1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library

A Viking Treasure: The Horn of Ulph

Rachel Backa (University of Aberdeen)

Figure 1

Fig. 1 - The Horn of Ulph, made in southern Italy in the early eleventh century, may be seen on display in the museum at York Minster. (Reference: York Minster, MA/TR14.) Photograph: Paul Shields (University of York); © The Chapter of York.

The Horn of Ulph is an eleventh-century oliphant (a horn carved from an elephant's tusk). It is two feet four inches long, and has a diameter at the mouth of five inches. Given its size and condition, it is a particularly good example of a medieval oliphant (1). Tradition holds that it is a horn of tenure, presented to York Minster by a Norse nobleman named Ulph sometime around 1030. It served as a physical symbol of the lands and manor houses in Deira (an area between the Humber and Tees rivers) which he was giving to the Minster in order to alleviate controversy between his sons over their potential inheritance (2). It is said that he filled the horn with wine, placed it upon the altar himself, and in doing so dedicated his land to God and the Church of St Peter in York (3). The transfer of land was later confirmed by Edward the Confessor (4). The first known mention of this tale is in a metrical chronicle written in the late fourteenth century when Thomas Arundel was the archbishop of York (1388-1397). Unfortunately, we do not have the original manuscript, with the earliest known copy of it coming from the mid to late fifteenth century. There is an earlier reference to the story in the Minster itself, however: a shield bearing Ulph's heraldry, which includes a large horn, can be found in the north side of the nave, which was built c. 1300 (5). Some modifications to the horn have been made over time. In 1393, a gold chain was added to it by John Neuton, the newly-installed treasurer (6). During the Reformation, it fell into the hands of a goldsmith who removed the original mounts, which are traditionally held to have been made of gold. It then became the property of the Fairfax family, and was returned to the Minster by Henry Fairfax in 1675 (7).

The Horn of Ulph was made in the early eleventh century in southern Italy. Although like many other oliphants its production is traditionally associated with the town of Salerno, it is likely that it was made in the nearby town of Amalfi. Amalfi had strong trading contacts with North Africa, Sicily, Cairo, Antioch and Alexandria (8), and craftsmen there would have had ready access to ivory, and eastern goods such as patterned cloth which would have influenced the style of their work (9). A significant trading town in the early Middle Ages, Amalfi was described in 972 by a trader from Baghdad, Ibn-Hawqal, as 'the most prosperous city in Langobardia, the noblest, the most illustriously situated, the most commodious, the richest.' (10) That a trader would travel so far to reach what is viewed today as a small town is unsurprising: prior to the establishment of Latin kingdoms in the Levant, most trade between Western Europe and the Islamic world routinely happened in the south of Italy in cities such as Naples, Salerno and Amalfi. The eleventh century saw a great increase in the trade of ivory in these areas, allowing craftsmen the opportunity to work with this valuable material (11).

While it is thought that the carving of the Horn of Ulph was done by Islamic craftsmen (12), I think this unlikely. The same workshop which carved it also made Christian religious pieces for churches in southern Italy (13). While it is possible that Islamic craftsmen were commissioned to produce Christian pieces, it is more likely that the style of local Christian craftsmen was simply influenced by the textiles and patterns of their Muslim neighbours and trade partners. This connection with the Near East had a visible influence on the style in which the Horn of Ulph was carved. While it has been previously thought that the motifs were Mithraic in nature, this is not the case: Mithraic symbols are more reminiscent of the zodiac, the primary animals being bulls and scorpions, not the griffins, trees, and unicorns seen on the Horn of Ulph (14). Instead, the Horn of Ulph combines motifs which reflect several thousand years of artistic contributions from the Middle East. The various plant and animal motifs are reminiscent of Babylonian carvings from the third millennium BC, and their zoomorphic tails are similar to those found in ninth-century-BC Syrian art. It is likely that the use of these motifs is due to the influence of early Islamic art in the Mediterranean (15). The tradition that the original mounts were gold is debatable, but plausible. While the use of silver was more common in Western Europe at the time, in the eleventh-century Mediterranean gold was more common (at least in terms of currency). There was actually a silver shortage in the Mediterranean and Middle East, as silver mined in Italy was being shipped to Spain in exchange for the more sought-after gold (16).

Roughly seventy-five oliphants are known to survive and about one third of them are housed in church treasuries or public museums (17). Other oliphants which were created in the same workshop as the Horn of Ulph are the horn of Muri Abbey (now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), that of the Chartreuse de Portes (now in the Cabinet de Médailles, Paris), and an oliphant which belongs to the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. Based on the motifs and craftsmanship, the Horn of Ulph and the horn of the Chartreuse de Portes may have been made by the same artist (18). The Horn of Ulph, like the majority of the extant oliphants, is likely to originally have been designed as a calling horn. The horn of the Chartreuse de Portes is the only extant oliphant of its kind with the tip specifically left closed so it could serve as a vessel for liquids (19). While the pierced worked end of a horn may have been covered with a separate piece of ornamentation which would have blocked its hole, it is my belief that this was not the case for the Horn of Ulph, given that, to my knowledge, such ornamentation is not extant on other examples of oliphants. Also, the shape seems unsuitable for such a purpose: drinking horns (both made of actual horn and of glass) tend to have a more prominent curve to them, so that, were a base or cup-stand available, it would be possible to set them down and not have the liquid spill out. The oliphants have a much milder curve. However, according to some church inventories, at times sacred oil was carried in oliphants on Maundy Thursday, during a mass in celebration of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. The oil would then be given the names oleum infirmorum, oleum catechumenorum and sanctum chrisma, which suggest that it was used specifically for final unction, baptism, and confirmation (20).

