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The Dead beneath Our Feet: Nicholas Orme Considers How the Crowded Cities of Medieval England Dealt with the Death and Burial of Their Citizens

By Orme, Nicholas | History Today, February 2004 | Go to article overview

The Dead beneath Our Feet: Nicholas Orme Considers How the Crowded Cities of Medieval England Dealt with the Death and Burial of Their Citizens


Orme, Nicholas, History Today


IMAGINE A SUMMER'S day outside a cathedral. Let us say in Exeter in Devon, but we could as well be at Salisbury, Wells, or many other great churches. Around the building is a wide green lawn, shaded by trees, where people are picnicking, talking, embracing, and sunning themselves. Do they know what is under their feet? Bones! Thousands and thousands of them: hones of Viking victims, bones of the dead of the Black Death and the Sweating Sickness, bones of mayors and aldermen, tradesmen and clergy, rich and pore; parents and children--all literally inches beneath the turf.

Space in medieval towns was at a premium. Although the grass of Exeter's cathedral green allowed the building to be seen in its beauty, the green was not primarily intended as a park. Its purpose was severely practical. This was the common burial ground of the city from late Roman times until the reign of Charles I. Tens, probably hundreds, of thousands of people were buried there during that period. The cathedral clergy insisted that everyone who died in the city had a funeral in the cathedral and a grave in its cemetery. Exeter possessed about twenty parish churches, but none of them had graveyards. The only other burial grounds were attached to the half dozen local monasteries and friaries, and they were primarily meant for the bodies of monks and friars.

It was quite common in Anglo-Saxon England for one church to act as a minster for a town community, handling all funerals and gathering all the dead into its graveyard. As towns grew, however, it was usual for other churches to be built and to gain parochial rights including burial. Most people then were taken to their parish church when they died and laid in its churchyard, although in London citizens could choose where they wished to be buried. Exeter Cathedral was unusual in keeping its burial monopoly for so long. This was due to the determination of its clergy to hold on to the privilege. Medieval funerals involved the buying and lighting of candles and the offering of donations at the funeral mass, and the cathedral stood to gain from this financially as well as in status.

The arrival of the friars in the thirteenth century led to disputes about funerals and burials, all over Western Europe. Friars were independent of the authority of local bishops and cathedrals, and established burial grounds without asking permission. They formed links with local lay people, especially the wealthier ones, who then asked to have their funerals and burials in friaries. This angered the existing churches, which were deprived of their rights and funeral revenues. Eventually the popes were forced to arbitrate in the matter, and it was laid down in 1300 that although anyone might choose burial at a friary, a quarter of all the dues and legacies paid on the occasion must go to the clergy of the dead person's parish.

Burial disputes with the friars were particularly fierce in Exeter. In 1301 a knight named Henry de Ralegh died in the Dominican friary where he had been living as a boarder with the status of a 'confrater' or associate member. The friars took the view that Sir Henry was one of their own community, and prepared to organise his funeral and burial without consulting the cathedral clergy. The latter were willing in concede the burial hut not the funeral. Two of them seized the body and carried it to the cathedral despite the friars' protests. Alter the funeral the body was returned, but the friars refused to receive it and it lay in the street, a public scandal, before eventually being taken back to the cathedral and buried there. The friars excommunicated the two clergy and complained to the mayor of Exeter, the king, and the pope. None of these people gave them effective help, and in the end the controversy waned. The cathedral was left with its light to funerals; the friars with theirs to bury outsiders.

Most medieval Exeter people, then, were buried in this one cathedral cemetery.

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