Going underground at the Churches Conservation Trust

30 January 2012

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Lead coffins in the crypt of St Mary's church, Redgrave. Copyright © The Churches Conservation Trust.Lead coffins in the crypt of St Mary's church, Redgrave. Copyright © The Churches Conservation Trust.

One thing about old churches that often gets overlooked is what’s underneath them. If it’s Victorian or later it will probably be nothing more than a dusty old boiler room, but anything earlier is likely to have a crypt. And crypts mean bodies, so caution and sensitivity are required.  At St Mary, Redgrave (Suffolk) we only discovered the crypt when during a drama performance in the church one of the actors put their foot through the floor (dodgy floorboards) after which we were able to insert a CCTV camera to survey the lead coffins left in situ since the 18th century.

But we don’t usually investigate crypts as a result of heavy-footed thespians; at All Saints, Billesley (Warwickshire) we have carried out some keyhole surgery to discover if there is any truth in the persistent rumour that the crypt might contain some Shakespeare-related documents. When I say ‘keyhole’ what I actually mean is a hole just big enough to get an archaeologist through… in this case, me. Unfortunately, there was no missing Shakespearean play manuscript tucked away down there – not even his marriage certificate (he was reputedly married to Anne Hathaway here), but what we found were some monumentally big stone coffins to the 19th-century Mills family, which had unceremoniously ousted the earlier 17th-century coffins of the Whalleys. So whilst the report will not be able to boast the discovery of Shakespeare’s lost play, it will provide us with a detailed survey of the crypt structure and be able to say quite a lot about 19th-century attitudes to burial. All in a day’s work at the CCT.

Post by Dr Neil Rushton, Conservation Manager (West), The Churches Conservation Trust.


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