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Cover of British Archaeology 114

Issue 114

Sept / Oct 2010


All the latest archaeology news from around the country


MAIN FEATURE: Happisburgh

The project leaders give us the latest findings after six years of research on the earliest humans in Britain.

The obscure ownership of archaeological material

Haggai Mor recently worked in one of the world's largest archaeological store and wondered who all the things dug up actaully belong to?

Finding Boudica's Last Battlefield

With the help of computerised terrain analysis, Steve Kaye has narrowed down the possibilities.

The Lost Anglo-Saxon Church of Westbury-on-Trym

Jon Cannon explores a crypt beneath a Bristol church and is greeted with an amazing find.

Finding Private Mather

A victim of battle in WW1 remembered by his family, is finally laid to rest.

Archaeology: What Is It For?

Martin Carver reflects on how and why archaeologists do what we do.

The Varmints Show

In the Varmints' second exploration of music and archaeology, Breck Parkman is uncovering the 'Whitehouse of Hippiedom' at the Olompali State Historic Park, San Francisco.


The dark secrets of ancient peat, the decaying of Star Carr

on the web

Audio-visual presentations online and the 'Visual Essays' of ArchAtlas.

Mick's travels

Mick and Jon share the wonders of Jersey

CBA Correspondent

From CBA Publications Officer, Catrina Appleby


Your views and responses


THE BIG DIG: Links of Noltland

Eroding sand dunes are revealing an ancient landscape on a windswept and remote Scottish island.

MAIN FEATURE: Digging for (Invisible) People

Eroding sand dunes are revealing an ancient landscape on a windswept and remote Scottish island.

Dig for Shakespeare

Literary critics may wonder if Shakespeare wrote all those plays, but archaeologists know where to find him.

The Varmints Show

An occasional series specifically for the website, showcasing pop music inspired by archaeology or heritage. The first of the series features Air-Raid Shelter (Pillbox) by The Human Cabbages.

More online features to follow


All the latest archaeology news from around the country

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones investigates real and reconstructed worlds, and Andy Burnham highlights ancient sites viewable from the roadside, including extra content.


Your views and responses


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Is this the Lost Anglo-Saxon Church of Westbury-on-Trym?

Beneath a Bristol church is a crypt with the remains of a unique 16th century painting. It looks like a cellar today, but as Jon Cannon found out, behind the lawnmower and timber may be something much older.

At first sight, the room beneath the chancel at Westbury-on-Trym is nothing but a Victorian heating chamber, part of an over-restored parish church in a Bristol suburb. There is a fireproof ceiling of iron and brick; gardening tools and ecclesiastical bric-a-brac are stacked against the walls. Yet this was once one of the most distinctive works of art in 15th century England – one which, just possibly, evoked the forms of a lost Anglo-Saxon church.

This crypt-like space was rediscovered in 1852. A group of workmen had just broken through the chancel floor, with a view to installing a boiler in the void below, when the Rev WH Massie, a Cheshire antiquarian, appeared. He climbed into the opening and found pieces of medieval carved stonework at his feet, and the remnants of an elaborate scheme of painted decoration lining the walls of a rough, tomb-like recess on one side.

The paintings were remarkable. There was a large coat of arms, and a narrative sequence in a tiny strip running around the recess. Groups of little figures, "elaborate and spirited, the features and expression of each countenance marked", seemed to be engaged in moving an object through the countryside. The best-preserved portion showed a crowd gathered outside the city gates of "Worcetta". This is Worcester, in the diocese of which Westbury was located before the Reformation, and the arms belonged to John Carpenter, bishop of Worcester from 1443 until his death in 1476: the painting depicted Carpenter's funeral procession, which started at Worcester and finished at Westbury.

Westbury's historical associations were well known. There was a church here by 804 and possibly significantly earlier. Two famous bishops, St Oswald in the 960s and St Wulfstan from 1092, tried to convert this ancient minster into a monastery. In the 1450s bishop Carpenter, famous as a founder of schools and early "public" libraries, reformed and effectively refounded the community. This, then, was a collegiate church, that is a religious community made up of secular priests rather than of monks. The sole surviving medieval fitting in the church is Carpenter's battered cadaver effigy, an emaciated figure of stone with a mitre for a pillow. There is an apse, a feature rare in church architecture after the 12th century. And the remains of the College, the residential buildings Carpenter created for his community, still stand, amid Victorian housing some 80m away from the church.

