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500-year-old prayer roll describes a fragment of Jesus’ cross ‘kept at ancient English priory’

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Rare 500-year-old prayer roll made of animal skin describes a fragment of Jesus’ cross that was ‘kept at an English priory before Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century’

  • The manuscript was previously discovered, but a new study is the first to conduct an analysis
  • An art historian says the prayer roll  has imagery and text that show a close connection to Bromholm Priory, a long-abandoned pilgrimage site in northeast Norfolk
  • It also depicts the Cross of Bromholm, which supposedly held a piece from Jesus’s cross and was kept at a since vanished monastery in Norfolk
  • The document, made of animal skin, includes Christian practices before Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the Protestant reformation 500 years ago

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A manuscript made from animal skins describes the Cross of Bromholm, which supposedly held a piece from Jesus’s cross and was kept at a since-gone monastery in Norfolk, England. 

The five-inch-wide prayer roll features stunning designs and artwork, along with imagery and text that show a close connection to Bromholm Priory, a long-abandoned pilgrimage site in northeast Norfolk of which only a few ruins remain.

This monastery, founded in 1113, was said to house a fragment of the cross in which Jesus was crucified, but the priory and wooden relic vanished without a trace.

The manuscript also describes Catholic practices before Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the Protestant reformation 500 years ago.

A manuscript made of animal skins describes the Cross of Bromholm, which supposedly held a piece from Jesus's cross and was kept at a now gone monastery in Norfolk

A manuscript made of animal skins describes the Cross of Bromholm, which supposedly held a piece from Jesus’s cross and was kept at a now gone monastery in Norfolk

Art historian Gail Turner, the author of a new research, said in a statement: ‘It [the manuscript] gives insight into the devotional rituals connected to a large crucifix (‘Rood’) 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.’

The prayer roll is not a new discovery, as it made a brief appearance in the 1960s and 1970s, but Turner is the first to try to decipher the text and imagery.

Through the analysis, she concluded a prosperous pilgrim was the owner of the manuscript that was fashioned from two pieces of vellum (animal skins) stitched together.

‘The roll reflects a time when the laity (non-clergy) had a real belief in both visible and invisible enemies,’ said Turner.

This was a monastery, founded in 1113, was said to house a fragment of the cross in which Jesus was crucified, but the priory and wooden relic vanished without a trace

This was a monastery, founded in 1113, was said to house a fragment of the cross in which Jesus was crucified, but the priory and wooden relic vanished without a trace

‘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.’

There are also signs of abrasion throughout the roll that coincide with the idea that worshippers regularly touched or kissed images of Jesus on the cross in an attempt, according to Turner, ‘to experience Christ’s Passion more directly and powerfully’. 

‘Indeed, the historian reveals abrasion marks are visible on the Bromholm roll where the owner has engaged in such a ‘devotional act identified in other similar rolls.’

Other images of the roll include three nails stabbing through a heart, with hands to the side that also have stab wounds on the palm. The manuscript also describes Catholic practices before Henry VIII's break with Rome and the Protestant reformation 500 years ago

Other images of the roll include three nails stabbing through a heart, with hands to the side that also have stab wounds on the palm. The manuscript also describes Catholic practices before Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the Protestant reformation 500 years ago

Other images of the roll include three nails stabbing through a heart, with hands to the side that also have stab wounds on the palms.

‘The ends of the nails are red, as if with blood, and are painted against a background of a green ‘hill’, presumably Golgoth, Turner wrote in the study published in the British Archaeological Association.

‘As in the Coverham roll mentioned above, the Crown of Thorns (stylized and not to scale) is interwoven with the nails, and here encompasses images of the Five Wounds of Christ — hands, feet and side/heart, all of which drip blood.’

Today, the priory stands in ruins in a field near the village of Bacto and the study suggests the Rood of Bromholm may be located in London – according to a letter written in 1537 to Thomas Cromwell by Sir Richard Southwell, a courtier from Norfolk.

Bromholm Priory is said to have acquired the wooden relic from an English chaplain who fled the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

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