Leicester Cathedral Revealed

16 January 2024

What would you discover if you could take a slice through 1500 years of Leicester’s history?  “Leicester Cathedral Revealed” is a project to refurbish the building and accommodate the 10-fold increase in visitors since Richard III was re-interred there.  To create the basement rooms of the new interpretation centre, a hole was cut 6 metres deep in the north-east corner of the graveyard – but not before Mathew Morris and his team from the University of Leicester had seized this rare opportunity to investigate a continuous sequence of archaeology in the heart of the city.  At the Society’s first meeting of the New Year, our members and visitors heard an excellent presentation by Mathew, explaining what the excavation had uncovered.

The uppermost burials date from just before the graveyard was closed in 1856.  In some of them, name plates from the coffins can still be read so we can match the individuals to their historical records.  For example, Edward Wilkinson was a surgeon at the Infirmary – where he bought Leicester’s first ambulance – and subsequently the first house officer at the new Lunatic Asylum.  In 1846 he died of typhus, which was so prevalent in the city that is was nick-named the “Leicester disease”.  Like many of the individuals who have been identified, Edward lived within the parish of St. Martin, close to the church.

Lower levels take us further back in time and reveal changing burial practices.  In the medieval period, bodies were usually buried in simple shrouds, of which the fastening pins can sometimes be found.  In Georgian times, those “at rest” wore sleeping attire but the Victorians preferred to dress them in their Sunday best.  The use of coffins became gradually more prevalent, at first being built by local furniture makers and decorated with upholstery studs; later using mass-produced fittings that can be matched with examples in catalogues from the period.

Towards the end of the excavation, the team discovered a deep pit containing a mass burial.  Radio carbon techniques date it to around 1100AD and this probably represents a previously unknown outbreak of disease in the city.  This date is also earlier than the first written record of St. Martin’s, making it highly likely that it was one of the six Leicester churches mentioned in the Domesday Book.

A final surprise was a chamber of Roman date, which had painted walls and contained the base of an altar.  It was probably a private shrine belonging to one of several cults that worshipped in underground spaces – but not the full-blown Roman temple that legend tells us lies beneath the Cathedral!

Altogether, the excavation found more than 19,000 artefacts and 1237 skeletons.  They are being treated with respect and will be re-buried at Gilroes Cemetery, close to other remains that have been recovered from medieval churchyards.  Meanwhile, analysis of the findings will continue, with researchers in many fields showing interest in the resulting data about the residents of one place over such a long period.  You can follow progress on the monthly blog at: