Spectacular ecclesiastical treasures discovered in ruins of a medieval abbey in Cumbria

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

The most spectacular ecclesiastical treasures to be discovered in Britain for almost half a century have been unearthed in the ruins of a medieval abbey in Cumbria.

An elaborate 14th-15th century abbot’s crook (his staff of office) and his gilt silver inauguration ring were found in a grave just four meters northwest of the high altar at the ruined Cistercian abbey of Furness in Barrow-in-Furness.

The top of the crook is decorated with a silver plaque bearing a gilded image of the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon. Remarkably, some of the original wood of the crook also survives, as does the pointed iron spike at its base – and part of a linen and silk ‘sweat cloth’ designed to prevent the abbot’s potentially perspiring hands coming into contact with the wooden part of the crook.

The ring, which would almost certainly have been specially made for his inauguration as abbot, is of gilded silver and is set with a large white gemstone – either  a rock crystal or a white sapphire.

It’s possible that a secret void behind the stone may contain a sacred relic – potentially a fragment of bone from a saint. It is also potentially significant that a sharp point on the inner side of the ring’s bezel would have stuck into the abbot’s finger and may have been designed to cause him some moderate discomfort as an act of continuous low level penitence to symbolize his piety.

Preliminary analysis of the man’s skeleton suggests that he was a substantially overweight individual who suffered from arthritis and died in his forties.

Although Furness had at least 11 abbots in the 14th-15th century, the identity of the abbot can be narrowed down by taking into account his age at death, the style of his ring and his high status. It was relatively unusual for a Cistercian abbot to be buried in the presbytery of his abbey, especially near the high altar. More often they tended to be interred in or near  the abbey’s chapter house.

One possible candidate for the individual buried with the treasures is William of Dalton who became Abbot of Furness in around 1406 and who was particularly important in the monastery’s history – commissioning a spectacular illuminated account of the story and possessions of the Abbey.

However there is an outside chance that the treasures may not have belonged to an abbot at all. For in 1374 Bishop William Russell, a cleric from the Isle of Man was buried at Furness - and the skeleton and treasures could potentially be his.

Furness Abbey was founded in  the 1120s under royal patronage by Count Stephen before he became King of England. However, 25 years later, the monastery became a Cistercian establishment, thus removing it from royal influence. In the 14th century it became extremely wealthy and politically powerful, owning vast areas of land in North West England and Ireland. It grew rich on iron and tin mining, sheep farming and agriculture.  The abbots were also key political players in Cumbria, doubling as local sheriffs and coroners. What’s more, they also had considerable power over the Isle of Man, through their right to appoint the island’s bishops. Like other monastic establishments in England, it was dissolved by Henry VIII in the 1530s.

Two years ago, English Heritage – which administers the abbey ruins – noticed that cracks were developing in some of the walls. As a result, emergency excavations, prior to stabilization work, had to take place there over the past 18 months. It was during these investigations, carried out by Oxford Archaeology North on behalf of English Heritage, that the grave and the treasures were discovered.

They are now due to be examined by art historians, scientists, and other specialists who may be able to determine definitively the identity of the high status cleric buried with the treasures.  The crook and ring will go on display at Furness Abbey between May 4 and May 7.

David Keys is The Independent's Archaeology Correspondent.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas