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600-year-old token given to the poor to spend at Christmas is discovered at Oxburgh Estate

A member of the National Trust conservation team is holding up a medieval Boy Bishop token. Its the size of a 2 pence piece and has indentations on the surface.
Boy Bishop token found on the Oxburgh Estate | © James Dobson

A medieval Christmas token has been found by National Trust archaeologists near Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk.

Most likely from Bury St Edmunds Abbey nearly 30 miles away in Suffolk, the token could be spent in the church or locally and its discovery may indicate the distance people travelled for these festive celebrations.

Dating between c 1470-1560, the token was found during an archaeological survey in West Park at the Oxburgh Estate, cared for by the National Trust.

In the medieval and early Tudor eras, on the Feast Day of St Nicholas (6th December), a choirboy in cathedrals and churches across the country was chosen to act as ‘Boy Bishop’, a parody of the Bishop over the Christmas period. It was a tradition that was also practiced in other countries including Germany, Spain and France. They would lead certain religious services, as well as processions, and would collect money for the church and their local parish. 

Boy Bishops, mostly in Suffolk, also doled out tokens to the poor typically during a procession through the town, which could be spent at the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds or in the locality on food during the period of 6 December (St Nicholas Day) to 28 December (Holy Innocents Day).

Angus Wainwright, National Trust Archaeologist said: “The token is not a thing of particular beauty, but it does have an interesting story. It was found by one of our metal detectorists who had been doing a survey of the West Park field at Oxburgh as part of our parkland restoration and tree planting.

“Before this happened, we undertook metal detecting, field walking and geophysics to find out more about the history of that field. The results have been fantastic, revealing not only part of a medieval village including horseshoes, hand-made nails and tools but also part of a Roman village.

“This token most likely comes from Bury St Edmunds Abbey which was one of the biggest and richest in the country, St Edmund being one of the patron saints of England. Although tokens could be spent in the local town, they may also have been kept as keepsakes, but the one we have found could also simply have been dropped and lost.”

The token found at Oxburgh has a well-preserved side depicting a long cross, just like contemporary coins, while the reverse side is very corroded but would probably have shown the head of a bishop representing St Nicholas.

The tokens came in equivalent sizes to a penny, half penny and groat. Made of lead there was no real monetary value to them, they were parodies of real coinage, but they could be exchanged for food during the festive period. The one found at Oxburgh is the size of a groat which equalled 4 pennies, although it is not known how many goods could be exchanged for the tokens.

Angus continues, “We believe that one of the inhabitants from Oxborough village must have made the long trip to Bury St Edmunds, around 27 miles, to see the festive ceremonies in the massive Abbey Church where they may have acquired the token. As one of the biggest buildings in Western Europe this must have been a mind-blowing experience for someone from a tiny village. 

“This discovery shows how rich the cultural life of even the poorest folk could be in the Middle Ages. It’s also interesting that the Christmas period was a time for fun and celebration aimed at children, with a child taking on the role of the bishop, and St Nicholas as patron saint of children.”

Saints’ days gradually disappeared following the Reformation in the 16th-century, including that of St Nicholas.  Old Father Christmas was invented as a spirit of the season, but the name St Nicholas (Sint Nicolaas) travelled with the Dutch to the USA and eventually became Santa Claus.