Going underground at the Churches Conservation Trust

19 September 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. This blog was originally posted in January, 2012 as part of our Underground Discoveries month.




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