THE finest ecclesiastical treasures to come to light in Britain for almost half a century have been discovered by archaeologists in north-west England.
The artefacts — a beautiful 14th–15th century wood and gilded silver crozier, and silver-gilt ring — are about to be studied by art historians and scientists in a bid to find out to whom the two treasures belonged.
The items were found at the ruined Cistercian abbey of Furness, in Cumbria, during an investigation by Oxford Archaeology North, carried out before structural stabilisation work began at the site.
Unearthed just four metres north-west of the high altar, the crozier and ring had been interred with the body of an individual in his 40s — probably one of the monastery’s abbots. The top of the crozier is decorated with a silver plaque that features a gilded image of a sword-wielding Archangel Michael defeating a dragon.
Surprisingly, some of the original wood of the crozier has also survived, despite being in the ground for more than 500 years. Even more remarkably, part of the linen and silk “sweat cloth” (there to prevent the abbot’s perspiring hands from dampening the crozier) was also recovered.
The silver-gilt ring, probably made specific-ally for the abbot’s consecration, is adorned with a large white gemstone — either a rock crystal, or possibly a white sapphire.
Archaeologists suspect that the ring may also have a tiny secret compartment that may contain a sacred relic, conceivably a minute piece of bone from a saint.
The ring was not just a symbol of office, but seems also to have acted as a reminder of the need for piety; for it was designed so that a sharp point at the base of the bezel would cause mild yet constant discomfort to the wearer. It is possible that the wearing of the ring was seen not just as a symbol of status, but also as a symbolic act of constant penitence.
Preliminary examination of the skeletal remains suggests that the individual suffered from arthritis, and was over-weight.
It is not yet known which abbot or high-ranking cleric he was, but his high-status location, so near the high altar, his age at death, and the approximate date of his ring suggests that he was an unusually prominent individual — possibly one of the most significant abbots of Furness, William of Dalton, who was in charge of the abbey from 1406 until his death in about 1416, and who was responsible for commissioning an illuminated account of its history and possessions.
The abbey was originally established under royal patronage in the 1120s. Twenty-five years later it became Cistercian, and, by the 14th century, it was extremely wealthy, mainly through iron and tin mining, sheep farming, and agriculture.
The crozier and ring will go on display at Furness Abbey, a site administered by English Heritage, between 4 and 7 May.