In 2011 the world watched as Prince William and Catherine Middleton tied the knot in Westminster Abbey. And for hundreds of years, the same grand surroundings have played host to countless memorable moments. Here, royal marriages have been cemented, poets have been buried and 39 monarchs have been crowned. However, for centuries a dark secret was lurking beneath their feet — and now it’s finally been uncovered.
One of London’s most famous landmarks, Westminster Abbey has stood in one form or another for almost 1,000 years. But just as the world around it has changed almost unrecognizably over the decades, so too have the walls and chambers of this ancient church. And even today, archaeologists are uncovering new chapters in the life of this stately house of worship.
In 1869, architect and historian Sir George Gilbert Scott discovered something hidden beneath the Abbey’s North Green. Now, 150 years later, researchers from Pre-Construct Archaeology have returned to the site, laying the groundwork for an ambitious new project. But what they found has added a gruesome new twist to this beloved London attraction.
For hundreds of years, the gilded decor and colorful stained glass of Westminster Abbey have been hiding a dark and sinister past. But what horrors have generations of royal feet walked over en route to the high altar? Thanks to this ambitious archaeological project, the truth has finally been revealed.
Of course, given the age of Westminster Abbey, it is hardly surprising that its history is steeped in legend and half-remembered tales. Legend tells us that the earliest church on this site was established by the first Christian king of the East Saxons, Saberht. Meanwhile, others cite a later tale of a fisherman experiencing a vision of St. Peter near the area.
Whatever the truth, records suggest that the site, once an island in the River Thames, was home to a community of monks by the late eighth century. And almost 200 years later, the bishop St. Dunstan of Canterbury oversaw the expansion of the monastery. However, Westminster Abbey as we know it today did not begin to take shape until the middle of the 11th century.
Over the course of a decade, Edward the Confessor, the last king of the Anglo-Saxons, constructed a new place of worship on the site of the old monastery. The first Romanesque church in England, it was intended to provide a suitable location for royal burials. And eventually, in 1065, it was consecrated — just eight days before the man for whom it was built passed away.
After Edward was buried in the church, it likely hosted the coronation of Harold II, his successor. However, the first recorded ruler to be crowned in the building — then known as St. Peter’s Abbey — was William the Conqueror, who came to the throne in 1066. But despite this illustrious beginning, the original structure would not weather the test of time.
Today, just a few chambers are all that remain of Edward’s original church. In 1245 the English king Henry III decided to improve upon the work of his Anglo-Saxon predecessor. Hoping to recreate the grand Gothic abbeys that were popular in other parts of Europe, he tore down the existing structure and started from scratch.
Like Edward before him, Henry decreed that the new Westminster Abbey was to play host to the kingdom’s royal burials and coronations. And on October 13th, 1269, the grand structure was consecrated. As a mark of respect, the monarch disinterred the remains of the Anglo-Saxon king and had them reburied in the new church.
Since then, Westminster Abbey has served as the final resting place for 17 British rulers, including every Tudor monarch except Henry VIII. Some of the more notable burials include the beloved Charles II, who was laid to rest in the chapel dedicated to Henry VII, and Mary I, the first queen of England.
Interestingly, Westminster Abbey is also home to the tomb of Mary I’s half-sister and successor, Elizabeth I. Considered one of England’s greatest monarchs, the woman known as the Virgin Queen was laid to rest alongside her sibling in a coffin lined with lead. Today, her grave is marked by the effigy that accompanied her on her final journey — a likeness so realistic that it shocked her subjects.
However, despite its many royal tombs, Westminster Abbey has also served as a burial ground for a number of notable individuals over the years. And in total, some 3,300 people have been buried within its walls. Today, the inscriptions on the graves and memorials include some of Britain’s most celebrated figures.
From the world of science, both Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton are buried in Westminster Cathedral. And when he died in 2018, the physicist Stephen Hawking was laid to rest between the graves of these two great men. Meanwhile, icons from the worlds of literature and art have also been entombed within the famous Abbey.
When Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400, he was buried in Westminster Abbey’s South Transept, beginning something of a tradition. And today, numerous authors, playwrights and wordsmiths have been interred in the spot known as Poet’s Corner. Among them are renowned names such as Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson, as well as other, perhaps more obscure, figures.
Of course, Westminster Abbey isn’t purely a burial site, despite its roll call of famous tombs. Today it’s world-famous for its role hosting royal weddings, such as that of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. In April 2011, millions of people tuned in to watch the second-in-line to the British throne tie the knot in front of the church’s iconic high altar.
In fact, Westminster Abbey has played host to 16 royal weddings over the years, beginning with the nuptials of Henry I and Princess Matilda in 1100. The current queen of England, Elizabeth II, married Philip Mountbatten in the church in 1947, and her parents were also wed before the high altar.
Thanks to its prominent role in the stories of so many famous Britons, the history of the Abbey has been meticulously documented over the years. However, it still has plenty of secrets waiting to be revealed. In 2018, for example, the Dean of Westminster oversaw the opening of the triforium, an attic space that had previously been off-limits to the public for 700 years.
Before the Dean of Westminster set about transforming the space, it had largely been used for storage. However, thanks to funding from a group of private donors, he was able to install a public gallery featuring items from Westminster Abbey’s long history. And even in its early development stages, it managed to cause a stir.
Prior to the construction of a new tower, designed to give access to the triforium, archaeologists were called in to survey the ground. And beneath a toilet block, they discovered around 50 skeletons crammed into a mass grave. Apparently, the remains date back to the 11th and 12th centuries, and were likely buried elsewhere before being moved to the Abbey later — probably during Henry III’s renovation in the 13th century.
