A 12th-century copper casket that once contained the relics of Thomas Becket, the "troublesome priest" who was murdered on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, is just one of hundreds of priceless treasures – some never seen before by the public – unearthed by a team led by TV historian Dr David Starkey for a ground-breaking exhibition which opens next month.
The treasures, including an early Turner painting, a jousting score sheet and a rare celebratory banner from the 14th century as well as the first drawings of Stonehenge, all belong to the Society of Antiquaries, which was founded in 1707.
Starkey's Making History exhibition marks the 300th anniversary of the society, which began the serious study of British history. Prior to the collecting of objects and study by the society's fellows British history was mired in myth and biblical stories.
"In default of any other art galleries or museums, it became a sort of collector of last resort," said Dr Starkey. "It bought or was given early royal portraits, like Hans Eworth's splendid painting of Mary I that would later be the preserve of the National Portrait Gallery.
"It built up collections of medieval and prehistoric artefacts that the British Museum, then snobbishly focused on the classical world, rejected as uninteresting for the first century of its existence.
"What is striking is the correlation between the original antiquarian agenda and the leading fields of popular history now: family history and local history; collecting and collectibles; antiques and 'how people lived'. We are more interested in the family of the dustman than the duke, in downstairs rather than upstairs. But although the focus has changed, the underlying spirit remains the same."
Because the society has no exhibition space, however, much of its collection remains in storage in London. Next month's exhibition, which begins 11 September, is at the neighbouring Royal Academy of Arts.Reuse content