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Bone and Stone

from The Barwicker No.61
Mar. 2001

The re-ordering of All Saints' Church, Barwick, necessitated the West Yorkshire Archaeology Service being commissioned to carry out a watching brief. This short article attempts to summarise some of the findings of the survey, as a follow-up to a previous article 'A Convenient Move ('The Barwicker' No.59).

The technical Brief is extremely detailed and presents a factual summary of what was found when investigating the 32.5 metre trench which had been machine excavated to a depth of 1.2 - 1.5 metres in the churchyard. The trench followed the line of the existing path from the western gate, before tunnelling under the north-west exterior wall and into the church.

The Brief gives an excellent archaeological and historical background summary from the Neolithic period. Barwick's Iron Age hillfort indicated its regional importance and in the post-Roman period the Kingdom of Northumberland annexed the area in 617 A.D. The region was politically unstable, being sandwiched between British Mercia and Anglo-Saxon Northumberland.

More is known about the post-Conquest development of the parish. The settlement of Barwick-in-Elmet is recorded in the Domesday Book(1086) as Bereuuit. (bere-wic - a barley farm, an outlying grange or part of an estate retained for the lord's use) Barwick became part of the manor of Kippax in the 11th. century and by 1154 a motte and bailey castle occupied part of the site of the Iron Age hillfort. Barwick replaced Kippax as the administrative centre of the northern part of the honour of Pontefract. These developments helped to enhance the growing reputation and importance of All Saints' church.

In his authoritative history, FS Colman, former rector of Barwick, speculates as to whether or not the church was destroyed in the Norman purge in the post-Conquest era during the harrying of the North; but there is no evidence to suggest this. He makes a most interesting point about the orientation of the church, which is developed by Norman Butcher, another former rector.

"The axial line of most ancient churches was determined by the point of sunrise on the day of the patron saint to whom the church was dedicated, and it needs little imagination to picture the donor of this church, having kept vigil throughout the night with various ecclesiastics and masons, laying the line of the new church with the sun rising over Parlington. The church lies not due east but north-west - south-east, the direction of the sunrise on All Saints' Day and it is therefore most probable that the church retains its original dedication of All Hallows or All Saints."

The initial church was probably a rectangular structure of wattle and daub or wood, before giving way to the use of stone. The Norman building, which emerged in the 11th. and 12th. centuries incorporated some of the original materials especially in the foundations; some pre-Conquest Saxon stones survive in the modern church and are well recorded.

As people died over the centuries in such an ancient hamlet as Barwick, they would wish to be buried either in or as close to the church as possible. This has meant that as the church expanded over the centuries, human remains, which were buried outside the walls, would be subsequently encompassed within them.

The Brief refers to alterations in the church interior, where a hole was made through the western end of the north wall and part of the floor was taken up.

"The hole through the north wall provided a section through the masonry and some human bone fragments were visible within the fabric of the wall. These probably derived from burials which were disturbed and subsequently re-incorporated during the construction of the wall in the late 14th. century." (para 4.2.3).

The bones of two adults found under the floor of the church

Thus bone and stone have mingled and cemented together in the very fabric of the church foundations during successive generations over the centuries, to create the modern church. The remains of the earliest Christians under-pin the base of All Saints' church, providing a direct link with and a humbling reminder of our distant origins.

There have been several occasions when the church has been re-modelled, or extended in some way since the Conquest. Each change has involved some disturbance of what was present and a re-examination of our historical legacy. The current re-ordering has been significant.

"A number of graves had been disturbed during the excavation of the trench. Six large bags of skeletal remains had been removed by the construction workers and were retained for burial within the graveyard. These bones were not examined in detail or quantified, but a very brief assessment noted the presence of well-preserved remains representing individuals from a cross section of age groups." (para 4.1.3)

The Brief discusses the question of the elevated level of the graveyard compared with that outside the boundary wall and says that this is not due solely to an increase in soil volume from the number of burials that have taken place. Indeed it seems likely that the level of the area has actually been reduced.

Colman tells us that in 1897 an additional 2,600 square yards of land adjoining the churchyard, allowed the cemetery to expand; some old cottages were subsequently pulled down and the foundations removed. The Brief speculates that at this time the whole of the northern and western part of the churchyard was cleared of monuments and landscaped.

The burials beneath the path are all thought to pre-date these alterations; but the archaeologists found it difficult to date the range of interments. Only shrouds were used in early burials and coffins were not generally used until the mid-16th. century for richer people; reference is made to the re-usable 'parish coffin' used until the 17th. century. Some of the burials are thought to be 18th. and 19th. century and some metal coffin fittings were found.

Any archaeological investigation of this type produces some puzzling situations. The orientation of Burial Q, for example is unusual. In the medieval period the orientation of graves consistently showed heads buried to the west and feet to the east. The narrow width of the Barwick service trench made it impossible to determine whether,

"other burials in this churchyard also lie with their heads to the east. Occasional instances of the reversal of orientation have been recorded at several sites and interpretations vary. . . . The significance of this unusual burial is not understood ." (para 5.3).

The archaeologists were aware of the theory that a mass grave of soldiers killed at the Battle of Towton (1461) lies in the area of the churchyard. But they found,
"no evidence to corroborate the local story." (para 4.1.10)

Another mystery concerns the double burial of two adults revealed when the church floor was dug up in the northern corner where the kitchen will be located. Directly above the burial is a 19th. century commemorative plaque on the aisle wall which reads:

"In the vault below lie the remains of John Phillips Esq. formerly of Walthamstow, Essex, son of Charles Phillips. Died 5th. January 1814, aged 82 years. He was the younger brother of the late Revd. Charles Phillips A.M. vicar of Terling, Essex.
Also in the same vault are deposited the remains of Hannah, wife of the above named John Phillips. Died at Whitburn, Durham, 21st. December 1815. Aged 77 years."

The Brief comments significantly:

"The double burial of two adults, discovered within the church probably predates the 14th. century construction of the north aisle. The archaeological evidence suggests that these individuals were contained in shrouds rather than a coffin and this is consistent with the possible medieval date. The grave would originally have been located within the graveyard only 0.9m north of the church wall, and the presence of bone fragments within the fabric of the wall clearly shows that other burials in this area were also disturbed at the time." (para 5.4)

Thus the question remains; if the bodies beneath John Phillip's plaque are those of a medieval couple who were originally buried outside the church wall, then where is the vault containing the remains of John and Hannah Phillips? The Brief does not speculate on the issue but states that:
"the details are inconsistent with the buried remains." (para 5.5)

Over the centuries there has been so much change and structural alteration that many things are not as they appear today in the church. In 1831 there were extensive changes to the roof and walls and the 1856 re-ordering was even more significant.

Colman complained:

"A handsome monument of Italian marble to Sir John Gascoigne, who died in 1723, was removed, and all traces of the Gascoigne burial place were obliterated."

The Phillips memorial may well have been moved in 1856 as indeed it has been during the present re-ordering, for it now sits freshly positioned over the door into the new facility. The family vault lies somewhere in the church. John and Hannah Phillips are together somewhere; part of the structure of the church, bone and stone together, part of our history.

  1. "All Saints Church Barwick-in-Elmet, West Yorkshire." Archaeological Watching Brief, August 2000, Archaeological Services, West Yorkshire, WYAS. Report No. 817.
  2. "A History of the Parish of Barwick-in-Elmet, in the County of York" by FS Colman (pub. 1908).
  3. "The Ancient Parish of Barwick-in-Elmet" N Butcher (pub 1970).


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