Amazing secrets found under National Trust manor house’s floorboards
PUBLISHED: 14:57 17 August 2020 | UPDATED: 10:45 18 August 2020
(c)National Trust - Mike Hodgson
A banned prayer book, a wartime chocolate box and rats’ nests made from Elizabethan textiles are among a remarkable collection of objects found under the floorboards of a Norfolk manor house.
Archaeologist Matt Champion made the discovery when working alone through lockdown in the attic rooms of Oxburgh Hall, near Swaffham, which is owned by the National Trust.
Russell Clement, Oxburgh Hall’s general manager, said the find shone a light on the rich and varied history of the building, which is now undergoing a £6 million re-roofing and repair project.
Mr Clement said: “We had hoped to learn more of the history of the house during the re-roofing 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.”
Anna Forest, curator, said the “star” find was 15th-century illuminated manuscript fragment on parchment, whose bright blue and gold leaf still glimmer.
Researchers from the Cambridge University Library said the fragment, with text from the Latin Vulgate Psalm 39, was likely to have been from a portable prayer book called a Book of Hours. The small, 8cm x 13cm volume may have been used in illegal masses and deliberately hidden by the family after Catholic mass was outlawed by Queen Elizabeth.
Ms Forest said: “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 Bedingfelds were once rising stars of the Tudor royal court before falling from grace when Sir Edmund refused to sign the Queen’s Act of Uniformity in 1559, which banned Catholic mass.
MORE: Oxburgh Hall becomes first National Trust site in region to reopen its doors
But the family stayed true to their faith over the centuries despite being ostracised and persecuted. They even had a secret compartment, called a priest hole, installed at Oxburgh Hall as a place for the clergy to hide from Elizabeth’s priest hunters.
Tiny pieces of books have also been found, some of which come from a 1590 volume of a Spanish chivalric romance titled ‘The ancient, famous and honourable history of Amadis de Gaule’.
The house’s north-west corner contained two ancient rats’ nests made of more than 200 fragments of high-quality textiles including silk, velvet, satin, leather, wool and embroidered fabrics.
The fragments, which are hundreds of years old, may have been off cuts from clothes being reworked and given new uses. Highlights include a large piece of slashed brown silk shot through with gold, possibly from a sleeve, a woven fabric embellished with delicate wool blackwork embroidery, a two-tone basket-weave clothing fabric with metallic thread which looks to be late 16th century in date, and pieces of a felted woollen textile which are similar to known examples from Tudor caps and stockings.
The nests also contained some scraps of handwritten music from the 16th century just large enough to be identifiable as from a cantus or soprano part, possibly from a part book.
Music is likely to have been part of the secret masses held at the house with the presence of a secret chapel during this period at Oxburgh often suggested.
And a builder working in an attic void discovered a gilded leather book of the King’s Psalms 1568 in an attic void, which is now being researched.
More modern, mundane objects such as cigarette packets and an empty box of Second World War-era Terry’s chocolates - which may have been hidden after the chocolates were eaten - were also found.
Mr Clement said: “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.”
Oxburgh Hall was built in 1476, and Sir Edmund’s descendants still live in part of the building today.
The remaining debris from under the lifted sections of floors has all been removed, section by section, and bagged to be sifted through in the future to recover the final pieces.
The roofing work is being funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, The Wolfson Foundation, as well as the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, the Sylvia Waddilove Foundation UK, the Constance Travis Charitable Trust, as well as National Trust members and donors.
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