Coventry Charterhouse – a project in retrospect

With our excavation at Leicester Cathedral now finished, we are going to move away from Leicestershire and focus on another National Lottery Heritage Funded project that we have been involved with, the Coventry Charterhouse. This is the first of a series of blogs over the forthcoming months which will catching you up on our excavations at this rare and important monastic site, as site director Andrew McLeish explains…

In 2019, ULAS partnered with the Historic Coventry Trust to carry out archaeological work for the Trust’s project to revitalise the Coventry Charterhouse, a former Carthusian monastery, and reopen it to the public. The ULAS excavations formed part of a wider project made possible by a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant which has restored the monastery’s walled grounds and created a visitor centre within a wider heritage park, linked to the city via walk and cycle paths. Blogs for the initial phase of archaeological work can be accessed through our new project page here and more detailed history about the Charterhouse can be accessed here.

The Coventry Charterhouse. Image: Historic Coventry Trust

The plan for 2020 was to open up a small excavation under the area of a new café, revisit part of Margaret Rylatts 1985 excavation of the eastern cell range, and to explore the levels of preservation in the south range, whilst also maintaining a Watching Brief on various other building and refurbishment activities across the site. It was going to be a busy year for the team!

All Quiet on the Western Cloister wall…

Then the spring of 2020 happened…and changes to billions of lives across the world started to occur. It turned into the start of a very challenging year for everyone, and it was no different at ULAS. Most of our sites were shut down and the majority of our staff went onto furlough whilst we worked out what we could still do, and how we could carry out excavations with minimal risk to our staff. After a short hiatus, however, we were able to resume work at Charterhouse with a two-person team picking up from where our initial 2019 excavations, supervised by Richard Huxley, had started on the western side of the great cloister in an area formerly occupied by the monks’ cells.

The excavation here is, to date, the largest area opened up over the western range of cells and has turned up some very nicely preserved monastic remains. Our first task was to finish off where Richard had left off before lockdown began, under what is now the ‘Purnell’s Café & Bistro at Charterhouse’.

Plan showing the proposed redevelopment of the Coventry Charterhouse. The location of the Café extension excavation is outlined in red. Image supplied by Historic Coventry Trust

The first phase of excavation had already revealed part of the rear wall of a monk’s cell and associated garden features, but these were very disturbed in places by post-medieval pits and Victorian cellaring. Despite this damage, walls relating to the site’s Carthusian days were teased out to reveal an east/west orientated boundary wall between two cells and their gardens (Carthusian monks lived in solitude, each in a self-contained cell containing a two-storey dwelling within a small walled garden, find out more about Carthusian monks here). To the west of the wall was a very thick layer of Post-Dissolution demolition rubble and, happily, quite a quantity of stonework from this rubble was found to be suitable for re-use and was incorporated into the repairs of the west cloister wall. Beneath the rubble a quite substantial surviving part of the rear garden wall emerged.

Part of the surviving rear garden wall of the western range of monastic cells. Image: ULAS

In addition to this, within the northernmost of the two monastic cells, a stone capped drain was found, running parallel with the east/west boundary wall. This is the first evidence for a drainage and sewerage system for the monastic houses on the western side of the cloister.

Explore a 3D model of the Café extension excavation to find out more about the key features.

The removal of the demolition rubble turned up some other useful discoveries, one of which shows that crucial pieces of dating evidence can sometimes be so small as to be almost insignificant. Underneath the rubble was a layer of soil laid down prior to the building of the monastery. From it, spotted by the eagle eyes of archaeologist Jon Landless, a complete 47mm-long hairpin with a globular head was recovered. A similar example from London was found in a late 14th century deposit, which helps date ours very nicely with the initial phase of construction of the monastery, founded in 1381.

A late 14th-century copper alloy, wound-wire globular head hairpin, recovered from soils which predate the construction of the monastery. Image: ULAS

All of this information starts to give us a better understanding of the layout of the western part of the monastery. With the rear garden walls now located and the west cloister wall already known (the wall you see today is 1700’s in date but rebuilt upon the original monastic foundations, more on this in a future blog) this gives us the length of the cells on this side. The east/west boundary wall also gives us the division between two cells and, using the known widths of the cell plots in the eastern range, we can now start to more accurately predict the size and location of other cells in the western range (each cell was approximately 7m wide and 15m long).

Carthusian monasteries have a broadly similar template but because of this, there is a danger in interpreting them as carbon copies of each other, which they are very much not! In the course of our excavations at Coventry Charterhouse we have found evidence which would suggest certain elements of its design and construction were atypical in the details. There is also much we are still missing. Because Coventry Charterhouse is a Scheduled Monument there are legal limitations on the amount of work we can undertake, and our excavations are not going to be a comprehensive as we would like (the lament of most archaeologists!)

By the end of 2022 we had identified most of the monastic door thresholds surviving in the west range (totalling 5), but we still as yet don’t have enough data to give the exact position of the monks’ houses within the cells, how their gardens were laid out, or the positioning of their toilets and the drainage and water supply systems. Nevertheless, because of the protection the site enjoys, these are all things which remain covered and can potentially be explored in more detail in the future.

An archaeologist excavates demolition rubble to uncover the rear garden wall of one of the monastic cells in the western range. Image: ULAS

The demolition rubble also gave us a final bonus, a disturbed monastic shell midden containing a large dump of oyster shells. This will be the topic of our next blog, so please join us next time for ‘Coventry Charterhouse: The world is your oyster…’

The Coventry Charterhouse officially opened to the public at the beginning of April, 2023. Click here to find out more, and book a visit.

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