In 2009 and 2010, OA North undertook extensive excavations at Furness Abbey, just outside Barrow, Cumbria. The works revealed many aspects of the three construction stages of the medieval presbytery.

The earliest stone-built presbytery, built by the Savigniac Order in c 1127, was an apsidal structure typical of Benedictine-plan churches. This decorative presbytery was torn down shortly after the Cistercian Order took over the abbey in 1150 and replaced by an austere square-ended edifice.  By the early fifteenth century even the Cistercians were tired of their austerity measures, and the presbytery was rebuilt a second time, creating the structure that (just about) stands today. During the excavations in 2010 one further discovery was made, one so significant that English Heritage (EH) has only recently lifted a media embargo on the subject.

Among several burials excavated within the presbytery, one was found to be accompanied by a spectacular gilded crozier and a bejewelled finger ring. It is the first time in some 50 years that a high-ranking clergyman has been excavated in Britain, and it represent a discovery with few parallels in the era of modern archaeology. The finger ring, found on the skeleton’s right hand, is considered to be of fourteenth-century date, and may have been commissioned personally. The square setting bears a white stone, either a piece of rock crystal, or, perhaps, a white sapphire. The inner part of the bezel forms a pyramidal point, and it is possible that this may have been designed to dig into the man’s finger. This ‘mortification of the flesh’ would have been a constant reminder of his piety, and it is interesting that x-ray revealed a void between the stone and the point, which may have formed a reliquary.

The crozier was found in the crook of the skeleton’s left arm. It is apparent that the head, which is largely made from gilded copper alloy, may be a composite piece that had been altered at least once during its use. The majority is thought to be of twelfth-century date and, although forming a relatively simple crook, is of excellent craftsmanship, with an exquisite (and rather canine) beast head forming the terminal. The modifications comprised the addition of a pair of gilded repoussee discs over a silver background, all secured with gilded nails and effectively filling the void within the original crook. The identical appliqués depict St Michael tussling with a winged dragon and, although the style is somewhat naive, the detail of the archangel’s wings, sword and his decorated round shield can be clearly seen. Again, x-rays were extremely useful in showing the way in which the crozier had been constructed from a series of separate parts, and the fact that the appliqués had been made over the same former.

Along with a small piece of the painted ash stave, a fragment of silk and linen fabric was recovered from inside the crozier, and may be a vestige of the sudarium, a streamer-like cloth that would have adorned the junction of the stave and the head. At the foot of the skeleton was the iron ferrule that would have protected the base of the stave. Neither chalice nor patten, the badges of a priest, were identified in the grave.

Examination of his skeleton indicated that he was about 40-50 years old when he died, some 5’7” tall, well-built and possibly on the tubby side: like many of his peers he suffered from the spinal condition DISH, which is associated with obesity and Type II mature-onset diabetes.Whilst it may seem obvious to draw the conclusion that the man was an abbot (and there are several possible candidates in the Furness Coucher Book), it is unusual for a Cistercian abbot to be buried in the presbytery, which, from the late thirteenth century, generally hosted the graves of those patrons wealthy enough to procure such a holy, and prestigious, position. Rather, Cistercian abbots were generally buried in and around the chapter house, and it is only in the later medieval period that abbots at other monasteries (such as at Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire) were buried in the nave and the choir of the church. It is, of course, possible that the Furness clergyman was an abbot who stemmed from a wealthy patronal family, or whose rule was greatly respected. Alternatively, he could be William Russell (died 1374), one of two Bishops of Man who were known to have been buried at the abbey, and who may have retained sufficient wealth to secure a place in the presbytery.