Buffy Bailey was anxious to get started. The nurse and her husband, Ian, were preparing to look for treasure on farmland near York, England. With the property owner’s approval, the pair got to work. Wielding a metal detector, Bailey heard a ping on her first pass alongside a path.
“I just wanted to focus on detecting, so I turned my back to the footpath so walkers wouldn’t talk to me, and just as I did, I got a signal in that exact spot,” says Bailey, as quoted by Will Humphries of the London Times.
Expecting to find a sheep’s ear tag or a tab from a drink can, the Lancaster resident instead dug up a small gold object shaped like a book. Weighing less than an ounce, the half-inch-long artifact appears to date back to the 15th century and is made of either 22- or 24-karat gold. Experts at the Yorkshire Museum identified the figures depicted in the book’s open “pages” as Saints Leonard and Margaret, patron saints of childbirth, reports Bhvishya Patel for the Daily Mail.
Bailey unearthed the gold book near Sheriff Hutton Castle, a former home of Richard III. According to BBC News, experts say the ornate object may have been owned by a relative of the English king—perhaps his wife, Anne Neville—and worn for protection during pregnancy and childbirth.
On today’s #GoneMedieval podcast I’m delighted to be joined by Buffy & Ian Bailey, the finders of this magnificent little devotional book. How did they find it, and what happens next? Find out here!
— Matthew Lewis (@MattLewisAuthor) November 13, 2021
“The book is dated [to a period] when sumptuary law made it illegal for anyone other than the nobility to carry gold,” he says, as quoted by Jen Mills of Metro. “Automatically, then, it would have been the possession of someone highly notable, such as a member of royalty.”
Scholars consulted by Bailey have drawn comparisons between the book and the Middleham Jewel, a 15th-century gold pendant with a large blue sapphire that was found in 1985 near Middleham Castle, Richard’s childhood home. The rare jewel may have belonged to Anne Neville, her mother Anne Beauchamp or Richard’s mother Cecily Neville. Middleham is located about 40 miles away from the site of the more recent find.
“In terms of quality, it is very similar to the Middleham Jewel, and the style of the engravings look alike,” says Matt Lewis, chair of the Richard III Society, to the Daily Mail. “… It is very possible that it is another piece of jewelry commissioned by [a noble family] and made by the same blacksmith.”
Exactly how the two gold artifacts ended up lost in fields in northern England is unclear. Lewis suggests that the items’ owners intentionally buried them, either as an act of thanks or grief related to childbirth or as a preemptive measure during the English Reformation, when owning such religious images posed significant risks.
“If these jewels are connected in any kind of way, … losing one of them would be careless, but to lose two of them would be downright disastrous,” says Lewis in an episode of the “Gone Medieval” podcast. The owners may have hidden the objects in hopes of recovering them later.
Some media outlets described the gold book as a Bible. Kathleen Kennedy, an expert on medieval and early modern material culture at the University of Bristol, disputes that assertion.
“There’s no evidence at all that this bead is intended to represent a Bible,” she writes for Hyperallergic. “English goldsmiths engraved a lot of words into jewelry this size, and would have engraved In principio (the famous ‘in the beginning’ from the Gospel of John), or other well-known scriptural text onto the volume if they had wanted it to be identified as a Bible.”
King of England from 1483 to 1485, Richard was the last ruler of the House of York. His defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field marked the end of the Wars of the Roses, a decades-long clash between two branches of the royal Plantagenet family, and the beginning of arguably the most famous English dynasty: the Tudors. In the centuries following Richard’s death on the battlefield, historians accused the king of murdering his nephews, the so-called Princes in the Tower; the question of Richard’s guilt remains unresolved, but supporters known as Ricardians have, in recent years, attempted to rehabilitate the ruler’s image.
Experts at the Yorkshire Museum, which houses the Middleham Jewel in its collections, are studying the gold book to learn more about its provenance. In accordance with the United Kingdom’s 1996 Treasure Act, which governs archaeological finds made by the public, the museum may decide to the purchase the object after it’s been assessed and valued. Proceeds will be split between Bailey and the farmland’s owner.
“There’s nothing else like it in the world,” says, Bailey as quoted by BBC News. “It could be worth £100,000 [about $134,900] or more.”