If Massie and a couple of other antiquaries had not left some account of what they saw, the crypt today would draw little attention. Yet dull red blotches can still be discerned beneath the whitewash, on the sides of a ledge-like recess; and a blocked east window is emphatic proof that this space has medieval origins. Recent research confirms that much polychromy survives in the painted scenes, and emphasises its value and distinctiveness. Tobit Curteis, a wall paintings consultant who works for English Heritage and the National Trust, has found the pigments were "extremely fine and relatively costly", even though reddish washes of paint may have covered much of the rest of the walls. Miriam Gill, a specialist in late medieval wall paintings at Leicester University, has established that the paintings' subject matter – as seen in engravings of the 1850s – is almost unique in England. One could add that the remaining medieval walls are roughly finished, and given that the paintwork lies on top of them, this must always have been the case. The effect of this, suggesting large plain areas contrasting with smaller stretches of finely-worked imagery, must have been distinctive.

The objects Massie found on the floor were unusual, too. In 1905 these were moved to display cases above the church porch, where they still lie. The collection includes many pieces of high-quality tile, seven portions of stone statues, many bits of finely-detailed architectural carving and some battered fragments of alabaster. The tiles include further Carpenter arms; they are of the Malvern school, well-known for elaborate customised arrangements of imagery. The statues, combined with the architectural carving, suggest the presence of two or three large and very finely-detailed 15th century fittings: reredoses or screens. And the alabasters, though fragmentary, are especially intriguing. A beautiful carving of a figure writing on a scroll cannot be paralleled in any known English alabaster, and must have been part of a one-off commission. Not all of this can have fitted into the crypt: it seems the 15th century enrichment of Westbury extended into the church itself.

Indeed, the most intriguing aspect of the crypt is its architectural relationship with the church as a whole, as revealed by the blocked east window. This was a large opening, peeping up above ground level in a distinctive way, and clearly 15th century in date. Above rise the walls of the polygonal chancel, richly detailed and also 15th century. Local amateur archaeologist James Russell has proved that the roof of the crypt would have lain above the top of this window, placing the floor of the chancel higher still. This sets the high altar a vertiginous 1.5m above the church interior, its top almost parallel with the sills of the apse windows. This is a remarkable arrangement: I cannot find a contemporary parallel for this combination of apse, dramatically-raised altar and subterranean crypt.

But that is because the building blocks of this arrangement are not 15th century. One buttress of the apse predates the others. Its angle and location confirm that it, too abutted a polygonal apse. It is reasonable to assume that the crypt either goes with it, or is older still. And antiquarian engravings add further features to the crypt itself: a simple vault, space for an altar below the east window, a narrow entrance in a western corner, a small vertical opening above the recess; there may have been a second recess, so that two low platforms faced each other either side of the altar.

Adding to this scheme for the crypt the polygonal apse, the raised high altar and the way in which the east window peeps above the ground, there is only one period when all these elements are found: the Anglo-Saxon era. The closest surviving comparison is at Wing in Buckinghamshire; the arrangement also bears useful comparison with Repton, Derbyshire and to a lesser extent Brixworth, Northamptonshire and Deerhurst, Gloucestershire. This comparison begs as many questions as it answers. Dating evidence for the pre-15th century buttress, meanwhile, is equivocal, with competing cases to be made for the earlier 13th and 14th centuries, though either would be unusual and not necessarily in conflict with earlier origins.

At the west end of the church the walls slope inwards unevenly as if the nave – which was built around 1200–20 – was being joined to something preexisting and of the same width as the current tower, which is largely 15th century. This in turn suggests some dimensions for the earlier structure: the length of the present church, at least as far as the tower; the width of the tower; the width of the apse. These allow for either a small apsed mortuary chapel-and-crypt with a detached tower to its west – a very Anglo-Saxon arrangement – or a large church whose dimensions match very closely indeed those of the surviving Anglo-Saxon churches at Deerhurst and Wing.

All this is speculative, but one surviving object brings us onto firmer ground. This is a tombstone, broken in two, and used to roof the entranceway to the tower's newel stair. It is carved with a cross and other motifs, and was identified as Anglo-Saxon by ES Lindley of the British Museum in 1960. It must have come from a burial ground, and the presence of two carrying-holes argues for that graveyard having been far enough away to require more than a couple of extra hands and some sweaty lugging.

Perhaps it can be connected to Westbury's other main medieval building, the College, known to have been under construction by 1458. Only part of this survives, but it is impressive: a grand vaulted gatehouse, and an adjoining wing with a distinctive conical corner turret. A second turret and the footings of another wing lie 20–30m away, overlooking the little river Trym, suggesting a courtyard plan. The site was excavated in 1968 and 1970 by Bristol archaeologist Michael Ponsford, and an Anglo-Saxon burial ground found. This was later cleared, leaving substantial portions of a few skeletons and several grave pits. The most distinctive early find was an exquisite dome-shaped glass mount decorated with triskele patterns.

