Illuminating the past – Enhancing the present – Inspiring the future

Monks’ Cemetery, St Albans Cathedral

St Albans Cathedralexcavation aerial view
We have been excavating within the angle of the presbytery and south-east transept of the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans since the beginning of August. The works are in advance of the construction of a new Welcome Centre funded in part by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The results of the excavation are adding greatly to the cathedral’s project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint, aimed at highlighting the fantastically rich heritage of worship and pilgrimage that can be found within the cathedral.
Excavations to date have focused on an eighteenth- to nineteenth-century burial ground, known as the Monks’ Cemetery from which over eighty inhumation burials have so far 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 on the site 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 thirteenth to fourteenth century. The building probably 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. In the coming weeks the excavation will begin to explore these remains, revealing some of the features that would have been prominent during this period when the abbey was a major centre of pilgrimage.

Tantalizing evidence has also emerged for part of the earliest Norman Abbey Church of St Alban. Cut by many later graves and modern service trenches are the foundations of an apsidal chapel perhaps built by Paul de Caen c 1077–1088. Burials associated with the early abbey, presently visible beneath these Norman remains, will be excavated at the beginning of the new year.
St Albans excavating grave
An intriguing discovery was made recently during excavation of a brick-lined tomb, positioned close to both the presbytery and transept and almost certainly situated within a building pre-dating the Monk’s Cemetery. The tomb was found to contain the body of an aged adult male accompanied by three papal bullae. Documentary research suggests that the body may be 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 range of buildings that were constructed during his time as abbot.
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. Once possibility is that the body is that of Abbot John Wheathampstead, who died in 1465 and was responsible for the construction of the range of buildings that contain the tomb.

Ross Lane and James Holman


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