Archaeologists excavating St Mary’s Old Church, Stoke Mandeville (see CA 370 and 376), ahead of the construction of HS2, have identified an earlier religious structure beneath the Norman ruins – traces that could help to explain the church’s unusual location, on a natural island at the confluence of two streams in a valley around 2km from the village.
Rachel Wood, Archaeology Manager at Fusion JV, who are investigating the site alongside L-P Archaeology, told CA that excavations beneath the Norman building’s compacted clay-chalk base have revealed metre-wide flint foundation walls representing a small, square-shaped building interpreted as an Anglo-Saxon ‘tower church’. Although this earlier structure has a small footprint, Rachel says that the evidence for a tall, pre-Norman construction at the site is ‘substantial’, with this building being situated within an ‘egg-shaped’ boundary ditch containing a small number of Christian burials oriented east–west.
The structure’s foundations contain reused roof tiles, possibly sourced from a Roman settlement on a hill to the east of the site, where there is also evidence of Bronze Age and Iron Age activity. Potential Anglo-Saxon pottery found within the boundary ditch has been sent for analysis to further determine the date of the earlier building.
The ‘tower church’ fits comfortably within the nave of St Mary’s, and this nest of buildings is located on land that would have belonged to the medieval Bishop of Lincoln. It appears that the original church was redeveloped by the Normans in AD 1080, when its stone foundations were sealed over and a new chapel erected within a double-ditched square enclosure containing barns and storage buildings. Rachel says this ‘agricultural centre’ may have served a nearby community or manor house (now lost), with the deep Norman ditches perhaps functioning as an episcopal ‘statement of power’ in the local area.
St Mary’s expanded gradually between the 13th and 17th centuries, serving as a parish church before being decommissioned in 1866 and demolished 100 years later. Its churchyard contains some 3,000 burials spanning the medieval period to the 20th century. These burials are being excavated with dignity and respect before being reburied in a local, consecrated spot, Rachel said.