Salisbury Cathedral is asking medievalists for help in deciphering a mysterious inscription hidden behind a monument for hundreds of years.
The inscription, painted in black gothic letters, is thought to be one of the earliest written in English in any church in Britain, but it is so faded that it is unreadable.
The letters were painted on a thin layer of limewash that was partially scraped off before the monument to Sir Henry Hyde, a Royalist martyr executed during the Civil War, was erected in the early 1660s. In places, all that is left is a dark stain on the stonework where the paint leached through.
Tim Tatton-Brown, the cathedral’s Consultant Archaeologist, said “The Cathedral’s conservators quite unexpectedly found some beautifully written English text behind the Henry Hyde Monument on the cathedral’s South Aisle wall when the monument was temporarily removed as part of the on-going schedule of work.
“I had originally surmised the text dated from the sixteenth century, bearing in mind that the monument was erected soon after 1660. However our researches now suggest it was written a century earlier and therefore pre-dates the Reformation. My colleague Dr John Crook has made a comprehensive detailed photographic record of the script and subsequently enhanced the letter forms on his computer. Study of this by specialist academics is leaning towards the text being written in the fifteenth century, a period when English was, for the very first time, being used just occasionally in preference to Latin which was then ‘the norm’.”
John Crook is equally fascinated by the writing and what it is. “There are clearly several lines of a large textual inscription. There seems to be a phrase ‘and we are c…’ but so far we have not been able to work out more. If anyone thinks they can identify any further letters from the enhanced photographs, please contact us via Salisbury Cathedral website and I can trace them in.”
Tim Tatton Brown added, “So for now the basic questions of what exactly the words are and why the text was written on the cathedral wall, remain unanswered. It would be wonderful for us to solve the mystery.”
The Conservators’ work on The Hyde Monument has now been completed, the monument put back on the wall and the text once again hidden from view. Discussions are now taking place to decide the best way forward. Canon Treasurer, Mark Bonney, said “It’s a fascinating find but all these monuments the Conservators work on have to be put back into their places within a limited time span – and in this instance, by the middle of February. We think that the best approach is to consolidate the text to preserve it in its present state and then carry out a comprehensive photographic record of it before it is covered up again when the monument is returned to the wall. In many ways the text is far more vulnerable in its current state, exposed to the air, rather than hidden behind the Hyde monument.”
If you can offer any assistance, you can contact Salisbury Cathedral by email: firstname.lastname@example.org