Sopwell Priory, St Albans

Imagine you were travelling in medieval times from London to St Albans. The main road was still -as it had been since Roman times – Watling Street. Originally, Watling Street ran through the Roman town of Verulamium, but medieval St Albans and its abbey, founded by King Offa in 793, lay a bit to the northeast. According to the Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani, the medieval town was created by the sixth abbot Ulsinus (or Wulsin) in the mid-10th century[i]:

Abbot Wulsin was famous for his spiritual and worldly achievements. He loved the district and people of St Albans and looked after their interests. He brought the people from the surrounding areas together and made them live in the town itself, providing and enlarging a market place. He helped them construct buildings by providing money and materials. He built the churches of St Peter to the north, St Stephen to the south, and St Michael to the west, with a dedicated share of land, to improve both the appearance and resources of the town, and to care for the souls of its people.[ii]

The original route of Watling Street would have by-passed his new town, so he re-routed it to attract visitors to the town and his new churches. Now travellers were to turn off at St Stephen’s Church, go down St Stephen’s Hill and up Holywell Hill.

The new route was not without problems though. The River Ver needed to be crossed, initially there was a ford, but a bridge was built in the 12th century. And Holywell Hill was – and still is – rather steep. Travellers found it easier to go along Green Lane (now Cottonmill Lane) and Sopwell Lane, which turns into Holywell Hill after the steepest bit.[iii] As a consequence many inns and hostels were being set up along the route. To this day, Sopwell Lane is regarded as one of the “best pub crawls in England”.[iv]

Sopwell Lane

Beginnings of Sopwell Priory

This little detour took our medieval traveller not only to a pub but also to the topic of this post: Sopwell Priory, dedicated to St Mary. Sopwell was one of three local daughter-houses of St Albans Abbey, the other two were another nunnery, St Mary de Pré, and a leper hospital dedicated to St Julian.

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A Sergeant of the King’s Bakehouse: Richard Gyll (d.1511)


I would like to thank Dr Heather Falvey and Dr Sean Cunningham for all the information they kindly shared with me and all their generous support. All errors, of course, remain my own.

Some time ago, while looking for something completely different and getting carried away by all sorts of distractions, I came across the mention of a “Sergeant of the King’s Bakehouse”.

The reference was to an existing brass in St John the Baptist Church in Shottesbrooke, Berkshire. It shows a man in armour with his hands held in prayer, bare headed with shoulder-length hair. He seems to be standing on a mound of grass, with a flower between his feet.

The brass of Richard Gyll, in: Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, vol. 2, 1858, p.609

Underneath is an inscription, which explains that this is Richard Gyll Esq, Sergeant of the Bakehouse for both Henry VII and Henry VIII, and bailiff of the “Seven Hundreds of Cookham and Bray” and that he died on 7 August 1511.

Here lyeth the body of Richard Gyll squyer late sergeat of the Bakehous wt kyng henry VII and also wyth kyng henry the VIII and bayly of the VII hundred of Cokam and Bray.[i] 

The reference to an official of a bakehouse caught my eye, because I like baking bread. And it is a necessity, too. For someone used to the variety and taste of German bread, the average Australian bread is not very exciting. Therefore I decided to find out more about Richard Gyll. Fortunately, his will is still extant. It gives us some information about his personal circumstances (see below).

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The duke of Buckingham haunts Salisbury

The King’s House. (Photograph by Richard Sutcliffe via Geograph)

The duke of Buckingham in the Cathedral Close

For Halloween, the Salisbury Journal told his readers a ‘Ghostly tale of Henry, Duke of Buckingham’. It seems that the ghost of Henry Stafford is haunting the Salisbury Museum in the Cathedral Close, which used to be the Diocesan Training College. The college was established in 1841 to train female teachers for Church of England schools in the diocese of Salisbury.

For his involvement in the 1483 rebellion against King Richard III, Henry Stafford, second duke of Buckingham was beheaded in the Market Square in Salisbury on 2 Nov. 1483.

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The girl (not) from next door and her refound fiancé

Some time ago, I came on social media across the painting of a woman.  The information said that this was a portrait of Elisabeth Bellinghausen.  However, it was Elisabeth’s surname which had me intrigued.

The village next to the one where I grew up is called Bellinghausen.  Bellinghausen is also a frequent surname in the area.  Naturally, I wondered whether this lady had anything to do with “our” Bellinghausen, given that it is only approx. 35 km to the south-east of Cologne. On a clear day, you can see Cologne Cathedral in the distance. So it is not that far-fetched to think that someone from the village of Bellinghausen had moved to Cologne, where the family would become very influential.

