“Boy Bishop” token found in Norfolk

A metal detectorist working with the National Trust has unearthed a medieval Christmas token at the Oxburgh Estate in Norfolk that was likely dispensed by a late medieval “Boy Bishop” in a St. Nicholas Day procession.

The token dates to between 1470 and 1560 and was designed to resemble coinage but was not legal tender. They were made of lead in penny, half penny and groat sizes. On December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas, a choirboy would be selected to wear bishop’s vestments, mitre and crook and lead a service and a procession to collect donations for the church. The Boy Bishop would throw tokens into the crowd during a procession through town, and those tokens could be exchanged for food in town during the holiday season between December 6th and December 28th.

Found at West Park near Oxburgh Hall in a survey as part of a parkland restoration project, the token is well-preserved on one side depicting a long cross with dots between the arms. The other side is heavily corroded but likely featured a portrait of St. Nicholas. It probably came from Bury St. Edmunds Abbey 30 miles away which was one of the richest and most influential monasteries in England.

[National Trust Archaeologist Angus Wainwright says:] “We believe that one of the inhabitants from Oxborough village must have made the long trip to Bury St Edmunds, around 27 miles, to see the festive ceremonies in the massive Abbey Church where they may have acquired the token. As one of the biggest buildings in Western Europe this must have been a mind-blowing experience for someone from a tiny village.

“This discovery shows how rich the cultural life of even the poorest folk could be in the Middle Ages. It’s also interesting that the Christmas period was a time for fun and celebration aimed at children, with a child taking on the role of the bishop, and St Nicholas as patron saint of children.”

The practice died with the Reformation as the monasteries were destroyed and the very concept of saint days discarded. The token is now on display at Oxburgh Hall.