Leicester Cathedral Revealed – Searching for the medieval church

So far, our blogs have focused on the archaeological work for the Cathedral’s new heritage learning centre. This is only one part of the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project, and in his latest blog excavation director Mathew Morris updates us on the archaeological work going on inside the Cathedral.

Our work inside the Cathedral is what we call a watching brief, and involves the monitoring of any groundwork which has the potential to disturb burials and archaeological remains. This has predominately focused on the removal of the old floors and heating ducts, and the installation of new below-floor services in the Cathedral’s nave, aisles and transepts, and in St Dunstan’s Chapel.

At times the Cathedral interior has resembled a First World War battlefield, and photos of the work look shocking when contrasted with the Cathedral we are more familiar with. However, what has become clear during is that the ground beneath the Cathedral has already been extensively reworked, most likely during the restoration of the building in the latter half of the 19th century.

Work inside the Cathedral has included the removal of old floors and installation of new below-floor services.

Most of the current groundwork has only disturbed modern rubble or a loose soil which contains a small amount of disarticulated human bone. Overall, the impression is that the upper half-metre of soil beneath the Cathedral has been deliberately cleared of burials sometime in the past, possibly during the 19th-century restoration.

Workmen digging the trench for a heating duct in the Cathedral’s nave in 1926. Image: Leicester Cathedral.

Around a dozen burials have been found, however, either in brick-lined graves or about a metre below floor level. In every instance we have been able to find a solution which allows them to remain undisturbed in-situ. Most were in lead-lined coffins, which contrasts with our excavation outside where, to date, no lead coffins have been found.

The oldest of these burials, dating to the late 18th century, was recorded in the south aisle close to St George’s Chapel. Here an earth fast lead coffin had a lead nameplate fixed to its lid, engraved ‘Miss Ann Tozer, Died 11 June 1782, Aged 28’. Nearby, in front of the south door, another named burial, this time in a brick-lined grave, was that of Elizabeth Nedham, who died February 1st, 1848, aged 65. Miss Nedham is still commemorated on a memorial above the south door alongside her parents and sister. Nedham Street in Leicester is also named after the family. The third burial we have been able to name inside the Cathedral, again in a brick-lined grave, is that of ‘George Brushfield Hodges, Died March 28th 1841, Aged 67 Years’. Mr Hodges was a former mayor of Leicester and has a memorial on the wall in St Dunstan’s Chapel adjacent to his burial spot.

The lead coffin of Ann Tozer. The coffin may have once been inside a wooden outer shell. Fixed to the lid was a lead nameplate engraved ‘Miss Ann Tozer, Died 11 June 1782, Aged 28’. Images: ULAS.

Other archaeology was scarce but a number of really useful observations about the Cathedral’s history have been noted. This part of the restoration has highlighted just how much of the building was rebuilt in the 19th century. The columns in the nave arcades all rest on modern concrete footings, the stone walls of the north transept and St Dunstan’s Chapel rest on two courses of modern bricks and the wall of the north aisle rests on a concrete beam. In fact, the only walls which are identifiably medieval (foundation and superstructure) are the south and east walls of the Great South Aisle.

The building, however, is much older than its restoration. It was first mentioned by name in AD 1220 and may be several hundred years older than that, making the discovery of two other medieval walls beneath the present Cathedral’s floor really exciting. These include an east/west orientated wall running along the north side the nave which may be the footing of the original medieval nave wall. If so, it shows that the nave was widened sometime in the past because the pillars of the north arcade are now situated beyond the original line of the wall.

Early stone walls found beneath the Cathedral’s floors. On the left, a stone wall running east/west adjacent to the rebuilt Victorian arcade between the nave and the north aisle may be an original wall of the medieval church. On the right, a north/south wall crossing St Dunstan’s Chapel reveals that the chapel was originally much smaller than it is today. Images: ULAS.

The other, a north/south orientated wall in St Dunstan’s Chapel suggests that in its original form the chapel was a third shorter than it is today and has been enlarged eastwards some time before the 19th century restoration (when it was rebuilt from the ground up). These are really fascinating new insights into the Cathedral which will be invaluable in our efforts to tell its story from its original construction through to the present day.

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