Hidden Treasures of a Tudor House

Published: 11th September 2020

Oxburgh Hall, a moated manor house in Norfolk, has been home to the Bedingfield family since 1476 and is where they still occupy part of the site today. Although much altered over the years, it is today largely known for its distinctive brick built gatehouse.

Messenger are nearing the half-way mark on a two-year project to complete the restoration of the roofs, chimneys and dormer windows of the property. When the work commenced, archaeologists did not expect to uncover one of the largest underfloor archaeology hauls of its type in a National Trust house.

In 2016, an unexpected collapse of a 19th century dormer window – comprising of more than a ton of brick and tile, slid off the roof and landed in the courtyard, exposing structural weakness to the roofline resulting in the current restoration and repair programme.

During roof repairs at the beginning of August, two of the heritage carpenters here at Messenger, Michael and Steve discovered an almost complete Tudor book, that had possibly been hidden away inside the building centuries earlier. Complete with its gilded leather binding, it is almost intact – a few fragments from it had previously been found in a rats’ nest. The book is a copy of ‘The King’s Psalms’, printed in London in 1569. Only one other copy is listed as having survived, and that is in the British Library.

Wayne Gray, site manager, said: “They were overwhelmed with the discovery.” “I had to contact Matthew Champion, project archaeologist, immediately to inform him of the find.” The pair spotted the book in an attic void. Medieval manuscripts and 16th century clothing were also discovered from beneath the floor.

Wayne said that it was the guys experienced and keen-eyed approach which led them to discover the historic artefact. Also saying: “We predominantly work in the heritage sector carrying out conservation and restoration projects such as this.” “The Messenger team are trained to the highest standards, with all works carried out with minimum disturbance and the greatest of care.

Another of the star finds, a 15th-century illuminated manuscript fragment on parchment, was spotted in the rubble of the eaves by another Messenger team member, Rob Jessop. Despite centuries amongst debris, the glimmer of gold leaf and bright blue of the illuminated initials was still vibrant. “He was very interested in finding out what it was,” said Wayne. “He thought it was of great importance straight away due to the fine writing and gilded letters.” Historians believe that the objects were used by the devout Catholic family to host masses – which were illegal at the time – and were hidden at the country house deliberately.

I think the National Trust expected to find something, but it has been far more overwhelming than we all imagined. Many of the items Matthew found during fingertip searches under the floorboards were in areas which wouldn’t have been disturbed since construction.” said Wayne.

Aside from the finds made by the Messenger team, objects 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 had been eaten and the wrappers carefully replaced prior to being hidden.

Many of the artefacts will now require some form of conservation from National Trust specialists, but it is hoped that the best will go on display in the house to add just a little more to the story of Oxburgh Hall and the family who lived there.

If you’d like to visit Oxburgh Hall whilst the roof project is underway, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/oxburgh to book your tickets.

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