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Unique underfloor discoveries at Oxburgh Hall

An archaeologist working alone at Oxburgh Hall during lockdown has uncovered thousands of rare items under the floorboards.

It is being hailed as one of the largest and most significant underfloor archaeology finds in a National Trust property.

A page from a rare 15th-century illuminated manuscript was among the items recovered, many dating back to the Tudor period. Finds range from fragments of late 16th century books 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.

Curator Anna Forest with a piece of slashed brown silkshot through with gold (National Trust) (40678768)
Curator Anna Forest with a piece of slashed brown silkshot through with gold (National Trust) (40678768)

The discovery was made during a project to re-roof Oxburgh Hall, 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.

Anna Forest, the National Trust curator,said it was the first time anybody had searched under the floorboard in centuries.

“When the boards came up, we could see a wave pattern in the debris which showed it had been undisturbed for centuries,” she said.

A 15th century illuminated manuscript (National Trust images) (40678756)
A 15th century illuminated manuscript (National Trust images) (40678756)

“The peak of each wave of dust, debris and objects was highest under the crack between the boards. It was often inches thick and lay on top of a layer of lime plaster, which drew out the moisture from the debris and resulted in much of it being perfectly preserved over the centuries.

“The value of underfloor archaeology to our understanding of Oxburgh’s social history is enormous.”

The star find was the 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.

"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 1568 edition of The Kynges Psalmes (40678759)
The 1568 edition of The Kynges Psalmes (40678759)

The Bedingfeld family 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 despite being ostracised and persecuted and even had a secret priest hole at Oxburgh to shelter Catholic clergy.

The manuscript parchment and other objects found may well have been used in illegal masses and hidden deliberately by the family.

In the north west corner of the house, two ancient rats’ nests were found to contain over 200 individual fragments of high quality textiles including silk, velvet, satin, leather, wool and embroidered fabrics, which have been dated to between the second half of the 16th century and the 18th century.

The nests also contained some scraps of handwritten music from the 16th century.

The most recent discovery, spotted in an attic void by a builder, is a complete book called the King’s Psalms dated 1568. Complete with its gilded leather binding, it is almost intact.

Russell Clement, general manager at Oxburgh Hall, said: “We had hoped to learn more of the history of the house during the reroofing work but these finds are far beyond anything we expected to see.

“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.”

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