Early evidence for St Albans Cathedral emerges

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Recent excavations at St Albans Cathedral have revealed the apse of the original Norman abbey. (IMAGES: Canterbury Archaeological Trust)

The decision to build a new visitors’ centre at St Albans Cathedral in Hertfordshire – part of the Heritage Lottery-funded project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint – offered the excellent opportunity to explore some of the site’s archaeology. From August 2017 to February this year the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, with Professor Martin Biddle, carried out extensive excavations between the current presbytery and the south-east transept. In the process, they revealed the cathedral’s long history, from its foundations as a Norman abbey in the 11th century through to its restoration and conversion to a proper cathedral in the modern era.

The project initially focused on the 18th- to 19th-century burial ground, where 129 well-preserved inhumations were unearthed. Having now been fully recovered, they will undergo post-excavation analysis which, it is hoped, will be able to provide valuable insight into the lives of St Albans’ population at the time.

As the team dug further, however, previous iterations of the cathedral began to appear. In the 15th century, before it was used as a cemetery in the post-medieval period, the site contained a two-storey structure that may have housed a treasury, sacristy, and vestry, as well as two chapels that were once attached to the south transept and presbytery.

Three papal bullae dating to Pope Martin V (1417-1431) were discovered with a burial. Put alongside the documentary evidence, they indicate that these are likely to be the remains of John of Wheathampstead, an abbot at St Albans during the 15th century.

In the centre of the larger of the two chapels, a brick-lined tomb was uncovered holding the remains of an adult male along with three papal bullae. These bullae – dating to Martin V, who was Pope from 1417 to 1431 – and documentary evidence indicate that this is the body of John of Wheathampstead, a former abbot of the church who died in 1465.

Most intriguing, however, is that under the foundations of these 15th-century structures, even earlier evidence emerged: the foundations of apsidal chapels that are likely to date from the cathedral’s origins as a Norman abbey. Documentary evidence indicates that these were built by Paul de Caen, the first Norman abbot of St Albans, sometime between 1077 and 1088. Along with these remains, 25 possibly Norman burials were uncovered, found just east of the apsidal chapels. Church records indicate that these may have been early benefactors to the abbey as well as monks.

While the excavation has now finished, a watching brief continues as construction advances and may provide further insights into the development of one of England’s major medieval religious centres. You can find out more about the Alban, Britain’s First Saint project here: www.stalbanscathedral.org/albanbritainsfirstsaint/.

This article appeared in CA 339.

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