Over two thousand artefacts dating back to the 15th century have been uncovered under the floorboards of the attic at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk.
The secret stash is thought to have been hidden by recusant Catholics practising the Catholic faith after it was outlawed by Elizabeth I in 1558.
The finds include a 15th-century gold leaf illuminated manuscript, thought to be part of Psalm 39 from the Latin Vulgate Bible, and a 1568 copy of The Kynges Psalmes by St John Fisher.
The discovery was first made by Matt Champion, an archaeologist who was working alone on a fingertip search of Oxburgh Hall’s attic rooms during lockdown.
Prior to the lockdown, the late 16th century manor was undergoing a £6 million restoration and repair programme after a dormer window collapsed in 2016 and major structural problems were consequently discovered in the roof.
The pandemic halted the restoration work and Matt Champion was asked to work alone in full PPE to complete his archaeological work on the attic rooms.
Earlier findings in the fingertip search initially only came up with modern finds, such as empty cigarette packets and a box of chocolates from the 1940s.
But as the search moved into the north-west end of the house, document fragments and sewing materials began to appear beneath the floor boards.
Then a series of large rats nests were discovered which, amidst the debris, contained hundreds of fragments of period clothing, musical scores, handwritten documents and printed pages.
At that point, the builders who had remained on site helped in the search and, amongst other findings, managed to recover the Psalm 39 illuminated manuscript and The Kynges Psalmes from the rubble.
As work continues on Oxburgh’s roof, we’ve been unearthing some incredible items under the floorboards! From a medieval manuscript to a rats’ nest containing 200 Elizabethan textiles. pic.twitter.com/MVyV1z2faq
Anna Forest from the National Trust who oversaw the work said the “value of underfloor archaeology to our understanding of Oxburgh’s social history is enormous.”
The Bedingfeld family who owned Oxburgh Hall were devout Catholics who refused to abide by the 1559 Act of Uniformity, which led to the Bedingfelds, who would shelter priests at the manor, being persecuted and ostracised.
On the discovery of the illuminated manuscript, Anna added: “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.”
Russell Clement, General Manager at Oxburgh Hall said of the search: “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.”