Anna Forrest is a curator in the East of England. She has worked at many historic houses in the region but there is one place that has captured her imagination (and heart) more than any other - Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk. Here she describes the highs and lows of working on a complex project at Oxburgh throughout the unprecedented events of spring and summer 2020, and some of the exciting discoveries that have been made under the floors.
A former colleague once told me that every National Trust curator becomes infatuated with one place in particular. He was absolutely right. For me it’s Oxburgh Hall. I’ve been lucky enough to work with this property for 14 years and from the moment I first saw it I was smitten. It oozes atmosphere. Delving into the history of the building, the Bedingfeld family and the collection has kept me hooked ever since.
The best laid plans
Since 2018 I’ve had the privilege of working on the £6 million Raise the Roof project. The project will see Oxburgh reroofed, each of its 19th-century dormer windows and elaborate chimneys rebuilt, and the distinctive 15th-century gatehouse repaired. This gives us an unmissable opportunity to get under the skin of the building, so I’ve been managing a research programme alongside the repair works.
I began 2020 full of anticipation at the prospect of analysing the exposed roof structure, paint and wallpaper. Our volunteers were going to carry out underfloor archaeology and a historic graffiti survey.
The year started well. We redisplayed the interiors so visitors could discover key episodes in the turbulent history of Oxburgh and the Catholic Bedingfeld family, putting objects never before seen at Oxburgh on display and seeking visitors’ reactions to the story. Then March 2020 arrived and overnight everything changed.
Adjusting to lockdown
We had to ask all of our volunteers to stand down, many of our staff were furloughed and Oxburgh closed to visitors. Only a skeleton staff – including me – remained. It was agreed that the roof repair works could safely continue through lockdown. The research needed to keep pace, but how could we carry out underfloor archaeology without our team of staff and volunteers?
Not doing this work was inconceivable. Previous projects at Knole and Nunnington Hall had shown that amazing things could emerge from the dust beneath floorboards. If such things survived at Oxburgh they’d be at risk from the building works if we left them there.
Fortunately, independent archaeologist Matthew Champion was already working with us on the historic graffiti survey and he agreed to take on the task of excavating beneath the floors alone.
What lay beneath
We could never have imagined the quantity and quality of what was retrieved. Beneath the floorboards there were thousands of items, spanning the late 15th century to the mid-20th century.
Our finds included a rats’ nest made of over 200 pieces of Tudor and Elizabethan clothing remnants, multiple fragments of documents dropped between floorboards and a Tudor wax seal in perfect condition. We also unearthed some more recent items, such as a carefully hidden box of chocolates (all eaten!) and ping pong balls.
Some of our star archaeological finds
An Elizabethan book
This printed book of psalms and prayers from 1569 was found in a void under a dormer window.
A medieval illuminated manuscript
This page from a 15th-century Book of Hours was discovered by a builder in rubble.
A Tudor seal
At over 400 years old, it's remarkable that this wax seal was still fully intact when it was discovered.
Notes can be seen on this tiny manuscript fragment found under the floorboards.
Many pieces of 18th-century documents had been dropped between floorboards.
More recent objects were also found, including this 20th-century packet of Wild Woodbine cigarettes.
Social history and objects relating to lives lived are passions of mine, so to be in the midst of the discovery of such compelling items was enthralling. I was holding textiles that could have been against the skin of Bedingfelds in the 16th century, reading Elizabethan text they would have read when it was new and looking at fragments of music they would have heard. No one had seen these things for hundreds of years, and here we were looking through this glorious window into the past.
" Social history and objects relating to lives lived are passions of mine, so to be in the midst of the discovery of such compelling items was enthralling."
Sharing the news
It was a sadness to me that I couldn’t share these discoveries immediately with my furloughed colleagues, as I had so many questions. The joy and frustration of a curator’s job is that just when you think you have the answer, another piece of evidence emerges to challenge your view and send you down another path.
I spoke to contacts at other institutions, we put out a press release which went global, and academics with a specialist knowledge of some of the items we’d found got in touch. Through them I began piecing together further information about some of the finds.
What's next at Oxburgh Hall?
Many of the objects throw light on the lives of the Bedingfelds during one of the most dangerous periods in their history when, during the reign of Elizabeth I, they had been declared ‘recusant’ for refusing to relinquish their Catholic faith and conform to the new ways of the Protestant church.
There is still so much to learn, so I’m working with the team at Oxburgh to decide our next steps. We hope in time to commission more research and put the objects on display.