Tucked almost completely out of sight behind a modern parade of shops on London’s Fleet Street is St Bride’s Church; one of London’s most historic churches, with worship possibly dating back to the 7th century. On the 31st October 2018 CBA London had the privilege of being shown around the crypt at St Bride’s by Jelena Bekvalac, Osteoarchaeologist at the Museum of London’s Centre for Human Bioarchaeology.
The evening started with an introduction to the church’s history. After burning down in the Great Fire of London, the church was rebuilt by famous architect Christopher Wren. The distinctive spire is said to be Thomas Rich’s inspiration for the first tiered wedding cake in 1703. Unfortunately, the church was destroyed once again nearly 300 years later during the Blitz. However, this uncovered several previously unseen archaeological features, and excavations from the 1950s onwards have led to the discovery of 227 human burials (213 adult, 14 sub-adult).
As some of the coffin plates from these burials were found to be still intact, the name and age at death for many of the individuals is known. This is useful not only to confirm the identity of these individuals, but also for osteoarchaeologists to test the accuracy their skeletal aging methods. Another advantage of the presence of these burial plates is that the names and dates can be searched in other records (e.g. birth/death/marriage certificates, company records) to provide context and background for the individual’s life.
Following this short introduction we entered the church, and ventured down a floor to the entrance of the crypt, where an iron coffin was on display. This is one of two that have been excavated at St Bride’s, which were originally used to prevent body theft commonplace in the 17th and 18th centuries. We were then taken through the Wren Study Centre, where there are displays showing many of the finds from excavations at St Brides and the remains of the medieval chapel at one end, and into the crypt itself. Inside the crypt is a medieval charnel house; a sort of macabre storage area for bones dug up from the churchyard to allow room for newer burials. Stacks of hundreds of disarticulated bones covered the floor of this charnel house.
The tour concluded in a room stacked to the ceiling on each wall with skeleton boxes, and leaning against the wall in one corner were coffin plates that had been excavated; the inscriptions still clearly visible. A small selection of skulls were placed out onto a long table, with a large variety of features including blunt force trauma, trepanation, cancerous lesions, metastatic bone, and even a skull sliced across horizontally (evident of a post mortem). Some interesting dental features were also present, including a gold filling and a gold wire.
CBA London strongly recommends a visit to St Brides, whether you are a local history enthusiast or just someone looking for an interesting day out. Click here to visit the official website, where you can read details of the guided tours held there.
CBA London would also like to thank Jelena Bekvalac for providing a fascinating tour of the crypt. Her full list of publications can be found here.