Mystery of lost tombstone is solved

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A fine stone grave slab belonging to a medieval monk at Rufford Abbey has been rediscovered - in Bedford.

The ornate tombstone of Robert de Markham dating from 1399 was once set into the floor of Rufford’s long lost chapel and can be seen in old photos of the Abbey pre 1938.

But where it went after the demolition of the Abbey Chapel in the 1950s has been a mystery - until now.

Buildings archaeologist Peter Ryder came across the slab whilst researching for the Southwell and Nottingham Church History Project, being led by Professors John Beckett and Christopher Brooke from the University of Nottingham, and making a survey of medieval cross slab gravecovers across the county.

The slab is currently stored in one of English Heritage’s National Collection Stores at Wrest Park, where it is looked after in environmentally controlled conditions, and is one of 153,000 items of stone and archaeological finds in the collection, which is open to researchers and pre-booked guided tours, visit and search for Wrest Park.

English Heritage’s collections team say it had been stored with significant pieces of stone from Bolsover, so the team initially assumed it was from Bolsover, knew it was not quite right but could not confirm its source until Peter’s research made the connection and he contacted Nottinghamshire County Council, which manages the country park, about his discovery.

It is unusual that one of the Abbey’s monks would have had such an elaborate gravestone, and staff of Rufford Abbey Country Park and the County Archaeology team are keen to find out more about it.

Councillor John Knight, committee chairman for culture, at Nottinghamshire County Council, said: “Rufford Abbey has an enthralling history and this story underlines the different periods of history that our wonderful country park has witnessed.

“Visitors are often fascinated by the era of the Cistercian Monks here at Rufford. Rediscovering this tombstone helps us to further understand the country park’s past and we’d like to learn more about this monk.”

After it was dissolved by Henry VIII, Rufford Abbey and its grounds were leased briefly to Sir John Markham. Whether Robert de Markham was one of his ancestors is another tantalising historical puzzle.

Rufford Abbey’s former chapel was located near the existing Undercroft and Frater where the Cistercian Monks exhibition is currently located.

Peter Ryder is an independent Historic Buildings Consultant and buildings archaeologist based near Newcastle, who has worked in this area of work all his life.

Mr Ryder said: “It is one of the best medieval grave slabs in the county, and was in the Chapel at Rufford until the 1950s, when Professor Lawrence Butler made a rubbing of it. I sent English Heritage Lawrence Butler’s 1965 illustration and it is definitely the same slab. It commemorates Brother Robert Markham ‘of this monastery’ and is dated 1399, although older accounts had misread the date as 1309 or 1329.

“I think the slab has quite a story to tell – for one thing it is unusual for monks to have as elaborate a memorial as this – and it may be connected with him being from an important family.”

The news is particularly exciting as Rufford is working on a new Conservation Plan to help shape the future development and management of the park. All ‘finds’ such as the recent Egyptian column shipped back to Rufford from former owner and anthropologist Lord Savile, discovered by the county council’s archaeology team help deepen our understanding of the fascinating history of Rufford Abbey Country Park.

Photo credit: Nottinghamshire County Council