Underfloor archaeology at Oxburgh Hall
Investigations beneath the floorboards of Oxburgh Hall, a great moated country house near King’s Lynn, have revealed a remarkable time capsule of finds spanning 500 years, from high-status manuscripts to Tudor textiles. Anna Forrest describes some of the highlights.
In 2016, without warning, a 19th-century dormer window slipped off the roof at the Norfolk country house of Oxburgh Hall, crashing into the courtyard below. The survey work which followed revealed that Oxburgh’s roof required significant structural repairs, triggering the £6.5m ‘Raise the Roof’ project which began on site in 2019 and will run until 2021. This initiative has given the National Trust an unmissable opportunity to get under the skin of the building, thanks to an interdisciplinary arsenal of techniques. Prior to coronavirus (and the devastating losses we would face as a charity), we commissioned paint analysis from Hirst Conservation, wallpaper research and conservation from Phillippa Mapes, building recording from Pre-Construct Archaeology, and historic graffiti recording and underfloor archaeology from M J C Associates. The results of this wide-ranging work will enable a deep understanding of the architectural, decorative, and social histories of this remarkable house, and the underfloor archaeology – the focus for this article – has yielded a particularly rich seam of evidence.
We needed to lift numerous floorboards in attic spaces to enable inspection and repair of the floor joists, and in March this year we were all set to train a team of volunteers to carry out underfloor investigations, drawing on the recent experience of the team at Knole in Kent (see CA 297 and 358). Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic stymied our plans: all volunteers were stood down, many of our in-house specialists were furloughed, Oxburgh closed to visitors, and only a skeleton staff remained on site. The roof repairs continued, however, and in order to inform the restoration and mitigate loss of significant fabric, it was essential that research kept pace with these works where it was safe to do so.
Fortunately, freelance archaeologist Matt Champion of M J C Associates was already working with us on the historic graffiti survey and nobly agreed to take on, solo, all the underfloor archaeology, and to draw the frames that were revealed when boards were lifted. He carried out a fingertip search of the debris beneath every lifted board and within the eaves’ voids, retrieving any finds which were then plotted on a floor plan, catalogued, photographed, and packed. The remaining debris has been hoovered out into rubble sacks labelled with the exact location it was removed from and stored for future sifting. We really hope that this task, at least, can be carried out by volunteers in the future. Until then, though, what has been learned so far?
Matt Champion’s work began in May, in the north range to the east of the gatehouse. The attics here were created in the second half of the 16th century (tree-ring dating by Ian Tyers in 2004 indicated a likely felling date for roof timbers between 1551 and 1579) but the boards had been lifted before and the initial finds were pretty conventional – nails, newspaper fragments, cigarette packets – and were mostly no earlier than the late 19th century. A mid-20th-century box of Terry’s chocolates, with all the sweets missing but all the wrappers intact, was no doubt squirrelled away by the person who ate the lot and wanted to hide the evidence. Another furtive find, discovered beneath a lump of masonry, was a crushed 19th-century glass bottle containing an assortment of bent pins, glass, and threads. We wonder if this may have been a deliberate concealment along the lines of a witch bottle – its contents will be examined in more detail in the future.
Bypassing the gatehouse (no boards to lift there), work resumed in the attics heading west from the structure. Dendrochronology did not yield a date for this roof, but on stylistic grounds these spaces are thought to have been created in the 17th century. One room here still had 17th-century boards, but in other spaces new boards had been laid over earlier ceilings in the 19th century, and we feared that anything beneath would have been removed. Luckily for us, lazy builders had not cleared the debris when they laid the new floors, and Matt noted that the debris layer:
had a wave-pattern profile, with the peak of each wave sitting directly beneath the gaps between the boards, and the troughs beneath the centre of each board. Most of the artefacts were found clustered within the peaks of each wave, gradually petering out towards the centre of the boards, before increasing again as the next peak was approached.
On closer inspection, Matt discovered that:
the debris beneath the floor was inches thick: a mix of dust, dirt, and all the detritus of human existence. Over the years, this had been compressed down to form a thick cake of bone-dry material that needed to be excavated with a trowel and dental picks. The debris sat on top of a layer of thick lime plaster, which appears to have drawn all the moisture out of the upper material. As a result, encased within the dry upper layer, were many thousands of finds, all perfectly preserved by the conditions.
One such layer, in the attic immediately to the west of the gatehouse, proved to be a treasure trove of fragments of late 18th-century handwritten documents in English and French. They had all been cut up into little symmetrical shapes which can be fitted together like a jigsaw to rebuild the original pages. In the same area were many hundreds of pins (749 in a 2.5m2 area), needles, and fragments of thread and fabric. Some of the pins were undoubtedly originally made for dressmaking, but others may have been used for securing documents, as in the same area we found tiny drops of sealing wax and one intact Tudor seal.