I had wanted to find out more about her for quite some time. And then the other day, there were some more exciting news about her portrait.

The portrait is by Bartholomäus (or abbreviated Barthel) Bruyn the elder (1493–1555), who was mainly active in Cologne. He was a famous painter of altar panels, but also for his portraits of the upper echelons of his city. Many of them are in the form diptychs, ie. two panels, each with the portrait of one of a couple, engaged or married, who are facing each other.  The painting of Elisabeth Bellinghausen is one half of such a diptych.

It was probably commissioned on the occasion of her engagement to Jakob Omphal(ius). At an auction in London in 1896 the two halves of the diptych became separated. [i]

Elisabeth’s half ended up in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, who gave it as a long-term loan to the Mauritshuis in Den Haag, NL. She could be identified, because on the back of her painting is the coat of arms of her father, Peter Bellinghausen. However, nobody knew where the other half of the diptych, a portrait of Jakob, was or what had happened to it. That was the accepted version until just a few days ago.

The girl (not) from next door and her refound fiancé

Barthel Bruyn, Jakob Omphal and Elisabeth Bellinghausen (Wikimedia Commons)

Then I saw an exciting Twitter thread about the acquisition of his portrait by the Mauritshuis.[ii]  It had been traced by a combination of detective work and German – Dutch collaboration.

The mystery of the missing fiancé had bugged the curator at the Mauritshuis, Ariane van Suchtelen, for a long time and she had started looking into it. She found a copy of the catalogue of the London auction where they were split up. His half had been misattributed as being by the Dutch painter Jan Gossaert (c. 1478–1532). It was sold to an English arts dealer and had last been auctioned in 1955, but after that the trail went cold. That was until May 2019, when a small Paris auction house offered it as a “portrait of an unknown man”. The estimated price was €8,000-12,000, but it sold for €63,500.

It was bought by a Geneva gallery, without them knowing who the artist or the man in the painting were. When they showed it at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, the art curator of a German museum spotted it and notified the Rijksmuseum. And the rest is history: it was identified as the portrait the Mauritshuis had been seeking for so long. Mauritshuis succeeded in buying Jakob’s portrait for €250,000 with the help of the Rembrandt Association, the Dutch lottery and a private donor. Elisabeth and her long-lost fiancé were reunited.

As the original frames had been lost, both portraits got new ones, based on examples of those used by Bruyn. Now they look again like the diptych they were meant to be. They will be displayed together until 4 October. Then Jakob’s portrait will get extensive conservation treatment, as Elisabeth’s had done earlier, before they will be displayed together again at the Mauritshuis.

By the time they will eventually be reunited, international travel will hopefully be possible again and then a trip to Den Haag and its museum is definitely a “must go” destination.

Elisabeth and Jakob married in 1539, but these portraits were painted before their wedding. In her picture, her braids can be seen, which is a sign for a woman not being married. The braids of a married woman were worn under her cap.[iii]

Barthel Bruyn, Elisabeth Bellinghausen and the painting from the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum (both Wikimedia Commons)

When visiting the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig, I saw the diptych of another engaged couple by Bruyn and was struck by the similarities between the two women. The posture of both women is identical. Both hold a sprig of bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) in their right hand, a popular attribute of unmarried couples in Cologne portraits of the time. Their left hands are lying on a surface, showing off their engagement rings.

Remarkable is that both are wearing the same belt. It can also be found in other Bruyn portraits.  Was this belt the latest fashion accessory of its time, or did it belong to the painter to be displayed where appropriate?[iv] Their caps are also very similar, but that is as far as the similarities go. The rest of their outfits are different, and the faces clearly depict two individuals.

Jakob is depicted wearing a lavish fur collar, which he holds with his left hand. In his right hand, which rests on the same surface as Elisabeth’s left hand, he is holding a letter. This probably shows him as one of the leading intellectuals of his time, who would in time become chancellor to the archbishop of Cologne.

A few words of background information on the painter.[v] Bruyn was born in 1493, though it is not sure where, probably somewhere on the Lower Rhine, maybe in Wesel, but Haarlem has also been suggested.  In 1505, he entered the workshop of Jan Joest at the St Nikolai Church in Kalkar. Here he met Joos van Cleve (c.1480/1485–1540) and they became close friends. After 1512, Bruyn came to Cologne, where he remained for the rest of his life and became very successful.  By 1533 he was able to buy a large house and opened his own workshop.  He was active in civic affairs and became a member of upper-middle-class Cologne society.  He married Agnes, a daughter of his teacher Jan Joest, and they had five children.

