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The mystery of the empty grave

07 December 2006

What they found: the Revd Nicholas Holtam, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, with the fifth-century sarcophagus excavated at the church AP/EMPICS

What they found: the Revd Nicholas Holtam, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, with the fifth-century sarcophagus excavated at the church AP/EMPICS

David Keys reports on remarkable new discoveries of early Christianity in London

Archaeologists have found extraordinary new evidence for the introduction of Christianity into England.

Excavating near the edge of Trafalgar Square, next to St Martin-in-the-Fields, they have discovered a hoard of probable royal treasure — buried in an empty Dark Age Christian grave that is likely to have been the initial resting place of a local saint (News, 1 December).

It is among the most historically important archaeological finds ever made in London, and is likely to shed new light on the very early stages of the introduction of Christian ideas into the Anglo-Saxon world 14 centuries ago.

The empty grave forms part of a previously unknown ancient cemetery. Archaeologists from the Museum of London have also discovered 24 other graves on the site, but these all still had remains of their occupants in situ.

The empty grave contained an elegant gold pendant, inlaid with blue-green glass; glass beads and fragments of silver (possibly some sort of pendant); and two pieces of amethyst — conceivably earrings. The grave must have held a body originally, but it was almost certainly later translated to a more permanent resting-place inside a church.

“In Britain and on the continent, this was relatively common practice for individuals who were deemed to be particularly saintly and important. Throughout Europe, archaeologists and historians know of hundreds of similar cases — although leaving behind the individual’s precious grave goods is unprecedented,” said Professor Ian Wood of the University of Leeds, a specialist in sixth- and seventh-century history.

The grave and its treasure is also almost certainly closely associated with one of the most important events in British history: the introduction of Christianity into Anglo-Saxon England at the end of the sixth century.

“It is likely that the empty grave belonged to a relative — possibly even a daughter or a niece — of the most important woman in Britain at the time, Queen Bertha, the wife of the most powerful ruler in England, King Aethelberht of Kent, Overlord of the English,” said Professor Wood.

“Bertha is the unsung heroine of early English Christianity because it was she, rather than the much more famous St Augustine, who was initially responsible for the introduction of Christianity into the Anglo-Saxon world — and it was as a result of her activities that St Augustine was sent to England by the Pope to become the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

“The discoveries are therefore important because they reveal Christian activity, probably associated with Bertha’s circle, at this very early stage of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England,” said Professor Wood.

The probable connection of Bertha’s family with the empty grave rests on four main pieces of evidence.

First, the date: the empty grave, judging by its treasure, and several of the other early graves in the cemetery, date from around the time that Bertha was Queen of Kent (c.590 to c.610 AD).

Secondly, Bertha was a devotee of the cult of St Martin. Her mother, the Queen of the Parisian Franks, had lived a pious life inside the vast religious complex founded by St Martin himself at Tours. And Bertha’s personal church in Canterbury, presented to her in about 590 by her then-pagan husband, Aethelberht, was dedicated to St Martin — probably at her behest.

Thirdly, Bertha’s husband was, after around 597, very keen on ecclesiastical development in London. It was he who founded St Paul’s, dedicating it to probably his favourite saint, at the far-eastern end of Anglo-Saxon London. It is therefore conceivable that he would have honoured his wife by building a church dedicated to her preferred saint, Martin, at the other end of the early metropolis.

Lastly, it was accepted practice — especially in France, where Bertha’s family came from — for some princesses to lead pious lives, and then become unofficial saints, whose remains became dynasty-boosting cult centres in the churches where they were buried, or where their remains eventually came to rest. The precious grave-goods are in line with the type of material known from the graves of Frankish princesses.

The mystery empty grave near Trafalgar Square may well therefore have been a temporary resting-place for a senior Kentish princess, while the Anglo-Saxon church of St Martin was being constructed. Significantly, the mystery grave had been aligned exactly east-west (the traditional Christian orientation), with much greater care than any of the other graves in the cemetery. To align it precisely east-west would have taken considerable expertise and effort. All the other graves are between five and ten per cent off due east.

Additional archaeological evidence (a stone sarcophagus from c.410 AD) suggests that a Christian presence on the site is even older than Bertha’s re-introduction of the faith. It shows that Christian funerary activities had taken place there some 200 years earlier, and it is possible that a small chapel was erected there by the early fifth century. The discoveries make St Martin-in-the-Fields one of the oldest known surviving Christian sites in Britain.

David Keys is the archaeology correspondent of The Independent.

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