The experts believe that the “magnificent” metre-long artefact exposes the extent of Catholic devotion in England during the 16th Century before King Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the Protestant reformation. The prayer roll is 13 centimetres (5.1 inches) wide and is made from two pieces of vellum stitched together. It is thought to be one of only a few dozen still around today. Experts believe this is because they lacked covers that were made to be handled.
The historians claim the discovery reveals new secrets about the Christian pilgrimage and the cult of the Cross before Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541.
Experts have conducted a thorough examination of the scroll’s illustrations and text.
They published their findings in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association.
Study author Gail Turner, a leading art historian who has worked at Tate Britain, the Arts Council, and as a consultant for Christie’s and at the Courtauld 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 (The Rood of Bormholm), in Norfolk, and uncovers a direct link between this 16th Century artefact and a famous religious relic once associated among Christians with miracles.”
Ms Turner said that the crucifix, known as the roll of Bromholm ‘Rood of Bromholm’, is thought to have contained a fragment of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
Ms Turner thinks that the relic transformed the Priory into a popular pilgrimage site, which features in writer Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous work ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman.’
Images of the Rood in black, with gold outlines, can be seen several times in the Bromholm roll, and there is one direct reference to ‘the crosse of bromholme’.
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Ms Turner believes that a “prosperous” pilgrim could have been the owner of the Bromholm prayer roll.
She said: “The roll reflects a time when the laity, or non-clergy, had a real belief in both visible and invisible enemies.
“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.”
Ms Turner, also 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, and that worshippers regularly touched or kissed images of Jesus on the cross in an attempt ”to experience Christ’s Passion more directly and powerfully”.
According to Ms Turner, “abrasion” marks can be seen on the Bromholm roll where the owner had engaged in such a “devotional act identified in other similar rolls”.
But the historian was still 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.
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Ms Turner said that Underwood became auxiliary Bishop of Norfolk in 1505 then lost his position in 1535, which makes it plausible that the roll was made between these dates.
According to the study, even deeper connections between the roll, the Rood and Underwood can be explained through the imagery of the five wounds Jesus Christ received during his crucifixion.
Symbols representing the five wounds can be seen on Underwood’s tomb in Norwich, despite not being a common feature of Norfolk’s churches.
The priory now stands in ruins in a field near the village of Bacton in Norfolk
The actual Rood of Bromholm was taken to London, according to a letter written in 1537 to Thomas Cromwell by Sir Richard Southwell, a courtier from Norfolk.
Ms Turner said: “After that, the trail appears to go cold.
“It is presumed to have been destroyed in London with many other relics, although its fate remains uncertain.”