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Monks’ Cemetery, St Albans Cathedral

St Albans Cathedralexcavation aerial view
Excavations within the angle of the presbytery and south-east transept of the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans were undertaken from August 2017 to early February 2018. Watching brief work on the installation of new services will be undertaken over the coming months. The works are in advance of the construction of a new Welcome Centre funded in part by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The excavation has contributed greatly to the cathedral’s Alban, Britain’s First Saint project, aimed at highlighting the fantastically rich heritage of worship and pilgrimage that can be found within the cathedral.

Excavations focused on an eighteenth- to nineteenth-century burial ground, known as the Monks’ Cemetery from which 120 inhumation burials have been carefully excavated, recorded and lifted for further analysis. The opening of a cemetery on the south-east side of the church was almost certainly due to a mounting pressure for burial space at that time. Over 170 recorded burials had been interred by the time the burial ground closed in 1850.

The assemblage of human bone is well preserved and the work forms an excellent opportunity to provide information about the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century population of St Albans. Most of the burials were contained in coffins, many with quite elaborate coffin furniture sometimes including name plates and plaques, though these are largely illegible.

Prior to the establishment of the cemetery, the site was occupied by a two-storey structure constructed in the fifteenth century. The building is thought to have contained a treasury, sacristy, vestry and chapels and was accessed from the transept and presbytery. The building may also have formed the abbot’s quarters with access via the slype to the cloisters, positioned south of the nave.

Excavation has revealed part of this structure, demonstrating the presence of two chapels attached to the south transept and presbytery. These were formed by substantial, if heavily disturbed walls, with traces of floor surfaces surviving to the north-west.
Excavating a graveWheathampstede's Chapel
A brick-lined tomb was located in the centre of the larger chapel. This was found to contain the body of an aged adult male accompanied by three papal bullae. The presence of the bullae combined with documentary research suggests that the body is almost certainly that of John of Wheathampstead, a former abbot of St Albans who died in 1465. His burial site was previously unknown, but the archaeological evidence suggests that he was buried within a chapel that he himself had constructed.
St Albans papal bullae obverseSt Albans papal bullae reverseSt Albans papal bulla
The bullae have been dated to Martin V, pope from 1417 to 1431. Initial enquiries to specialists suggest that a grave with more than one bulla is highly unusual and must mark the burial of a significant individual.

The bullae themselves consist of circular lead discs approximately 40mm in diameter. Only the obverse side is particularly clear in these examples, with the name of the pope (written as Martinus) semi-legible. Also visible is the legend PP.V, with the PP standing for Pastor Pastorum (Shepherd of Shepherds). The bullae would have been attached to a vellum document by either hemp or silk cords depending on whether the role of the charter was respectively a letter of justice or grace. Traces of the cord may be preserved in the soil that adheres to the bullae, but identification requires further specialized analysis. Study of papacy records may give us some indication as to who was receiving correspondence during Martin V’s pontificate.

Prior to the establishment of the fifteenth-century buildings, the site was occupied by apsidal chapels associated with the Norman abbey. These were probably built by Paul de Caen c 1077–1088 and their presence was anticipated by the location of Norman features within the present cathedral. Cut by many of the later graves and modern service trenches, only the foundations of these survived.
Excavating a 12th Century BurialNorman ApsePlan of the Norman Apse
Twenty-five potential Norman period burials were identified, with these lying to the east of the apses. Many lay within anthropomorphic grave cuts, several of which contained cists constructed from mortar and re-used Roman tile. Documentary evidence indicates that these graves were largely of early benefactors, though some may have been of monks.

The earliest feature identified on the site was a large north to south aligned boundary ditch. This is thought to be Anglo-Saxon in date and contained a small assemblage of pottery and large amounts of animal bone.

Ross Lane and James Holman

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