Medieval treasures discovered in English abbey

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An archaeological investigation at Furness Abbey in northwest England has uncovered the grave of an abbot, which includes an extremely rare medieval silver-gilt crozier and bejewelled ring.

The grave, which could date back to the 12th century, was uncovered by Oxford Archaeology North, as they were investigated ways to repair the sinking foundations of the ruined abbey. An initial examination of his skeleton, which is currently in the care of Oxford Archaeology North, indicated that he was probably between 40 and 50 years old when he died. Like many monastic burials of middle-aged and older men, he had a pathological condition of the spine often considered to be associated with obesity and mature-onset (Type II) diabetes. Tests will soon be carried out to determine a more exact date of when  the abbot died.

The grave was situated in the presbytery, the most prestigious position in the church and generally reserved for the richest benefactors. Most Cistercian abbots were buried in the chapter house.

Kevin Booth, Senior Curator at English Heritage, said: “This is a very rare find which underlines the Abbey’s status as one of the great power bases of the Middle Ages. While we don’t yet know the identity of the abbot, he was clearly someone important and respected by the monastic community. Given that the crozier and ring have been buried for over 500 years, they are in remarkable condition. Further research is required but before that, we are inviting the public to come to Furness Abbey on the early May bank holiday and see these wonderful finds.”

In an interview with Channel 4 News, English Heritage curator Susan Harrison added, “This is really significant because it’s the first time under modern conditions that an abbatial or abbot burial has been discovered intact with so much detail and information – from the skeleton to the mark of his office, his crosier, his ring, but also fragments of textile in there.”

The head of the crozier is made of gilded copper and decorated with gilded silver medallions showing the Archangel Michael defeating a dragon. The crozier’s crook or end is decorated with a serpent’s head. It may have been the Abbot’s own crozier or commissioned specially for his burial. An abbot or bishop usually held a crozier with his left hand, leaving his right hand free to bestow blessings.

Remarkably a small section of the painted wooden staff survives as do remains of the cloth designed to prevent the abbot from touching the crozier with his bare hands. The ring is gilded silver and set with a gemstone of a white rock crystal or white sapphire. It is possible that a hollow behind the gemstone contains a relic, part of the body of a saint or a venerated person.

Furness Abbey was founded in the 1120s by Stephen, Count of Boulogne, who later became King of England. In 1147 the monastery became a Cistercian establishment, and by the 14th century it became extremely wealthy and politically powerful, owning vast areas of land in North West England and Ireland. The Abbey was disestablished and destroyed in 1537 during the English Reformation under the order of Henry VIII.

Over the centuries, Furness Abbey became a ruin, with only parts of the complex still surviving. To prevent further fractures from the sinking foundations, English Heritage installed a temporary steel frame to support the cracking walls. Over the next few years, the Abbey will be underpinned and stabilised so that its future will be secured for generations to come.

See also Furness Abbey and Daughter Houses: Irish Sea Relations in the Twelfth Century

Sources: English Heritage, Channel 4, The Independent

Sharan Newman