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Excavations in Abbey Mead, Waltham Abbey, July 2008.
By Peter Huggins.

The monastic infirmary, where the aged and infirm Augustinian canons ended their days, was a timber-framed building (marked A on the plan) lying north-south in Abbey Mead. It was first excavated in 1972 by Tony Musty for the Department of the Environment; more was learnt in 2003, and the identification was made, when the Society carried out salvage recording during the renewal of picnic tables. The building was predicted to be of five main bays, with slightly shorter end bays. The aisles and part of the nave were known to be divided up into little rooms, each with a place for a bed and a fireplace; at least 20 canons could have been so accommodated.

In 1978 excavations were carried out just to the south; these were by Patricia Wilkinson and Pamela Greenwood, both of Passmore Edwards Museum, Stratford. The excavators discovered an apsidal-ended building, which they rightly interpreted as part of a chapel (marked B). To us, today, what they found, is likely to be the central vessel of the infirmary chapel dedicated to God, the Virgin Mary, and the most blessed martyr and bishop Thomas Becket; this dedication was by the bishop of Hereford in 1188. To the excavators it had to pre-date the earliest church they then knew; this must have been the present Norman building, so the chapel was given a Saxo-Norman date. In discussion with Dr Coppack, another line of ephemeral foundations are now interpreted as representing a southern aisle to the central vessel, also probably with an apsidal east end.

Since the 1978 excavations were never written up, it has fallen to the Society to try to undertake this. There were no section drawings of the earlier work, so that much of the stratigraphy of the 278 features recorded, is now uncertain. Some 94 of these features were given the Saxo-Norman date, including deposits of iron slag, which were said to represent iron working on site. It is now known that much of the site was a wet land, probably until the Cornmill Stream was built at the beginning of the Augustinian period, which began in 1177, and the land was reclaimed. The iron working debris was clearly deposited as waste material from the monastic forge, some 150 m to the east, to help build up the ground level; it clearly did not represent iron working on site.

Only the main features of the 1978 work can now be understood. There is the central vessel of the chapel, and there is the supposed narrower south aisle. There were two domestic buildings with a back yard wall actually meeting the projecting central apse. This suggests that they were successive houses of the canon in charge, the infimarian. He would then have had a private door from his house into the chapel.

Another prominent feature is a roadway or track running from the south east to the north west across the site; this should be for bringing in materials from the pound lock known to exist at the corner of the Cornmill Stream, perhaps for building the Abbey House, where the Denny family came to live, or for taking materials away after the Dissolution of 1540, or after the end of the Abbey House c.1770. Part of this roadway has now been seen and identified with the drawing made in 1978.

From parallels with other monasteries, the infirmary and its chapel should meet. In the case of Waltham, if the infirmary was one bay longer to the south, and if there was a northern aisle to the chapel, such could have been the case. So excavations were planned to check these points. Scheduled Monument Consent was granted, and work began on 12 July, 2008, at the beginning of National Archaeology Week. Work continued for the week and at other days until 30 July; the weather was so hot and the deposits so compacted, that it was then decided to continue in September.

So far the expectations expressed above have not been substantiated. The south wall of the infirmary proper seems to have been in the previously predicted place. Also the supposed northern aisle, to mirror the postulated southern one has not been found. Rather there is a much wider 'northern element' to the chapel, even wider than the central vessel. Also, joining the end of the infirmary and this 'northern element', there seems to be what might be called an extension or a 'connecting compartment' between the infirmary and the chapel.

The south-east corner of the infirmary had been re-constructed following fire. The original ground wall of mortared stone and chalk had been re-built in the characteristic Waltham Great Bricks, as seen in many places in the standing walls in the Abbey Gardens.

So quite a lot remains to be done. The west end of the chapel needs to be found. The form of the east end of the new 'northern element' of the chapel needs to be determined. The purpose of the roadway remains to be established. It is hoped that the work can be continued in September, 2008.

P. J. Huggins

August 2008

Some Links:

Dig Review & photos

National Archaeology Week

The Abbey Gardens

For More Information please Contact WAHS





Copyright Waltham Abbey Historical Society, 2007.