A lone archeologist is gingerly lifting the ancient floorboards in the dusty attic of a grand country house. And beneath, he finds centuries worth of dirt and debris – accumulated throughout a long and turbulent past. But amid the scraps and trash he discovers something incredible: a stash of historical treasure with the unmistakable glint of gold.
Archeologist Matt Champion volunteered to remain in England’s Oxburgh Hall after 2020’s lockdown brought life there to a halt. And it turned out to have been a pretty good decision. He discovered a wealth of history hidden within the 15th-century manor’s attic rooms. Under each floorboard, another find offered a fascinating insight into the people who once called this place home.
Oxburgh Hall has been the seat of the Bedingfeld family since the Middle Ages, and it has seen many different people come and go over the years. But few could have been as curious as Champion, who meticulously recorded everything that he discovered. Yet alongside the relics of everyday life, something unexpected caught his eye.
Amid the discarded cigarette packets and newspaper scraps, Champion spotted a rats’ nest shot with glittering gold. Nearby, the glint of a gilded manuscript shone through centuries-worth of debris. What treasures had he stumbled upon beneath the floorboards of this historic family home?
Like many of England’s great houses, the story of Oxburgh is long and – in places – bloody. In the 13th century a man called Thomas De Wayland was the original owner of the land. Yet he was stripped of his assets as punishment for bad behavior. So in a desperate bid to salvage some of his wealth, he transferred the estate to his wife’s family.
For many years, Oxburgh was owned by the Tuddenham family. Though it was eventually passed down to their descendant Sir Edmund Bedingfeld. He subsequently decided to build a grand house on the land in Norfolk, England. At the time, the nobleman was quickly establishing himself as a feature at the royal court, and he wished to build a seat that befitted his status.
In 1482 royal permission was granted to fortify the manor at Oxburgh, and this feature remains there to this day. The following year – during Richard III’s coronation to the English throne – Bedingfeld was given a knighthood. And for several decades, the family’s close alignment with the nation’s monarchs saw their fortunes continue to grow.
Yet Bedingfeld’s loyalty to the House of York did not last. In 1498 he hosted the new Tudor king Henry VII at Oxburgh. Eventually, a new heir took over the estate and continued to foster close ties with the royal line. And even though the family were Catholic, their status appears to have survived the reign of Henry VIII, who would ultimately kickstart years of persecution against the faith.
It seems, then, that the Bedingfelds – who still live at Oxburgh today – have been in favor since the Middle Ages. So might this explain the treasures uncovered in the attic of the manor? According to the records, things were not quite so simple. In fact, the family’s fortunes took a dramatic turn when Elizabeth I came to the throne.
With the Act of Uniformity in 1559, Catholicism was outlawed and Bedingfeld’s heir dismissed from court. And when he refused to sign the document, he was further persecuted for his beliefs. Back at Oxburgh, the family were fined and threatened with imprisonment. Yes, they had fallen very far from their previous high status.
For the next three centuries, the Bedingfelds were ostracized by society, although they refused to give up their Catholic beliefs. Instead, they constructed a priest hole at Oxburgh – allowing them to conduct their worship in secret. The family then enjoyed a brief reversal of fortune under the reign of Charles I. But the English Civil War – which began in 1642 – ended up being a disaster for them.
Parliamentary forces ransacked Oxburgh and even shot family members. Yet the Bedingfelds remained loyal to the Crown, even when the restored Charles II did little to compensate them for their losses. As a result, the family retreated from English society – often traveling abroad or taking up religious lives.
Eventually, the Bedingfelds staged a return to public life in the 18th century. But as their fortunes improved, those of the estate took a downwards turn. In 1826 the manor was let to a tenant and fell into a state of great disrepair. Luckily, the house was remodeled in the 1830s by Sir Henry Bedingfeld, who transformed it into a masterpiece of the Gothic Revival style.
Sadly, by the 1950s the family found themselves unable to meet the spiraling costs of maintaining Oxburgh Hall. It was subsequently sold to an insurance company and very nearly demolished long before Champion discovered its hidden treasures. But at the last minute, three Bedingfeld women secured the funds to buy the estate back.
Yes, the future of Oxburgh had now been secured. And the Bedingfelds subsequently gifted it to a heritage organization called the National Trust in 1952. But even today, descendants of the family continue to live in the manor house. Tens of thousands of people also visit the estate every year – drawn by the rich history of this English country home.
Even on the surface, it’s easy to see why people are drawn to this stunning estate. Surrounded by a moat, the medieval manor stands as a fine example of a fortified great house, while its interior boasts historical treasures at every turn. If you visit the King’s Room, for example, you’ll see a commemoration of the visit of Henry VII and his wife: Elizabeth of York.
You can also catch a glimpse of the tiny crawlspace where the Catholic Bedingfelds would have hidden a priest during the depths of their persecution. But while much of Oxburgh’s history is currently on display, other aspects have remained hidden over the years. Yet in 2020 some new stories have come to light.
In February that year, for example, the National Trust announced that an exciting discovery had been made at Oxburgh. Yes, thanks to an exhaustive search of the family’s records, researchers had uncovered evidence suggesting that Sir Henry Arundell Bedingfeld – the third Baronet – had been a secret supporter of the Jacobite cause.
But who were the Jacobites, and where did they come from? Well, their story began after King James II of England was deposed in 1688 and replaced by his Anglican daughter Mary II. Yet there were some who wished to see a return to the Stuart dynasty and their Catholic faith. Meeting in secret, these supporters of James’ grandson – known as Bonnie Prince Charlie – were dubbed the Jacobites.
