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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Excavations at St Edmunds Chapel Dover, 1968.
by Brian Philp.


The restoration and re-consecration (May 1968) of St Edmund's Chapel, has added yet another chapter to the long story of this famous Kentish port and town. It was built as the Chapel of the Cemetery of the Poor, attached to the Maison Dieu. It originally lay on the north side of the town, but now forms part of the cast side of Priory Road. The chapel, originally consecrated in 1253, was probably surrendered under the Dissolution at about 1544. It subsequently served many unlikely functions (see St Edmund's Chapel, Dover and its Restoration, by Rev T E Tanner, 1968, price 5 shillings) before being rediscovered in 1883. Its restoration, due almost entirely to the unceasing efforts to Father Tanner and contributions from many loyal supporters, is yet another story of success in face of proposed demolition.

It was towards the end of the restoration work that Mr A Swaine, architect supervising the work, invited the writer to carry out an urgent archaeological investigation. It was known, from early accounts that the consecration service in 1253 was conducted by the Bishop of Chichester (later St Richard of Chichester), a friend of St Edmund. Richard collapsed in the church the next day and died three days later. The early accounts suggest that although St Richard's body was returned to Chichester for burial his bowels and heart were buried in St Edmund's Chapel. There is no record of any treasured relies having been found and as a new floor had to be laid, a small-scale excavation was undertaken.

Owing to the continual restoration work the excavation had to be confined to four days when the workmen were on holiday. It began on 29th December, 1967 and concluded on 1st January, 1968. Work continued throughout the day and well into each night with the aid of lights suspended from the roof. A brief pause was made at the stroke of twelve on the night of 31st December and the New Year celebrated (with non-alcoholic beverages) to the accompaniment of ships-horns in Dover harbour and the insalubrious strains of Old Lange Sync, which wafted through the cold, wet walls of the ancient church from some adjacent emporiorum, The swinging lights cast deep shadows behind the towering spoil-heaps. Black rectangles marked the excavations, from which peered the white, sober faces of the happy diggerstruly an occasion to remember!

Special thanks are due to Miss J Banks and Miss E Mynott for their hard work and sustained efforts throughout the excavation. Mr R L Evans must be thanked too for his hard work in preparing the plan of the church and the section east of the altar-base, some assistance with which was given by Mr E Connell.


An immediate examination of the structure showed it to be rectangular in plan, about 27 feet by 14 feet internally with walls about 2 feet thick (Figure 1). The cast wall contained a 12th century window, the north and south walls each contained 13th century windows and the west wall a central 13th century doorway. The walls rose to about 12 feet above the floor and supported a timber-framed ridged tiled roof. It seemed that although most of the building was probably constructed just prior to the consecration in 1253, at least the east wall of an earlier building had been incorporated.

An examination of the foundations proved this to be the case. The east and north walls were found to rest on foundations of crushed chalk, 3 feet 2 inches deep and about 4 feet wide. These extended beyond the walls of the church and certainly appear to have formed part of a larger building, probably of 12th century date. The foundations of the south and west walls were built of chalk blocks set in white mortar and were probably laid for the church about AD 1250.

At the west end of the church was an unmortared flint treader, about 13 by 6 feet, which had, in part, replaced a thin clay floor found to cover the entire west two thirds of the church. The flint treader led to a rectangular base of unmortared flints and ragstone blocks, 3 feet 4 inches by 3 feet. This seems to have been the base for an altar placed slightly off centre about 10 feet from the cast wall.

A careful examination of this base revealed that it partly sealed a rectangular pit, or cist, 2 feet 10 inches by 1 foot 10 inches and about 2 feet deep. The sides of this pit were lined with a poor, creamy-brown mortar, but the base was bare earth. It was filled with black loam containing fragments of roof-slate, glazed floor-tiles and potsherds. The filling had been packed around a wooden post, 3 inches in diameter, which had been left in a near vertical position sticking out of the pit. It is clear that this simple, but deliberately constructed pit, situated near the centre of the church, was dug and lined for a specific purpose. In the total absence of any evidence to the contrary it seems highly probable that it was here that the sacred relies of St Richard were buried in 1253. The absence of any trace of the relics, or a container, suggests that the pit had been robbed. Indeed the mixed filling of the pit supports this view. The tile and pottery fragments, which probably date from the late-13th or first half of the 14th centuries, suggest that any such robbing took place sometime after 1300. The post may have been inserted as a marker when the pit was filled following the robbing. The altar base was constructed partly over the pit and on the north side of the post and it, too, must date later than 1300. The presence of glazed floor-tile fragments implies that these were used inside the church. Several fragments were found between the flint-treader and the altar-base and it seems likely that this small area may have been tiled.

A deep excavation was also undertaken east of the altar-base (Figure 2, Section A). No trace of any floor survived here owing to recent disturbance, but a series of stratified layers was found and undisturbed natural chalk and flint (layer 8) was found at a depth of about 5 feet. The natural soil was capped by a 6-inch layer (layer 7) of black loam and flints devoid of finds. This was in turn sealed by a two-foot layer (layer 6) of thick black mud-silt, almost certainly a water-laid deposit.

DRAWING: Section east of the alter-base.

Figure 2. Section east of the alter-base.

From elsewhere in Dover it appears that an extensive "lagoon" formed on the inland side of the town during the post-Roman period to which this deposit must relate. This "lagoon" was caused either by land-submergence, for which there is ample evidence in the South East, or by the partial blocking of the mouth of the River Dour by man or other agencies. What is significant is that under St Edmund's Chapel the bottom 6 inches of the mud-silt contained about 50 potsherds, animal bone and tile fragments exclusively of Roman date. The pottery is of the 1st to 3rd centuries AD and includes 3 pieces of samian ware. This material, which must represent domestic rubbish discarded from a nearby building, tends to suggest that the "lagoon" was, in fact, forming during the Roman period.

The upper few inches of the mud-silt contained another 50 potsherds including several Roman, but the majority of 12th century date. From this it seems that the silt had continued to form at this point until the late 12th century when the chalk-rubble foundations were laid and the area was presumably no longer liable to flood.

The mud-silt was partly sealed by a thin band of mortar (layer 5) and then entirely covered by a layer (layer 4) of black loam containing chalk specks. This soil was probably thrown up by the builders digging the trenches for the late 12th century foundations. It included several Roman potsherds and early-medieval pottery similar to that from the upper levels of the mud-silt. The wall was then constructed and a pocket (layer 3) of flints and brown loam packed around the footings. A final levelling layer (layer 2) of black loam and light chalk rubble was then spread out to the base of the actual wall.

A thin, stone boundary wall was found butting up against the south-west corner of the church. This must have been built after 1253 and it seems likely that it represented a boundary wall. Taken together with the 12th century foundations extending beyond the limits of the chapel, it is clear that much still remains to be discovered. Thus it is essential that all future development projects, either for buildings or roads, should make adequate provision for archaeological excavation and recording. The heritage of Dover is at risk!

DRAWING: Ground-plan of Church showing periods of construction.

Figure 1. Ground-plan of Church showing periods of construction.

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