Rare 16th-Century Textiles and Manuscripts Pulled Out of Giant Rat Nests in English Manor House

A gold-embossed religious text from the 15th century.
A gold-embossed religious text from the 15th century.
National Trust, Mike Hodgson

Several hundred years ago, the avaricious rats of Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, England, collected scraps of fabric and manuscripts from around the house and used them to assemble two rather opulent nests beneath the floorboards.

The long-abandoned nests lay undisturbed until just this year, when a massive restoration of the manor house prompted a close investigation of all its hidden nooks. The Guardian reports that the National Trust couldn’t staff a full team because of the coronavirus pandemic, and the job fell mainly to one freelance archaeologist named Matthew Champion. With the help of the construction crew, Champion pulled up the floorboards and probed every inch of space using his fingertips.

And there, in Oxburgh’s northwest corner, he discovered the nests. According to a National Trust press release, the rodent abodes were filled with more than 200 textile fragments from the 1500s to the 1700s. Among the silk, satin, velvet, embroidered wool, and other fabrics were additional surprises: shreds of printed pages and even some 16th-century handwritten music.

National Trust curator Anna Forest holding a bit of rat plunder (gold-embroidered brown silk).National Trust, Mike Hodgson

“It was utterly filthy work, and there is nothing like spending all day covered in rat crap to encourage social distancing,” Champion said on Twitter.

The rats’ cache of stolen treasure wasn’t Champion’s only finding. He also unearthed an empty chocolate box, wrappers included, from the World War II era—which he speculated may have been “rationed contraband”—hundreds of pins and other sewing materials, wax seals, and cut-up manuscripts that could’ve been reused as sewing patterns. Because the boards hadn’t been lifted in centuries, the items were extraordinarily well-preserved.

Who among us hasn't scarfed down a box of chocolates and hidden the evidence?National Trust Images, Matt Champion

The two most precious artifacts were both excavated by members of the construction crew. As Champion recounted on Twitter, a builder named Rob Jessop extracted a sheet of paper from the surrounding debris and asked, “Is this anything?”

It definitely was. National Trust curator Anna Forest consulted with Cambridge University Library’s medieval manuscripts specialist, Dr. James Freeman, and concluded that the page—printed with the Latin psalm “Expectans Expectaui”—may have come from a 15th-century psalm book or a private devotional book. And since the page is embellished with blue and gold ink, instead of the usual blue and red, it would’ve cost a pretty penny. The other most thrilling discovery was a nearly complete 1568 edition of The Kynges Psalmes, some of whose fragments had ended up in one of the rats’ nests.

The Kynges Psalmes, written by Saint John Fisher and possibly hidden by a Bedingfeld.National Trust

Together, the artifacts reveal much about the Bedingfields, Oxburgh Hall’s founding family. Sir Edmund Bedingfield constructed the manor in the late 1400s, and the family was well-esteemed in the royal court until Sir Henry Bedingfield declined to endorse the 1559 Act of Uniformity banning Catholic Mass. As evidenced by the Catholic manuscripts found at Oxburgh, generations of Bedingfields continued to practice Catholicism; it’s possible they even concealed their prayer books intentionally to avoid persecution.

When the renovation project is complete, the National Trust plans to display some of the “star finds” in Oxburgh Hall so visitors can see them in person.

[h/t The Guardian]

Wednesday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Computer Monitors, Plant-Based Protein Powder, and Blu-ray Sets

As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 2. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Archaeologists Discover the Jousting Yard Where Henry VIII Had His Historic Accident

National Trust, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
National Trust, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Henry VIII may have never earned his reputation as an ill-mannered tyrant if it weren't for injuries he sustained at age 44. Now, as Live Science reports, archaeologists have uncovered the infamous jousting yard where that history-changing accident took place.

Prior to the beheading of Anne Boleyn—his second of six wives—King Henry VIII was regarded as a kind, gregarious leader by those who knew him. The point where descriptions of him changed their tone coincided with a fall he took on January 24, 1536.

While jousting at Greenwich Palace, Henry was tossed from his armored horse and further injured when his steed fell on top of him. The incident caused him to lose consciousness for two hours and nearly cost him his life.

Though it was never diagnosed, some experts believe Henry VIII sustained a brain injury that day that altered his personality. From that point on, he was characterized as irritable and cruel. He was in constant pain from migraines and an ulcerated leg, which could also explain the mood shift. The (sometimes violent) dissolution of most of his marriages occurred post-accident.

Ruins of the jousting yard, or tiltyard, where that fateful incident took place are located 5.5 feet beneath the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, the former site of Greenwich Palace. After falling into disrepair, the palace was demolished by Charles II, and the exact location of the tiltyard was forgotten. A team of archaeologists led by Simon Withers of the University of Greenwich used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to locate the remnants buried beneath the ground earlier this year.

The giveaways were the footprints of two octagonal towers. The archaeologists say these were likely the foundations of the bleacher-like viewing stands where spectators watched jousting matches. That would place the historic tiltyard about 330 feet east of where it was originally thought to be situated.

The radar scans provided a peek at what lies beneath the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, but to learn more, the archaeologists will need to get their hands dirty. Their next step will be digging up the site to get a better look at the ruins.

[h/t Live Science]