Defending the faith: a millennium of protection for St Mary’s Church, Berkeley

A series of defensive ditches designed to protect St Mary’s Church, Berkeley, that span nearly a millennium, have been uncovered by University of Bristol archaeologists digging at Berkeley Castle. There are five ditches in total, all running north-south to the west of St Mary’s Church.

It is well known that St Mary’s Church has Anglo-Saxon origins, with the current church having some Anglo-Saxon masonry within its existing fabric. What is now emerging is a picture of almost 1,000 years of the defence of this important ecclesiastical structure.

The first is a small ditch separating the secular area of Berkeley’s Anglo-Saxon minster from the religious area where the churches were located. Minsters can have many churches and, at Berkeley, Radegund’s Lane and St Michael’s Lane suggest at least two more.

The next ditch is a very substantial Anglo-Saxon burgh ditch. It has long been speculated that Berkeley was briefly a burgh, that is a fortified town, because a mint issuing coins was located there in the late Saxon period. Now, the Bristol archaeologists are fairly confident that their new discoveries have confirmed this theory.

Professor Mark Horton , site co-director said: “We know there were a number of Viking raids up the River Severn during the tenth century and it seems that the local inhabitants were keen to defend themselves by the construction of this massive bank and ditch.”

The next ditch in the sequence, to the delight of co-director Dr Stuart Prior who is currently writing a book on the Anarchy, is a twelfth century Anarchy period ditch, dug and backfilled between 1135 and 1153 when Stephen and Matilda were at war over England’s throne.

Then comes a fourteenth century churchyard boundary wall and associated ditch, which was associated with St Michael’s Lane, a routeway shown on Tudor maps of the area but now long gone.

Lastly, there is a seventeenth century Civil War ditch, which was filled with pistol shot and musket balls, evidence of a Parliamentary attack on the castle in 1645.

All of these defensive or protective ditches were designed to protect the church and, in the later periods, the castle also.

Students and staff from the University of Bristol’s Department of Archaeology and Anthropology have been excavating at Berkeley every summer since 2006. Further investigations of this important new discovery are currently underway.