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Monks' Cemetery, St Albans

Client: Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans

Excavations at the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, within the angle of the presbytery and the south-east transept, were undertaken in 2017–2018 in advance of the construction of a new Welcome Centre. The excavation also formed part 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.

The earliest feature identified was a large north–south aligned Anglo-Saxon boundary ditch. Most of the remains uncovered, however, were associated with the church itself. The site was occupied by apsidal chapels associated with the Norman abbey, probably built by Paul de Caen c 1077–1088, lying beside which were probable Norman-period burials. Many lay within anthropomorphic grave cuts, several of which contained cists constructed from mortar and re-used Roman tile.

St Albans excavation
St Albans excavation

Subsequently, the site was occupied by a two-storey structure, constructed in the fifteenth century, perhaps originally containing a treasury, sacristy, vestry and chapels. In the centre of the larger chapel lay a brick-lined tomb. This was found to contain the body of an aged adult male accompanied by three papal bullae of Martin V, pope from 1417 to 1431. The presence of the bullae combined with documentary evidence 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.

St Albans excavation, John of Wheathampstead
St Albans excavation, Norman Apse

The latest period of excavation focused on an eighteenth- to nineteenth-century burial ground known as the Monks’ Cemetery, from which 120 burials were carefully excavated, recorded and lifted. 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. It is recorded that over 170 burials had been interred by the time the burial ground closed in 1850.

St Albans excavation, Bullae
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