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

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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.