This was challenging to investigate, not least because the pins and needles were very sharp – Matt described how:
each area had to be painstakingly excavated while wearing thick gloves. Just to make conditions even more ‘interesting’, the debris also contained fragments of broken glass. Some of his was clearly from bottles or glasses that had been dropped on the floor, but others were fragments of painted window glass from the hall.
Lead shot and percussion caps were also present. This room has a south-facing window, which would have offered a good quality of light, and these artefacts paint a picture of its use by members of the household over many years as a place in which to sew, organise correspondence, and clean shotguns.
FROM RAGS TO RICHES
The same area yielded the undoubted star of this project: a parchment page from a 15th-century illuminated manuscript, which was spotted within the rubble of the eaves by one of the builders. Despite centuries among debris, the glimmer of gold leaf and bright blue of the illuminated initials are still vibrant. The text is distinct enough for us to identify it as part of the Latin Vulgate Psalm 39 (‘Expectans expectaui’), and subsequent correspondence with Dr James Freeman, Medieval Manuscripts Specialist at Cambridge University Library, has put a little more flesh on the bones. The leaf may be from a Psalter, but its small dimensions (the text block measures 8cm by13cm) suggest it once was part of a Book of Hours. These portable prayer books for private devotion typically comprised a series of prayer cycles known as ‘Hours’ or ‘Offices’: the most common were those dedicated to veneration of the Virgin Mary or remembrance of the dead. Such cycles were usually divided according to the canonical ‘hours’ – eight periods within the day when devotions were to be performed – and comprise prayers, hymns, and extracts from the Psalms.
The psalm on this leaf was recited as part of the Office of the Dead: specifically the Third Nocturne on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The text is written in textura quadrata script, a formal or ‘set’ style of handwriting, where each letter is formed through a series of separate strokes of the pen – unfortunately, this script and the form of the illuminated initials offer little to confirm a date and place of production, but they do suggest that this was a high-status manuscript. Dr Freeman told us that the use of blue and gold for the minor initials (rather than the more standard blue and red) is an indicator that the manuscript must have been quite an expensive production, and suggests that further illumination featured elsewhere. It is common to find larger decorated initials and even full-page miniatures in Books of Hours, so it is tantalising to think that this discovery could be a remnant of a truly splendid manuscript. So many questions remain: Did it belong to Sir Edmund Bedingfeld, the builder of Oxburgh Hall? What happened to the rest of it? Why was it hidden away amid rubble in the eaves? Whatever the answers, this object is a window into the world of pre-Reformation Oxburgh.
Towards the north-west corner of the house, Matt encountered two rather unpromising masses of dirt-encrusted material beneath the floor: rats’ nests. Following days of meticulous and extremely unpleasant unpicking, though, they yielded further treasures, namely over 200 individual fragments of textile, including silk, velvet, satin, leather, wool, and embroidered fabrics. The materials and embellishments enable us to say with some confidence that they date from the second half of the 16th century to the 18th century, and many of them are high status. Their presence in a nest below a floor, away from many of the agents that would decay textiles, means that they are in a remarkable state of preservation. The nature of the fragments suggests that these textiles were being repurposed: collars, cuffs, seams, and hems were cut off and discarded (and taken away by rats in due course), while the main body of the garment was reused.
Among these finds, highlights include a large piece of slashed brown silk, shot through with gold, possibly from a sleeve; a woven textile embellished with delicate wool blackwork embroidery; a two-tone basket-weave clothing fabric with metallic thread, which looks to be late 16th-century in date; a piece of stitched leather from an Elizabethan glove; and pieces of a felted woollen textile, which are similar to known examples from Tudor caps and stockings. It is thrilling to think that some of these textiles would have been worn by early Bedingfelds, and that without the rats it is unlikely that any of them would have survived. In order to fully understand the fragments, we will need to carry out conservation work and comparison with other research collections and portraiture from the period – who knows what further clues will be revealed?
The discerning rats had incorporated tiny pieces of handwritten and printed documents in their nest, too. Some are extracts from the 1590 edition of Book I of The ancient, famous and honourable history of Amadis de Gaule, a chivalric romance from the Iberian peninsula that was first written down c.1420. Dr Helen Moore, Associate Professor of English at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, has seen photos of the Oxburgh fragments, and she noted how interesting it is that they are from the English translation, rather than the French, which is what would typically be found in the libraries of great houses. Dr Moore also explained that ‘there was a significant number of known or suspected Catholics amongst the readers of this romance, probably because it is set in Spain and is generically Catholic, retaining mention of the Mass, etc. In the context of Oxburgh Hall’s own history this is intriguing.’ Of course, we can’t say with certainty when this book came to Oxburgh, but given the context in which it was found – among other Elizabethan items – it could well have been purchased for Oxburgh when it was first printed and distributed.
