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Friday, 19 December 2014

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Carbon dating awaited on mystery abbot of Furness

THE identity of the mystery monk uncovered at Furness Abbey could be revealed when carbon dating of the skeletal remains is completed next month.

Custodian English Heritage is hopeful the cutting-edge scientific analysis could narrow the abbot’s date of death down to just a few decades.

Speculation among local and national historians about the abbot’s identity has been rife since the remarkable discovery was made public last week.

Some have suggested the remains could be those of Bishop William Russell, who arrived from the Isle of Man and is believed to have been buried in the area in 1374, while others believe the skeleton is more likely to be of William of Dalton, who became Abbot of Furness about 1406.

But Kevin Booth, senior curator at English Heritage, said there is no evidence to make even an informed guess at this stage.

He said records showed there were 38 abbots known to have lived at the abbey between 1127 and 1537, however, records were only kept for those who had been there for 10 years or more.

“Until we get the carbon dating results back in late May we just cannot put names in the frame at this time,” he said.

“They usually come down to a window of 20 or 30 years, so given we have a pretty good list of abbots, that would help.

“We might suppose that this chap, having been buried in the presbytery with some rather nice grave goods, was a fairly revered man who had been there for over 10 years and, therefore, will be one of our named people – but it’s a supposition. Of course, if we get a radio count back that sits bang in the middle of someone who was there for 40 years, then we’ve probably got our man.”

Dalton-based author and historian Alice Leach said if the remains were found to date back to the 12th century then they could be that of Richard of Bayeux.

“Richard of Bayeux’s importance is that he really persuaded the Savignac monks to accept the Cistercian way of life,” she said.

“In other words, he got them to change their gray habits to white habits, so they became, as I always call them, the white monk’s of Furness.”

But Mrs Leach also expressed her discomfort that the abbot – regardless of who it was or when he was buried, had been dug up at all.

“A lot of people have thought ‘Why have they dug these remains up?’” she said. “As our parish priest said (on Sunday), the poor man has laid there undisturbed for all these hundreds of years and now he’s been dug up. What will they find out? Maybe his identity, but that’s it. I think the remains should be re-interred at a special service by a Catholic priest. Preferably a Catholic priest from the Cistercian order.”

Mr Booth said he understood the sensitivities surrounding the find, but maintained English Heritage operated within strict guidelines governing scientific analysis.

“If we were going to stop the presbytery of Furness Abbey falling down, then this grave had to be excavated,” he said.

“He was only found because we were trying to ensure things weren’t destroyed by large amounts of concrete being poured in without anyone looking.

“My presumption, as the curator who will end up responsible for this chap, is that we will rebury him. Personally, I don’t see any need for having a skeleton in a cardboard box in storage quite a long way from Furness.”

The artifacts uncovered in the abbot’s grave will be on public display from May 4 until May 7 at the Furness Abbey museum.

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