It’s a remarkable haul. Last month, more than 2,000 artefacts were unearthed at Oxburgh Hall, a 15th-century moated house in Norfolk – some of which provide evidence of secret Catholic worship from Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. The findings include books, manuscripts, musical scores and offcuts of clothing that indicate concealed worship from the 16th century, all kept for centuries in the building, home to the Bedingfeld family.
A fingertip archaeological search under attic floorboards during a re-roofing project led to the discovery, one of the largest ever in a National Trust property. The most precious find so far is a fragment from a 15th-century illuminated manuscript. Anna Forest, the National Trust curator who is overseeing the work, said that “the text is distinct enough for us to identify it as part of the Latin Vulgate Psalm 39 (Expectans expectavi).”
The National Trust contacted Dr James Freeman, medieval manuscripts specialist at Cambridge University Library. He explained that “the leaf may be from a Psalter, but its small size – just 8cm x 13cm – suggests it once was part of a Book of Hours.” Anna added that despite centuries of concealment, the gold leaf and blue ink from the illuminated initials remains “vibrant”.
Meanwhile, scraps of handwritten music – apparently showing a soprano part – hint at the singing which would have been part of the clandestine worship at the house.
Another intriguing discovery is a fragment from a 1590 edition of a Spanish tale written in 1420. The Trust points out that recusants had a special interest in reading Spanish stories, imbued as they were with Catholicism.
These and other items have a deep historical and spiritual resonance. In 1559, Queen Elizabeth I’s Act of Uniformity changed everything for the Bedingfeld family. Sir Henry Bedingfeld, the occupant of Oxburgh Hall, had been a figure of some political influence under Queen Mary. But the new Act effectively banned the practice of Catholicism by enforcing the English Book of Common Prayer as the set order of prayer in England. It also dictated that all of the Queen’s subjects were obliged to go to church once a week or face financial penalties. Sir Henry could not abide by the Act, which put an end to his involvement with the Tudor court.
The house became a place where Catholicism could be practised away from the eyes of the authorities – as shown by the priest-hole for which the building is well known. The new discovery confirms that the Bedingfeld family remained true to their Catholic faith despite the dangers of ostracism and indeed persecution were they to be discovered.
It is not the first time that the secrets of Oxburgh Hall have made historians sit up. The author Dr Linda Porter told the Catholic Herald that she uncovered a significant document at the house when researching her book Mary Tudor: The First Queen: “It is a proclamation in which Mary proclaims herself Queen days before the actual proclamation in London on 19 July , and it shows how well organised she and her party were, that they felt there was enough support, politically and militarily.
“I am not surprised they found these artefacts there – it is an absolutely fascinating house,” she says. Of the most recent findings, “the most interesting and complete thing that they found is a rather battered collection of prayers, part of which had been published by Katherine Parr and gathered in one volume.” Katherine Parr was a Protestant but “her original works on choosing and publishing prayers were from Catholic sources”. This 1568 book, which researchers are now studying, is another sign of the Bedingfelds’ hidden devotion.
Russell Clement, general manager at Oxburgh Hall, told the press: “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. 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.”
He adds that there may well be more to come. “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.”