Abbot John of Wheathampstead

St Albans Cathedral

In December 2016, an archaeological project began outside the Cathedral ahead of work to improve facilities for visitors. A team from Canterbury Archaeological Trust, under the guidance of Cathedral Archaeologist Prof Martin Biddle, performed a dig on the site of the new Welcome Centre.

Post-Reformation parish graveyard

The purpose of this initial dig was to discover as much as possible about what lay there, to ensure that the archaeology was not damaged or disturbed by the building of the new Welcome Centre, and vice versa. A series of trenches was dug that brought to light an incredible amount of 20th century services as well as a good number of burials from the post-reformation parish graveyard. As many of these burials were closer to the surface than expected, it was decided that a full site excavation was needed in order to remove and reinter these burials in the North Churchyard.

The second and full site excavation began in the summer of 2017.  Most of the graves uncovered date from the 1750-1850s when the site served as the parish graveyard and they represent the full range of the town population from infants to elderly people. Some of the artefacts found dating to this period include a decorated clay pipe, ornate coffins with metal plates on top, and several coins. Earlier burials were also uncovered; a 13th century grave was found with the prospect of Norman and Roman burials as well.

Norman apse-ended chapels

Another exciting aspect of the dig was the uncovering of original Norman apse- ended chapels projecting from the east side of the south transept. These were demolished in the 13th century and replaced by a large rectangular building. There is no existing record of this building anywhere but it may have been part of the Abbot’s Quarter. The archaeologists were very excited about the opportunity to learn more about this structure and the large apse-ended Norman chapels as the dig continued.

In a recent interview with archaeologist Ross Lane, he explained what the team hoped to learn by the end of the dig:

As we’re going through, we hope to add to the story of how the Cathedral was conceived, altered and ultimately used during its life to date as it fulfilled its purpose as a place of pilgrimage and worship. We hope to have evidence of some of the earliest Roman graves in order to prove just how extensive the beginning of the Christian cemetery was across the hill top (Holywell Hill). All the artefacts we recover will help bring us closer to the people who made and used them and we hope to have material from the Roman through to the most recent events to have taken place at the Cathedral.

Abbot John of Wheathampstead

In January 2017, a unique and remarkable discovery came to light during the same dig. A 15th century skeleton was uncovered and, in an extremely rare development, was found to be accompanied by three papal bulls issued by Pope Martin V (1417-31), indicating that this was no ordinary burial. These three papal bulls helped James Clark, Professor of History at Exeter University to identify the skeleton as that of Abbot John of Wheathampstead. For more on this, visit the website dedicated to Britain’s first saint.

Laura Bloom, Development Administrator, St Albans Cathedral

[an edited version of an article in Society’s November 2017 Newsletter]