Archaeologists excavating the ruined St Mary’s Old Church in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire, ahead of the construction of HS2 have discovered the remains of what is thought to be an Anglo-Saxon predecessor beneath the Norman structure. The site is located along the new HS2 route set to link London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds by high-speed rail, and some 40 archaeologists from LP-Archaeology and HS2 contractor Fusion JV have been investigating St Mary’s and its churchyard for several months ahead of HS2’s expansion into the area.
These investigations identified unusual graffiti, known as ‘witch marks’, on the walls of the Old Church late last year, but the most recent discoveries point towards an earlier, pre-Norman stage in the site’s development. Although it was not uncommon for Norman churches to be built on the site of earlier churches, the Stoke Mandeville site offers a rare glimpse into the development of one such building.
St Mary’s was decommissioned in 1866, when a new parish church was built closer to the village of Stoke Mandeville, but the excavations ahead of HS2 have revealed substantial surviving remains. Beneath the light grey foundation band laid by the Normans, the archaeologists have found flint walls in the form of a square, enclosed by a circular boundary ditch, alongside a small number of burials. The flint structure, the foundations of which are only about a metre wide, would have been a tall building with a small footprint, not unlike St Peter’s Church in Barton-upon-Humber, an Anglo-Saxon church in Yorkshire which has survived to the present day.
The foundations of the earlier structure also contain reused roof tiles, possibly taken from a nearby Roman settlement. Rachel Wood, Lead Archaeologist for Fusion JV, said, ‘This is a fantastic discovery that we are all very excited to excavate. The work undertaken at Old St Mary’s is a unique archaeological opportunity to excavate a medieval parish church with over 900 years of meaning to the local community. It also gives us the opportunity to learn more about the community that used the church and to understand the lives they lived.
‘To then find an earlier structure beneath the Norman church is outstanding. To have so much of it remaining, including the walls and even some flooring, will provide a great deal of information about the site prior to the construction of the Norman church in AD 1080. The discovery of this pre-Norman, possible Saxon church is a once in a career opportunity for archaeologists and will provide a much greater understanding of the history of Stoke Mandeville.’
The archaeological team are keen to share their findings with the local community. A ‘Field Museum Open Weekend’ on the site of Old St Mary’s Church will be held on the weekend of 25 and 26 September.
Helen Wass, Head of Heritage at HS2, said, ‘All artefacts and human remains uncovered will be treated with dignity, care and respect and our discoveries will be shared with the community through open days and expert lectures. HS2’s archaeology programme seeks to engage with all communities both local and nationally to share the information and knowledge gained as well as leaving a lasting archival and skills legacy.’