Medieval benefits! Token that was given to the poor by ‘boy bishops’ to spend at Christmas 600 years ago is discovered near Norfolk country home

  • Coin dates back to between 1470 and 1560 and was found near Oxburgh Hall 
  • The token could be spent at the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds or on food 

A 600-year-old token that was given to the poor to spend at Christmas has been unearthed in Norfolk.

The coin dates back to between 1470 and 1560 and was discovered by a metal detectorist during an archaeological survey near the majestic Oxburgh Hall, a country house which was built in 1482. 

The token could be spent at the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds or on food between St Nicholas Day on December 6 and Holy Innocents Day, December 28.

In the medieval and early Tudor eras, St Nicholas Day was marked by the procession of a ‘Boy Bishop’, who would lead processions and certain religious services and collect money for the church in their local parish.

A 600-year-old token that was given to the poor to spend at Christmas has been unearthed in Norfolk

The coin dates back to between 1470 and 1560 and was discovered by a metal detectorist during an archaeological survey near the majestic Oxburgh Hall, a country house which was built in 1482

The coin dates back to between 1470 and 1560 and was discovered by a metal detectorist during an archaeological survey near the majestic Oxburgh Hall, a country house which was built in 1482

Boy Bishops, who were chosen to parody the resident bishop, would also give out tokens. 

The token found at Oxburgh has a well-preserved side depicting a long cross, just like contemporary coins.

The reverse side is very corroded but would probably have shown the head of a bishop representing St Nicholas.

The tokens came in equivalent sizes to a penny, half penny and groat, which was worth four pennies. 

The coin dates back to between 1470 and 1560 and was discovered by a metal detectorist during an archaeological survey near the majestic Oxburgh Hall, a country house which was built in 1482

In the medieval and early Tudor eras, St Nicholas Day was marked by the procession of a 'Boy Bishop', who would lead processions and certain religious services and collect money for the church in their local parish. Above: A depiction of boy bishops

In the medieval and early Tudor eras, St Nicholas Day was marked by the procession of a ‘Boy Bishop’, who would lead processions and certain religious services and collect money for the church in their local parish. Above: A depiction of boy bishops

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. 

National Trust archaeologist Angus Wainwright said: ‘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.

‘Before this happened, we undertook metal detecting, field walking and geophysics to find out more about the history of that field. 

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

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

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

‘The results have been fantastic, 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.’

He added: ‘Although tokens could be spent in the local town, they may also have been kept as keepsakes, but the one we have found could also simply have been dropped and lost.’

The experts believe that one of the inhabitants of Oxborough village made the 27-mile trip to Bury St Edmunds to see the festive ceremonies.

They might have obtained the token from the huge Abbey Church, which was then one of the biggest buildings in Western Europe.

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) travelled with the Dutch to the USA and eventually became Santa Claus.

The token is on display at Oxburgh Hall. For opening times and other information visit https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk

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