And, it seems, Sir Henry was a Jacobite himself. In the records, researchers found that large sums of money had been transferred from the estate to known supporters. At the same time, they found evidence that the British government had accused the baronet of sending money to help the Stuart cause.
But arguably the most significant discovery was a drinking glass engraved with pro-Jacobite symbols. Although it was found in Scotland, the object is believed to have been commissioned by Sir Henry – further fueling suspicion about where the baronet’s true loyalties lay. It also sheds light on one of the darkest periods in the history of Oxburgh.
Later that same year, a more literal sort of light was shone on the dark and dusty attic rooms at the top of the ancient manor. Back in 2016 one of Oxburgh Hall’s dormer windows collapsed – revealing the poor state of the aging roof. Then in December 2019 an ambitious restoration project costing £6 million and covering different parts of the estate was launched.
Of course, staff carrying out repairs at Oxburgh had hoped that the hidden history of the house might be revealed. But when the restrictions of lockdown loomed, it seemed as if any discoveries might have to wait. Yet all that changed when Champion volunteered to continue working alone.
As the rest of the hall stood quiet and empty, Champion worked in the attic – where the floorboards had been lifted in order to expose the joists below. Without any specialist equipment, he conducted a meticulous search of the space by hand. And before long, Champion had stumbled across some fascinating finds.
In an August 2020 statement by the National Trust, project curator Anna Forrest explained that Champion was the first person to look beneath Oxburgh’s attic floorboards for centuries. But what exactly did he find there? Well, the expert discovered a pattern of dust and debris which suggested that the area had lain undisturbed for many years. And in amongst it were everyday objects from throughout the ages – as well as some unexpected treasures.
In some places, cigarette packets had found their way beneath the floorboards – having been discarded by smokers in years gone by. Though crisp wrappers and fragments of newspaper also offered clues to the more mundane aspects of life at Oxburgh. At one point, Champion even discovered an old box of chocolates complete with empty wrappers – perhaps hidden away by a glutton desperate to conceal their greed.
Interestingly, some of the relics offered insights into how the Bedingfelds used the attic space over the years. For instance, the well-lit rooms once served as a place for intricate tasks such as sewing. Forrest told the National Trust in a statement, “One particular challenge was in areas with south-facing windows, where hundreds of pins were found, so Matt had to use thick gloves when searching.”
Champion also found evidence that the attic rooms had once been used for correspondence. These came in the form of handwritten fragments and remnants of wax seals. And at one point, he uncovered a stash of ping pong balls – suggesting that the space had hosted games at some point in its long history.
According to Forrest, the artifacts had been kept in remarkable shape thanks to the conditions beneath the floorboards. In the statement, she explained, “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.”
But the real surprise came when a builder spotted gold glimmering in amongst the rubble of the attic. On closer inspection, the source was revealed to be a fragment of illuminated manuscript believed to date back to the 15th century. Also decorated in a luminous blue color, the parchment was still vibrant despite its time spent buried beneath layers of dust.
“It is just the most exquisite thing and to have found it in literally a pile of rubbish is probably… well it’s unheard of for the National Trust, that’s for sure,” Forrest told The Guardian in August 2020. In the statement, she explained that the manuscript featured text from a fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible.
“The use of blue and gold for the minor initials, rather than the more standard blue and red, shows this would have been quite an expensive book to produce,” Forrest continued. “It is tantalizing to think that this could be a remnant of a splendid manuscript and we can’t help but wonder if it belonged to Sir Edmund Bedingfeld, the builder of Oxburgh Hall.”
But the manuscript was far from the only treasure that was uncovered while exploring the historic country manor. Tucked away in the northwest corner of the attic, two rats’ nests were discovered preserved beneath the boards. But these were no ordinary vermin – in fact, they were clearly fostering an expensive taste.
Woven into the nests were around 200 fragments of valuable textiles – some dating as far back as the 16th century. Among them were pieces of silk, wool, satin, leather and velvet, all of which would have been indicative of high status in years gone by. As such, the find provided a fascinating insight into the past fortunes of the Bedingfeld family.
According to reports, some of the fragments are believed to date back to the Tudor period, when the Bedingfelds enjoyed a high standing at the royal court. Others are thought to be from the Elizabethan and early Georgian eras, when the social standing of the family had taken a different turn.
According to the National Trust, the fragments may have wound up in the nests after being discarded during clothing alterations. Among the most striking are a piece of gold-accented silk, a snippet of embroidered, woven textile and a section of cloth crafted from 16th-century metallic thread. Alongside these, researchers also discovered a felted fabric that may once have formed part of Tudor stockings or a cap.
Like the illuminated manuscript, the fragments of fabric in the rats’ nests had been perfectly preserved thanks to their location in the attic. Speaking to The Guardian, Forrest explained, “Because they were beneath the floor, out of the sun for centuries they are in incredible condition.” Similarly, a handwritten score penned in the 16th century was still legible to modern researchers.
According to the statement, previous research had already revealed that Oxburgh was historically a musical home, and this discovery just confirms it. In fact, experts have speculated that scores such as the one uncovered in the attic may have played a role in the clandestine masses once held at the hall.
Most recently, a builder conducting work in Oxburgh’s attic uncovered another hidden artifact: a psalm book also dating from the 16th century. In the statement, the estate’s general manager Russell Clement explained the significance of the finds. He said, “These objects contain so many clues which confirm the history of the house as the retreat of a devout Catholic family, who retained their faith across the centuries.”
In July 2020 Oxburgh reopened to visitors for the first time since renovations began. And behind the scenes, the team have been preparing to reveal the new chapters in the story of this ancient house. According to Clement, “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.”