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Westminster Abbey

By 20/07/2021News

An archaeological investigation was undertaken by PCA at Westminster Abbey in advance of a plan to construct a new building which will house welcome, ticketing and security facilities, allowing all visitors to follow in the footsteps of kings, queens and royal brides and enter the abbey by the Great West Door.

The construction project was delayed by the pandemic, but the archaeological fieldwork was completed last year and the results have just been published on abbey’s website. Click here to read the article.

This part of Westminster has been the focus for religious activity since 960AD, when a small Benedictine monastery was founded here. In the 11th century King Edward, later Edward the Confessor, enlarged the monastery and built a stone church. Later, in the 13th century, King Henry III rebuilt Edward’s Abbey in the new Gothic style of architecture. Our work exposed the full footprint of the Great Sacristy, an L shaped building constructed at this time.

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The Great Sacristy was the only part of Henry’s church to have been lost. It was discovered in 1869, when George Gilbert Scott (then Surveyor of the Fabric) instructed the Abbey’s mason Henry Poole to ‘remove from the North Green the earth and rubbish which had accumulated there for several centuries’. This work revealed the remains of the Great Sacristy, and Poole recorded the remains illustrating an L-shaped building with a square room at its eastern end.

The Great Sacristy would have been used to safely store vestments and other precious ritual objects and provide a space where the clergy could prepare before processing into the church.


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We found many fragments of medieval painted wall plaster, suggesting that the internal walls of the Great Sacristy were decorated with hand painted flowers.

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Our work demonstrated that stone from an earlier building, probably Edwards the Confessor’s church, was reused in the later foundations of the Abbey. A significant example of this was the discovery of an upturned stoup (a basin for holy water), incorporated in a buttress foundation. Edward the Confessor may have washed his hands in this as he entered his church.

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The site was used as a burial ground for many centuries. Prior to the construction of the Great Sacristy, this area was used as a burial ground for monks. This 11th century chalk-lined grave was one of hundreds of burials discovered. Others date from the 18th century.

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A Barnack stone medieval sarcophagus was found in a prominent position inside the Sacristy. This was initially thought to relate to a high-status burial, but it now appears that the sarcophagus had actually been reused to serve a drainage function within the building, possibly as a washing trough!

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After the monastery was dissolved c. 1540, the Great Sacristy was used as a domestic dwelling for administrative staff of the abbey. By 1616 the Sacristy building was described as ‘very ruinous and standeth in very great need of present reparations’. Repair work was undertaken in the 1710s and 1720s and the Surveyor of the Fabric at this time, the famous Christopher Wren, reported that ‘the houses on the North side are so close [to the Abbey], that there is not room left for the raising of scaffolds and ladders’. The Great Sacristy and the other buildings in the area were demolished the 1740s to facilitate much needed repairs to the Abbey’s nave and northern transept.

Post-excavation work will continue when circumstances improve, however with their re-opening the abbey have now been able to provide access to the archaeological site as part of their Summer Festival of Events (click here for details). Visitors will be able to see the remains of the abbey’s 13th century Great Sacristy which were excavated and recorded by PCA, and which will be preserved beneath the new structure.