24 February 2024 The Future is the Product of the Past

Archaeologists discovered medieval Bury St Edmunds Abbey ‘Bishop Boy’ token in Norfolk

Archaeologists have discovered token in Norfolk in the East of England, dating from between 1470 and 1560, given to the poor to spend at Christmas.

The coin was discovered by a metal detectorist during an archaeological survey near the majestic Oxburgh Hall, a country house that was built in 1482. It probably originated at Bury St Edmunds Abbey, nearly 30 miles away in Suffolk.

The token may have been doled out by a choirboy acting as the “boy bishop” during the Christmas period.  During the Middle Ages and the early Tudor era, cathedrals would designate a choirboy to represent the bishop on December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, conduct processions and religious services, and gather funds for the church. Boy bishops also gave out tokens to poor people which could be spent between St Nicholas Day and Holy Innocents Day on 28 December.

The token found at Oxburgh has a well-preserved side depicting a long cross, just like contemporary coins. However, the reverse side is very corroded but would probably have shown the head of a bishop. The tokens came in equivalent sizes to a penny, half penny and groat, which was worth four pennies.

The tokens came in equivalent sizes to a penny, half penny and groat, which was worth four pennies. Photo: National Trust - James Dobson
The tokens came in equivalent sizes to a penny, half penny and groat, which was worth four pennies. Photo: National Trust – James Dobson

The tokens, made of lead, came in equivalent sizes to a penny, halfpenny, and groat (worth four pennies). They were made of lead and there was no real monetary value to them, except for when they could be exchanged for food. The one found at Oxburgh – which is cared for by the National Trust – is the size of a groat, but it is not known how many goods it could obtain.

Angus Wainwright, an archaeologist with the National Trust, said Daily Mail: “The token is not a thing of particular beauty, but it does have an interesting story. It was found by one of our metal detectorists who had been doing a survey of the West Park field at Oxburgh as part of our parkland restoration and tree planting.”

The trust’s efforts to find out more about the field’s history had yielded “fantastic” results, he said, “revealing not only part of a medieval village including horseshoes, hand-made nails and tools but also part of a Roman village. This token most likely comes from Bury St Edmunds Abbey which was one of the biggest and richest in the country, St Edmund being one of the patron saints of England.

One side of the ‘boy bishop’ token found at the Oxburgh estate in Norfolk depicts a long cross. Photo: James Dobson/National Trust Images
One side of the ‘boy bishop’ token found at the Oxburgh estate in Norfolk depicts a long cross. Photo: James Dobson/National Trust Images

National Trust archaeologists believe a resident of Oxborough village must have made the long journey to Bury St Edmunds, some 43 kilometers away, to see the festive ceremonies at the massive Abbey Church where he may have obtained the token.

“As one of the biggest buildings in Western Europe this must have been a mind-blowing experience for someone from a tiny village,” said Wainwright.

Saints’ days gradually disappeared following the Reformation in the 16th century, including that of St Nicholas. Old Father Christmas was invented as a spirit of the season, but the name St Nicholas (Sint Nicolaas) traveled with the Dutch to the USA and eventually became Santa Claus.

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