English archaeologist Matt Champion looking under the floorboards at Oxburgh Hall. Courtesy of the National Trust. Photo: Mike Hodgson.

When workers lifted floorboards to repair the joists of a 500-year-old historic home in England, they inadvertently revealed a once-in-a-lifetime discovery.

Under the attic floor of Oxburgh Hall, a moated manor house in Norfolk, were pieces of Elizabethan-era textiles and the relics of centuries-old Catholic books, which were likely hidden by the owners following Elizabeth I’s outlawing of the religion in 1558.

The discovery was announced this week by the National Trust, a UK governmental body tasked with protecting historic sites. 

The house, built by Sir Edmund Bedingfeld after he inherited the estate in 1476, was undergoing a $7.8 million renovation to its roof at the time. English archaeologist Matt Champion, who works with National Trust, was on site to explore the site will visitors were away during lockdown and made the discovery.

A fragment from a 15th-century illuminated manuscript. Courtesy of the National Trust. Photo: Mike Hodgson.

“When the boards came up, we could see a wave pattern in the debris which showed it had been undisturbed for centuries,” said National Trust curator Anna Forest in a statement. 

“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.”

Highlighting the group of discovered artifacts was a fragment of a 15th-century illuminated manuscript, the gold leaf of its text still intact. A medieval manuscripts specialist at Cambridge University’s library identified the fragment as belonging to psalm 39 from an early Latin translation of the bible called the Vulgate. 

It likely belonged to a small prayer book, the specialist explained, which may have been used for secret Catholic masses before being stashed when the queen’s men came knocking. In a similar vein was a remnant from a 16th-century Spanish romance book, the type of which English Catholics of the period would often read as religious material wasn’t available in their home country.

Oxburgh Hall. Courtesy of the National Trust.

Scraps of more than 200 fine textiles dating between the late 16th century and the 18th century were found among two long-abandoned rats’ nests in the northwest corner of the home, as were scraps of handwritten music. Cigarette packets and an empty box of chocolates, both of which hailed from around World War II, were also found in the attic, suggesting someone had been trying to hide their vices.

“[T]hese finds are far beyond anything we expected to see,” added Russell Clement, general manager at Oxburgh Hall, in the announcement. “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.”

A once-prominent citizen, Sir Bedingfeld was ostracized after refusing to sign the Queen’s Act of Uniformity, which acknowledged the banning of Catholic mass. For generations after, he and his family continued to practice the illegal form of faith secretly, even going so far as hiding priests in a dedicated “priest hole.”

Heirs of Bedingfeld still live at Oxburgh Hall today. 

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