Researchers Unearth a Nearly 900-Year-Old Church in England

Experts made the find ahead of construction of HS2, a controversial, high-speed railway system set to connect much of Great Britain

A CGI digital illustration of the medieval church recently unearthed in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghampshire.
This CGI image shows what the church may have looked like when it was first built. Archaeologists found the church, which dates back to 1080, along with a small number of burials during construction of the HS2 railway system. Courtesy of HS2

Archaeologists in Buckinghamshire, England, have unearthed the remains of a medieval church dating back to 1080, reports Esther Addley for the Guardian.

The structure is among many “exciting” archaeological finds made ahead of the construction of HS2, a controversial, high-speed railway system set to connect much of Great Britain. Previous discoveries include the skeleton of an Iron Age murder victim, remnants of Britain’s prehistoric coastline, Medieval graffiti known as “witches' marks” and a former hunter-gatherer site on the outskirts of London.

According to BBC News, a team of more than 40 researchers made the recent find during digs at the old St. Mary's Church in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire. While excavating the area, experts uncovered three-foot-tall flint walls forming a square structure, a circular boundary ditch and a number of burials beneath the religious building, reports Ollie Sirrell for Bucks Free Press.

"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," Fusion JV lead archaeologist Rachel Wood says in a statement.

St. Mary’s also made news this May when researchers announced that they would move nearly 3,000 bodies to a new burial ground during the excavation, per BBC News.

Per the Guardian, previous inhabitants built the structure in the years following the Norman conquest of England. The edifice was constructed atop a gray foundation that had been laid by the Medieval invaders, and anything discovered beneath it would have predated their arrival, writes Sebastian Kettley for the Express.

At the time, the town of Stoke—which would later become Stoke Mandeville—housed 24 families, three enslaved people, enough space for 30 pigs and a mill. And during the medieval, Tudor and Victorian eras, residents expanded the church and continued to bury the deceased there through the early 1900s, per the Guardian. Local historians have subsequently identified some of the remains onsite, partially through wills dating to the 1500s, and will continue to study them to learn more about the community’s history over the years.

ORIGINAL
Researchers Unearth a Nearly 900-Year-Old Church in England
The church also has flint walls and a circular ditch. Courtesy of HS2

"The discovery of a pre-Norman church in Stoke Mandeville allows us to build a clearer picture of what the landscape of Buckinghamshire would have been like over 1,000 years ago,” HS2's head of heritage Helen Wass says in the statement.

Eventually, the church fell into disrepair when a newer one was built closer to the town’s central hub in the 1880s. A steady decline followed, and by 1966, residents demolished the older building because it was considered too unsafe, as Paul Wilkinson points out in the Church Times.

To clear the way for HS2, archaeologists have been excavating and surveying sites like this across Britain since 2018, notes the Church Times. The HS2 project itself is controversial, with critics from groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Stop HS2 citing environmental risks, potential loss of heritage and high costs upward of $128 billion, per Tom Burridge of BBC News.

Last year, a separate team of researchers uncovered a large, henge-style monument from the Neolithic period ahead of HS2 construction about a mile away from the recently discovered church. Earlier this year, archaeologists also found a Roman settlement nearby, per the Guardian.

“The thing is—in this part of Buckinghamshire, you can’t really put a trowel into the ground without finding something,” Peter Marsden, chair of the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society (BAS) and author of a pamphlet on the history of St. Mary’s, tells the Guardian.