Bruyn painted altar panels, but today is probably better known for his portraits, mostly of influential citizens of the city.  He is credited with founding a tradition of portrait painting in Cologne, which continued till the 17th century.

Bruyn died in April 1555 and two of his sons, Arnt and Bartholomäus the Younger, continued the workshop.  Arnt’s son, another Bartholomäus, was also a portrait painter, who worked for the duke of Nancy.  Another grandson, Gottfried von Wedig, eventually introduced the painting of still lives to Cologne.

And what about any relation to the village of Bellinghausen? The village probably has its origins in a single farm around which a village developed, in the Merovingian period, c. 500-800.[vi] Since the reorganisation of local governments in 1969, Bellinghausen has been part of Königswinter. The local occurrence of Bellinghausen as a surname clearly originates from this village, but to my great disappointment, there is no clear evidence that there was any connection with Elisabeth’s family. However, the story of the re-united couple is exciting enough.


[i] Boffey, D. (2 July 2020), ‘Renaissance couple: unhinged duo reunited after 125 years apart’, The Guardian. URL: [last accessed 13 July 2020];

Mauritshuis (30 June 2020), ‘Mauritshuis acquires Portrait of Jakob Omphalius by Batholomäus Bruyn’. URL: [last accessed 13 July 2020];

Ribbens, A. (29 June 2020), ‘Na ruim een eeuw hangen Elisabeth en Jakob weer naast elkaar‘, NRC. URL: [last accessed 13 July 2020]

[ii] Rembrandt’s Room (29 June 2020), ‘Acquisition thread’, Twitter. URL:

[iii] Mauritshuis, ‘Bartolomäus Bruyn – Discover the portraits’. URL: [last accessed 13 July 2020]

[iv] Das große Lexikon der Malerei. Zweiburgen Verlag GmbH, Weinheim, 1982, p.104

[v] Caswell, J.M. (2003), ‘Bruyn family [Bruen; Bruin; Bruns]’, Grove Art Online [last accessed online 12 Jan. 2019]

Löw, A., ‘Familie Bruyn, Malerfamilie’, Portal Rheinische Geschichte.  URL: [last accessed 13 Jan. 2019];

Das große Lexikon der Malerei. Zweiburgen Verlag GmbH, Weinheim, 1982, pp.98, 100-101, 103,104

[vi] Schyma, A. (1992), Stadt Königswinter.  Denkmaltopographie Bundesrepublik Deutschland / Denkmäler im Rheinland, Vol. 23, No. 5. Rheinland-Verlag, Köln, p.65

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Anglo-Saxon Hertford

Anglo-Saxon Hertford 

a bustling town and its mint

Today, Hertford has the atmosphere of a quiet country town rather than that of a bustling and prosperous trading centre.  However, in its Anglo-Saxon days that was completely different.

It all started when – according to Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – Edward the Elder (reigned 899 to 924) established a burh (a fortification) on the north side of the River Lea, “betwixt the Memer, and the Benwic, and the Lea” [i] in 912 (though there is some controversy about the year, it might have been 911 or 913 as well).  The following year, his forces built another one on the southern side.

Edward the Elder (Wikimedia Commons)

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Welcome to Bad Godesberg

Welcome to Bad Godesberg

‘Encounter‘ by Eva de Maizière

Welcome to Bad Godesberg

Eva de Maizière, ‘Encounter’, 1978

This post has nothing to do with history but concerns an artwork which speaks to me.  I would like to introduce you to a sculpture in Bad Godesberg, a southern suburb of Bonn.  Often remembered for its abundance of embassies during the time when Bonn was the capital of West Germany.  The “Bad” (spa) refers to its older history as a place with a spring with health benefits. Continue reading

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, Part III

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire

Part III:  A look around town

This is the last of three parts dealing with Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire.

St Peter’s Church from Castle Street

St Peter’s Church

I made my way back to the High Street along Castle Street, the original access route to the castle.  It used to end at the South Gate, the main entrance to the castle.  However, both the gate and the moat in that part were knocked down to make place for the railway in the 19th century.

I walked past Berkhamsted School to St Peter’s Church, at the corner of Castle Street and the High Street. Continue reading