A major discovery at Furness Abbey, in the Lake District in England, may have revealed the long-lost remains of an abbot, along with his crosier and jewelry.
Furness was a powerful, wealthy Cistercian monastery until Henry VIII seized control of the church, dissolved the monasteries, and looted their treasures, leaving the grand edifices to rot. The picturesque ruins were made famous by Romantic poets and artists.
Despite years of excavation and restoration at the site, the remains of one of the abbots were undiscovered until two years ago. Archaeologists could tell that the abbot was heavy, and had curvature of the spine, which suggest he may have had type 2 diabetes. Now, the remains–which may date from anytime between the 12th and 16th centuries–are being studied to see what we can learn about the abbot, and determine when he lived and died.
The skeleton of a portly figure was discovered almost by fluke when emergency repairs had to be made to the abbey at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria.
Cracks had appeared in the ‘mouldered walls’ that featured in Wordsworth’s ‘At Furness Abbey’ verse from his 1805 Prelude, and in some of JWM Turner’s etchings.
They were caused by medieval wooden foundations rotting away. Archaeologists and structural engineers called in to examine them dug down and found an undisturbed, unmarked and unknown grave.
Its significance was immediately apparent. Whoever was buried here had been placed in the presbytery – the most prestigious position in the abbey, usually reserved for those held in greatest esteem.
With the remains were rare medieval jewellery and a silver and gilt crozier, a senior abbot’s staff of office.
In the Prelude, Book 2, Wordsworth describes the Abbey ruins, which was a favorite spot:
… the antique Walls
Of that large Abbey which within the vale
Of Nightshade, to St. Mary’s honour built,
Stands yet, a mouldering Pile, with fractured Arch,
Belfry, and Images, and living Trees,
A holy Scene!
It was surely more holy before Henry got his mitts on it.