Hampshire Archaeology

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Buried in time – Romsey Abbey ‘Lady Chapels’

Historical sources indicate that the nunnery at Romsey was founded by Edward the Elder (901-924) and most likely rebuilt after Viking incursions later in the century.  The nunnery was dissolved in 1539. Excavations since 1973 have revealed evidence for phases of occupation from the mid to late Saxon period onwards.

Romsey Abbey - viewed from the north

Romsey Abbey – viewed from the north

A pair of Norman chapels, later rebuilt, was constructed at the east end of the Abbey.  The double arrangement implies a double dedication, probably to the Virgin Mary and St Ethelfleda.  Dating for the construction of the replacement ‘Lady Chapels’ is based on two pieces of evidence.  Firstly, the style of windows which are ‘Early Decorated’ or ‘Geometric’, conventionally dated to between the mid-13th and mid-14th centuries.  Secondly, the surviving floor tiles can be dated to the late 13th to early 14th centuries.

Inlaid floor tiles, still insitu.

Inlaid floor tiles, still in situ.

A well-preserved grave (‘Burial 1083’) was found in the northern chapel. It appears that it was inserted through the chapel floor which was repaired, although the original floor tiles were not replaced. It is possible that some sort of tomb or monument was originally raised over the grave.

Grave '1083'

Burial ‘1083’

The grave contained the largely complete skeleton of a man, 35-45 years old at the time of death, and about 1.71 m (5′ 7″) tall.  The skeleton appears to demonstrate the presence of a degenerative condition* involving the excessive production of bone.  Part of the spine, for example, is fused together with a bony growth resembling wax running down a candle.  The left ankle showed signs of severe strain and the leg also displayed stress, possibly due to the condition known as varicose veins.

Large gaps in the jaw indicated tooth loss during life, allowing other teeth to move out of place and lean at angles.  Three teeth had extra roots and there is evidence of an abscess.  The general state of the skeleton suggests that the man had been richly overfed and therefore may have been a person of some wealth and status.

The presence of a male burial in the ‘Lady Chapel’ may be explained as either that of a man attached to the nunnery in an official capacity as a member of the clergy or, perhaps less likely, as a minor secular officer.  Alternatively, and perhaps more likely in view of the skeletal pathology, he may have been a patron or official of high standing who was accorded a place of honour within the chapel.

Four further graves were discovered in the southern chapel.  The gender could only be identified in two cases, both male.

* Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis (DISH).

Excavations outside the Abbey in the early 1970s in front of a small, but dedicated , audience.

Excavations outside the Abbey in the early 1970s – in front of a small, but dedicated , audience.

Further reading 

Scott, Ian (1996) Romsey Abbey – Report on the Excavations 1973-1991. Hampshire Field Club & Arch Soc, Monograph 8.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.