In medieval Cambridge most people would be buried in their parish church's cemetery. But they could also be buried at other places -- there were about 30 places in medieval Cambridge where the dead could be interred. Hospitals would have their own cemeteries for their residents and staff. So would religious institutions such as monasteries and friaries, and these were often considered more prestigious places to be buried; laypeople (or their families) would often make a donation in return for burial at one. Within churches and other religious places, there were distinctions of status; it was more prestigious to be buried close to or even within the church. There were also exceptional places for burial such as plague pits, unconsecrated ground, and Jewish cemeteries. As this shows, where someone was buried was not random; burial was a social sorting process.
For the After the Plague project, to investigate as broad a cross-section of Cambridge's population as possible, we studied a wide range of sites. Most of our results are summarised on the Results pages, but here we give some key points about each site.
The Hospital of St. John the Evangelist, Cambridge
The Hospital of St. John in Cambridge was established as a charitable institution around 1190-1200 to care for people in need. It was dissolved to create St. John's College in 1511. Like medieval hospitals in general, its principal goal was not to provide medical care. Instead, supported by donations from charitable patrons, it provided a place to live, food, clothing, and spiritual care for about a dozen people unable to care for themselves. Most of these were poor people, though they were often ill as well; since there was no systematic social safety net beyond the family, if someone was unable to work they often were poor as well. The Hospital also cared for "poor scholars", e.g. University members who were unable to work or support themselves, as well as a few townspeople.
The Hospital's cemetery, located eest of St. John's St., was partly destroyed by Victorian building works when the Old Divinity School building was built, but the remaining area was extensively excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit in 2010-11; almost 400 complete and partial burials were recovered. These represent mostly residents of the Hospital, though some may also be townspeople who wanted to be buried there. We also studied other human remains from near the Hospital chapel, under the modern St. John's College chapel, which were discovered in the 1930s. Although these seem to be charnel material redeposited in the sixteenth century, at least some date to the thirteenth century and display battlefield injuries; they may be casualties from the Second Barons' War (1266-7).
Understanding the mixture of people who were buried in the Hospital's cemetery and their highly varied life stories was one research focus of our project, and it has given us a uniquely detailed picture of who lived (and died) at a medieval hospital – see Medieval Cambridge: Social Healthscape for details.
Cambridge around 1350 AD
Map: Vicki Herring
Row of burials from the cemetery of the Hospital of St. John
Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit
Burials from All Saints by the Castle
Photos: Vince Gregory
The parish of All Saints by the Castle, Cambridge
All Saints by the Castle was a parish church located on Castle Hill, located on the edge of the medieval town north of the river (the name distinguishes it from All Saints in the Jewry, which was in the centre of town near the former Jewish neighbourhood). The church was probably founded by a well-off local family between 950 and 1050. It later developed into a parish church. It served a population of between 85 and 120 people, which included a range of poor to wealthy families. The plague epidemics of 1348-9 and 1362 hit the neighbourhood hard, wiping out most people who lived there. As a result, in 1365 the church went out of use and the parish was amalgamated with the nearby parish of St. Giles. Today, the area is a residential area just west of the Castle across Huntingdon Road. No trace of the church survives, but parts of its cemetery were excavated in 1973; over 200 skeletons have been recovered.
In our sample, the All Saints people provide a good look at living conditions and health for ordinary working people, who were neither associated with religious houses or the University nor living on charity.
The Augustinian Friary, Cambridge
An Augustinian friary was established in Cambridge between 1279 and 1289 and continued until the Dissolution in 1538. It was located on Bene't St. south of the marketplace, where the University's New Museums site is now. Like most monasteries and friaries, it had an extensive footprint, with a chapel, cloister, dormitories, gardens, workshops, outbuildings – and a cemetery. Cambridge's Augustinian Friary was a large and prosperous one, with up to 70 brothers at its peak. Friars – all male – typically joined the Augustinian order in their teens and remained in it their entire lives, though they could move from one Augustinian friary to another. They tended to come from reasonably prosperous backgrounds; it was common for their family to make a donation to the order when they joined it. Some of them did manual work; others studied or did administrative tasks. As well as functioning as a normal friary, it was also a national and international study house, one of only a few in England, which trained English friars and also hosted friars from France, German and Italy who came to study for a year or two, just as Cambridge-based friars sometimes studied abroad. Such religious houses formed an important part of the intellectual scene in medieval Cambridge, complementing the University.
Burials from the Augustinian Friary
Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit
The Friary's cemetery contained both friars and laypeople; in 1302 it obtained the right to bury individuals who were not members of the order.
Part of the site was excavated in 2016-17 by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, revealing two groups of burials. The earlier group of 32 burials dating to the late thirteenth to mid/late-fourteenth centuries come from a cemetery, located south of the friary church. The individuals buried there were mainly male adults, probably friars. The later group of burials dating to between the mid/late-fourteenth and mid-sixteenth centuries were buried under the floor of the chapter house. Other burials from the cloisters were recovered during earlier building works in 1908-09. Using details of burial procedure, it is sometimes possible to distinguish between friars and laypeople at the site; this very usefully lets us understand how the lifestyle and health of the friars differed from that of townspeople.
Bene't Street, Cambridge
St. Benet's parish church is located on Bene't St., next to the Augustinian Friary (and across the street today from the Eagle pub). The Cambridge Archaeological Unit monitored the digging of a narrow trench for services, and found a pit with at least 4-5 bodies buried together in it, dated to the mid-1300s. Such mass burials are unusual for medieval sites, and it was confirmed as a plague burial dating to the Black Death (1348-9) when ancient DNA analysis revealed DNA from Yersinia pestis in several of the individuals buried there. Intriguingly, the pit lies directly beneath under an alley which formed the original entrance to Corpus Christi college, and the college was supposedly founded in 1351 to train clergy to replace those who had died in the Black Death. The collection from Bene't Street is too small to tell much about the people buried in it, but it does confirm the presence of at least small plague pits in medieval Cambridge.
St. Mary’s, Clopton
Clopton is a deserted medieval village in west Cambridgeshire, about 19 kilometres southwest of Cambridge. The village was well established by the time of Domesday Book in 1086, when there were 18 households there. It thrived until people were forced off the land to clear it for sheep grazing between 1480 and 1520. Archaeological excavations there in the 1960s recovered approximately 70 burials. We included it in our study to provide some rural medieval people as a comparison with the urban people of Cambridge.
Location of the St Benet's burials
Photo: Cambridge Archaeological Unit
Sites of other periods
While the focus of this project is medieval, we studied a range of other collections from Cambridge and environs, to provide some comparative context for our results.
Early Neolithic burials from Trumpington Meadows
Bronze Age inhumations from Over
A Late Iron Age to Roman cemetery at Duxford
Roman burials from Jesus Lane, Cambridge
Later Roman burials from a cemetery at the rural settlement of Vicar’s Farm.
Early-mid Anglo Saxon cemetery at Edix Hill (Barrington)
The late Anglo Saxon cemetery at Gamlingay
10th to 12th century cemetery at Church End, Cherry Hinton
18th-19th century Quakers from Hemingford Grey
19th century burials from Holy Trinity church, Cambridge
19th century burials from the Norfolk Street Baptist chapel, Cambridge
Other sites studied by the project
Map: Vicki Herring