Anglo-Saxon church pre-dating the Norman era discovered in Aylesbury

The lead archaeologist working on the site has called this 'a once in a career' discovery.
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A structure believed to be the remains of an over 900 years old Anglo-Saxon church has been discovered in Aylesbury.

Archaeologists believe their findings show a church structure which has to predate, even the Norman-era.

This hidden, nearly thousand-year-old church, was discovered during the excavation of St Mary’s Old Church, in Stoke Mandeville.

The old church was built back in the 12th century, but new findings suggest an older structure existed beneath it.

LP-Archaeology experts are working on the scene as part of the HS2 project, 40 of them have been excavating and examining the building.

A field museum has been set up, meaning at the weekend visitors can see the remains. Several open days have allowed guests to see the ancient remains, 1,300 people have turned out in total.

An extra open weekend is planned for Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 September.

The medieval remains found in AylesburyThe medieval remains found in Aylesbury
The medieval remains found in Aylesbury

Organisers are promising new displays at the end-of-month event, archaeologists will be on hand to give talks about the history behind the findings.

An HS2 spokesperson said: "The church structure was built on a light grey compacted foundation band laid by the Normans, so any archaeological deposits found below that band would be pre-Norman.

"The team working at St Mary’s discovered flint walls forming a square structure underneath the Norman levels, enclosed by a circular boundary ditch, and a small number of associated burials. Archaeologists believe this to be an Anglo-Saxon church.

"The flint foundations are about 1m wide, which indicates it would have been a tall structure, although its footprint would have been small. The footprint is similar to a standing Saxon Church in Barton-upon-Humber, St Peter’s."

It is a major heritage projectIt is a major heritage project
It is a major heritage project

Dr Rachel Wood, lead archaeologist for Fusion JV, leading the work in Stoke Mandeville 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 1080AD.

"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.”

Another element of the discovery that has excited history buffs is the foundations of the pre-Norman structure have reused Roman roof tiles in them.

A museum open weekend has been arranged at the siteA museum open weekend has been arranged at the site
A museum open weekend has been arranged at the site

A spokesperson added: "There is evidence of a nearby Roman settlement so it is possible that the materials were reused from a previous structure away from this location, although archaeologists are hoping that evidence of an even earlier structure could be found."

Helen Wass, HS2’s head of heritage, said: “Once again, our vast archaeology programme has given us the ability to reveal more about the history of Britain. 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 1000 years ago.

“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.”

History experts advise that following the Norman conquest, there was a significant church-building programme across England from parish churches to larger city cathedrals. It wasn’t uncommon for some of these to be built on top of Saxon ruins.

The church originally being excavated by HS2 archaeologists was St Mary’s Church in Stoke Mandeville which was built in 1080AD, very shortly after the Norman conquest. It had been renovated in the 13th, 14th and 17th centuries.

It was furnished with a variety of extensions and the construction of a brick bell tower. A new church closer to the centre of the village was built in the 1880s, and at that point the Norman church fell into disrepair and in the 1960s the Royal Engineers were drafted in to pull it down.

The remains are being examined by history expertsThe remains are being examined by history experts
The remains are being examined by history experts

The have also been carefully excavating the buried population at the Old St Mary’s Churchyard. The purpose is to discover what life would have been like for a rural population who lived in the area over the period the Norman church was in use.

Evidence for funerary practices such as when a plate of salt was placed on the deceased have been discovered. Similar finds were uncovered by HS2 archaeologists excavating a city burial site in Birmingham.

An HS2 spokesperson said: "A further unusual find at St Mary’s was a ‘flea catcher’ found buried with a gentleman, next to his head. The ‘flea catcher’ was a small bone pot which would have contained a rag with blood on it, and a bit of honey. Fleas from the gentleman’s wig would have been attracted to the blood on the rag and would stick to the honey inside the pot."