Alms dishes are decorative metal bowls passed among the congregation during church services to collect offerings. Some, quite ancient, are still in use in many churches throughout Europe, and many can be found on eBay and in auction catalogs dating back to the 17th century.
In the early 1970s, a battered copper alms dish turned up in a bundle of clothes donated to an Oxfam shop in Gillingham, Kent, England. It is now known as the Gelingeham Alms Dish, after the earliest recorded name of this small town on the banks of the River Medway in northern Kent.
The dish is 8 1/2 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep. The central artwork consists of very intricate decorative panels surrounded by raised sides on which a crude pattern of lines is punched beneath a plain banded rim. It is certainly one of the most intricately decorated objects of its kind, and this alone speaks to its possible royal origins.
The dish portrays a crowned figure in a central panel surrounded by 11 panels in which six other figures are punched, the rest being decorated with flower motifs. Five of the six figures and the central royal figure appear to wearing ermine robes.
The images speak to us of the earliest days of the kings of Britain, when chieftains rose to power after the departure of the Romans and fast became regional royalty. One of the first threats to their power was the wave of invasion from the continent: the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes.
The object is possibly one of the oldest alms dishes recorded in the United Kingdom. The form of decoration used is known as punched metal, a very ancient technique in which a decorative theme is hammered out on the front of a metal object by indenting with shaped punches. It is a crude precursor to the later and far more refined method of repoussé using a similar technique but punched in reverse.
When Was the Gelingeham Alms Dish Made?
Dating the Gelingeham Alms Dish has proven difficult. One expert suggests a Viking influence. One of the busts appears to be wearing a Norman-style helmet, which could place it during the 11th century Norman invasions. It is believed unlikely that a royal alms dish associated with William the Conqueror would be found in Gillingham, Kent.
A fifth-century origin, although seemingly too early for such a survival, would place the bowl at the very foundation of the “Kingdom of Kent.” At that time two Saxon brothers, Hengist and Horsa, were hired as mercenaries by Vortigern, then a regional king of lower Britain, to fight off Picts who were invading the country from the north.
In recompense for his services, Hengist asked only for as much land as could be encompassed by the hide of an ox. Vortigern, anxious to avoid giving Hengist a foothold in his kingdom, agreed to such a small request. Hengist then took an oxhide and cut along its edges to create an extremely thin thong of leather. With this, he encompassed an area large enough to contain a small fortification.
He celebrated its completion by inviting Vortigern and his noblemen to a feast. They arrived, dined—and then were killed, with the exception of Vortigern. The several hundred deaths ensured Hengist’s control of Kent, where he established his own kingdom.
To this day, a large mound near the town of Sittingbourne is named “Tong” in commemoration of the event. It is said to be the location of the fortification. Hengist’s reign did not end well. He extended his influence throughout ancient Britain but was eventually defeated in battle and beheaded. He was buried in an unmarked mound—perhaps the very mound on which he built his first fortification.
Could the Gelingeham Alms Dish portray the pagan Hengist and his henchmen, or perhaps Vortigern? The dish now resides with its current owner near Chicago, and further efforts are being made to determine its actual age and origin, after which it will be placed on long-term loan with a suitable institution. In the meantime, the enigmatic portraits on the dish stare at us, silently awaiting the day when their story may be told.
Mark Newell is a writer, anthropologist, and award-winning graphic artist with an interest in the history of art and especially the Medieval and Renaissance periods. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org