Historic family's hidden Catholic papers found in National Trust home

Restorers find historic family’s secret cache of Catholic documents that could have condemned them to death under floorboards of National Trust stately home

  • More than two thousand artefacts were found hidden at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk
  • They are believed to be signs of the Bedingfeld family’s hidden Catholic worship
  • Books, manuscripts and musical scores were discovered under the floorboards
  • Catholicism was made illegal under Elizabeth I’s reign during the 16th century 

Hidden evidence of an English family’s hidden Catholic worship that could have condemned them to death has been discovered in a National Trust property.

More than two thousand artefacts owned by the historic Bedingfeld family have been uncovered under the attic floorboards at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk.

Books, manuscripts and musical scores that appear to have been hidden to practice Catholicism illegally during the late 16th century were discovered in the attic, the Times reported.

More than two thousand artefacts were found under the floorboards at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, appearing to show the historic Bedingfeld family’s hidden Catholicism 

Books and manuscripts were found while re-roofing the National Trust building. Pictured, curator Anna Forest examines a fragment of an 18th century handwritten document

The findings were made by archaeologist Matt Champion, while builders were re-roofing the National Trust manor house (above)

The Bedingfeld family lived at Oxburgh Hall (above) in Norfolk for around 500 years, after Sir Edmund Bedingfeld built the property on his family’s estate in 1482

The findings were made by archaeologist Matt Champion, while builders were re-roofing the National Trust manor house and removing floorboards in the attic rooms.

A copy of the 1568 edition of The Kynges Psalmes, written by Saint John Fisher, was found hidden in a void at Oxburgh Hall. 

A 15th century illuminated manuscript was uncovered, with the gold leaf and writing remaining distinct. The text is thought to identify the document as part of Psalm 39 from the Latin Vulgate Bible. 

National Trust curator Anna Forrest, who was overseeing the work, said the manuscript was probably part of a prayer book owned by Sir Edmund Bedingfeld, who built Oxburgh Hall on his family’s estate in 1482. 

Fragments of an 18th century handwritten document and fabrics, including slashed brown silk, were also discovered during the re-roofing project. 

Curator Anna Forest holds a large piece of slashed brown silk, shot through with gold, found under the attic floorboards

A copy of the 1568 edition of The Kynges Psalmes, written by Saint John Fisher, was also found hidden in a void at Oxburgh Hall

Catholicism was made illegal after  the Act of Uniformity in 1559, during the reign of Elizabeth I, but the Bedingfelds refused to change their faith. Above, Oxburgh Hall covered in scaffolding during re-roofing

Sir Henry Bedingfeld (above) was a leading figure under Catholic Mary I and remained a staunch Catholic during the reign Elizabeth I, leading him to be accused of giving refuge to papists

Other findings were also estimated to be much more recent, with a chocolate box (above) dating to the 1940s having also been uncovered at Oxburgh Hall

The manuscript and other objects owned by the Bedingfeld family seemed to have escaped from the grasps of Elizabeth I’s spies and priesthunters during the late 16th century. 

How refusal of historic family to change their faith cost them dear 

The Bedingfeld family were strong supporters of Catholic Mary I and the family’s fortunes flourished after Sir Edmund Bedingfeld entered the royal court.

Sir Edmund, who died in 1553, was knighted and even hosted a visit from the King and Queen, after building Oxburgh Hall in 1482.

His grandson Sir Henry Bedingfeld was a leading figure under Mary I. 

But the family’s fortunes changed during Elizabeth I’s reign, as the Act of Uniformity outlawed Catholic mass. 

The 1559 ruling made it illegal not to attend parish church for Anglican rite.

The late 16th century became dangerous for the Bedingfelds, who were staunch catholics. Sir Henry was accused of giving refuge to papists. 

Catholic priests were routinely tried and executed and Catholic gentry who sheltered priests were imprisoned.

Catholic families were forced to hide their worship, with many building secret chapels and ‘priest holes’. 

After the reign of Elizabeth I, Charles I relaxed religious laws but the Civil War quickly sparked more turmoil. 

Sir Henry Bedingfeld was imprisoned in the Tower of London, one of his sons was shot and the Hall was ransacked.

Oxburgh Hall was confiscated by Parliament before being sold back to the family at an extortionate price. The family were also fined £20,000.

For 300 years, the Bedingfeld family were subjected to heavy taxation, exclusion from public office and education.

The Bedingfelds, who lived at Oxburgh Hall for around 500 years, refused to change their faith following the Act of Uniformity in 1559, after the succession of Elizabeth I to the throne.

The ruling outlawed Catholic Mass and also made it illegal not to attend the parish church for the Anglican rite on Sundays.

Sir Edmund Bedingfeld, who died in 1553, had previously been knighted and even hosted a visit from the King and Queen.

His grandson Sir Henry Bedingfeld was a leading figure under the Catholic Mary I.

Sir Henry remained a staunch Catholic and lost his influence after Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne, and was later  accused of giving refuge to papists.

The late 16th century became dangerous for the Bedingfelds, and other families who did not conform to the strict religious rulings imposed during Elizabeth I’s reign.

Catholic families were forced to conceal their worship and build secret chapels to illegally practice Catholicism.

Catholic priests were routinely tried and executed and the Catholic gentry who sheltered priests were imprisoned. 

Following the reign of Elizabeth I, Charles I briefly relaxed religious laws but the outbreak of the Civil War quickly sparked more turmoil.

During the Civil War, Sir Henry Bedingfeld was imprisoned in the Tower of London, one of his sons was shot and the Hall was ransacked.

Oxburgh Hall was confiscated by Parliament before later being sold back to the family at an extortionately higher price.

The Bedingfeld family were also fined a further £20,000 – staggeringly high losses for any Catholic families at the time.

For 300 years, the Bedingfeld family were subjected to heavy taxation, exclusion from public office and education, costing them both politically and financially.

The National Trust believes the new discoveries may have been concealed from Elizabeth I’s agents, such as spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.

Other findings were also estimated to have been dated later, with a chocolate box dating to the 1940s having also been uncovered amongst the thousands of objects at the National Trust property. 

Some of the findings will shortly go on display at Oxburgh Hall.

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