Why do Medieval Churches Sink?

History / Sunday, October 1st, 2017

Come visit me! I live in a lovely Welsh village with an unpronounceable name: Abertridwr. I’ll take you on a drive over the mountains surrounding our beautiful Aber valley. At the parish church, St Ilan’s, curiously sited a couple of miles from the village, high on the mountain with stunning views across the Aber valley and the neighboring Rhondda valley too, we’ll sit outside the neighboring pub, to drink in the views and admire the beer. And sooner or later, as you put yourself outside a pint of sunny Welsh cider, something odd will occur to you.

You will ask, “Why is the church yard built up?”

Because the church is surrounded by a wall several feet high. The old gate is blocked now, replaced by grander one at some time in the past hundred years, but to enter it, the parishioners had to climb several steps.

The old gate at St Ilan’s, seen from the road, and…
…the other side


It’s not an unreasonable question. It appears at first sight that the builders, having constructed the wall, then decided to tip tons of soil within it for no apparent reason. Essentially the same question is asked by most people who enter Britain’s oldest churches, and note how they invariably have to descend several steps to get through the door (as you do at St Ilan’s, having climbed the several steps to get within the perimeter wall): “Why do churches sink,” they ask.

“Think of Hamlet,” I will reply to you, taking a draught from my pint. A scene following Ophelia’s suicide has the prince of Denmark talking to the man digging her grave. The grave digger has unearthed a skull, which Hamlet realizes must be that of his old friend, Yorick. This prompts one of William Shakespeare’s most-quoted soliloquies on the ephemera of life, but no suggestion of outrage at the desecration of the grave of a loved one. Only in the nineteenth century did we get finicky about these things. Until then, any number of bodies could be shovelled into a grave yard, and when they’d run out of space, they’d just dig up an old one.

London, for example, two centuries ago, had just 218 acres of burial grounds into which bodies had been crammed in their millions for centuries. One of its oldest churches, St Marylebone’s, had more than a hundred thousand corpses interred in a yard covering barely more than an acre. In Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery stands on what used to be the cemetery of the neighboring St Martin’s-in-the-Fields. Beneath it, more than seventy thousand bodies were crammed into a yard the size of a modern bowling green, with thousands more caskets stored in the crypt. When the poet William Blake died in 1827, he was buried on top of three other bodies, and subsequently had a further four bodies buried on top of him.

Obviously, graves became shallower and shallower as time passed and bodies were piled on top of bodies. It became almost impossible to turn a shovel of earth without revealing a putrid body part. Rats and dogs scurried about at night, clawing up people’s loved ones. Heavy rain could wash away the soil to reveal green, maggoty, stinking hunks of flesh.

Ah yes, the stink. Grieving relatives rarely attended graveside services in those days. But burials were big business, and rectors were often reluctant to turn it down. Where now stands the London School of Economics, the Enon Baptist chapel shovelled an average of nearly two bodies a day into its cellar for nineteen years. The stench seeping into the chapel was such that it was a rare service in which at least one member of the congregation didn’t pass out. Still the pastor kept cramming the bodies in. He needed the money.

At a time when disease was thought to be caused by the “poisonous miasmas” exuded by foul smells, a Parliamentary committee heard testimony that grave diggers, before disturbing a semi-decayed coffin, would drill a hole into it, insert a tube and burn off the escaping gas. The candle could burn for as long as twenty minutes, the witness testified. “To inhale this gas, undiluted with atmospheric air,” said the committee’s report, “is instant death, and even when much diluted, it is productive of disease which commonly ends in death.” The causes of disease were ill-understood at the time, but the consequences of congregating amid foul odors were not. Cemeteries were deadly places.

By the mid-nineteenth century, with London’s population expanding exponentially, the situation had become intolerable. A determination to sort out, once and for all, “The Great Stink,” as it was known, a combination of inadequate sewage facilities and the festering burial grounds, is best known for generating the London sewage network, revolutionary at the time, but also for moving the graveyards out to the suburbs. The fundamental problem, it was pointed out in 1843, was that London was built on heavy clay soils that impeded decomposition. Suburban cemeteries could be specially sited on sandier, better-drained soils where the bodies would rapidly compost. In addition, fertile as cemeteries would become, why not make parks of them, where the shrubs and trees could soak up those miasmas, and replace them with clean, wholesome air?

The Victorians were into air. It was the same era that windows started getting large, and rooms light and well ventilated, instead of gloomy, smoky, fetid dungeons.

Suddenly, cemeteries became for the Victorians, places for promenades and picnics. Highgate cemetery, burial ground of the rich and famous, including Karl Marx (no humble interment among the common people for him!) become a tourist attraction in its own right. The largest was Brookwood, expanding to two thousand bucolic acres, with its own dedicated train service, “the Stiffs’ Express” from central London, and no less than two stations — one for Anglicans and one for non-conformists.

So in answer to your question, why is the church yard at St Ilan’s built up, what you see is a couple of hundred headstones, dating mostly from the nineteenth century. But the typical parish population at that time was about 250 adults. That’s a thousand adult burials per century, plus a few thousand more for all the poor mites who never made it to adulthood. Churches have existed on the site of St Ilan’s since the dark ages, about eight hundred years or so. So a ballpark guestimate would hazard that beneath those couple of hundred memorials lies about thirty thousand bodies. That’s a lot of mass to put into the ground behind that wall.