperors, popes and princes.
The badge, the only one of its kind ever found in Britain, provides a link 500 years ago between this corner of rural Lancashire and the great pilgrimage sites of mainland Europe. It shows one of the companions of St Ursula, one of the most popular mystical legends of medieval Europe. She was said to be a British princess who sailed with 11,000 virgin companions to marry a pagan prince in Brittany, but diverted to go on a pilgrimage to Rome – and in some versions of the story, Jerusalem.
After many adventures they came to Cologne, where all were slaughtered by Hun tribesmen. When a large cemetery of Roman era bones was found in the city in the 11th century, they were declared the remains of the saint and her companions, and her cult spread across Europe.