In the news today there is an article about a whale that was beached at Skegness in Lincolnshire on Saturday and the problem of how to dispose of it. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-7285112
As I read it I recalled the records of a court case in March 1335, in the reign of Edward III, where Alice de Lacy and her husband Eble le Strange made a complaint against several people who had ‘carried away a whale worth 100s (shillings) that had been washed ashore at Friskeneye, county Lincoln.’
Here’s the full record:
‘Commission of oyer and terminer to Richard de Wylughby, Thomas de
Sibthorpe, John de Cresholm and John de Merstou, on complaint bv Ebulo
Lestraunge and Alice his wife that whereas they are lords of the port of
the town of Friskeney, and they and the ancestors of Alice time out of
mind have used to have wreck of sea and all royal fish in the same in right
of their lordship, Roger de Pedewardyn, William son of Walter de
Friskeneye, John de Stikeneye of Boston, William Whistelpaye, Hugh
son of John Taillour of Friskeneye, William Flayn of Friskeneye, Robert
son of Sibyl de Friskeneye, Richard his brother, Hugh son of Alan son of
Andrew de Friskeneye, Ranulph son of Ranulph deWrangel, Hugh
Flegard of Waynflete, Richard Pynder, John son of Richard, Helewisia de
Wrangel, Hugh Buttersuel and others carried away a whale, worth 100s
which had been washed ashore at Friskeneye, co. Lincoln, within the port.’
It seems that, unlike today when the carcass is a problem, a beached whale in 1335 was a valuable commodity. Research into what the carcass was actually used for reveals that whale meat was eaten in the middle ages, although the records of its sale at markets such as the one at Calais may refer to smaller species like porpoise that were caught fresh.
I would guess that the blubber was valuable as oil for cooking and would also have been used to make candles and rush lights. The earliest known candles were made from whale fat by the Chinese and candles made from spermaceti wax burn with less odour than tallow candles. The skin may have been used for textiles, maybe for shoes or covers for books. The bones would have been utilised to make many items. In his article Working With Horn and Skeletal Materials http://www.florilegium.org/files/CRAFTS/Working-Horn-pamphlet.pdf Michael Labbe-Webb says:
The most common artifacts made of horn, antler or bone surviving from the
Middle Ages are combs, pins (used in both hair and clothing) and spoons,
but many other articles made of these materials have been found.
Whalebone (most of which was scavenged from whales which were washed
ashore, although whales were hunted in the early medieval period) was used
to make helmet plumes for tournaments for knights as well as more
complicated articles like chests and caskets. Canes, toothpicks, powder
horns, jewelry, religious articles, jewelry caskets, weapon and knife hilts,
musical instruments, portraits, sculptures and even bone spurs are but a few
of the items surviving from the middle ages.
As the BBC article says, whales were classed as ‘royal fish’ and in the court case this is referred to, stating that Alice and her ancestors (her father was Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln) have always had the right to any ‘wreck of the sea and royal fish’ as lords of the town and port of Friskeney – now known as Friskney and just south of Skegness where the whale was beached last Saturday.
So it seems that a beached whale in the 14th century did not present the problems it does today. Alice and Eble would have been horrified to see such a valuable resource go to waste! They would have had no problem at all in arranging its removal and pocketing the profits.