The nests also contained some scraps of handwritten music from the 16th century, photos of which have been examined by Dr Katherine Butler, Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University, whose research specialism is Tudor music. There was enough surviving detail for Dr Butler to suggest that the music is from a cantus (or soprano part) in a piece with at least one flat, possibly from a part book (although this could only be confirmed with further analysis). She posited that the Bedingfelds ‘sound like the kind of East Anglian Catholic family that withdrew from political life during the reign of Elizabeth but maintained an active musical life, which on many occasions supported the continuance of secret masses as well’. An active musical life is certainly suggested by the evidence of an inventory of the house dated 1585, in which is listed a ‘Wynde Instrament with a frame, a payer of virginalles, a sett of vyolyns, a bandoree with a grene case, and a wynde forme’; the presence of a secret chapel during this period at Oxburgh has often been mooted.
Tiny scraps have also emerged from Discourses of Warre and Single Combat, translated out of the French by J Eliot, printed by John Wolfe, London, in 1591, and from an English edition of The Kynges Psalmes, which was written in Latin in the 16th century by St John Fisher (1469-1535; Fisher was executed by Henry VIII for refusing to accept him as the supreme head of the Church in England and for upholding the Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy; he is honoured as a martyr and a saint by the Catholic Church). The English translation of this latter work was possibly accomplished by Katherine Parr, and was first published c.1544. Excitingly, at the beginning of August, exactly two months after these scraps were found, the builders exposed a void beneath the wall plate to the west of the gatehouse and retrieved from it an entire book. This was quickly identified as the 1568 edition of The Kynges Psalmes, from which the scraps had clearly been chewed away by rats. It is an exquisite object, barely 15cm in length, with an elaborate gilded leather binding that is in remarkable condition.
The connection between these texts and the family’s Catholic faith is tantalising and deserves further scrutiny. It is intriguing, too, that they date from a period when Oxburgh was in state of flux. In 1583, Henry Bedingfeld, Elizabeth I’s gaoler, died, and his son and grandson passed away in quick succession after him. In 1590, Oxburgh was inherited by the eight-year-old Henry Bedingfeld. While he was still a minor, his stepfather, Sir Henry Jerningham of Costessey, head of another of Norfolk’s great Catholic families, had control of Oxburgh’s affairs. It may have been Jerningham who commissioned the priest hole, and it remains to be seen how these books and manuscripts fit with his story and that of his ward, Henry Bedingfeld.
After the excitement of these artefacts, the presence of masses of walnut shells was both a contrast and a puzzle. Were they yet more loot acquired by the rats? It seemed unlikely, as they showed no signs of having been nibbled. Matt later discovered several that showed evidence of having been embedded in the late 16th- or 17th-century lime-plaster layer beneath the floor when it was still wet. This perhaps indicates that the shells had been deliberately placed there as an early form of cavity insulation – something that has been identified previously at other sites.
Despite the most challenging of circumstances, Matt has recovered several thousand items from beneath Oxburgh’s floors, spanning a period of more than 500 years. Given that only a small percentage of the attic floorboards were lifted, we can only imagine what further treasures remain to be discovered in the future. Matt said:
The remarkable thing about a project like this is the ability it has to tell us something new, even in a house about which we thought we knew a very great deal. Sometimes it isn’t always the story we expect – of a great house and noble family – but the more intimate details of servants recycling old clothes, builders carrying out rituals to ward off evil, or a group of 18th-century ladies quietly sewing around a south-facing window.
The items will become part of Oxburgh’s collection and selected highlights will be displayed after conservation. The value of underfloor archaeology to our understanding of Oxburgh’s social history is enormous and paves the way for further exciting research.
Oxburgh’s gardens and parkland are open 9.30am-5pm daily; the hall is open 11am-3.45pm (last entry 3.15pm) daily. Visitors need to pre-book a time slot via www.nationaltrust.org.uk/oxburgh-hall; National Trust members visit for free, non-members can pay for admission online.
For more information about the roof project, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/oxburgh-hall/projects/oxburgh-halls-roof-project.
Oxburgh’s £6m conservation project is supported by funds from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Wolfson Foundation, as well as the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development through the LEADER programme, the Sylvia Waddilove Foundation UK, and the Constance Travis Charitable Trust – in addition to ongoing support from National Trust members and donors. If you would like to help, you can donate online at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/appeal/support-oxburghs-roof-appeal.
Anna Forrest is a National Trust curator, based in the east of England. She is currently working on the ‘Raise the Roof’ project and overseeing the research programme at Oxburgh Hall.