Discovery that brings forgotten church back to life

IT IS a discovery which ranks as one of the most treasured finds to be unearthed yet in an archaeological dig spanning more than a decade.

Archaeologist Toby Kendall Field working within one of the walls of the remains of St John The Baptist Church in Hungate.

Archaeologists carried out initial investigations at the Hungate site in the centre of York at the turn of the Millennium, but have only now managed to pinpoint the location of a forgotten church which gives a fascinating insight into life during the medieval era.

The remains of the Church of St John The Baptist, more commonly known as St John’s in the Marsh, have been found as part of the most extensive dig that York has seen since the early 1980s ahead of a £150m housing and retail development.

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Members of the York Archaeological Trust (YAT), who have overseen the Hungate excavations, said it was “a dream come true” to discover the church’s foundations. And the public are being given the chance to witness the find during an open day this weekend after the remains were discovered by the YAT’s annual Archaeology Live! training school.

Archaeologist Toby Kendall Field working within one of the walls of the remains of St John The Baptist Church in Hungate.

Archaeology Live! supervisor Arran Johnson said: “It’s an archaeologist’s dream to discover a lost church. We don’t think anybody ever recorded St John’s before it was demolished and so up until now all we have had as a guide to its location has been generalised points on maps and a glimpse of foundation stones in a small archaeological trench, over a decade ago.”

The church was built in the 12th century, when the influence of religion was at a peak. There are thought to have been as many as 46 parishes in York during the 1100s, with the churches at the centre of life. But a sharp fall in population numbers caused by outbreaks of the plague and the decline of York’s wool and cloth trade led to a slump in the city’s fortunes, and many churches were knocked down.

St John’s closed during the Reformation and was demolished by the late 1500s before its true location could ever be recorded, and the place of worship has never been seen since.

Although it was never a wealthy parish church, St John’s flourished during the 15th century when Richard Russell, who was twice a mayor of York as well as a sheriff of the city, was a rich benefactor of the place of worship.

His will, dated December 10, 1435, provides intriguing clues as to his affinity with the church as he bequeathed funds to carry out major renovations. Money left by Mr Russell, who is thought to have been laid to rest in the church under a marble stone, paid for a new church tower with bells, as well as the restoration of the building’s interior.

The YAT’s historical project researcher for the Hungate dig, Dr Jayne Rimmer, said: “We will perhaps never know the exact reasons why St John’s meant so much to Richard Russell. He was a very wealthy individual although the church was not in a particularly affluent part of the city. It may simply have been that he wanted to give something back to society, and he saw an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy by bequeathing the money in his will.”

Historical documents have also portrayed some of the everyday problems which blighted the area. In 1409, senior clergy from the Dean and Chapter of York visited the church, when they were told the smell of offal and rubbish were so overpowering that they were distracting the parish priest during his sermon.

The discovery of the church’s foundations has given archaeological experts an opportunity to piece together long-forgotten details about York’s past.

The Hungate dig’s field officer, Toby Kendall, said: “We are dealing with a part of the site that charts 900 years of the city’s history, in a place where normal, working people would have lived. This is exactly what archaeology is about – learning about the lives of people.”

In another remarkable find, the remains of a second lost church were found only last month during a £500,000 revamp of King’s Square. The foundations of Holy Trinity Church, which was first mentioned in 1268, were uncovered during the work by York Council.

While the Hungate development has been delayed owing to the economic crisis, developers announced in September that a detailed planning application had been submitted to York Council for a second phase. The application sets out plans for 195 new homes on the site, which will also include offices and retail.

The free open day will be held at the Hungate site between 10am and 3pm on Saturday to mark the discovery of St John’s church. The entrance can be found at the junction of Dundas Street and Palmer Lane.

An autumn Archaeology Live! training course will be held at the site from Saturday to Friday next week. To book a place, email [email protected] or phone 07908 210026.