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New evidence of ‘lost’ church found at Bradford on Avon

Recent renovation work at Holy Trinity Church, Bradford on Avon, has led to the discovery of some of the town’s Anglo-Saxon inhabitants and the possible location of a lost church.

New evidence of ‘lost’ church found at Bradford on Avon
Excavation of a lead coffin [Credit: Wessex Archaeology]
While monitoring a £2million renovation and refurbishment of Holy Trinity Church in Bradford on Avon we have been making some surprising discoveries. The 12th-century church, located on the northern bank of the River Avon close to the famous ‘Saxon Church’ of St Laurence, has had major flood-protection work carried out and is being transformed into a versatile community space. Our archaeologists have carefully recorded and excavated graves affected by the planned works. The burials, which have been predominately Georgian or Victorian in date, are to be reinterred elsewhere in the churchyard. Despite the land being substantially worked over by previous generations, there was always the possibility for medieval burials surviving, and when the floor of the old boiler house was removed it revealed a sequence of burials which appeared to date to the earliest phase of the medieval church. We were intrigued to find that the remains of one of the burials were cut by the foundations of the 12th-century nave.

‘Our team instantly knew that this individual pre-dated Holy Trinity and must be associated with an earlier church building on this site’, said Bruce Eaton, Project Manager.

New evidence of ‘lost’ church found at Bradford on Avon
Aerial view of the excavation site [Credit: Wessex Archaeology]
‘The question was how much earlier the burial was? Might this be evidence for the site of Aldhelm’s minster church, around which the town developed? The Church agreed to send two samples for radiocarbon dating from two of the lowest burials to the SUERC laboratory in Scotland, but we knew we would have to wait over a month for the results.’

St Aldhelm, a bishop, scholar and contemporary of Bede (who praised Aldhelm’s treatise on the correct observance of Easter), is credited with establishing a monasterium at Bradford on Avon in c. 705 AD on land granted to him by King Ine of Wessex. Known as mynsters in Old English, these were missionary churches on the frontline of converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. The minster churches held sway over large jurisdictions and, as Christianity developed into the state religion, became wealthy institutions, receiving the tithe payments of all the surrounding parish churches.

New evidence of ‘lost’ church found at Bradford on Avon
Finely carved stone slab dating to the late 7th or early 8th century discovered in the church grounds 
[Credit: Wessex Archaeology]
The location of Bradford’s minster has remained a mystery. The site of Holy Trinity has often been put forward as a likely candidate. In the 1860s a finely carved stone slab dating to the late 7th or early 8th century was discovered in the church grounds, hinting at a high status building in the immediate vicinity. The stonework has since been reused as part of an altar in the Saxon Church of St Laurence. The Saxon Church itself has often been cited as another possible candidate for the minster, but it was almost certainly constructed after 1001 AD, during the reign of King Ethelred II ‘the Unready’, to shelter the relics of his murdered half-brother Edward the Martyr.

Two radiocarbon samples taken from the lowest burials confirmed that the burials were indeed Anglo-Saxons, broadly 9th century and 10th century respectively. To put this in to context, Alfred the Great was on the throne of Wessex during the latter half of the 9th century and his grandson Athelstan ruled as the first ‘King of the English’ during the first half of the 10th century. The burials probably relate to an earlier church on this site from at least the 9th century and strongly suggest that Holy Trinity occupies the same space as the original Anglo-Saxon minster.

New evidence of ‘lost’ church found at Bradford on Avon
9th century burial found in Holy Trinity Church 
[Credit: Wessex Archaeology]
All remains from the excavation are being analysed before being reburied. Kirsten Egging Dinwiddy, the osteoarchaeologist for the project, said, ‘The earliest burial remains include those of men, women and children. Most appear to have been well-nourished, and led physically active and healthy lives. Though quite a few individuals were relatively tall for the period, one man would have stood out at around 6’3” – some seven inches taller than average - and one woman was almost 5’8” - five inches above average for the period.’

Volunteers from the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group and Bradford on Avon Museum have been assisting cleaning the remains prior to them being studied. We have been delighted to be able to offer this opportunity for volunteers to get involved with this project and I would like to thank them for all their hard work. Wessex Archaeology is committed to engaging with local communities and sharing our discoveries with the wider public.

Joanna Abecassis, Rector of Holy Trinity, commented, ‘These finds which the Wessex team have been uncovering have been the cause of great excitement at Holy Trinity – not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of the whole town! It fills you with a real sense of wonder – and also humility – to think that Christians may have been worshipping on this site for over 1300 years... and, what’s more, only 700 years after the life and death of Christ.  And it is quite extraordinary how we have come full circle, in that one of the major aims of our regeneration project is to be able to play our full part as a Parish Church at the heart of our community. The Wessex team have done a great and very professional job – thank you!’

Source: Wessex Archaeology [September 03, 2016]

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