St Mary’s Church
St Mary’s Church
Archaeologists in Buckinghamshire working on the HS2 project have been excavating a medieval church and burial ground in Stoke Mandeville.
The old St Mary’s Church was built in 1080AD, shortly after the Norman conquest, and may have been at first the private chapel belonging to the lord of the manor at that time. However it went out of use in the 1880s when the new St Mary’s Church was built closer to the centre of the village.
The St Mary’s site is unique and the HS2 scheme is providing a rare opportunity to excavate and understand the history of this building, how its use and meaning changed over time and what it meant to the community of Stoke Mandeville.
It went through many renovations over the years which include the extension of the chancel in the 13th century, the addition of the south aisle in the 14th century, and the construction of the brick bell tower in the 17th century. These new additions seem to mark a transition from a chapel used for private prayer to a church that was used by the local villagers.
Following the construction of the new church in the centre of the village, the old St Mary’s fell into disrepair as maintenance of the building declined. By 1966 the building was considered dangerous, so the Royal Engineers were brought in to demolish it.
Over the next 50 years the rubble pile left became overgrown with vegetation, blending into the surrounding greenery, meaning newcomers to the area may have been unaware of the existence of the church building there previously.
The burial ground at St Mary’s was in use for 900 years, with the last recorded interment in 1908. The team of 40 archaeologists working on the site will be able to construct a picture of the role of St Mary’s in the local community from its construction in the 11th century through to its decline in the late 19th century.
Excavating a medieval church in Stoke Mandeville
During excavations, archaeologists on the site have also discovered some unusual stone carvings, medieval graffiti and other markings. Two stones with a central drilled hole from which a series of lines radiate in a circle.
Historians consider these markings to be ‘witches’ marks, created to ward off evil spirits by entrapping them in an endless line of maze. There are several well-known examples of these across Britain both in churches as well as houses and sometimes even on furniture.
However, they can also be interpreted as early sun dials, used by the church to divide up the day into morning prayer, midday prayer and evening prayer. These ‘scratch dials’ as they are known, are usually found close to the southern door of the church as it a position better suited for a sun dial.
The excavation of the medieval church at St Mary’s will offer real insight into what life was like in Stoke Mandeville for over nine centuries. Those buried there will be remembered once again and the lives they lived over 900 years understood. The best way to honour the dead is to understand their stories and how they lived their lives. Ultimately, this is what the works at the site of old St Mary’s church will do, providing a lasting legacy to the present community of Stoke Mandeville.