A secret collection of Catholic documents, which could have had a family condemned to death over their religious beliefs, has been found under the floorboards of a National Trust stately home.
One of the largest underfloor archaeology hauls of its type in a National Trust house, the discovery was uncovered by an archaeologist working alone through lockdown in the attic rooms of Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk.
The house was built by Sir Edmund Bedingfeld after he inherited the estate in 1476. The family still live in part of the building to this day.
The Bedingfeld family at Oxburgh Hall were once rising stars of the Tudor Royal Court but Sir Henry Bedingfeld refused to sign the Act of Uniformity in 1559 – which outlawed Catholic Mass. The devout Catholic family stayed true to their faith over centuries despite being ostracised and persecuted and even had a secret priest hole at Oxburgh to shelter Catholic clergy.
The recent discovery was made during a project to reroof Oxburgh Hall, a moated manor house, which includes lifting many of the floorboards in the attic rooms to repair floor joists. Independent archaeologist Matt Champion agreed to continue through lockdown on his own and carried out a careful fingertip search.
Many of the items discovered date back to the Tudor period, with finds ranging from fragments of late 16th century books and handwritten music to high status Elizabethan textiles, as well as more mundane modern objects such as cigarette packets and an empty box of Terry’s chocolates that date to the Second World War – which may have been hidden after the chocolates were eaten.
However, the star find was a 15th-century illuminated manuscript fragment on parchment spotted in the rubble of the eaves by one of the builders. Despite centuries amongst debris, the glimmer of gold leaf and bright blue of the illuminated initials was still vibrant.
Speaking about the manuscript, Anna Forest the National Trust curator who is overseeing the work, said: “The text is distinct enough for us to identify it as part of the Latin Vulgate Psalm 39 (‘Expectans expectaui’). We contacted Dr James Freeman, Medieval Manuscripts Specialist at Cambridge University Library, who explained that the leaf may be from a Psalter, but its small size – just 8cm x 13cm – suggest it once was part of a Book of Hours. These portable prayer books were for private devotion.
“The use of blue and gold for the minor initials, rather than the more standard blue and red, shows this would have been quite an expensive book to produce. It is tantalising to think that this could be a remnant of a splendid manuscript and we can’t help but wonder if it belonged to Sir Edmund Bedingfeld, the builder of Oxburgh Hall.”
The manuscript parchment and other objects found may well have been used in illegal Masses and hidden deliberately by the family.
Russell Clement, general manager at Oxburgh Hall said: “We had hoped to learn more of the history of the house during the reroofing work and have commissioned paint analysis, wallpaper research, and building and historic graffiti recording. But these finds are far beyond anything we expected to see. 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. We will be telling the story of the family and these finds in the house, now we have reopened again following lockdown.
“This is a building which is giving up its secrets slowly. We don’t know what else we might come across – or what might remain hidden for future generations to reveal.”
Picture: Scaffolding goes up at Oxburgh Hall. (National Trust Images/Ian Ward).