Is 1,400-year-old treasure evidence of Christianity's first foothold in Britain?

Archaeologists excavating near the edge of Trafalgar Square in London have found evidence of early Christianity in England, suggesting the area has a much older religious significance than was originally believed.

A team from the Museum of London has discovered a hoard of what is almost certainly royal treasure, buried in a mysterious, empty human grave laid out in the traditional Christian manner - east to west.

"Our excavations demonstrate the position as a significant and important place at an earlier date than we thought," said Alison Telfer, the senior archaeologist in charge of the dig.

The finds are among the most remarkable discoveries ever made in London and are likely to shed new light on the very early stages of the introduction of Christian ideas into the Anglo-Saxon world 1,400 years ago.

Located immediately next to one of the capital's most famous churches - St Martin-in-the-Fields - immediately to the north of Trafalgar Square, the empty grave appears to form part of a previously unknown ancient cemetery, dating back more than one and a half millennia. Archaeologists have also discovered 24 other graves on the site, all still holding the remains of their occupants.

The treasure hoard in the empty grave consists of a gold pendant inlaid with blue-green glass; glass beads and fragments of silver (possibly a neck pendant); and two pieces of amethyst, possibly earrings.

The empty grave, judging by its treasure, and several of the other early graves in the cemetery are estimated to date from the time that Bertha was Queen of Kent - 590 to 610.

"It is likely that the grave did initially accommodate a body, but the remains were removed after some months or years for burial inside a church, potentially an early version of St Martin's itself," said Professor Ian Wood of Leeds University, who specialises in 6th and 7th century history.

"It is likely that the empty grave belonged to a relative - possibly even a daughter or a niece - of the most important woman in Britain at the time, Queen Bertha, the wife of the most powerful ruler in England, King Aethelberht of Kent, overlord of the English."

Professor Wood added: "Bertha is the unsung heroine of early English Christianity because it was she, rather than the much more famous St Augustine, who was initially responsible for the introduction of Christianity into the Anglo-Saxon world. It was as a result of her activities that St Augustine was sent to England by the Pope to become the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

"The discoveries are therefore important because they reveal Christian activity, probably associated with Bertha's circle, at this very early stage of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England."

Bertha was a devotee of the cult of St Martin. Her personal church in Canterbury, presented to her in about 590 by her then pagan husband, Aethelberht, was dedicated to the saint - probably at her behest. And her husband was, after about 597, very keen on ecclesiastical development in London, which was technically part of the kingdom of Essex but in reality under Kentish overall control.

The mysterious empty grave near Trafalgar Square may therefore have been a temporary resting place for a senior Kentish princess during the time that the Anglo-Saxon church of St Martin's was being built.

The excavations have also revealed a second mystery. At least one of the other graves was pre-Anglo-Saxon and dates from the very late Roman or immediate post-Roman period. The burial, in a stone sarcophagus, was also Christian - like virtually all the others - but was 200 years older.

This raises the possibility that the site had Christian links long before the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England, possibly as the location of a small church or mortuary chapel built there in the very late Roman period, immediately before the Anglo-Saxon pagan conquest. This would mean St Martin-in-the-Fields is London's oldest surviving ecclesiastical site, predating St Paul's by some two centuries.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: LGV Driver - Category C or C+E

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national Company that manu...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - OTE £30,000

£13000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Assistant

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Maintenance Assistant is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?