15th Century Treasures Revealed in British Stately Home Attic
In Britain, an attic in a historic home has revealed a trove of 15th century treasures. The rare items were uncovered during the recent COVID-19 lockdown and were discovered thanks to the hard work of a lone archaeologist. These 15th century treasures are expected to provide insights into the history of English Catholicism during the period when it was heavily persecuted by successive royal governments.
Routine Roof Restoration Leads to 15th Century Treasures
The amazing discoveries were made during a £6 million-pound (US$9 million) project to restore the roof of Oxburgh Hall. This moated house dates from the 15 th century and looks more like a fortress than a residence. The National Trust reports that “Despite its fortified appearance, the moated Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk was intentionally built as a family home.”
The structure has been the home of the Bellingham family since the 15 th century and the house was built by them in 1482. The Bellingham family played a prominent role in the Wars of the Roses, and were very active in the Tudor court. They remained loyal to their Catholic faith and as a result, came under suspicion and their wealth declined. The family fortunes revived in the 18 th century when they became rich again through colonial trade. In the 1950s, the house was almost derelict and was transferred to the management of the National Trust, although members of the Bellingham family still lived in Oxburgh Hall until recently.
Curator, Anna Forrest, holds up one of the discoveries found under the floorboards of Oxburgh Hall. (National Trust)
As part of the project to reroof the hall, the floorboards in the attics had to be removed. Matt Champion, a freelance archaeologist, agreed to continue the work during the lockdown. During a painstaking search, he made a series of remarkable finds beneath the attic floorboards.
15th Century Treasures Preserved in Dust
Anna Forest, who is overseeing the Oxburgh Hall project, stated that “it was the first time anybody had searched under the floorboard in centuries,” reported The National Trust, and the items had lain undisturbed all that time. Ms Forest is quoted by The National Trust as saying that “When the boards came up, we could see a wave pattern in the debris which showed it had been undisturbed for centuries.” The dust had preserved the items because it kept them dry.
Hundreds of sewing pins were found under the boards that were probably related to sewing activities in the ancient home. The most important find was a nearly intact 16 th century book that that was found under the roof’s eaves. The book still had some of its original gold leaf and brightly colored inks. It was likely part of a Book of Hours, a devotional work. The National Trust reports that “These portable prayer books were for private devotion.”
The fragment of a rare 15th century manuscript discovered in the attic of Oxburgh Hall. (National Trust)
Persecution of the Catholics and Secret Masses in Tudor England
Fragments of books were also found, including pieces from a Spanish romance novel that was popular with English Catholics at that time. The BBC reports that “Two ancient rats’ nests containing more than 200 fragments of textiles such as silk, velvet, satin and leather were also discovered.” These textile fragments prove the wealth and status of the Bellingham family. Some of the newly discovered items showed that the family maintained their Catholic faith in secret, despite the laws against and the persecution of Catholics in this historical period. This was supported by fragments of musical scores associated with Catholic liturgical practices.
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This and other finds “may well have been used in illegal masses and hidden deliberately,” (by the family) Ms Forest said to the BBC. During the Elizabethan era and later, Catholic masses were illegal and priests who celebrated such masses could be executed. Catholics were viewed as potential rebels and traitors. Russell Clement, who manages Oxburgh Hall, told the BBC that, “These objects contain so many clues which confirm the history of the house as the retreat of a devout Catholic family, who retained their faith across the centuries.” Families such as the Bellinghams helped Catholicism to survive in England after the Reformation.
Investigations are continuing at Oxburgh Hall and it is hoped that more artifacts could be found. Mr Clement, according to the National Trust, stated “This is a building which is giving up its secrets slowly.” Oxburgh Hall and its beautiful gardens are open to the public most days.
Top image: Oxburgh Hall where the trove of 15th century treasures were recently discovered in the attic. Source: Martin Pettitt / CC BY-SA 2.0
By Ed Whelan