According to reports, these skeletons were disturbed again during the Victorian era, when a new drainage system was installed at the Abbey. But despite all this upheaval, experts believe that the remains could provide valuable insights into medieval life. Meanwhile, in the triforium, a fascinating array of artifacts have gone on display.
Launched on June 11, 2018, the attic space — which is 50 feet above the Abbey’s floor — is now home to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries. And among the treasures exhibited within are the funeral corset worn by the corpse of Elizabeth I, the effigy of Catherine de Valois and the oldest altarpiece in the country.
However, some of the most fascinating artifacts to come out of the triforium project were those unearthed during the renovation itself. And as well as the skeletons, workers also discovered relics of everyday life, such as ticket stubs, playing cards and a wooden shoe. In a 2018 interview with Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, curator Susan Jenkins explained, “It was a bit like an archaeological dig — but into the ceiling of the Abbey, rather than underground.”
Two years later, in January 2020, a more traditional archaeological dig began. As part of an ongoing project to improve the visitor experience at Westminster Abbey, plans were made to construct a new building on the North Green. And ultimately, this decision led to the discovery of a chilling secret.
The new facility will eventually allow visitors to pass through the Abbey’s Great West Door, an honor historically reserved for royal brides. But before building work could begin, archaeologists were called in to excavate the site. Over the course of the next eight months, a team from Pre-Construct Archaeology worked to uncover the medieval footprint of the church.
Before long, the archaeologists uncovered something incredible — the remains of the Abbey’s Great Sacristy, built during the time of Henry III. According to reports, it was completed in 1251 as part of the king’s remodelling project. But for centuries, the medieval structure had remained hidden beneath the ground.
Back in the 13th century, the L-shaped sacristy structure would have been used by monks to store sacred items. There, they would have kept altar linens, vestments and chalices, ready to be used in religious ceremonies. And according to a statement released by Westminster Abbey, the structure may also have served as a gathering point before entering the main building.
Over a century after it was built, records show, the sacristy was expanded, with a second floor added in 1380. Apparently, this was part of a wider program of redevelopment, and a number of additional buildings were constructed around the Abbey at this time. But then, in 1540, the monastery on the site was dissolved by Henry VIII.
With the monastery gone, the sacristy was initially used as housing for the Abbey’s administrative staff. But by the 17th century, it had fallen into a state of great disrepair. And although some maintenance was attempted, it was eventually concluded that the structure was not worth saving. In the 1740s, the building, along with others in the same area, was demolished.
After the buildings on the North Green were razed to the ground, life at the Abbey continued, and the sacristy was soon forgotten. Then, in 1869, the ruins of the structure were uncovered during work ordered by the renowned architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. At the time, Henry Poole, a mason working at the site, drew a sketch of the floor plan.
In Poole’s sketch, the distinctive shape of the lost sacristy can clearly be seen. However, officials at the time did not order a more extensive excavation. In fact, only one artifact was recovered from this initial dig: a sarcophagus dating back to Roman times. Today, this find is on display in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries in the triforium of the Abbey.
Some 150 years later, archaeologists returned to the North Green to finish the job that Scott had begun. But as well as the remains of the Great Sacristy, they also uncovered something far more sinister. Beneath the medieval building, they found a vast mass grave containing possibly thousands of human skeletons.
“You do have to be careful where you’re walking,” Chris Mayo from Pre-Construct Archaeology told the Guardian in August 2020. “You can see from the ground there are burials everywhere.” But how did all these bodies end up hidden beneath one of the most famous buildings in the world?
Amazingly, Mayo believes that the entire site of the church, and not just the sacristy, is strewn with human remains.“This will be the case right the way across the Abbey site,” he explained to the Guardian. “Ultimately the Abbey’s grounds once went further still… this whole area was awash with burials. If you dug a hole underneath the supreme court you’d find a few burials as well.”
According to Westminster Abbey’s website, some of the burials discovered underneath the sacristy predate even that medieval structure. For example, one coffin lined with chalk is believed to date back to the 11th century, around the time that Edward the Confessor’s church was founded. Inside, archaeologists found the remains of a man thought to be a monk in a remarkable state of preservation.
However, not all of the skeletons discovered beneath the Abbey were ancient in origin. In fact, some are believed to date from as recently as the 18th century, when the area was used as a cemetery for the adjacent St. Margaret’s Church. Constructed in the 12th century, this smaller structure served as the parish church of Westminster until 1972.
While the skeletons below the sacristy provided a somewhat gruesome insight into Westminster Abbey through the ages, archaeologists also uncovered some more mundane artifacts. Among these were a collection of domestic items such as combs and brushes, drinking vessels and plates, as well as a lead pipe found in the wall of the nave.
According to reports, the lead pipe likely dates from the 13th century, when it provided a vital water source to the monastery. Elsewhere, archaeologists also discovered pieces of decorated plaster, suggesting that the walls of the sacristy were once painted with flowers. And within a buttress, they found the remains of a basin which may have been used by monks back in Edward the Confessor’s times.
Unfortunately, the excavation was tinged with some disappointment as well. Archaeologists initially suspected that some of the skeletons may have belonged to the men who executed Charles I, thrown into a pit by the monarch’s son. But on closer inspection, the dates did not match up. Also, another promising sarcophagus turned out to have had its occupant removed before being unceremoniously repurposed into a drain.
Now that the excavations are complete, work will continue on the construction of the new visitor’s center on the Abbey’s North Green. And when it finally opens, millions of tourists will pass through en route to the Great West Door. But how many of them will be aware of the grim secret lying just below their feet?