Life and death at the Tower of London: excavating the Tower’s chapel

Earlier this year, once-in-a-generation excavation works taking place outside the entrance to the Tower’s Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula uncovered amazing finds, which shed new light on the history of the Chapel and what life was like for those who lived at the Tower 500 years ago. In this blog Historic Buildings Curator Alfred Hawkins explains the process of archaeological excavations, and their importance in expanding our current understanding of historic sites like the Tower of London.

Historic Buildings Curator Alfred Hawkins examines one of the skeletons uncovered during the 2019 Chapel excavation.

The process of undertaking an archaeological excavation is quite unlike any other. It is the archaeologist’s job to meticulously and delicately uncover the remnants of the past and to try and piece them back together. This information is then passed to curators like myself, so we are able to undertake more in-depth research to understand our buildings and the people who lived in them. This is a rather lofty description for what is usually enjoying the UK’s famously wet weather while standing in a muddy trench. Think Indiana Jones with all the excitement, just none of the action, hot weather or whips.

That being said, performing archaeological excavations is an integral part of preserving, recording and conserving the Palaces and is one of the most important things that we do. Archaeological excavations occur across our Palaces in order to inform the continued development of the buildings and to ensure we do not damage anything of importance. Have you read a wonderfully designed interpretation board at one of our Palaces? Its base was assessed by an archaeologist. Or perhaps you are sitting in our café reading an informative Historic Royal Palaces blog? Every wire laid in the ground to enable the WiFi was assessed by an archaeologist. Maybe you are trying to find one of our toilets? …You get the idea.

As a Buildings Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, part of my job is to research, understand and advise on all of these remains. In most cases, this can be done through the careful examination of archival plans and records from previous excavations; however, sometimes it is necessary to perform a full-scale excavation in order to better protect the Fortress as a whole. The most recent of these excavations took place in the spring of this year, outside the Tower’s Royal Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. During this process, we made discoveries which have turned our understanding of the Chapel upside down and enriched our knowledge of the lives of those who lived and died at the Tower.

Often, an archaeological excavation, and the information you can gain from it, feels fairly impersonal – uncovering a Norman ditch here, a Tudor tile there. All of these physical remains enable us to create an image of the past, but the individual history of the people who lived in these periods can sometimes be elusive. Not to mention the fact that most of the time performing an excavation creates more questions than answers! This is why the archaeological excavation of human remains is so important: it allows us to examine the way in which people lived and died in our Palaces.

With that in mind, I would like to cast you back into the depths of history – 2018 to be precise. Historic Royal Palaces has decided to make every effort we can to create better access into the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Before we could create any designs, we needed to perform an excavation in order to create a picture of what is beneath the ground, a process known as ‘trial trenching’. In particular, these investigations aimed to determine the extent and historic use of the area as a burial ground.

The excavation was organised through the tireless work of many colleagues and within the first two days the area was confirmed as a burial ground. I was called by the archaeologists to observe the uncovering of our first burial – the fragmentary remains of what we initially thought was a cat, but which was later proven to be a dog. This burial was located beneath a mortar surface which was related to a building constructed before 1681, so we know the dog died before the construction of this building. The remains were affectionately named Jeff and fresh off the heels of this discovery the excavation continued in earnest.

This is when it all got incredibly exciting as we discovered… another mortar surface! (Trust me, this is interesting). The surface we discovered was 22cm thick – meaning that it was used as a base for a very substantial and high-status floor. This, combined with the documentary evidence and sherds (yes, ‘sherds’ not ‘shards’) of medieval glazed tile, resulted in the possibility that we had found the floor of Edward I’s lost chapel which burnt down in 1512. This building was previously thought to be located in a different position, and due to this discovery, our understanding of the evolution of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula has been completely altered.

Within this surface were cut two burials, that of an adult female and a young child. These remains were found lying on their backs facing up (or ‘supine’) and were aligned with their feet facing east. Due to the presence of coffin nails, and the positioning of the skeletons, it is thought that the adult female was buried within a coffin while it is likely the child was simply wrapped in a blanket (‘shrouded’) prior to being buried. These are typical of later medieval and early Tudor burials. Due to their positioning in the sequence of soil or ‘stratigraphy’ it was not possible to create a definitive date for the burials, although it is likely that they were interred between 1450 and 1550. Both of these burials were exhumed but no burial goods were observed; however, glazed medieval tile sherds and fragments of a Roman jet bracelet were recovered.

Before I hear you shout “you found no burial goods! What could you possibly have learnt Alfred?” into your screen – well, while there were no artefacts found with the skeletons, they still have the ability to teach us a vast amount. These individuals are the first full skeletons to be assessed by an osteoarchaeologist (bone specialist) from within the Tower of London. By looking for marks related to growth, damage, wear and disease we can create an image of how these individuals lived and died. The female was considered to be between the ages of 35-45 while the child is thought to have been 7. Both skeletons show signs of illness and the adult shows signs of chronic back pain. Their growth shows not a comfortable life, but one which is typical of the period in which they lived. Furthermore, there were no signs of a violent death concerning either individual. This is due to the use of the Chapel as a burial ground for those individuals who lived and worked within the Tower of London – not just as a depository for the traitorous! The remains were reburied in the Chapel at a special ceremony conducted by The Reverend Canon Roger Hall MBE on 10 September 2019.

This excavation has brought to light new information and deposits which have the potential to completely change how we think about the evolution of the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. While archaeologists exhume skeletons across hundreds of sites in the UK every day, these two individuals do stand out. As the first to be scientifically examined from within this Royal Fortress, they have offered us a chance to glimpse that human element of the Tower which is so easy to miss. This Fortress has been occupied for nearly 1000 years, but we must remember it is not only a Palace, Fortress and Prison but has also been a home to those who worked within its walls. This is the best part of performing archaeological assessments and the joy of curating a Royal Fortress: by examining the physical remains of the past we are able to record, understand and share how our ancestors lived and died.

Alfred Hawkins
Historic Buildings Curator
Historic Royal Palaces

The excavation outside the Tower’s Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula will be featured in the final episode in the current series of Inside the Tower of London on Channel 5, airing in the UK on Tuesday 22 October at 9pm. 

4 thoughts on “Life and death at the Tower of London: excavating the Tower’s chapel

  • Good morning Alfred (may I?) thank you so much for your down to earth (get it?) blog. Absolutely fascinating, even the cat and breakfast, have been ignored. Should you ever get the opportunity to whizz back in time, just to watch, please remember that I can be unbelievably quiet. The information you have given is so important, wonderful to have an insight to bygone (very bygone) days. More, more more please. Thank you for sharing.

  • Oh gosh!how interesting,what a wonderful job to have , archaeology and forensics has always fascinated me,I think it’s so important to try to find how ordinary people lived and worked centuries ago,and as you say how it throws up more questions than answers.

  • A really absorbing article, a thrilling find. It’s a shame that the Victorians examined and reburied the skeletons in front of the church altar then covered them in concrete. Hopefully a time will come when all the skeletons can be identified, examined with modern techniques and reburied. Hopefully in time the princes in the tower will come to light and eventually be reburied too.

  • I have always loved the Tower since I was a young girl who went sometimes with my cousins to play round the outside. Alfred Hawkins makes the Tower sound just like a natural part of our history which, of course, it is. Will there be any talks on this excavation?

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