A rare survival from the late 16th century the Carruthers Bell-Salt comes from a small group of distinctive double bell-shaped salts that developed from single bell-shaped examples of the mid 16th century, known from contemporary documents such as the inventory of the Duke of Somerset’s plate of 1552 -‘two salts gulite of bell facon with a cover’, (T. Schroder, English Silver Before the Civil War, The David Little Collection, Cambridge, 2015, p. 64). The earliest known complete single bell-shaped example, known as the Chorley Salt, is dated 1586, (M. Clayton, Christie’s Dictionary of the Silver and Gold of Great Britain and America, Woodbridge, 1986, p. 313, fg. 443). The double bell-shaped salt, the form of the Carruthers Bell-Salt, is also recorded in inventories of the time, such as that taken at Hardwick Hall in 1601. It lists ‘a double bell salt with a cover and a pepper boxe gilt’, (Clayton, op. cit., p. 309). The surviving double bell-shaped salts number only around thirty. They consist of three sections, two for salt and a detachable finial formed as a caster for pepper. The Carruthers Bell-Salt, in common with other examples, is chased with strapwork ornament with scrolling foliate arabesques and rosettes typical of the period. The engraved marital initials record its ownership by a wealthy non-armigerous family.
The bell-shaped salt evolved during a period of greater prosperity for the country. The merchant classes were able to acquire grand pieces of plate for display and use. In medieval England the salt had historically held a prominent position in the display plate of Royal and aristocratic households. Placed on the table rather than the buffet it had both ceremonial, religious and practical significance. During the medieval period it was only the standing cup that was as rich in design and magnificence as the salt. The order of precedence determined the placing of the grandest salt on the dining or banqueting table by the host. Ones closeness to the salt signified ones importance in the eyes of the host. Salt symbolised purity and was a component of pre-Reformation christening services. It was a vital addition to food, used widely as a preservative. It was a taste the Tudor palate was deeply attuned to.
During the latter years of the Tudor period the role of the salt became less ceremonial in both aristocratic and merchant households, however, collegiate foundations continued the traditions of precedence. In 1622 it was noted that at All Souls College, Oxford, the most highly prized silver-gilt salt was for the use of the Warden. The Subwarden’s salt was of ungilded silver and fellows shared two sets
of four salts between them (P. Glanville, Silver in Tudor and Early Stuart England, London, 1990, p. 281).