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  • Nun Immured in Britain? April 18, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

    In mid March 1846 the Hereford Philosophical and Antiquarian Association had a meeting at which the Dean of Hereford Cathedral spoke about some remarkable finds at Hill House, at Woolhope not eight miles from Hereford. He spoke with sadness and, yes, some occasional indignation as human bones had been uncovered there. This was, he suggested, movingly the only evidence to date for a nun being immured  in Britain.

    When the workmen employed in taking down the projection (from the house) that formed the stack of chimnies, and the small room, had removed the floor, they found that the centre part was made up of the natural soil and rock, surrounded however by the wall; but in taking down the south-east corner, they came to paving-stone which, on being removed, disclosed to view an aperture about 18 by 12 [inches?] in dimensions; on further examination, by removing the walls, it appeared that it was a sort of niche, 5ft. 6in. high, capable of containing a human form, broad at the head and tapering down to the feet, where it was ten inches broad; it had been plastered in the interior on the front, back, and east side; on the opposite, it was closed up with rough wall stone; at the bottom was another paving-stone, and a heap of collapsed bones, a glass bottle, and an earthen pan, portions of the leather and the high heel of shoes, and a piece of wood which, it has been asserted, bears the marks of having been gnawed, as if in the last frenzied effort to sustain a famishing and desperate nature. Hereford Journal (25 Mar 1846)

    The house had apparently been at one time a nunnery.

    The fragments of the bottle and pan, for I regret to say they were broken, and the other portions were carried away, the leather and the sole, and the piece of wood referred to, are before you. Was it in a refinement of cruelty that these vessels were deposited at the feet, where the wretched sufferer, from the straightness of the narrow cell, could not reach the viands they contained? What crime could deserve such awful retribution, or rather what human being might dare to visit on his fellow-sinner such agonising torment, such an accumulation of the pangs of many deaths? What else could have been the tragedy which these walls have witnessed—what other the agonies which they assisted in administering? The very heart sickens at the contemplation, and the religion peace and mercy repudiates the deed as that of demons rather than the ministers of reconciliation, of salvation to the sinner’s soul. But to proceed. This poor wretch does not appear to have been alone in this appalling exigency; another similar niche at the south-west corner of the wall, built up in the same manner, but standing sideways to the other; at the bottom of this, too, were the mournful indications of the purpose to which it had been applied – a heap of bones. If a mystery hangs over the history of this spot as to its material fabric, much more must this dark deed elude the scrutiny of man. That such things have been, and under the most sacred pretext, is, alas, incontrovertible. I had purposed to have searched out some of the decretals which touch on this most melancholy subject; but time has not sufficed me for the purpose, and perhaps it is as well. Hereford Journal (25 Mar 1846)

    A certain Rev. W. Waterworth was, however, skeptical about the Dean’s construction: the following is a warning about taking nineteenth-century archaeological reports seriously. Waterworth admits that ‘a small quantity of bones were found in a hollow place in the buttress, also a black bottle and an old shoe, and under the flooring of a room which projected just above this cavity another black bottle’. But otherwise he took nothing on trust going personally to inspect the house. His findings were published anonymously at the time in the newspaper (Hereford Journal, 1 Apr 1846). However, this is a summary from some fifteen years later (Worc Chronic, 18 Dec 1861).

    ‘To his amazement he discovered a house not more than 150 years old, and the buttress, he was assured by the builder was of much later date, being put to prop up the chimney’.

    What is worse the bottles were ‘short-necked porter bottled’ dating at the earliest to the eighteenth century.

    The shoe was high-heeled: ‘no high-heel shoes were worn before the reign of James I’.

    As to the bones they had not been kept, but the builder who had found them opined that they were ‘mutton bones’: there was no skull, no thigh bones and no arm bones.

    Oh and there was not even the slightest proof that there had been a nunnery in the area.

    Beach can add that bottles and shoes are frequently buried in house walls as charms: often with animals.

    Other charming archaeological misunderstandings: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com