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500-year-old prayer roll ‘has close connections to priory where part of Christ’s crucifixion cross was kept’

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Religious old book on a wooden table. A religious cross tied with a rope and burlap next to bible. Worship, sins and prayer.

By Stephen Beech via SWNS

A 500-year-old prayer roll has close connections to a Norfolk priory where a fragment of the cross on which Jesus was crucified was believed to have been kept, according to a new study.

The "magnificent" meter-long artifact exposes the extent of Catholic devotion in England during the 16th Century before Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the Protestant reformation, say historians.

The illuminated prayer roll, which is 13 centimeters (5.1 inches) wide, is believed to be among only a few dozen still in existence worldwide.

Now in private hands and previously unknown, experts say it provides fresh insights into Christian pilgrimage, and the cult of the Cross before Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Examination of the ancient roll’s illustrations and text, including religious verse in both English and Latin, were published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association.

Study author Gail Turner, a leading art historian, said: “In particular, the study demonstrates Christian devotion in medieval England.

“It gives insight into the devotional rituals connected to a large crucifix at Bromholm Priory, in Norfolk, and uncovers a direct link between this 16th Century artifact and a famous religious relic once associated among Christians with miracles.”

She explained that The ‘Rood of Bromholm’ - as it is known to historians - supposedly contained a fragment of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

Turner said that the relic transformed the Priory into a popular pilgrimage site mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer and in "The Vision of Piers Plowman."

Images of the Rood in black, with gold outlines, feature several times on the Bromholm roll, and there is one direct reference to ‘the crosse of bromholme.’

Turner’s analysis suggests a "prosperous" pilgrim was possibly the owner of the Bromholm prayer roll, which is made from two pieces of vellum stitched together, and was bought by a private collector in the 1970s.

“The roll reflects a time when the laity, or non-clergy, had a real belief in both visible and invisible enemies," she said.

“For their owners, prayer rolls…were prized as very personal inspirations to prayer, although during the Reformation and after they were commonly undervalued and dismissed.

“The survival of such a magnificent roll for over 500 years is therefore remarkable.”

Turner, who has worked at Tate Britain, the Arts Council, and as a consultant for Christie’s and at the Courtauld, said that attaching animal skin pieces end to end in a continuous strip to make a ‘roll’ was once the standard method of presenting text.

She said few medieval prayer rolls survive today because they lacked covers yet were made to be handled.

Turner explained that worshippers regularly touched or kissed images of Jesus on the cross in an attempt ”to experience Christ’s Passion more directly and powerfully”.

She said that "abrasion" marks are visible on the Bromholm roll where the owner had engaged in such a "devotional act identified in other similar rolls."

Turner was able to estimate the document’s age through a reference in the roll to ‘John of Chalcedon’ or John Underwood, the penultimate prior of Bromholm.

A "passionate" supporter of the Roman Catholic church, Tuner said that Underwood became auxiliary Bishop of Norfolk in 1505 then lost his position in 1535 so it’s likely the roll was made between these dates.

Further connections between the roll, the Rood and Underwood can be made through the imagery of the five wounds Christ received during his crucifixion, according to the study.

Symbols representing the five wounds are depicted on Underwood’s tomb in Norwich, despite not being commonly found in Norfolk’s churches.

The five wounds were also focal to Bromholm Priory’s key devotional feasts – the Passion and the Exaltation of the Cross – when pilgrims came to venerate the Rood.

Turner says the original owner of the roll is likely to have been a "devout worshipper" familiar with Bromholm’s feasts, A patron of the priory, a member of the local Paston family, or a friend of John Underwood’s are among her suggestions.

Today, the priory stands in ruins in a field near the village of Bacton.

The Rood of Bromholm itself was taken to London, according to a letter written in 1537 to Thomas Cromwell by Sir Richard Southwell, a courtier from Norfolk.

"After that, the trail appears to go cold," Turner said.

"It is presumed to have been destroyed in London with many other relics, although its fate remains uncertain."

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