There is no record of how the Horn of Ulph was used. Most of the oliphants are known to have been used to hold relics. We know very little about how they were displayed in the early Middle Ages, but a document from Canterbury in 1315 describes a large ivory horn which was suspended over the high altar. Another use for oliphants was to call people to worship: on the three days before Good Friday, monks did not use bells, and instead used the oliphants as calling horns (21). Given that the Horn of Ulph was designed as a calling horn, it is possible that it was created with this purpose in mind.

The use of large horns as symbols of tenure was common in medieval England, with the horns standing in place of written deeds. This use of horns fits with the account of how York Minster acquired the Horn of Ulph. The transfer of land through horns was known in Anglo-Saxon England as cornage. This system was used throughout the Middle Ages. Other horns of tenure are those of Borstal, Pusey, Savernake, Wirral, and Delamere (22). It was not only horns which were used as signs of land ownership: Ingulf (d. 1109), the abbot of Crowland, wrote that when William the Conqueror began his reign

Conferebantur eitem primo multa praedia nudo verbo, absque scripto vel charta, tantum cum domini gladio, vel galea, vel cornu, vel cratera; et plurima tenementa cum calcari, cum strigili, cum arcu; et nonnulla cum sagitta.

At first many estates were transferred by bare word of mouth, without any writing or charter, only by the lord's sword, or helmet, or horn, or cup; and many other tenements by a spur, a scraper, a bow; and some by an arrow (23).

While these items could be accompanied by written charters, the items themselves were a valuable symbol of land ownership and office in the Middle Ages. In a society with a low rate of literacy, physical symbols of ownership would be as valuable as a written deed, and easily recognized by a greater number of people.

Assuming that Ulph himself did not bring the Horn of Ulph from southern Italy before giving it to York Minster, there are three ways that it could have come to England. One is that it could have been taken to France by one of the Normans who accompanied Richard II of France when he campaigned in Apulia in 1017 (24). A second is that it could have been brought to Scandinavia through Byzantium and Russia by either a Norse trader or one of the Scandinavians who served the Byzantine Emperor as a member of the Varangian Guard. (Portions of southern Italy were controlled by Byzantium between 1009 and 1071, when the Byzantines ended their campaigns in the area) (25). A third is that it could have been brought overland through the Alps, and then passed by traders along the Rhine into Frisia. The horn to be could have been carried to England from any of these three destinations by boat with a Viking merchant or warrior.


(1) T. D. Kendrick, 'The Horn of Ulph', Antiquity, 11 (1937), 278-282 (p. 278).

(2) Cyril Bunt, 'The Horn of Ulphus', Friends of York Minster Annual Report, 1934, p. 30.

(3) A. P. Purey-Cust, Walks Round York Minster (Leeds: Richard Jackson, 1907), p. 13.

(4) Kendrick, 'The Horn of Ulph', p. 279.

(5) Kendrick, 'The Horn of Ulph', pp. 279-280.

(6) Kendrick, 'The Horn of Ulph', p. 280.

(7) Bunt, 'The Horn of Ulphus', p. 30.

(8) Avinoam Shalem, The Oliphant: Islamic Objects in Historical Context (Leiden: Brill, 2004), p. 36.

(9) Robert P. Bergman, The Salerno Ivories: Ars Sacra from Medieval Amalfi (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 90.

(10) Bergman, The Salerno Ivories, p. 110.

(11) Shalem, The Oliphant, pp. 36-37.

(12) 'The Horn of Ulph', in The History of York ([n.p.]: York Museums Trust, [n.d.]), http://www.historyofyork.org.uk/themes/the-viking-kingdom/the-horn-of-ulf [accessed 13 September 2010] (para. 1 of 3).

(13) Shalem, The Oliphant, p. 73.

(14) A. Deman, 'Mithras and Christ: Some Iconographical Similarities' in Mithraic Studies, 2, ed. by John R. Hinnells (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975), 507-517 (pp. 508-509).

(15) Kendrick, 'The Horn of Ulph', p. 279.

(16) Ian Blanchard, Mining, Metallurgy and Minting in the Middle Ages, 3 vols (Stuttgart: Franz Steinger Verlaf, 2001), I, p. 181.

(17) Hanns Swarzenski, 'Two Oliphants in the Museum', Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, 60 (1962), 27-45 (p. 28).

(18) Swarzenski, 'Two Oliphants', p. 34.

(19) Swarzenski, 'Two Oliphants', p. 34.

(20) Shalem, The Oliphant, p. 130.

(21) Shalem, The Oliphant, pp. 125-126, 130.

(22) Thomas Moule, Notices of the Principal Families Bearing Fish in Their Arms (London: J. Van Voorst, 1842), p. 134.

(23) Shalem, The Oliphant, p. 121.

(24) Judith Jesch, Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age: The Vocabulary of Runic Inscriptions and Skaldic Verse (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2001), p. 86.

(25) Jesch, Ships and Men, p. 87.

How to cite

Rachel Backa, 'A Viking Treasure: The Horn of Ulph', in Hanna Vorholt and Peter Young (eds), 1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library, June 2015, https://hoaportal.york.ac.uk/hoaportal/yml1414essay.jsp?id=6, accessed 25 September 2017