The site was cobbled over and a high-status residence built nearby in the late 12th or early 13th century; this, probably the residence of the dean, was rebuilt about a century or so later. Then in the 15th century Carpenter swept the college site clean and began the current building; the excavations confirmed its plan, with a hall overlooking the Trym. As provost of Oriel College and in 1438 chancellor of the university itself, Carpenter would have known archbishop Chichele's All Souls and bishop Fleming's Lincoln College, Oxford, to which it is very comparable.

The Anglo-Saxon discoveries only beg further questions. We know that the ninth century bishop Oswald and late 11th century bishop Wulfstan attempted to create a community of monks at Westbury. Oswald's was soon moved to Ramsey in Huntingdonshire; Wulfstan is said to have found the church "devastated" by Vikings (he "repaired" it, though physical evidence for work after the Norman conquest is conspicuous by its absence). His attempt to monasticise the community in 1092 does not seem to have long out-lived his death three years later. How can we graft these facts onto the archaeology? What is the relative chronology of the two sites, with the College by the river and the present church on the shoulder of a hill?

We have standing evidence for the activities of the reforming bishop Carpenter. The College gatehouse still boasts carvings of his arms. Three other domestic buildings stood near the church; one survives, and another has been excavated by James Russell. These, too are Carpenter-era works; two of them almshouses, parts of a process by which, over 20 years or so, Carpenter gradually reformed and expanded the community, while increasing its endowments. And there is the church.

As has been said, the oldest dateable work here was being completed in around 1220. It includes a sedilia (stone seat for priests) in a strange location, the nave south aisle; there is also not-quite conclusive evidence for a 14th century phase. But most of the building is in the sober Perpendicular style and can be demonstrated to have been begun under bishop Carpenter. Yet at least three successive teams of masons were employed, and each of the five resulting building phases seems not to have been anticipated when the preceding one occurred, as if the bishop expanded his ambitions for the work in a series of uncoordinated steps.

The architecture is unexceptional though the east end is not unimpressive; and all parts of the church have features suggestive of specific practical and liturgical requirements. For example the porch incorporated a near-unique platform for Palm Sunday rituals; and there is also evidence for stained glass, rich painted decoration and unusually large screens. The apse, however – even without the crypt – is the church's most distinctive feature, predating almost all other late medieval apses. This suggests the arrangement is either a bright idea of the patron, or a rebuilding of a pre-existing structure – or a combination of the two.

No one knows why Westbury mattered so much to bishop Carpenter. Nicholas Orme's research for our book has demolished several Westbury myths – not only regarding the monasteries of Oswald and Wulfstan, previously thought to have been more permanent, but also that bishop Carpenter intended to make Westbury a cathedral. We do not see a man of unusual artistic tastes. Research has, however, thrown extra light on his crypt, for we have been able to translate and publish his will, uncovered by Miriam Gill in the course of researching her PhD thesis.

The will confirms that the bishop requested his body be carried to Westbury, where it was to "buried in the chapel of the Holy Cross in the crypt beneath the high altar", where a chantry was to be set up. The dedication is interesting, as there are contemporary plainly-decorated, tomb-like lower chapels beneath high altars on the continent. These are known to have symbolised the tomb of Christ in Easter rites. Is that part of the function of Westbury's crypt-chapel? Does it partly explain its distinctive features?

Whatever is the case, this ordinary-looking parish church was once a very impressive place indeed, its richly-screened east end resplendent with paint, stained glass, tilework and sculpture. Its high altar was raised theatrically above the rest of the church, hiding the crypt-chapel, with its distinctive form and decoration: the cadaver effigy of the bishop probably lay there, or possibly in the chancel, near the entrance to the crypt. The crypt itself, with its sophisticated, sparse imagery, must have been a remarkable space.

The evidence for all this is invisible to the ordinary visitor today; instead it is a testimony to the power of church archaeology, and to the careful work of otherwise unconnected researchers over some 150 years. One wonders what the church's reputation was among contemporaries. We know that fittingout was still underway, and being well-funded, some years after Carpenter's death, because one tile contains the coat of arms of Abbot Newland of Bristol, which must date after 1481. The wall painting, too, presumably antedates Carpenter's funeral, though it may have been his idea. Could any of this be linked to our final intriguing piece of documentation, a statement by one John Rous in the 1480s that Carpenter's tomb at Westbury was "coruscating with miracles"? If some held Carpenter to be a saint, his burial was certainly an effective setting for an incipient cult. Not bad for a Victorian toolshed.

Jon Cannon is the author of Cathedral: The Great English Cathedrals and the World That Made Them (Constable 2007). Westbury-on-Trym: Monastery, Minster and College, by Nicholas Orme and Jon Cannon, will be published by the Bristol Record Society in 2010.

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