A Viking antiquity: the horn of Ulph

Carved from an elephant’s tusk, the Horn of Ulph is one of a number of surviving oliphants manufactured in southern Italy in the eleventh century. According to tradition, it was presented to the Minster by the Norse nobleman Ulph around 1030 as a deed of transfer of the lands he gave to God and the Church of St Peter in York. It is said that he filled it with wine and drank the contents by way of a solemn pledge. There is no record of its use during the Middle Ages, but in other ecclesiastical settings such horns were deployed as reliquaries, blown to call people to worship, and suspended above high altars. After the Reformation, it appears to have fallen into the hands of a goldsmith who removed and probably melted down the original mounts. It later became the property of the Fairfax family, though whether it was rescued by the famous Parliamentary General, Sir Thomas Fairfax, during the Civil War, as is often alleged, is a matter of conjecture. Restored to the Dean and Chapter by his son and heir Henry in 1675, it has been in the Treasury of the Minster since. The shifting status of the horn — from secular symbol of tenure to sacred object to historical antiquity — is emblematic of Protestantism’s role in transforming attitudes towards the material artefacts of memory. AW

The horn of Ulph

Image by kind permission of York Minster: MA/TR 14

Further Reading

T. D. Kendrick, ‘The Horn of Ulf’, Antiquity, 11 (1937), pp. 278–82.

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 20 July 2017).

Thomas Gent, The antient and modern history of the famous city of York; and in a particular manner of its magnificent Cathedral, commonly call’d, York-Minister ([York, 1730]), pp. 54–5.

Daniel Woolf, The Social Circulation of the Past: English Historical Culture 1500–1730 (Oxford, 2003), pp. 191–7.

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