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Saint's and Royal tombs discovered after 1,000 years

Friday, 2nd December 2005

Saint's and Royal tombs discovered after 1,000 years

Ancient Royal crypt revealed in Abbey foundations.

What is believed to be the original ancient burial tomb of one of our most revered British Saints, Edward the Confessor, has been discovered at Westminster Abbey exactly 1,000 years after his birth. The discovery comes as part of an unprecedented archaeological study at the Abbey using radar that has also revealed a series of Royal tombs dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries and historical secrets related to Royal burials.

Delighted archaeologists came across the forgotten, under-floor chambers when, as part of a larger conservation programme, they were using the latest ground-penetrating radar (GPR) technology to investigate the construction of the Abbeys priceless Cosmati mosaic pavement, dating back to 1268, in front of the High Altar.

Their work has also identified other tombs, under the Shrine, in an area of the Abbey never before surveyed and on which no known records existed.

The Abbeys Consultant Archaeologist, Dr Warwick Rodwell, worked with expert Erica Utsi on the scanning project. He explains: This is an extraordinarily exciting discovery for us - on a scale and of historical interest unparalleled anywhere else. We have never been able to locate the original tomb of Edward until now. The Victorians tried to find out more about what tombs were under here, but they simply did not have the technology to do it. The mystery around the location of his crypt has been running for many years. Every day brings us new insights and new facts.

We set out, when we embarked on the Cosmati pavement research, by using a very high-frequency radar to look down to a depth of about 20 inches. But, as the pavement went deeper in sections, we needed to look down further with the radar. Little did we expect that, lying beneath, using a lower-frequency radar, we would find chambers, vaults and foundations of such fascinating historical interest and dating back to the very founding of the Abbey, over a millennium ago.

The Abbeys Receiver General, David Burden, adds:

We do know that Edward the Confessor was buried beneath the sacrarium floor in 1066, and that in 1163, after he was canonised, his body was moved to a Shrine in front of the altar on the orders of Henry II. When Henry III later rebuilt the Abbey church he built the new tiered shrine behind the altar. Into this shrine the body was moved in 1269, and here it still lies today - the only major English Saint whose body still rests in its shrine, just a few feet from where we have discovered this tomb.
Its fascinating to realise that, beneath this very famous altar, seen by millions around the world as the location at the heart of Royal and State occasions like marriages and funerals, there have always been these ancient tombs and graves that could well be holding many more secrets and clues about life and death 1,000 years ago.

Edward was Patron Saint of England for over four centuries, until 1415 when he was replaced by Saint George. He was the first Sovereign to develop the custom of touching his people to cure them a tradition that continued for nearly seven hundred years to the time of Queen Anne. Millions of pilgrims have visited his Shrine in the Abbey over the centuries and special tours also include entry to the Shrine to this day.

Intensive further investigation now follows by the Abbey team to establish more facts about the location, purpose, history and content of the main tomb and other chambers, graves and coffins in the Altar and Shrine foundations. They will also undertake a photogrametric survey so that they can study the radar results with relation to a detailed floor plan.

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr Wesley Carr adds:

It seems very fitting that we have made these discoveries during the 1,000th anniversary year of the birth of St Edward. Its another reminder of how Abbey history and humanity are packed together.

Details of what has been found

Main chamber: under the pavement behind the present (Henry IIIs) High Altar, a tomb where Henry III is believed to have been temporarily laid to rest in 1272. This was an empty chamber at that time as it had previously held the body of Edward the Confessor before the Saints remains were disinterred and transferred a few feet up and across to the Shrine in 1163, amidst much ceremonial. In 1290, Henrys remains were moved to his own sumptuous tomb in the North Ambulatory, again just a few feet away. In the same year Eleanor of Castile (Queen of Edward I) died suddenly and was temporarily placed in the old tomb while her own burial place in the North East corner of the Chapel was being prepared.

The radar picked up two distinct features that are bound to generate considerable academic excitement. First, adjoining the Shrine, and presumably continuing underneath it, is a substantial chamber with an arched or vaulted roof. This lies directly below the present Shrine altar. The east-west dimension of the chamber cannot be measured due to the position of the present Shrine. The width is in the order of 2m, and the radar has defined the curvature of the vault as c. 1m in radius. The floor of the chamber lies c. 1.75m below the present floor.

The second discovery is a rectangular feature, immediately adjoining the chamber on the west, and of about the same width. It has the characteristics of a pit for access to the main chamber, the filling of which appears on the radar screen as a series of horizontal layers of different materials. These may be interpreted as alternate layers of soil and rubble carefully packed in the pit, a well-known medieval practice adopted to prevent subsidence.

Under the Altar steps: Here, the evidence suggests two shallow tombs, side by side: one has an arched roof, the other is flat-topped. Another unknown tomb was found north of the Altar, lying partly in the sanctuary and partly under the stone screen erected in 1441.

Floor of the Shrine Chapel, under the Purbeck Marble pavement: Several hitherto unknown graves sealed beneath the Cosmati pavement that surrounds the Confessors Shrine. There are single tombs flanking the Shrine to north and south, and a line of what appear to be diminutive graves potentially royal children across the east end.

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I’ve worked here for over thirty years and have seen many of the major services - it’s strange to realise that you are in a small way part of history.


Pamela - Rector's Secretary

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