A rare medieval whale bone is at the centre of a new exhibition in Cornwall.

The English Heritage exhibition will include a variety of historic artefacts, including the  700-year-old whale bone.

It was discovered in the late 20th century during excavations at Launceston Castle, which is hosting the new exhibition.

Although it is difficult to tell which species of whale the bones came from, the size of the large vertebra points to a larger species such as the blue whale, fin whale or sperm whale.

During the medieval period whalers could catch and land smaller whales but not species of this size, which suggests that at least some of the Launceston bones came from a beached whale.


Dating back to the 13th century, the whale vertebra is one of around 20 broken vertebrae, rib sections and other small pieces of whale bone to have been found at the castle.

During this time period, whale meat was known as the 'King's Fish' and was so highly prized that a portion of each whale caught or found had to be forfeited to the king. It is likely that the whale bone provides evidence of the lifestyles and exotic diet of the castle's medieval occupants.

Dr Ian Leins, English Heritage’s curator of collections, and interiors said: “The mysterious whale vertebra at Launceston Castle was a puzzling discovery, but its existence greatly informs our knowledge of the castle’s inhabitants.

The bone will be displayed with other artefacts in the exhibition

The bone will be displayed with other artefacts in the exhibition

"We know the bones date to the 13th century and at this time the castle was owned by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, who was King Henry III’s brother and one of the wealthiest men in Europe.

"On his visits to the castle, Richard hosted great feasts attended by high-ranking officials and, while abhorrent to most people today, the serving and eating of whale meat would have been a symbol of his high status and power. There is every possibility that this great but unfortunate whale was the dish of the day. It’s a real thrill to be able to return the whale vertebra to the castle to be viewed by visitors today.”

Launceston Castle

Launceston Castle

Other never-before-seen objects within Launceston Castle’s new exhibition include decorated tableware and animal remains such as bones from deer, pigs, geese, goats, and partridge, giving a hint of the feasts and luxurious past of castle life, whilst gaming boards, counters, and gambling tokens used to while away hours tell the story of the castle’s later history as a bleak prison.

English Heritage has worked in partnership with Launceston Town Council and the Charles Causley Trust, using local designers and craftspeople to re-tell the fascinating history of the castle.

The castle will be open every day until October 30. To find out more visit https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/launceston-castle/