Posted by: Lucrece | November 27, 2011

Ashmolean Tudor Costrel – for those really long trips

The last costrel I made was an attempt at reproducing a tiny lovely little example held by the Museum of London, measuring only 4”x3”.  So now, why not head for the other extreme?  I became interested in this huge one from the Ashmolean Museum Oxford when I first came across it doing a Google image search.

Tudor Costrel belonging to the Ashmolean Museum Cambridge

Its measurements are given as 16” long and 13” tall by Oliver Baker in Black Jacks and Leather Bottells.

I have a another good photo of it which I believe came from one of John Waterer’s books, either “Leather in Life” or “Leather and Craftsmanship” although I can’t be certain as I neglected to label the photo copy.  The plate gives it as being 16” long as well, although the information may well be second-hand from Baker.

So far, I have been unable to determine a few things:
-How deep the costrel is
-How thick the leather is
-Whether or not it has an extra layer of leather in the handle, or around the ends

Baker also contains a few paragraphs about large costrels including part of a poem “Farewell to the Tower Bottles” by John Taylor, poet, waterman, and apparently disgruntled former wine-collector of 14 years.

John Taylor. Not happy, not happy at all.

The tower bottles were used to collect a “gift” of wine for the Constable of the Tower of London.  This tradition was purportedly very old, and certainly in place formally as early as the 1400’s.  “Regulations framed during the reign of Richard II for the Government of the Tower of London” (see Archaeologia, Vol 18) states that “…the said Coustable shall have, for every Galley that commeth, two roundletts of wyne, and of all manner of dainties a great quantitie” and “…. of every Shippe that cometh with wynes, two bottells, either of them contayning a gallon”

This agrees with John Taylor’s account of there having been two bottles, but the size may no longer have been a gallon each.  The size of the tower bottles was the source of a lawsuit at the time, between the Constable of the Tower and merchants who alleged the bottles had gotten bigger over the years.  Mr. Taylor mentions volume in margin notes accompanying his poem twice.  In the first instance he writes “I filled the two bottles being in quantity six gallons from every ship that brought wines up the river of Thames” but then later he notes “At 3 gallons from a ship, and some but 1 gallon and a half, I account 30 ships allowance is the quantity of a hogshead…”

This doesn’t quite tally.  At 63 wine gallons per hogshead this would mean that the average collected per ship was 2.1 gallons, fairly in line with the Richard II statutes.  Perhaps punctuation, or the lack thereof, is the culprit.  Read as “ I filled the two bottles, being in quantity six gallons, from every ship” changes the meaning significantly.  It may be that the bottles were in fact six gallons each, or three gallons each totaling six, and that it took more than one ship to make up the total collection.

Weight is another consideration.  A three gallon costrel, full, would weigh approximately 27-30 pounds. (25 for the liquid contents)  A six gallon, over 50 pounds.  It seems more reasonable to imagine someone carrying two three-gallon costrels weighing a total 50-60 lbs, rather than 100 lbs or more as it would be if each were 6 gallons.

Baker also notes another example of a very large costrel (pg 181) from the collection of a Mr. W. J. Fieldhouse which is given as having a capacity of three gallons.

So assuming three gallons is a good capacity to aim for, and that the costrel is 16” x13” I resorted to….*gasp* MATH to estimate the depth (and my friends all said I’d never use it again after high school): Ashmolean Costrel calcs

A depth of 167mm gives something close to the three gallons needed and looks right.  It would be difficult to make this costrel with the known dimensions hold much more than three gallons.  Making it more or less would result it either a very fat or strangely thin (and unstable) bottle.  Three gallons seems just about right.

Next post: This is going to take too much leather to make more than once so “Making a mock-up with paper and felt”



  1. I *may* be able to help with your questions.

    Are you specifically referring to the vessel featured on the frontis piece in Bakers “Blackjacks & Leather Bottels”? It features some sort of heraldic painting in orange?

    If so, let me know. I went there and fondl….. scientifically and respectfully handled it. Measured, photographed, videoed, sniffed…. I mean, examined it.

    • Nope, don’t think so, it’s the one in the picture at the top of this post – very large and has a Tudor rose on one shield / pomegranate on the other, no colour.

      That said I am VERY interested in any information someone has gleaned by fond….respectfully handling or snif…examining any costrel (or are you talking about a jack?). I have a pdf of Baker but the pictures are not in order so I can’t tell what might have been the frontispiece without going to visit the real copy at the reference library.

  2. Did you try writing to the museum?

    • Yes, Michael I did, numerous times over the course of many months.

      • I thought you must have – what a shame they couldn’t take a moment.

      • I certainly won’t disagree with you there! Very frustrating.

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