London's Thames River history: the Olympics and medieval souvenirs

The Olympics are just another event for the old man river that's seen millennia of history already. Photo: David Beckham speeds along the Thames in a speedboat, bearing the Torch AP

WASHINGTON, August 01, 2012 – History is in the making again along the timeless river Thames, London ’s river highway.  One of our Olympics delights during the opening ceremonies was watching football/soccer superstar David Beckham carry the torch along the Thames in a speedboat. 

It’s just another event for the old man river that’s seen millennia of history already. The Thames is liquid history, say some Brits. And it continues to yield fascinating evidence of its eventful past to diggers known as “mudlarks” or “mud men” – those chaps who for generations have scavenged the Thames for saleable items. 

Pilgrim's Badge Depicting the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, ca. 1400

Pilgrim’s Badge Depicting the Shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, ca. 1400

More recently, the diggers have uncovered artifacts that are now on display in the Museum of London, the British Museum, and other austere harbingers of culture and history.

Among the valuables: pilgrim’s badges - souvenirs brought back by medieval faith travelers who trekked to shrines of saints in Canterbury and other popular medieval pilgrimage sites in Spain and France.

The badges were once mass-produced in pewter and other materials. Thomas Becket was one of the most popular saints depicted on the badges.  Some badges depicted the shrine sites.

Mudlarks along the Thames

Pewter or lead pilgrim badges were very popular in the period of about 1350 to 1450 AD and were worn on hats and clothing. The sale of the badges at shrines brought income to the sites and helped reduce pilfering of shrine parts. The badges were also early tourism advertising because they encouraged others to visit the shrines and brought revenue to local traders.

They were also proof that one had indeed visited a holy site and was therefore a true pilgrim.

By the early 16th century, pilgrimages were in decline as the church came under attack for corruption and the Protestant Reformation swept Europe. As England became Protestant, pilgrimage was held in contempt as superstitious and idolatrous. And lots of pilgrim badges ended up in the river Thames.

Read more of Ruth Hill’s columns at Contemporary Christian Travel in the Washington Times Communities.

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Ruth Hill

Ruth Hill writes for magazines and newspapers about the business and pleasures of travel. Read more about her views and news of Christian heritage travel around the world at

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