Discovery of an ancient cemetery in St. Martin’s le Grand

From The Times, 25th September 1818.

As the workmen employed in clearing away the ground in St. Martin's-le-Grand, which is to form the site of the new Post-office, were a day or two ago removing the foundations of the old houses which stood in the rear of St. Leonard's-Fester lane, they discovered the roofs of some ancient vaults. As soon as the rubbish on the particular spot was removed, three vaults were discovered, each communicating with the other by a narrow passage or gallery; they are built chiefly of large square bricks, intermixed with stone and some flint, and the interstices filled with a yellow chalky earth. They are rather spacious, the height being nearly nine feet, the depth about eighteen and the breadth about six or seven. They appear to have been each originally divided into two compartments. In the back of one of the vaults was found a large quantity of human bones, thrown promiscuously together, as if collected from different graves. In one of them is a stone coffin, rather short in length, made in the shape of the ancient coffins, square in the head, and inclining in a tapering form towards the feet; a place is rather rudely shaped for the head of the body to rest upon, and the remains of a skull and some decayed bones are in the cavity. Adjoining, and in the same line with these arches, is a vaulted roof, supported by small and short stone shafts or pillars, from which spring semicircular arches, intersecting each other at equidistant points, and presenting to the eye the skeleton of a structure, at once simple, durable and beautiful. The subdivisions of the intercolumniation [sic] were evidently open when built, and so arranged as to admit a communication with other parts of a building. The floor of these vaults is about 29 feet below the pavement in Newgate-street, the loose ground on the same level bears all the appearance of having once been a cemetery, from the fragments and calcined parts of bones intermixed with soft earth which are observable in the vicinity.

St Martin's-le-Grand* was originally a college, founded in the year 700, by Wythred, King of Kent, and according to Dugdale, in his Monasticon Anglicanum, rebuilt and endowed by a noble Saxon, and his brother Edwardus, for a Dean and secular canons and priests, and was dedicated to St. Martin. The epithet le-Grand was afterwards added, on account of the great and extraordinary privileges, particularly the dangerous one of Sanctuary, granted to it by different monarchs. William the Conqueror confirmed the endowments of this house, and the possession of the lands given by the founders, to which he added all the moor land without Cripplegate, and exonerated its Canons from all interference or exactions of any Bishops, Archdeacons or their Ministers. He likewise granted them soc and toc, toll and team, and a long et cetera of Saxon liberties in the most ample degree. His charter, sanctioned by John and Peter, two of the Pope's legates, concludes thus:- "If any person whatever shall presume to alter any thing hereby granted, let him perish with Judas the traitor."

Henry III had the weakness to confirm these mischievous charters, and to extend them in cases of debt, felony and treason: the indulgence granted was so obnoxious to the peaceable citizens, on account of the protection afforded to the lowest sort of rogues, ruffians, thieves, felons and murderers, that they were frequently compelled to apply to the Government for security against this sanctuary. Anciently, when this College was in a flourishing state, a curfew bell was rung here at 8 o'clock every evening, and at St. Mary-le-Bow, St. Giles, Cripplegate, and at Allhallows, Barking to warn people to keep within doors. Edward the First, in consequence of the many mischiefs, murders, robberies and beating down persons by certain Hectors, walking armed in the night, commanded that none should be found so hardy as to be found wandering in the streets, after the bell had sounded in St. Martin's-le-Grand. The College was surrendered to King Edward the Sixth in 1548, and soon after the church was pulled down, and many tenements erected on its site.

Such is the historical account of the ancient sanctuary or edifice, of which these vaults appear to have been a part. The vaults in which the bones were found do not seem to be of very ancient date - they were presumably formed by Edward VI for the pious purpose of depositing therein the bones which were exposed at the demolition of the old church. The fine arched vault, supported by columns, which we have described, is not of earlier date than the reign of Henry III.

There are, we believe, very extensive vaults under parts of Newgate-street, many of them used as cellars by the inhabitants, and walled up by them for their particular convenience. From Aldersgate to the Old Bailey was once a line of the residences of our gentry, and these excavations are exactly in this track.

* See "Survey of the Metropolis" by William Brayle and others, volume III.

Dugdale is reproduced in fascimilie here, p. 24 onwards.

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